Interpretation and understanding

Interpretation and understanding. By Marcelo Dascal. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2003. Pp. xxii, 714. ISBN 1588114147. $150 (Hb).

Reviewed by Bingyun Li, Fujian Normal University

Interpretation and understanding brings together Marcelo Dascal’s major contributions to pragmatics and the philosophy of language and mind over the last three decades. This substantial volume contains thirty essays, all of which have been published as journal articles, book chapters, or conference presentations, and some of which are hard to access (e.g. Chs. 1, 5, 10, 12, 13, 17, 20, 21, 22, 30). Part 1 (Chs. 1–9) focuses on theoretical considerations. Part 2 (Chs. 10–21) explores how pragmatics can be applied to different lines of inquiry. In Part 3 (Chs. 22–30) D shows how various disciplinary endeavors can be linked together for better insight into understanding and interpretation. This is a large book in terms of both number of pages (714 in all) and content (as shown below). It is a splendid book for discovering how a unified account of understanding and interpretation can be realized by breaking up rigid disciplinary boundaries. It should engage readers who wish to enjoy a clear, understandable description of many intricate issues pertaining to human understanding of language, thought, meaning, and the world within and without.

A summary of the chapter titles reveals that this is a very important collection for the study of language and mind. Part 1, ‘Theorizing’, contains the following chapters: ‘Pragmatics and communicative intentions’, ‘Conversational relevance’, ‘Strategies of understanding’, ‘Two modes of understanding’, ‘Individual and collective intentions’, ‘How does a connective work?’, ‘Commitment and involvement’, ‘Cues, clues and context’, and ‘Models of interpretation’. Part 2, ‘Applying’, covers ‘Understanding digressions’, ‘Understanding a metaphor’, ‘Three remarks on pragmatics and literature’, ‘Understanding controversies’, ‘Understanding misunderstanding’, ‘Understanding the law’, ‘Understanding jokes and dreams’, ‘Understanding art’, ‘Why does language matter to artificial intelligence?’, ‘Pragmatics in the digital age’, ‘Interpretation and tolerance’, and ‘Understanding other cultures’. And Part 3, ‘Meeting the alternatives’, looks at ‘Why should I ask her?’, ‘Speech act theory and pragmatics’, ‘The pragmatic structure of conversation’, ‘Contextualism’, ‘Does pragmatics need semantics?’, ‘Pragmatics and foundationalism’, ‘The marriage of pragmatics and rhetoric’, ‘Hermeneutic interpretation and pragmatic interpretation’, and ‘The limits of interpretation’.

Interpretation and understanding covers an enormous range, expanding from pragmatics into fields as diverse as literature and artificial intelligence. Most of the topics discussed in this excellent collection are so important that students interested in human communication and interaction cannot afford to neglect them. The issues covered in this book will intrigue them for the foreseeable future. This book is a must-read for students of pragmatics and the philosophy of language and mind. It would, however, have been much better if D had updated his ideas on certain foundational issues, possibly by adding new postscripts at the ends of chapters where necessary. Of course, this does not mean that the ideas expressed in this book are out of date; indeed, many of them are still of much value and significance for the study of understanding and interpretation.

Finally, I wonder if ‘Understanding and interpretation’ or ‘Understanding and interpreting’ would be a more suitable, if not a better, title for this book. It seems that first we understand, and then we interpret; in other words, understanding comes before interpreting. Still, things are not that easy, because to understand is to interpret and vice versa. In a sense, to live is to understand and interpret. We do these things all the time. Not only do we try to understand and interpret others, but we also try to understand and interpret ourselves; it is not necessarily easier to understand ourselves than to understand others. In addition, understanding and interpreting are dynamic activities, which is why I prefer ‘interpreting’ to ‘interpretation’.