I. A. Richards’ The Philosophy of Rhetoric, Misunderstanding, and “the Meaning of Meaning”


In the Introductory Lecture of The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936), I. A. Richards attempts to “revive” rhetoric, by proposing that it “should be a study of misunderstanding and its remedies” (3). That is to say, any revival of rhetoric must focus on the communicative parameters of understanding of language, and how language can be ambiguous enough to produce both understanding and misunderstanding. The latter, in particular, is something Richards cites that “we struggle all our days with…and no apology is required for any study which can prevent or remove them” (3).

This notion of “misunderstanding,” then, becomes the means by which Richards grounds his description of the present state of rhetoric—misunderstanding arises, according to Richards, because “we have no measure with which to calculate the extent and degree of our hourly losses in communication” (3). These “hourly losses” must be remedied—they must be accounted for, prevented, and removed, in order to optimize meaning. The problem, of course, as Richards concedes, is that, “though we cannot measure our losses in communication[,] we can guess at them” (4). But, even when embarking on guesswork—which is, to be sure, based on optimizing understanding and minimizing misunderstanding—as “professional guessers” do, Richards suggests that such guesswork attempts to estimate “the current losses in communication” (4). In other words, though “professional guessers” have good intentions to estimate and “diagnose the mistakes other people have made in understanding what they have heard and read and to avoid illustrating these mistakes” (4), the manner in which these “current losses in communication” is assessed, consequently, is from the discourse-level of the structure of language. To this end, Richards envisions a meta-level, focusing on the words that make up discourse itself. To accomplish this meta-level of analysis, rather than at the superficiality of discourse, Richards contends that “we have instead to consider much more closely how words work in discourse” (5). For Richards, considering “how words work in discourse” at a meta-level means initiating “a philosophic inquiry into how words work in discourse” (8). To be clear, Richards describes his “philosophic inquiry” in the following way:

[In order] to account for understanding and misunderstanding, to study the efficiency of language and its conditions, we have to renounce, for a while, the view that words just have their meanings and that what a discourse does is to be explained as a composition of these meanings—as a wall can be represented as a composition of its bricks (9).

Here, Richards’ conceptualizations of understanding and misunderstanding through the “efficiency of language and its conditions” is contingent on a post-structuralist notion of meaning, particularly in opposition to Saussure’s theory of signs in Course in General Linguistics (1916). Richards makes this case clearer in The Meaning of Meaning (1923), co-authored with C. K. Ogden, asserting that “[Saussure’s] theory of signs, by neglecting entirely the things for which signs stand, was from the beginning cut off from any contact with scientific methods of verification.”[1] Not only do “the scientific methods of verification” promote Richards’ renunciation of “words just hav[ing] their meanings and that what a discourse does is to be explained as a composition of these meaning,” but outlines how he defines the term “meaning.”

In part, Richards views meaning as something that words do not hold within themselves—that is, if we consider words as Kantian “things-in-themselves”—but, rather, “when a thinker makes use of [words] that they stand for anything, or in one sense, have ‘meaning.’”[2] But, more importantly, though words are incapable of holding bilateral meaning as things-in-themselves, Richards proposes that “most words, as they pass from context to context, change their meanings; and in many different ways” (11). What this means, for Richards, is that meaning does not have structural commitments. Meaning within the word as a meaningful thing-in-itself, but about meaning of meaning, particularly between thoughts and symbols. As Richards argues in Meaning of Meaning, “between a thought and a symbol causal relations hold.” These “causal relations” represent Richards’ contribution to post-Saussure thinking about language—yet, these “causal relations” in Richards’ project is a consideration of more than just Saussure’s, but also gestures towards another kind of philosophical thinking that runs parallel to Saussure.

[1] C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language Upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1923), 6.

[2] Ibid., 10.

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