Archive for the ‘Umberto Eco’ Category

Uwe Wirth “Abductive Inference and Literary Theory”

Wirth, Uwe 2001. Abductive Inference and Literary Theory – Pragmatism, Hermeneutics and Semiotics. – Digital Encyclopedia of Charles S. Peirce.


In The Limits of Interpretation, and earlier in The Role of the Reader, Eco points out that the logic of interpretation is very similar to the logic of a detective’s investigation.

This “detective logic” is nothing but “abductive inference”, as Peirce defined it. Interpretation is “the process of adopting hypotheses” (CP 2.777):

“abduction (…) furnishes the reasoner with the problematic theory which induction verifies. Upon finding himself confronted with a phenomenon unlike what he would have expected under the circumstances, he looks over its features and notices some remarkable character or relation among them (…) so that a theory is suggested which would explain (that is, render necessary) that which is surprising in the phenomena. He therefore accepts that theory so far as to give it a high place in the list of theories of those phenomena which call for further examination” (CP 2.776).

According to Peirce, every inquiry and every interpretation starts necessarily with an Abduction that focuses one aspect and selects it as relevant. But unless this abductive choice is legitimized by practical tests, the hypothesis cannot be reasonably entertained any longer. The most important “guiding principle”, however, “the leading consideration in Abduction” is, “the question of Economy, Economy of money, time, thought and energy” (CP 5.600). This “Economy of Research” provides the possibility to prove a hypothesis with minimal effort and with maximal effect. But, of course, economy does not guarantee truth.

Once we have accepted the detective paradigm as a description of our role as interpreters of text-signs and world-signs, the most important consequence is that the epistemological status of the interpreter is no longer that of a judge. A judge stands outside the discourse, a detective is always in the discourse.

But at least in one respect the detective model is not sufficient: A text, unlike a phenomenon in the world, is not only a dissemination of symptoms but also a dialog, attempting to make the reader a participant. For Gadamer interpreting is “the quest for the question the text is responding to”, the interpretive logic of Hermeneutics is a dia-logic. This presupposes not only the understanding of the antecedental question but also the understanding of the logic of dia-logic – i.e., the discoursive rules and “guiding principles”. The rules and principles which govern the discourse, or at least the communicative exchange exclude some possible relations between answer and question as irrelevant and incoherent.

For Derrida the process of understanding thus becomes a symptom for the structural impossibility of detecting precisely that question that the text responds to. Every reading is misreading insofar as all attempts of tracing back to the question that “stands behind” the text are condemned to fail. This breakdown of understanding is on the other hand the “condition of possibility” for the textual “openness”. Eco shares with Derrida the idea of the “potential openness” of a text for infinite interpretations. But he feels – on contrast to Derrida “the fundamental duty of protecting” texts “in order to open them, since I consider it risky to open a text before having duly protected it” (Eco, 1990:54).

Peirce goes very far in the direction that I have called the deconstruction of the transcendental signified, which, at one time or another, would place a reassuring end to the reference from sign to sign. I have identified logocentrism and the metaphysics of presence as the exigent, powerful, systematic, and irrepressible desire for such a signified. Now, Peirce considers the indefiniteness of reference as the criterion that allows us to recognize that we are indeed dealing with a system of signs. What broaches the movement of signification is what makes its interruption impossible. The thing itself is a sign. (Derrida 1976: 49)

Eco suggests that Derrida had to refuse the idea of such a determination since the “deferral” of différance implies a fundamental “indeterminacy” of the whole dynamics of interpretation, not only in the past and present, but also in the future. “I am simply repeating with Peirce,” Eco (1990: 39) writes, “that ‘an endless series of representations, each representing the one behind it (and until this point Derrida could not but agree with this formula), may be conceived to have an absolute object as its limit’ (CP 1.339).”

The interesting point is, that Eco’s textmodel synthesizes the hermeneutic dialog-model with a pragmatic account of meaning. According to Peirce’s famous “Pragmatic Maxim” defining a term’s meaning is equivalent with giving an instruction or a recipe, telling us how to reproduce and derive all possible practical and logical consequences.

“Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object” (CP 5.402).

we could say that truth is not outside the process of interpretation during which the relation between referent and representation, between truth condition and truth value is set up. Peirce called this process of interpretive practice “Semiosis”. Semiosis is based on hypothetical reasoning and experimental hypotheses testing; it fuses “making” and “finding”, recognition and interpretation.

since the coherence of the text turns out to be a mere interpretive assumption, only evaluated by the consistency of the interpreter’s hypotheses about the text, interpreting something as coherent already implies “making” it consistent.

the interpreter’s consciousness, understood as the capacity for synthetic abductive reasoning becomes an ideal point without expansion, an “Archimedic Pin Point” on the border between inside and outside. Like the point of suspension for a pendulum, the consciousness works “as if” it would stand outside the system.