The Quotable Morse Peckham
On Literature, Life, and Beyond

Topic

"Meaning is not a property of language; it is something that human beings do. Meaning is not a property of language; meaning is a property of behavior."
["Literary Interpretation as Conventionalized Verbal Behavior" (1967), in The Triumph of Romanticism (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1970), 344-45.]

"A general theory of language interpretation must be adequate until we have a general theory of signs and sign interpretation, since language signs form only one class of a very large class which also includes nonverbal signs. We live in an interpreted world; any configuration for which a semantic function is conventionally established or for which we innovate such a function is a sign and is interpreted. Moreover, I believe that every sign is a sign of a category, not of an entity. In that sense I can tell you nothing about the world, but only how to find something and what it will be like when you do. Or rather, you can find it only because I can predict by offering signs of interlocking categories what it will be like."
["Literary Interpretation as Conventionalized Verbal Behavior" (1967), in The Triumph of Romanticism (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1970), 348.]

"The utterance [can be] conceived as a set of directions for which the responder knows the appropriate behavior."
["Theory of Criticism" (1967), in The Triumph of Romanticism (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1970), 374.]

"I believe a semantic universal of language, and indeed of nonverbal signs as well, to be polysemy, or multiple semantic function, or multiple meanings. The responder to an utterance, then, must first resolve the various semantic functions of all the terms in the utterance into an appropriate interlocking set of categories, then select from his repertoire of behavioral paradigms the appropriate one, and finally adjust that paradigm to the unique requirements of the situation."
["Theory of Criticism" (1967), in The Triumph of Romanticism (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1970), 374-75.]

"Human beings, then, refer; words do not. Words are signs to which, on interpretation, we respond by various modes of behavior, verbal and nonverbal. The meaning of a bit of language is the behavior which is consequent upon responding to it. Therefore, any response to a discourse is a meaning of that discourse. ... Language is a matter of conventions. Thus the correct meaning of an utterance is the consequent behavior which, for whatever reason, is considered appropriate in the situation in which the utterance is generated."
["The Intentional? Fallacy?" (1968), in The Triumph of Romanticism (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1970), 430.]

"We may discern, then, three kinds of response to any utterance: inappropriate response, partially appropriate response, appropriate response. These are the meanings of an utterance."
["The Intentional? Fallacy?" (1968), in The Triumph of Romanticism (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1970), 431.]

"All a statement can do is give instructions for responsive behavior. What we call a referential statement—whether it be a book or a word—gives instructions for locating a phenomenal configuration. But it is not so easy as that. All signs are categorial. Thus a referential statement instructs us to locate a category of configurations."
["The Intentional? Fallacy?" (1968), in The Triumph of Romanticism (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1970), 436.]

"All terms were originally metaphors, because we can talk about something only in terms of something else, never in terms of itself, since ... nothing is anything in itself."
[Art and Pornography: An Experiment in Explanation (New York: Basic Books, 1969), 132.]

"Any response to an utterance is, then, a meaning of that utterance. In stringent form, the meaning of any term is all possible responses. This is the full force of the proposition that all terms are polysemous—that is, have multiple semantic functions, or meanings. And it is the full effect of the proposition that an utterance is never the sole factor in the cognitive field of the responder to that utterance. It is the consequence of the position that stimulus and response are independent variables."
[Art and Pornography: An Experiment in Explanation (New York: Basic Books, 1969), 138.]

"I am entirely aware of the scandalous nature of defining the meaning of a term as all possible responses to it. When I first wielded this sword to cut the Gordian knot of the inextricable confusion into which accounts of 'meaning' have tied themselves, I was appalled. The implications are profoundly disturbing. For example, if between my utterance and my fellow's responsive utterance yawns the abyss of what I have called metaphorical decision [i.e., the determination of an appropriate response based on an ultimately unknowable set of factors]; if his response varied independently from my stimulating utterance , then it follows that between any covert utterance I may generate—any thought that I may have, as we idly say—and any response to that covert utterance yawns precisely the same abyss. As Pascal said when he learned about the plurality of worlds, the silence of these infinite spaces frightens me. ... Meaning branches, and an enormous amount of human effort goes into trying to control that branching and also to exploiting its possibilities by granting authenticity to a responsive utterance which hitherto would have been judged to be wrong. We find here once again and here above all the irreconcilable interests of stability and innovation; and the disturbing thought arises that the ultimate function of social power is to control meanings, and that they can be controlled only by naked, brute force, applied to the very limit of dealing out death. One advantage of this scandalous proposal that the meaning of a term is all possible responses to it is that I know of no proposition that so strongly urges compassion for mankind, sweating to stabilize meanings and sweating just as heavily to innovate meanings when the received meanings no longer serve its interests."
[Art and Pornography: An Experiment in Explanation (New York: Basic Books, 1969), 138-39.]

"The intolerable struggle with words, of which T. S. Eliot writes so well, is not a struggle with their meanings but with our own behavioral processes."
[Art and Pornography: An Experiment in Explanation (New York: Basic Books, 1969), 140.]

"To declare any utterance 'meaningless,' therefore, is simply to declare that one does not know how to respond. And it is also to declare that if anyone else claims that he knows how to respond he is simply mistaken. The only final way to prove that he is indeed mistaken is to kill him. Throughout human history it has been a very popular mode of defeating an opponent in arguments about meaning. Certainly it has an almost irresistible charm."
[Art and Pornography: An Experiment in Explanation (New York: Basic Books, 1969), 141.]

"All sentences are equally metaphysical; that is, they are not tied magically to something outside of language by 'meaning' and 'reference' but linked to the non-verbal world by behavior, by somebody doing something."
[Art and Pornography: An Experiment in Explanation (New York: Basic Books, 1969), 141.]

"Again, the only way to dispose of an interpretation you object to is to kill everybody who utters it; and again, throughout history, this has been a popular mode of interpretational argument."
[Art and Pornography: An Experiment in Explanation (New York: Basic Books, 1969), 145.]

"Language does not tell us what the world is, nor does it, to my mind, give us information about appearance. What it can do is to give us instructions or directions on how to find something or simply directions on how to behave in various kinds of situations."
["The Arts and the Centers of Power" (1971), in Romanticism and Behavior: Collected Essays II (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 335.]

"The meaning of a term or other utterance is a response to that utterance. Such as response may be of one of two kinds—or of both simultaneously—verbal or nonverbal."
["Arts for the Cultivation of Radical Sensitivity" (1971), in Romanticism and Behavior: Collected Essays II (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 296.]

"Conventions are pre-established utterance-responses learned from other utterances—or from other signs, such as, for children and even on occasion for adults, manipulation by another person. An action, then, is a response to an utterance controlled by previously experienced utterances designed to train the actor in appropriate actions. He has, in other words, been given directions on how to respond to a particular utterance when it appears. Taking our metaphor from the stage, as we have already in 'action,' 'actor,' and 'directions,' we may usefully call an action a 'performance.' But since there is no difference between learning appropriate verbal responses and learning appropriate nonverbal responses, a verbal response is as much of an action—that is, a performance—as a nonverbal response. Language then does not tell us what the world is, nor does it refer; language is directions for performances. But what is true of language is also true of nonverbal signs, those created by human beings and those found in the world. The world, then, consists of directions for performance."
["Arts for the Cultivation of Radical Sensitivity" (1971), in Romanticism and Behavior: Collected Essays II (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 296.]

"When we look up the hierarchical regress of explanation, we see theory emerging from specific directions, or exemplary statements. But when we look down from the top, we see specific directions emerging from theory; we see meta-directions giving birth, as it were, to specific directions, or to more specific directions."
["The Corporation's Role in Today's Crisis of Cultural Incoherence" (1971) in Romanticism and Behavior: Collected Essays II (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 276.]

"Inexplicability is satisfied by an explanation, and everybody is satisfied by any explanation some of the time."
[Explanation and Power: The Control of Human Behavior (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979), 65.]

"Every human being is morphologically committed to language. That language is a wonderful adaptive mechanism is universally recognized; that language is a maladaption seems to be only rarely acknowledged. Indeed, I cannot remember ever having run across such a recognition. Yet I believe it to be the case. Language operates independently of the physical world; it transcends the physical world; it is not tied down to it by any ligatures. It gives man freedom, which it is wiser to think of as indeterminability. Language does not reflect the world; it is a verbal transformation of the world. ... As far back in recorded history as we can go, or guess, it is apparent that language has given men the capacity to construct the most outrageous silliness and to use all the force at his disposal to make that constructed silliness control the behavior of as many human beings as possible."
["Cultural Transcendence: The Task of the Romantics" (1981), in Romanticism and Ideology (Greenwood, FL: The Penkevill Publishing Company, 1985), 23.]

"Uncertainty of meaning is the condition of verbal interaction."
["Documents," in Literature and History: Theoretical Problems and Russian Case Studies, ed. Gary Saul Morson (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986), 189.]