Ketuvot 58b ~ Rabbi Meir on Maximizing Meaning

תלמוד בבלי כתובות דף נח עמוד ב

אין אדם מוציא דבריו לבטלה

A person does not say things without reason
— Ketuvot 58b

This teaching of Rabbi Meir (c.~2nd century CE) is directed towards a specific legal question: can a person's declaration containing two contradictory clauses have any legal meaning? The details of the case need not concern us, but Rabbi Meir established a hermeneutic principal that was to be widely discussed, most notably by three American philosophers Willard Quine (d. 2000),  Ronald Dworkin (d. 2013) and Donald Davidson (d. 2003).

The Principle of Charity 

The Principle of Charity asks the reader (or listener) to interpret the text they are reading (or words they are hearing) in a way that would make them optimally successful.  Here's how Moshe Halbertal from the Hebrew University explained it:

[A]lthough a person’s words might be read as self-contradictory and thus meaningless, they should not be interpreted in that way. If someone tells us he feels good and bad, we should not take his statement as meaningless but rather understand by this that sometimes he feels good and sometimes bad, or that his feelings are mixed.
— Moshe Halbertal. People of the Book. Harvard University Press 1997, p27.

Other philosophers of language, like the late American analytical philosopher Donald Davidson developed this Principle of Charity. “We make maximum sense of the words of others,” wrote Davidson, “when we interpret in a way that optimizes agreement.” But sometimes The Principle of Charity requires that the reader change the meaning of the text in order to maximize the likelihood of agreement with the author’s words, as long as such a rational or coherent interpretation is available to the reader. It is the attempt to read the text in the “best” possible light.

We could include in this discussion Ludwig Wittgenstein (d. 1951). In his Philosophical Investigations he claimed that there is no single correct way that language works. Instead, there are "language games" - with the rules of the game changing as the needs of the speaker change. Or the American philosopher John Searle's important work Speech Acts, in which speech follows certain rules, and it is the context of the words that determine which rules are in force.  Or the father of deconstruction, the French Sephardi philosopher Jacques Derrida (d. 2004) who believed that once they are cut off from their author, words can mean something other than what they meant in their original context. Or J.L Austin or Paul Ricoeur or....

But it's Pesach this week. You've got kitchens to scrub or cases to pack (or sometimes both).  So let's stop here. Just remember that it was Rabbi Meir who introduced us to the hermeneutic Principle of Charity. Now can you please fix that Wiki article so that Rabbi Meir gets his just recognition?

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