The concept of interpretation refers to:

— The general process of understanding complex text, S. Interpretation, Exegesis, Hermeneutics.
— In rhetorical argumentation, the word interpretation can refer to:

    1. A special kind of stasis.
    2. A figure of repetition.
    3. An argument scheme, S. Motives ant Reasons

1. Stasis of interpretation

In stasis theory, the stasis of interpretation corresponds to a special case of contradiction between the parties, the “legal question”. In court, or, more broadly, whenever a debate is based on a written text, and especially a normative rule, a “question of interpretation” arises when the two parties base their conclusions on different readings of the text. One party, for example, may base their argument on the letter of the law, whilst the others will argue from its spirit.

2. A figure of repetition

As a figure of discourse, interpretation consists in duplicating a first term in the form of an immediately following second term, quasi-synonymous and more easily understood than the first. In the sequence “Term1, Term2”, T2 interprets T1, i.e., explains; clarifies the meaning of T1. T2 can be a common language equivalent of a technical term T1:

We found marasmius oreades, I mean, Scotch Bonnets.

The interpretation applied to a word or an entire expression may maintain its argumentative orientation:

The President announced an expenditure control policy, a “sober state” policy.

Phrased by an opponent, the interpretation can reverse the argumentative orientation of T1:

The President announced an expenditure control policy, that is, a policy of austerity.

This change is marked by the introduction of a reformulation connective (one might say an interpretive connective): in other words, i.e., that is to say, which means that…

3. Refutation by interpretation

The Treatise on Argumentation classifies the interpretatio as a “figure of choice”, and offers an example borrowed from Marcus Annaeus Seneca, (known as the Seneca the Elder, or the Rhetorician). Seneca the Elder is the author of the Controversies, a collection of more or less imaginary judicial cases, treated by different rhetors of his time (1st century), in a kind of speech contest.

Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca’s example is taken from the first case of the collection ([1958] p. 233), where the question proposed to a score of expert orators is an ingenious story of a son who fed his uncle despite his father’s ban. The wheel of fortune having turned, it is now the father who is in difficulty, and the son has now fed his father in spite of his uncle’s prohibition. The unhappy son is thus driven out for the same reason, first by the father, then by the uncle. In the following passage, the author reports the words of the lawyers addressing the father on the son’s behalf, first Fuscus Arellius, then Cestius:

Arellius Fuscus, in concluding, suggested, as a question: ‘I thought that, in spite of your prohibition, you wanted your brother to be fed: you had this air in pronouncing your defense, or at least I believed.’ Cestius was bolder: he did not just say ‘I thought you wanted it’, he said, ‘You wanted it and you still want it today’, and by means of this figure, he pointed to all the motives which forced [the father to want it so] [and concluded:] ‘Why do you drive me away? Doubtless you are indignant at the fact that I took your part’.
Seneca the Elder, or the Rhetorician (54 BC – 39 AD),
[Controversies and suasories], (written at the end of his life).[1]

The interventions of the two lawyers are co-oriented. Fuscus Arellius argues that the father may have given his order reluctantly. Cestius then goes farther, and attributes to the father an intention contrary to his words, “you wanted it and you still want it today”. Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca see here an “argumentative figure or a stylistic figure depending on the effect it has on the audience” ([1958], p. 172), S. Figure. Actually, the counsel’s words are clearly argumentative. Firstly, they introduce a typical stasic situation, a question about the qualification of the act under examination, “you wanted me to disobey you. So, don’t punish me, rather congratulate me in having accomplished your secret wish!” S. Stasis. Second, it implements the private vs. public scheme, substituting the private, sincere, will, to the publicly affirmed will, made under social pressure, S. Motives.

4. Refutation by interpretation vs. performative analysis

The discussion of this example involves the analysis of the order as a performative act. Interpretation is an instrument of refutation and defense that, interestingly, opposes a charge based on a performative analysis of such a speech act. Austin illustrates his discovery of performativity with an example borrowed from the Hippolytus of Euripides (I, 612). According to Austin, an order, is valid as soon as it is uttered, regardless of what the speaker is actually thinking:

Surely the words must be spoken ‘seriously’ and so as to be taken ‘seriously’? […]. But we are apt to have a feeling that their being serious consists in their being uttered as (merely) the outward and visible sign, for convenience or other record or for information, of an inward and spiritual act: from which it is but a short step to go on to believe or to assume without realizing that for many purposes the outward utterance is a description, true or false, of the occurrence of the inward performance. The classic expression of this idea is to be found in the Hippolytus (1. 612), where Hippolytus says, “my tongue swore to, but my heart (or mind or other backstage artiste) did not”. Thus “I promise to…” obliges me — puts on record my spiritual assumption of a spiritual shackle.
It is gratifying to observe in this very example how excess of profundity, or rather solemnity, at once paves the way for immorality. (Austin, 1962, p. 9-10)

As the son and the father in Seneca’s example, Hippolytus and the nurse, are engaged in highly argumentative interactions. In such situations, semantics, pragmatics, and morality can all be discussed and argued. The son acknowledges the facts (he fed his uncle) and pleads not guilty to the charge of disobedience, maintaining that the verbal order, what the father said, did not expressed the true will of the father. This is exemplary of the case of opposition described by Austin, which exists between what language actually does and what goes on in the mind of the speaker. It should be noted first that Austin’s binary distinction knows only the verbal aspects of language, and excludes all paraverbal (mimic) modalization of the order.

There remains the question of the validity of the father’s prohibition. For the father and for Austin, the prohibition is valid because the father uttered the relevant formula, and the son is guilty of the double Austinian sin, analytical fallacy and moral perversity. Yet the analysis offered by the Austinian father is rather questionable; what the father really said is problematic and must be subject to an interpretation which will takes into account the pragmatic environment of the speech act utterance. The situation is analogous to that of ironic utterances, S. Irony. The addressee hears something contextually incongruous, said by someone who usually talks seriously, and this forces him to engage in interpretation of this puzzling utterance. Similarly, the father uttered a prohibition which contradicts the natural (doxic) law of brotherly love, which the son esteems inconsistent with his father’s true character; the son is obliged to interpret the incongruity — maybe the verbal utterance of the father was accompanied by a paralinguistic sign, which pointed to another intention? He thus infers that the order was not given in the true, natural voice of the father but in his social voice, as argued by Fuscus Arelius. As a consequence, the son feeds his uncle. To decide that this latter interpretation is “the right one” is to side with the son and oppose the father; to decide that the Austinian interpretation is the correct one is to take the side of the father and oppose the son. In either case, to take a stand for an analysis is to side with a party or another.

[1] Translated after the French edition used by Perelman, Sénèque le Rhéteur, Controverses et Suasoires. Trans. by H. Bornecque. T. 1. Paris: Garnier Frères, 1932, p. 23-24.