Arguing over Texts: The Rhetoric of Interpretation

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This dissertation examines the nature of arguments over the meaning of texts. People often disagree about the meaning of texts, with arguments ranging from disagreements over individual words to disagreements over the text's overall sense. Over two thousand years ago, rhetoricians in ancient Greece and Rome classified recurring types of disagreement over the meaning of texts. This classification, known as the legal stases, served as a tool for inventing arguments in favor of the arguer's preferred interpretation.

My dissertation recovers and adapts the legal stases as a modern rhetorical method for generating and analyzing arguments over the meaning of texts. In the first chapter, I sketch the history of the legal stases from their origins in ancient Greco-Roman legal discourse to their slide into obscurity in the seventeenth century. I rename them the interpretive stases because scholars can use them to analyze debates revolving around texts from a variety of spheres, including not only law, but also politics, religion, literature, and history. I adopt six interpretive stases: letter versus spirit, contradictory passages, ambiguity, definition, assimilation, and jurisdiction. These six stases offer a reasonably grained slicing of disputes over textual meaning at their roots: from a single word to how a text is applied in novel ways.

In the next six chapters, I examine each interpretive stasis in detail with case studies from debates over textual meaning in a variety of settings. Case studies range from a controversy in literary criticism over the racially subversive nature of Phillis Wheatley's poetry in the stasis of ambiguity to a debate in historical scholarship over Lincoln's sexuality as inferred from his correspondence with an alleged male lover in the stasis of assimilation. In my final chapter, I suggest ways that literature and composition teachers might use the interpretive stases to help students analyze and generate arguments about texts, and I discuss promising intersections between my research and contemporary language science.

Thus, my dissertation advances the ability of scholars to analyze the rhetorical dynamics of interpreting texts, trace the evolution of textual meaning, and examine how communities ground their beliefs and behaviors in texts.