Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Objectivity and Interpretation

John Walton, professor of OT at Wheaton College, reflects the conservative evangelical consensus about objectivity in Biblical interpretation when he says, "Objectivity is the goal of hermeneutics so that the text of Scripture may speak for itself." For purposes of definition, objectivity can be seen as the brute qualities of a thing which exists independently from any conscious awareness of it. In the fact that objectivity speaks of reality as independent from our perceptions of it, an objective description seeks to state the case "as it is" regardless of anyone's perceptions. Subjectivity, then, is defined as the relative perceptions of a thing viewed through some contingent conscious state.

Before the Enlightenment, philosophers were relatively optimistic about the ability to perceive objects as they really are. Grappling with the essences of things was no easy task, to be sure, and reasoning the "whatness" of objects was a defining characteristic of classical philosophy - but for the most part our ability to rightly perceive the phenomena of objects in the world was taken for granted. During the Enlightenment, the primacy of metaphysics gave way to the primacy of epistemology, where the act of perceiving itself became an object of scrutiny. Immanuel Kant famously criticized the idea of empirical observation as providing the guiding principles of rationality suggesting instead that the categories which exist inside the mind predetermine our observations of objects in the world. From this standpoint the object doesn't simply impress itself on the mind, the mind actively discerns the object through its own (mostly reliable) categories. If that's true, as the Enlightenment project has assumed, it makes the ideal knowledge one in which nothing comes between the vision of a knower and the thing known. This is true even of Kant, since he believed that though the world in itself (outside of perception) could not be known, our minds are still hooked up to the world in a way that speaks truly about objects. Mark Bowald says:
"Objectivity" came to connote the character of the epistemological stance a person assumes while struggling to seek out knowledge of things in their epistemological opacity. That stance is viewed as being, ideally, unaffected by prior beliefs or judgments - in some sense 'neutral' or apart from any particular 'perspective'.
This observation is crucial to the definition of objectivity. It speaks, first and foremost, of a person's impartial disposition toward objects . Moreover this is said to be a necessary disposition in order to arrive at truth. Put another way, true knowledge necessarily involves eliminating (or mitigating) one's own subjective states, such as emotions, judgments, desires, past experiences, etc., from consideration, since all of these things cloud the vision of the knower. If one is to be objective, he or she must yield to the brute facts which present themselves through impartial observation. Once supporting evidence can be marshaled to bolster a claim, it can be called "objective knowledge".

When it comes to reading the Bible it can be argued that Biblical scholarship has carried on according to this definition as well. Exegetes are those who come to the text suspending subjective factors as much as possible, and neutrally allowing the text to guide them wherever it may as it yields to the scientific tools of the exegete, namely grammar, archeology, history, etc. The data mined from their research is then handed off to Biblical theologians who assemble their objective observations into coherent building blocks which can add to the systematic theologian's overarching picture of what the Bible teaches. The inappropriateness felt by any reversal of this process testifies to the struggle for knowledge as a value-free enterprise. Any exegesis which emerges from theology is subjective, and thus illegitimate. Theology which arises from exegesis remains the only gold standard for what can count as true knowledge of the Bible.

Subsequent posts will evaluate that picture, but first I wanted to throw it out there for your reflection and modification. A few interesting questions to ask might be:

"Does it really work this way?" Do exegetes operate with neutrality and suspended judgment?

"Should it work this way?" Is impartiality a Biblical virtue in interpretation? Are there moral implications of objectivity?

"Did the apostles interpret Scripture this way?" Was their use of Scripture just an arbitrary product of ecstatic revelation which ran counter to how God wants Christians to read Scripture today?

"Are these our only options?" Does one have to approach the text "objectively" or be doomed to approach it "subjectively", or is there another way of looking at literary knowledge?

12 comments:

hettinger said...

"Does it really work this way?" Do exegetes operate with neturality and suspended judgment?

I think that no one operates with a complete unbias (e.g. we are all biased towards ignorance).

I think the framing of the question in terms of impartiality leaks intos thinking of our interpretations in cultural societies, etc. perhaps it would be best to frame the question in relation to 'reality' and 'absolute truth.' Do these exist? Should our exegetical methods seek to relate to these as much as possible?

I think we all have our subjectivity, but to deny an ultimate objective reality is opprobrium.

I don't think exegesis exists in a vacuum, and it is certainly a possibility to bring biases to the table. That is where good study and careful thought about authorial intent, and a healthy dose of historical grammatical method should help to right our wrongs.

I enjoy this definition of truth, though modernistic:

“The word truth denotes something that conforms to actuality, is a faithful standard, or involves sincerity or integrity.” - D.K. Clark, “Truth” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology

I see where there is a theological standoff to understanding hermenutical issues in regards to philosophical pre-understanding:

"Though not directly acknowledged, it advocated a major change in the way believers have understood divine revelation, at least since the Reformation and probably since the best days of the Garden of Eden. Thiselton advocated incorporating a new beginning point in the interpretation of Scripture, that of the preunderstanding of the interpreter. Prior to that, the interpreter sought for objectivity in interpretation, in letting the text speak for itself, without injecting personal bias. As innocent as this change may appear to be, it has utterly devastated evangelical hermeneutics for the last two decades. Subjectivism has become the rule rather than the exception, whereas prior to the focus on preunderstanding, the goal of exegetes was to learn what the text meant in its original setting." - Robert L. Thomas, “The Hermeneutics of Open Theism,” Master’s Seminary Journal 12:2 (Fall 2001): 184-5.

However, i think that Thiselton's point should be viewed as a lense to understand better the authorial intent, and interpreters' own biases, rather than a hostile attempt to assert meaning into a text.

I personally see extreme value in the historical grammatical approach to scripture. And I think a common sensical approach to scripture is alot closer to the original audience than existensialists, post-modernists, reader-responserizers, etc. To pretend that an interpreter cannot bring his own biases into the exegetical process of biblical theology seems to be folly (and i think that is Thiselton's point).

metalepsis said...

Good post Raja!

No
no
no
and no.

I think there is often the false dichotomy of objectivism vs. skepticism. I hope that you developed the alternative of perspectivism in your future posts.

I am puzzled by the R. Thomas quote in your response Hett., does he insinuate that just because the 'pre-modern' exegetes did not take account of there biases that they were not there? Hmm?

What are we to do with the biases that we are unaware of? How do we overcome things we are not yet conscience of?

Authorial Intention is a good goal to strive for, but it is nearly impossible to grasp, and how do we know when we grasp it?

Look forward to your future posts!

HZ said...

I don't think we are in any sense 'impartial', or are commanded to be. The commands are to charity, and honesty - not 'objectivity' as defined by neutrality. Neutrality is ultimately a sin or a pretense -probably both?

Charity rejoices in the truth, yet is not neutral. It has a definite predisposition to 'think no evil'. It is as involved as it possibly can be with its object. Honesty implies not getting rid of what we have stake, but simply owning up to it: a virtue very much in keeping with a subject.

If we are going to use 'neutrality' as the concept behind 'objectivity', then to be human is to be hopelessly subjective. We are creatures, contingent, and even more, we are a certain kind of creatures. We cannot even view things 'neutrally' through the perceptions of some other kind of created being, like a dog or a cat. We can only perceive out of the kind of being we are....

It seems like metalepsis is right, there has to be another alternative. If 'objectivity' has its reference point in the truth as it is in the being of God - & He is not 'neutral', how can neutrality be in any way aligned with truth? Is the unregenerate heart, which is at enmity with God, ever 'neutral'? Is the regenerate heart, in love with God, ever 'neutral'? Yet love or hatred to the Creator are the fundamental centers into which the conscious creature organizes everything. We are, fundamentally, a response. To be neutral, we would have to be autonomous.

As far as the interpretative process goes.... My tentative thoughts would be that God gives us the hermeneutical tools necessary to get at the more difficult places in the text. But I agree with hettinger (if I'm understanding right) that 'common sense' (not the same as neutral sense, rather it arises out of common human predispositions?) is generally the medium in which God is addressing us. He made us, He understands how to speak to us....

Lipps said...

Is it also worth asking about the nature of interpretation? What 'happens' when interpretation 'happens'? Is 'interpretation' the end for which we possess and read Scripture? The nature of the thing interpreted is going to determine the nature/posture of the interpretive task, as you're very well aware, and might say yourself. I'm currently in an environment where there are extreme measures taken in the pursuit of establishing the purity and objectivity of our knowledge (the Spirit guarantees our 'true knowledge' and other silliness), when rightly considering the object of our 'knowing'--the word of God--might adjust how we talk about what we do with it. Do we interpret it, fussing about with rules for reading, etc., or do we grasp it as communication from God, in which case talk about 'objectivity' and 'absoluteness' might fly out the window? Rightly regarding what it is we even possess might lead to doing 'biblical' things with the word of God, like shuddering before it, readying ourselves to perform it, etc. Of course, we would then say, Well, we must understand it before we do it, but does that not smack of Plato? Is there any legitimacy for talking about hermeneutics in general when we're speaking about Scripture?

hettinger said...

I'm not an expert on the corpus of either A. Thiselton or R. Thomas, it just seems to me that there is a wide divergence in their understandings. I thought it was apropos to the post. Thus, I'm looking forward to Raja's insight on subjectivism and interpretation, etc.

Perhaps I'm too simplistic in seeing pre-understanding, prejudice, bias, and disposition as inter-related.

I think authorial intent is not inaccessable in the majority of passages (the remainder deal with issues such as finite rational limitation, or similar). I think the original audience would of not had a problem (unless that was the author(s) intent: parables, prophecy). The major difference being for today's interpreters are areas such as time, culture, and language.

I imagine trying to explain the concept of farfegnugen to a first century interpreter. Is it possible? Yes. Would it be easy? No. There would be a slew of tertiary issues to deal with, such as 'what is an automobile.'

How do you know when they have grasped the concept? I suppose when their understanding of it jives with contextual usage. Similar to when you see someone misuses something in english.

How do we know when we grasp authorial intent? I think this keys into 'how do we know when our subjective understanding is aligned with reality?'

Unfortunately, when thinking about this, I find that many of my reasons/proofs for a absolute reality are very similar to arguments for a corporate societal perception based reality.
I guess a main difference being that I think the world would still exist if there was no society to percieve it.

"Theology which arises from exegesis remains the only gold standard for what can count as true knowledge of the Bible."

I really like how Vanhoozer puts the concept of "speech act" into play on the matter of reader involvement, which relates to "one's own subjective states, such as emotions, judgments, desires, past experiences, etc." I see this as realizing that perhaps the ultimate author intended to have an effect upon everyone who reads/understands his work.

Perhaps Raja will releases a blog set called Epistemology and the Word of God.

Sameer said...

I'm with metalepsis in answering "no" to all of the questions posed, but my guess is that our reasons and subsequent pictures would substantially differ.

The simple observation that nothing can be perceived in the absolute nature of its being is rather pedestrian and uncontroversial. On this criterion, almost every contemporary epistemologist is "perspectivist," making it a rather philosophically uninteresting position.

About Kant, it is significant to recognize that there are two major interpretations of his position on the noumena and phenomena -- i.e. on one view he these composing two separate realms of objects - two worlds -- the transcendentally real and the real parts of the world of experience, respectively. These are disjoint (no noumenal object is a phenomenal one, and vice versa). The realism he espouses comes from the view that we have a transcendental ego, a noumenon which is causally connected to the noumenal world. On the other major (more recent) interpretation, there is only ONE world and ONE class of objects, which approaches the kind of "perspectivism" that metalepsis is talking about.

On the latter view of Kant, he isn't all that revolutionary. After all, Aristotle and Aquinas would have been happy saying both that we can lack adequate knowledge about the way the world is, and that there are features of the world that we can in fact have no knowledge of.

Sameer said...

Oh yeah -- my point about the Kant comments (Sorry in advance for the length of this post):

Let's just assume for a moment that we can all agree with the conception of "objectivity" defined as "the brute qualities of a thing which exist independently from any conscious awareness of it." Now, let's take a look at both major interpretations of Kant and see if we can get the result that objective knowledge (as defined above) is impossible.

On Kant's "two world" view, the world "as it appears to us" - the phenomenal world, constitutes the only world of objects with which we are ever directly acquainted. Since the noumenal world - the "things as they are in themselves" compose a distinct and disjointed world of objects, then we must conclude that "objective" knowledge is impossible -- all that composes the objects of our knowledge are phenomena. There are of course a lot of subviews about the relations between the two worlds, or how the transcendental ego's causal connection with the noumenal world impresses upon us a phenomenal world. But why accept a two-world picture (whether Kant's or anyone else's?) There is a deep incoherence here, because If our concepts can only apply to the phenomenal world, and so none of this talk about a noumenal could be real. We would have to conclude not just that we can't have knowledge *about* objects in the noumenal world -- we would have no knowledge that there *is* a noumenal world. It wouldn't even be thinkable. Our words couldn't pick it out, refer to it, describe it, or elsewise posit it. Skepticism looms if we simply hold on exclusively to the only coherent part of this picture -- i.e., the positing of a phenomenal world. Fortunately, without the backing of a "two world" picture, the view is no longer attractive, because it doesn't explain anything. We are left once again with things as they appear to us, and the question of whether the way they appear to us is in any sense the way they really are. And it is difficult to see how any
"two world" type account might overcome the objection that it is similarly incoherent.

On Kant's "one world" view, the objects are noumenal and our knowledge of them is phenomenal. Since *what* we are knowing is the noumenon, our knowledge is "objective" in the relevant sense. We must simply hedge by adding that the *how* of our knowing is phenomenal, and therefore partial, sociologically shaped, etc. But this really is a far more modest hedge than it is often made to appear -- after all, the resultant knowledge is still "objective" in the sense that it conforms to, is caused by, or is descriptively adequated by the noumenal object. To embrace the one world picture and then deny the possibility of objective knowledge is difficult. You have to either criticize the relationship between phenomenal experience and noumenal reality, or you must deny the existence of a noumenal reality. To flatly deny the existence of a noumenal reality is another way of saying that you don't believe in mind-independent objects, i.e. solipsism, a.k.a. metaphysical suicide, a.k.a. radical sketpicism. On the other hand, to buy into a noumenal world but sever its connection to the phenomenal world is problematic, because then we have no reason to believe in a noumenal world at all, and consequently left in the awkward position mentioned above. Even if that could be hurdled, you would still be left with an explanatory problem. You must posit another cause for the phenomena besides a noumenal object -- and what might THAT be?

At the end of the day, I don't see a big enough deal, philosophically, to warrant the idea that we are now in a new era cleansed from the chimera of objective knowledge (as Sharad has defined it). There is no doubt that contemporary hermeneutical and epistemological developments have taken more seriously the sociological and linguistic impact on our pursuits of textual and theological knowledge. There have been significant methodological advancements in literary theory and theological method, but I find them so often freighted with overblown epistemological and metaphysical claims so as to be misleading.

TheBlueRaja said...

I don't have time to respond to these excellent comments at the moment, and it may be a few more days until my next post, but I wanted to briefly mention that I hold to the one-world interpretation of Kant (mostly because that's the one I'm familiar with through secondary literature, not because I've studied Kant in any great detail). Kant's view is essentially an empiricist one in practice, and it's miles from the skepticism of postmoderns like Rorty, as I understand it.

Sameer said...

Yeah, I'm not decided on which view is actually Kant's -- the "two world" view is the more traditional take, with the "one world" view gaining popularity recently because of the work of guys like Devitt and Westphal.

But either way, I agree that Kant's views (which I take to be most profitably seen as a creative synthesis between the rationalist and empiricist traditions) don't support the more radical claims represented in the likes or Rorty, or most of the major figures in contemporary critical theory.

For the sake of furthering the discussion, I'll just throw out what I take to be the cash value of these comments: they serve to clear the ground for approaches to the text that do not need to rest upon inane claims like "there is no 'way the world is'," or "our concepts can never adequately represent reality."

To the extent that any literary theory or theological method depends upon claims like these, to that extent they are confused and misguided, or at any rate, in my experience, badly argued (or, more charitably, clumsily expressed). I would put Rorty in this camp, as well as Kristeva, Barthes, Derrida, and several others. However, I aslo happen think that the usefulness of various theoretical bits of this allegedly "postmodern" ilk does not in fact depend upon the sorts of infelicitous claims given above, irrespective of claims to the contrary on the part of those who have formulated them.

In short, methodologically I'm all for letting at thousand flowers bloom, but the epistemological and metaphysical bases of them need some chastening and more careful attention.

Jonathan Moorhead said...

I’ve always wanted to ask the objectivists if they disregard the doctrinal statement they signed (at their respective institution or church) when they exegete.

Sameer Yadav said...

That's an interesting point Jonathan. I think that at many institutions, it's okay to suspend your theological convictions, given the unspoken proviso that your "objective" reading of the text is only going to reinforce them in the end anyway. If it doesn't, then I guess you just weren't being objective!

TheBlueRaja said...

Really interesting point, Jonathan. I think it illustrates the relationship between exegesis and theological commitment which seem to be mutually informing in interpretation.