Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Objectivity and Interpretation pt. 3

Although I considered writing a separate article for each of the four points listed below, I think it may be in the best interest of time (mine, anyway!) to simply list them in summary form in a single post. It should be obvious by now that my own answers to the questions posed in my first post are "no", "no", "no" and "no". Exegetes do not operate with methodological objectivity, nor should they. Furthermore neither the apostles nor early church fathers paid much attention to the kind of procedures and criteria foisted upon seminary students in their quest for an unbiased reading of Scripture. What may not be clear, though, is how I might answer the last question - that is, are there interpretive options that repudiate the false ideal of Enlightenment objectivity and at the same time avoid relativistic nihilism? I believe that there are. Below are listed four resources that Christians should draw upon in developing a hermeneutical bridge from the text to the reader. But before I list them, there are some general comments I think germane to the topic of theological methodology and the interpretation of Scripture.

Firstly, while the postmodern critical theories of Derrida, Rorty, and Fish may be helpful in their chastisement of an overstated modernism as "too big for its breeches", I think they are ultimately bankrupt in providing sensible alternatives for what counts as textual meaning, literary knowledge and the ethical treatment of texts. While I understand that misconceptions and caricature abound in portraying the true import of these theories (particularly that of Derrida), it seems to me that the fundamental failure to see texts as truly communicative in some meaningful way hamstrings the entire discussion.

Related to this is a second observation about method, and that is the issue of intuition. Doubtless, our perceptions of the world are often misguided and sometimes even downright mistaken - but any theory which utterly disregards our pre-critical impressions, especially of those features of the world with which we interact so often (like speech, writing and reading) is, in my view, a failure. Theory is an attempt to elucidate existing objects and practices, and one criteria of a theory's success should be the degree to which it explains phenomena adduced by pre-critical intuition. Please don't mistake this comment as an appeal to common sense - Aristotle spoke of how appearances prove to be much more complex and counter-intuitive upon investigation, and I agree with him - but these complexities have explanatory power only to the degree to which they elucidate our initial impressions. The more radical doubt a theory casts on our intuitions the more explanation and evidence we ought to demand from it - and it's here that I find the arguments of many poststructural strategies sorely lacking. In all of the claims to the author's death I haven't seen why I should believe this is so; I've yet to see an intelligible reconstruction of the crime scene much less the presentation of the body. But I'm not nearly as well-read as I ought to be on the subject - maybe some commenters can help.

Finally, I must say that the above observation has given me a gross distaste for the global claims made by literary critics about not only the nature of texts, reading and interpretation but with the nature of knowledge, ethics and (of course) God. Here, in my judgment, is where postmodern literary critics need some chastisment with no less fervor than they dish out to the modernist tradition of Western philosophy. The uneasy sense with which they never seem to "show me the money" (as mentioned above) grows into disgust when at the same time the claims made about metaphysics and epistemology are so sweeping and self-assured. I can't help but see them as "too big for their breeches". Even with my paltry knowledge of subjects philosophical (I have an undergraduate degree in history alongside my divinity degree), I can see that parallel observations about the limits and nature of language have grown alongside literary criticism in the analytic tradition. What's more, the subject of epistemology seem to have grown past many postmodern objections without the absurdly grandiose pronouncements, and with (instead) tightly reasoned attempts to answer objections, inconsistencies and explanatory failure. Postmodernism, not least postmodern literary theories, seems strangely immune to criticism by those who tout them. Does that make you suspicious? It should. With that said, here are some ways forward (note that the pictures are resource links):

1) Reformed epistemology: Knowing how to interpret a text depends upon how and how much you think a person can know. Reformed epistemology has, in my mind, has given the strongest account for what knowledge is and how it works without succumbing to the criticisms of postmodernist anxiety. The moderate correspondence theory of William P. Alston and the moderate foundationalism of Alvin Plantinga not only resonate philosophically, but theologically in that they promote a "faith seeking understanding" (i.e. a dependence upon Christian starting points). They are fundamentally presuppositional, eliminating the notion of "neutral common ground", which takes into account the most basic postmodern sensibility (there's a topic for discussion!). They imply the notion of covenant loyalty as a necessary part of what it means "to know", and know truly. Applied to Scripture this means that we should come to the text Christianly, without the apologetic pressure to prove our readings to be "objectively verifiable" to those who don't display a commitment to the Christian worldview. This requires seeing the text as not only the work of human hands, but as divine discourse (a phrase used by another Reformed philosopher, Nicholas Wolterstorff). The divine intention is made most clear when we see texts in their canonical setting, and divine discourse can only take place when the reader has personal knowledge of the Author.

2) Speech-act theory: While someone might want to debate the success of Vanhoozer's attempt to ground speech-act theory in theological conviction (cg. Is There a Meaning in This Text?) it seems to me that a theory of interpretation must take into account the author as a communicative agent, the text as an account of something the author did, and the distinction between the act of the author and the effects of the text. Seeing language primarily in terms of semiotics, encoded thoughts in need of contexts for decoding, is a classically Cartesian mistake upon which deconstruction depends. Moreover, the notion of a text without authorial intent is nonsense. There, I said it. The difference between noise and speech, tittles and texts, chaos and communication, is intention. Seeing texts as purposeful human actions (just as other human actions, like driving, sneezing and sex) requires the concept of intention. Speech-act theory seems to hold these things together well without reducing intention to some kind of psychologized Schleiermacherian "stepping inside the author's skin". Intention isn't about the mental state of the author, but what the author does in tending to his words with linguistic conventions appropriate to the speech-act.

3) Apostolic interpretation: The apostles (and the church fathers, for that matter) went further than a simple descriptive use of Scripture in its original context. They used it ironically, antithetically, and a number of other creative ways in order to show how God's actions in the present were an outgrowth of something He had done in the past. In his book Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, Richard Hays shows how Paul's use of the Old Testament was not only more sophisticated than proof-texting, but more careful as well. This involved something more than attending to the historical grammatical context but something less than arbitrary appropriation according to words or phrases which might help his argument. He instead proposes that the quotations display an intertextual melding which brings together the circumstances of his letters with the context of the quote to create new meaning. The constraints he mentions to this use of Scripture (namely 1. God's faithfulness to his promises, 2. the testimony of Jesus' death and resurrection - i.e. the Gospel - and 3. the goal of cruciform church) together with his seven guidelines listed for hearing "echoes" provide an understanding not only of how Paul used the Old Testament, but how Christians might (and in fact do) read Scripture today. Without regurgitating his argument here, I would point out that Paul's practice of reading Scripture not only emphasizes a sensitivity to the historical situation in which they were written, but with one eye to contemporary events in the church "upon whom the ends of the ages has come". This collapses the "what it meant" and "what it means" into a single category, much like Paul himself seems to do in his use of OT texts.

4) Critical realism: I'm not sure what it means to speak of "critical realism" as a full-blown epistemology, but the general attitude is one I think is key not only to doing history (as Wright deftly displays in The New Testament and the People of God) but to the interpretation of Scripture. This involves, firstly, a stance toward the text which sees it as adequately (though not exhaustively) knowable, though in a mediated sense. It also sees the role of explanatory power as an important criteria for faithfulness to the text; in other words, instead of exalting the detailed analysis of exegesis as the most important feature of interpretation it seeks to take into account the larger "narrative world", itself shaped by texts, within which the authors lived, moved and had their being (as do we!). Laying these larger paradigms over the Biblical text to see similarities and differences should be an interpretive priority of equal value as exegesis in getting at the author's intended meaning. More than that, though, critical realism is a disposition which sees that however obscured our vision may be, or however provisional our readings may be, adequate understanding is not only possible, but plausible.

Obviously more could be said. I would have liked to said more about Jewish exegesis in comparison (and contrast) with Paul's use of Scripture with an eye to the issue of "objectivity", but having mentioned these four suggestions, I'll just be content to move on!


Nate B. said...

My only question is... do you have to have facial hair to contribute to this area of hermeneutics?

Seriously though, of your four points, I like #1, I'm intrigued by #s 2 and 3, and I'm a little scared of #4...only because I'm wary of where Wright goes with it.

Of course, that may or may not be the can of worms you were hoping to open.

Anyway, thanks for making me think.

TheBlueRaja said...

Facial hair isn't a requirement, but I can't overstate its value. Wait . . . I just did.

As for number 4, don't be put off by your distaste for Wright. Critical realism isn't something that Wright invented, and (like I said) it's an "epistemological disposition" that I'm getting at. Some accessible resources for further investigation as to the "theory" side of it might be The Website for Critical Realism or the UK based website The Centre for Critical Realism.

As for Wright's method of studying history outlined in the beginning of NTPG, it's brilliant. Really. That's not to say that you have to agree with his conception of Israel's stories, symbols or praxis, or the early church's appropriation of them - but his detailed explanation of what he's doing is just superb. And, interestingly, number 4 is, in many ways, an outworking of number 1.

Just out of curiosity, do you have any specific criticisms of Wright on this score, or alternative suggestions for how to go about doing the work of historical reconstruction? And what intrigues you about the numbers 2 and 3 (I'm intrigued!)?

metalepsis said...

Firstly, in your previous post you mentioned that you were finding that: “stating the banal to be more and more important!” I totally understand were you are coming from, but I was trying to make the point that the positivists have no problem thinking the bible is unlike any other book, yet still seem to think that their canons of interpretation are the right ones.

Now concerning your invective against those of us who don’t subscribe to the holy trinity of Reader - Text - Author. You seem to come to the question already pretty set on the ethics of interpretation being manifested in authorial intention. Which seems to suggest that there is a meaning inherent in a text, even if no one ever unearths it, the meaning is safe within the text, and it is the meaning that the author imbued? But what would happen if you started your investigation with this question, “Why do the most erudite, pious, intelligent and expert interpreters of scripture so rarely agree with one another?” Why is it that we never agree with anyone on what scripture means? The implications of these questions are, I think, important for the question of objectivity. Why do Don Carson, N.T. Wright, and Graham Stanton disagree on the interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount? And how are we, those of us who know much less than these experts supposed to adjudicate who is right? If these three leading scholars disagree, wouldn’t we have to know more than them in order to make an authoritative decision for or against their position? No small task!

I think you would agree that presuppositions make knowledge possible but they also limit knowledge, there is no point in trying to approach the text as a neutral observer, divesting yourself of all interests, it is simply impossible. But perhaps we should also stop thinking that there is only one meaning in a text, to take this into account might lead one to a more charitable position, a recognition that interpreters have good reasons for adopting different interpretations, and while leaving the final answers of correctness in God’s hands, we can concentrate on what sort of lives our hermeneutics engender.

Nate B. said...

My understanding of Wright's hermeneutic is that he emphasizes New Testament history, New Testament theology, and Literary Criticism (meaning that we must take note of ancient rhetorical and literary conventions and forms) as the three primary issues in interpreting the text.

The base questions that Wright seeks to answer are: 1) How did Christianity begin, and why did it take the shape that it did? and (2) What does Christianity believe, and does it make sense? (NTPG, p. 10)

At the epistemological level, Wright introduces critical realism as being opposed to positivism (in which "the positivist believes that there are some things at least about which we can have definite knowledge [meaning empirical certainty]"), and also phenomenalism (in which "the only thing of which I can really be sure when confronted by things in [what seems to be] the external world are my own sense-data") (NTPG, pp. 32–35).

Wright defines critical realism as "a way of describing the process of 'knowing' that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence 'realism'), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiraling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence 'critical'). This path leads to critical reflection on the products of our enquiry into 'reality,' so that our assertions about 'reality' acknowledge their own provisionality. Knowledge, in other words, although in principle concerning realities independent of the knower, is never itself independent of the knower." (NTPG, p. 35)

Wright later explains that "critical realism ... sees knowledge of particulars as taking place within the larger framework of the story or worldview which forms the basis of the observer's way of being in relation to the world." Thus, he avoids positivism. Yet, such hypotheses can still be verified, thus avoiding phenomenalism. "Verification happens ... by devising means, precisely on the basis of the larger stories (included in the hypothesis itself), to ask specific questions about specific aspects of the hypothesis." (NTPG, p. 37)

(I include all this background more to help me than to inform anyone else. My guess is that most of you reading this already knew all that.)

When it comes to practical hermeneutics, as Sharad points out, "Instead of exalting the detailed analysis of exegesis as the most important feature of interpretation it [critical realism] seeks to take into account the larger 'narrative world,' itself shaped by texts, within which the authors lived, moved and had their being (as do we!). Laying these larger paradigms over the Biblical text to see similarities and differences should be an interpretive priority of equal value as exegesis in getting at the author's intended meaning."

While there is certainly great benefit in understanding the narrative world of Paul’s day (no one would argue this), the interpreter may run the risk of eisegesis if he is not careful. In my opinion, Wright himself falls prey to this when he reads Second Temple Judaism into Paul to the extent that Paul no longer means what exegesis tells us Paul means.

(At this point I quickly admit that Sharad, and others who read this blog, know much more about "critical realism" and N.T. Wright than I do. I am not a philosopher-extraordinaire by any means. Most of the time I have to read Sharad’s posts half-a-dozen times and still don’t know if I totally understand them. I am well aware of the fact, then, that I am slightly out of my league here.)

Nonetheless, despite my lack of mental acumen, I think my concern is valid. In the Nampa Bible "Elder’s Perspective" on NPP, we read: "[The New Perspective on Paul is] NOT an attempt to make extra-biblical texts equal to the Bible." And yet, according to "critical realism," the larger narrative world is equal to biblical exegesis. In Wright’s case, for example, it seems that extra-biblical data has been read in to the biblical text, such that the exegetical data (from within the NT) is no longer as weighty as the extrabiblical data (from rabbinic and other literature).

Okay... I’ve exposed my ignorance... now you can shoot me full of holes.

metalepsis said...

Nate, if I may…

And yet, according to "critical realism," the larger narrative world is equal to biblical exegesis.

I don’t think this is what Wright is saying, rather the larger narrative world frames the text.

In Wright’s case, for example, it seems that extra-biblical data has been read in to the biblical text, such that the exegetical data (from within the NT) is no longer as weighty as the extrabiblical data (from rabbinic and other literature).

Wright is just making the basic statement that we have to understand the cultural background of the texts in order to understand what is going on in the text. I suspect you are referring to the issue of legalism here. All Wright does is read the texts of scripture within the context of the culture, so what looks like legalism to us, would not have looked like legalism to the first century observer (so Wright claims), so Wright tries to understand such passages in light of this context. That is not eisegesis, but it is rather framing the text by a context, I hope that you do the same thing, and I imagine that you do. The best efforts, therefore, in disputing the NPP are not exegetical, but rather coming up with an alternative account of Second Temple Judaism; like the efforts by Gathercole, and Elliott.

Hope this helps!


TheBlueRaja said...


I think you're right about the fact readers can, and often do, miss the communicative interest of the text. You'll note that I put the role of story and narrative framework as one part, not the whole task, of interpretation. As Wright says, "The proof of the pudding is in the eating". The dialogue between micro (grammar, syntax, etc) and macro (narrative framework, thought world, etc.) is where understanding emerges. Wright often appeals to points of grammar and syntax as a guardrail for misinterpretation, and even critiques competing conceptions of Paul's narrative framework with exegetical arguments (see Climax of the Covenant, for example).

All of that to say it is a false dichotomy to pit Paul's narrative framework (not just "2nd Temple Judaism", which is only one influence in his understanding of Isarel's purpose, historical failure and prophetic destiny) against the results of exegesis. As we noted in our position paper, everyone seeks to draw up Paul's narrative framework from references to his historical background - the question is whether these conceptions are accurate or not (enter the work of those chaps Metalepsis mentioned). Testing that, says Wright, involves an evaluation of various features of a worldview, like symbols, praxis and story. Evaluating ancient texts is a huge part of that process. That doesn't mean you weight extrabiblical texts against biblical texts or allow for the fact that the Bible takes serious disagreement with rivalling conceptions of Israel, her mission, and God's election etc. But by evaluating the Biblical texts together with extrabiblical texts you can at least establish where the areas of continuity and discontinuity are.

I think its also important to note that tools for translation, such as grammars and lexicons betray our need of historical research in order to know the first thing about what these scratches on parchment mean. All of these tools that we use for exegesis draw upon extrabiblical resources in order to help establish the semantic range of words, phrases and idioms as defined by the usage during a period of time. It seems strange to object to Wright's historical method and at the same time advocate the priority of exegesis, since the resources used in exegesis depend upon these historical judgments. Obviously I'd say that this of taking extrabiblical texts as more important than the Bible can sensibly made by those who don't see the Bible as carrying any more authority for faith and practice than the content of other texts. But methodologically, in the practice of interpretation, there's no getting around the give and take between story and exegesis.

Important issues! Your worries are the furthest thing from "ignorant" - but I do think they fail to take into account the storied world of the NT you take into the text from your exegetical resources. The only difference between a lexical entry for "Law" and Wright's understanding of "Law" is that the lexicon has all of their historical work hidden away (as they should, since it's not a history book) while Wright has his exposed for critique.

Nate B. said...

Brian and Sharad,

These are helpful clarifications. Thank you.

I guess I'm still left asking, "Where is the line between allowing the larger narrative world to 'frame' the text, and falling prey to having the larger narrative world (or the interpreter's understanding of it) actually 'drive' our interpretation of the text?"

In my opinion, the first is helpful and necessary; the second is a betrayal of biblical authority.

Just thinking out loud,

TheBlueRaja said...

That's the rub, isn't it!? By way of an answer, I would at least want to say two things:

1) the narrative framework of an author isn't fatalistic or deterministic. An author can stand in various relations to it: he can coomend it, question it, subvert it, ammend it, modify it, redefine aspects of it, etc.

2) The proof of the pudding is in the eating! Does the text we're reading stand in radical anachronistic historical discontinuity with the world in which it was written? If so, something is probably wrong with your reading, or your evidence for such a radical discontinuity will have to be that much more overwhelming and compelling. Does the text makes sense within the cultural grammar of the day (even if it does contain genuinely original, perhaps even revolutionary differences with the popular consensus of the day)? These sorts of questions can highlight how the text can (and should) call into question ideas of the larger thought world of the text and revise your understanding of it.

The point is that critical realism advocates a dialectic, not hierarchical priority, between these two aspects of the text.

metalepsis said...


Yea, our historical reconstructions of Second Temple Judaism(s) are going to change, all good history is revisionist (we find new data, we unearth coins, we revise our knowledge). And Wright’s is not the only understanding of the Second Temple Period. But this should not scare you, using ‘Wright’s’ method does not necessitate you come to Wright’s conclusions. Exegesis is not like electrical engineering: input = output.

Something is always going to frame the text, the question is what are you going to frame the text with? If you think that historical context plays an important role in exegesis then I would argue that there is no difference between ‘framing’ and ‘driving’. We just can’t be dogmatic about our understanding of history (I would add our theology too), but always open to reformation.

I wonder if the ‘point of view’ gun in The Hitchhikers Guide can be used on texts?

TheBlueRaja said...

I should note that I made some of the pictures in this post links to resource pages, if you're interested!

TheBlueRaja said...

Wouldn't that imply authorial intention, Bryan?


metalepsis said...

No that would be hyperlinks!

TheBlueRaja said...


Dude, I was going for dyspeptic, not invective! I would point out, though, that coming to the text with the ethics of authorial intention in place is appropriate. I think that coming to the text with particular notions of "justice" that seem to prevail in more postmodern readings is the wrong way to go in that it seeks to discriminate in favor of the reader.

As for meaning being "in the text" I would point out my distinction between meaning being located in illocutionary action, not in semiotics.

As for the question of “Why do the most erudite, pious, intelligent and expert interpreters of scripture so rarely agree with one another?” Why is it that we never agree with anyone on what scripture means?", I think sensible answsers can be found without resorting to "hyperactive reading" (see this). Describing how different people disagree about what texts say is undoubtedly complex, but I can't help but see some drastic overstatement in the postmodern route.

Why do Don Carson, N.T. Wright, and Graham Stanton disagree on the interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount? And how are we, those of us who know much less than these experts supposed to adjudicate who is right? If these three leading scholars disagree, wouldn’t we have to know more than them in order to make an authoritative decision for or against their position? No small task!

You're of course right about the impossibility of approaching the text as a neutral observer, divesting yourself of all interests. But the idea that what follows from this is a limitless panoply of possible appropriate readings is unwarranted. Moreover it doesn't seem like a solution to read in whatever way engenders love, since, in that scheme, our readings would serve more as mirrors than gateways into an "other", which is the very essence of love (preoccupation with the interests of the other). More than that, as I think we've talked about elsewhere, it's not very clear how this could help to serve as a deciding factor in which interpretations we should adopt and which we shouldn't. I loved your treatment of Romans 1:18ff at ETS - but by what criteria could I read your paper and say "that clever guy is really on to something"?

By the way, my comment about authorial intention was in reference to your "point of view" gun that could be used on the text - just whose "point of view" would the text yield if the gun were to be aimed at it? None other than the author's, of course!

metalepsis said...

'Hypertext' too was meant as a joke, if I was clever I would have wrote hypertextuality.

I thought the text, after being shot, would all at once screech in an unintelligible cacophony?

metalepsis said...

I think somewhere in here is the ‘fallacy of the excluded middle’ see the lovely book by David H. Fischer . Is it either authorial intention or an anything goes pluralism?

You're of course right about the impossibility of approaching the text as a neutral observer, divesting yourself of all interests. But the idea that what follows from this is a limitless panoply of possible appropriate readings is unwarranted.

Thanks I like being right! I agree with you too.

I loved your treatment of Romans 1:18ff at ETS - but by what criteria could I read your paper and say "that clever guy is really on to something"?

Again thanks, and Yes; but I would not see my interpretation as the only possible interpretation, obviously I do my best to make my reading plausible, but I know there must be more going on in that text, and my reading is certainly from certain perspectives that limit my knowledge.

It could be the appropriation of Pomo; you see it as negative, where I see it as positive. You see it as an anything goes sort of anarchy, I see it as more grounded in perspectivism!

TheBlueRaja said...

I'm not sure if I'm understanding where you're coming from - you seem to advocate something more radical than critical realism, but in the midst of our discussions you seem to be basically advocating critical realism. Perspectivism? What do you mean by that? Help me out here: are you advocating a Nietzschean perspectivism, and if so, what's the difference between that and the radical indeterminacy I'm rejecting? How does the idea of individuals creating and forefully willing truth differ from anarchy?

If what you're ultimately saying that a person can genuinely approach an understanding of the truth through adequately mediated means, but never fully or exhaustively grasp it, how is what you're saying different from what I'm saying?

As for the fallacy of the excluded middle, I don't think that applies here. I'm not arguing that the reason to adopt authorial intention lies soley with the unwanted conclusions of it's only alternative, which is "anything goes" pluralism. I'm adopting authorial intention for all sorts of other reasons, not least because of the relationship between meaning and intention. Perhaps there is a way in which to preserve a singular meaning of the text without resorting to authorial intention - it wouldn't commend itself to me on that basis alone. The notion of authorial intention stands or falls on all kinds of other criteria than simply the consequences of adopting or rejecting it.

metalepsis said...

Indeed communication is not at all easy as it would appear, but I am glad that you are very patient and kind in your criticisms. I enjoy conversing with you, but I am not sure I can explain myself succinctly and yet clearly enough, but here goes:

I think my more critical realist remarks were merely an attempt to explain to Nate that being a ‘CR’ does not mean that you have to fall in line with Wright at all. So not that I think ‘CR’ approach is bunk, or anything like that, it is a very intriguing approach. If you are up for more reading on it check out Ben Meyer’s helpful book. The ‘CR’ approach totally blew me away when I first encountered it 4 years ago, it guided me away from a more positivistic view that we both despise!

If what you're ultimately saying that a person can genuinely approach an understanding of the truth through adequately mediated means, but never fully or exhaustively grasp it, how is what you're saying different from what I'm saying?

I think it is very close to what I am saying, however I would also add that the whole notion of asingle meaning residing safe within the text should be dispensed with. It seems to me that this is a relatively sane assumption, even if it is hard to swallow. My appeal to perspectivism then is to be actively open to different means of interpreting texts.

The fallacy of the excluded middle in which you are guilty of (and this we can be certain of), has nothing to do with the reasons you choose your position, but rather in the very rhetoric of ‘any thing goes pluralism’ vs the authorial intention. Your rhetoric implies that if you abandon authorial intention you are left with no faithful canons of interpretation, which is just untrue.

Check out Daniel Patte’s book which I noticed is priced at $0.63 used, and J.K.A. Smith’s book, which I think both offer a cohesive middle ground!

But then again I think you would nominally agree with these, and perhaps that was the point you were making with your post.

Anyway Peace bro!

TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks for those book recommendations, Bryan! They've been on my list and I shall try to check them out when I get a chance (I feel buried under the stack of books currently staring me down).

I think I see what you're saying about the "excluded middle" fallacy - i.e. there's a mediating position between authorial intention and "anything goes pluralism" that I'm neglecting. But the reason I said that this doesn't apply is because I don't think the idea of a "middle" view "between" these even makes sense. It would seem to imply a view that takes the best aspects of authorial intention and the best aspects of interpretive pluralism into one view. But I'm not holding to authorial intention as a way to maintain single meaning or as a way to reject interpretive pluralism.

However it may shake out in interpretation (single meanings, multiple meanings), I'm saying that the text stands as a monument to the author's intention. I can't see how there can be a "middle ground" with that view - either you think that it does, or you think that it doesn't. Whatever this means for single meaning isn't my concern here.

Moreover this view doesn't mean that the historical sense of the text is the only sense, but it does mean that the trajectory of the text's meaning(s) is set by the author's intention. So, do I think that our only alternatives are authorial intention or "anything goes pluralism"? No. But do I think that honoring the authorial intent is the only way to do justice to texts? Absolutely! That's why my criticisms weren't that Derrida, Rorty and Fish et. al. advocate an anything goes pluralism, but that they don't construe the text as a communicative action between the author and the reader. That's to fundamentally mistake the nature of texts, I think. So, while I do at one point mention the polar opposite pits that one may fall into (Enlightenment objectivity vs. relativistic nihilism), my answer wasn't to say that one must choose one of these. I wasn't setting up the alternative to authorial intention as "anything goes pluralism". I was setting advocating authorial intention in contrast to any view which does not see the text as fundamentally a comunicative action between writer and reader. That critique isn't a false dilemna, is it? So I don't think I'm guilty of the fallacy of the excluded middle, but help me out here! I don't have time to read another book at the moment!

As to my puzzlement at your position, it isn't in the "critical" part of it - I'm confident that you want to eschew the over-confident self-imposing tendencies of modernism. My confusion is over the "realism" part. You mentioned that my rhetoric implied that there are no canons of faithful interpretation if authorial intention is rejected. The confusion comes in when I try to answer the question, "Faithful to what?" Faithful to the text? What might that mean unless the text means something fairly determinate? Faithful to the author? You can' tmean that. Faithful to the reader? This is the cariacture you seem to want to avoid. Faithful to God, maybe? This is the one I think may be closest to your use of the word, though again, I'm not sure what that means. How does being faithful to God commend one interpretation instead of another?

In other words, under some circumstances you seem to want to say that the text means something, and we must allow it to criticize and shape our own understanding. This is a kind of realism. At other times you seem to want to say that the text doesn't determine meaning at all, and that it's meaning is defined by the reader, not the text. This is anti-realism.

But wait! Maybe this is a fallacy. Maybe I'm introducing a false dilemna! Perhaps there's an "excluded middle"!!! Maybe you're advocating a CRITICAL realism?!

TheBlueRaja said...

Hey Bryan, here's a chart to try and say what I was saying before more clearly. Don't take it as condescending, it's the only way I know how to explain what I'm saying without confusing myself. Of the following three diagrams, the first one makes sense to me, but the second and third don't.


Extreme A: single meaning

Mediating position: Bryan's View

Extreme B: anything goes pluralism


Extreme A: authorial intent

Mediating Position: Bryan's View

Extreme B: no authorial intent

This doesn't make sense because there isn't anything "in between" these two positions.


Extreme A: authorial intent

Mediating Position: Bryan's View

Extreme B: multiple meanings

This doesn't make sense because the extremes in option 3 don't belong on the same scale.

Does that make sense?

metalepsis said...

What if we have no access to the authors intention? No way of teasing it out of texts?

I am not trying to say that the authors intentions are meaningless, it just seems to me that we have a whole lot of texts that get fouled up because we think we know, for example what Paul was like (He usually ends up being one of us doesn't he).

I still don't know why we must start with authorial intention to have valid meaning.

what about dialogism in texts, like Job, what if Moses wrote Job as a drama, the charachters are fictions, are all the interpretations that based thier understanding on Job as the author now worthless. Or is there a narrative truth that is embedded in the text waiting to be teased out? What if the AI was just a good piece of drama, and it got incorporated into the Canon because it was co-opted by the Jews...

I wasn't trying to make any claims about realism, though I might have though the back door, I certianly didn't intent too.

I think words often mean things despite intentions, if my wife thinks I am being short with here becuase of something I said, even though I din't intend it to come across that way, I am still responcible.

Whatever, got to look after the chilluns, sorry if this is disjointed, i figure by this point it is just you and I reading this now!

TheBlueRaja said...

I know you're not trying to make claims about realism, and I'm not really interested in what you may have done by accident - I want to know what you're really trying to say!

So, you don't want to be a realist about textual meaning - texts don't have meanings. Is that right?

You don't think authorial intent is meaningless, but it's not a constituent of textual meaning. Or you think it is a constituent of textual meaning, but it's not recoverable?

Your example highlights what may be differences in how we're speaking of authorial intent. As I understand it (as per Vanhoozer), it's not a psychological state of mind as much as it is the communicative action of the text mediated in linguistic conventions. He may fail (as per your example), and he may be responsible for the perlocutionary effects (like if I yell "FIRE" in a crowded theater as a joke), but this doesn't mitigate the idea of intention. Intention speaks to what the author is doing in writing, not what he set out to do before he wrote.

I think it's important to answer the question, "If you're not trying to get at what the author is doing with these words, what are you doing? And if it's not possible to get at that, why are you doing it?"

These questions, and the ones I asked above, are what still vex me in trying to figure out how you're saying we should think about texts and interpretation.

TheBlueRaja said...

By the way, when I asked:

So, you don't want to be a realist about textual meaning - texts don't have meanings. Is that right?

Don't misconstrue that as a jab - it's a real question, like the others I asked.

What I meant was that you don't believe that texts have meanings in themselves. Is that right?

metalepsis said...

I suppose this won’t help but;

I think texts are multidimensional, and there are many possible coherent semantic possibilities that have the potential to ‘become’ the meaning of the text. I look for plausibility on a number of levels when I approach the text, but I can only look for plausibility through who I am; consequently a white male/ American/ trained in both America and Europe/ with a proclivity for iconoclasm, but also with an imperfect knowledge of history, literature, language, philosophy, etc.. I am open to listening to other interpreters, and while I may adjudicate these as wrong headed, bizarre, or insane; I can not be sure that they are 100% false. Thus I am open, at least I profess to be.

I don't think that texts come to us with a prepackaged meaning. But this does not necessitate that texts don’t communicate at all, nor does it have to follow that texts can not confront and change the reader, I think they can, they have too. But I can hold this all together with a sort of pragmatism, rather than coming up with a grand theory of how we interpret texts (I am pomo).

I think we play an important role in constituting meaning. And also humans are very good at interpretation, we do it all the time, (remember Rashomon I don’t know if this is a good example), and the interpretations we come up with are as diverse as people are.


metalepsis said...

Explain what a realist about textual meaning constitutes.

That last post is not the whole of what I think, I would say there is meanings in a text, if you can believe it.

HZ said...

At some level, doesn't all this reduce to something very simple? .... I don't quite know how to say the simple thing, but - perhaps that the Bible is the Word of God, and Christ is the Word? The Holy Spirit within us guides us into the knowledge of Christ. So the barely literate person at my new church (Iglesia Biblica de Padierna) very possibly knows God better than I do, though I know more about the Bible and (-though I know much less than everyone else here-) about the context of the Bible than she does. Ultimately isn't that the truth we are coming to in the word of God -- the person of Christ, the express image of the Father? Isn't it ultimately a relationship we are binding all of these texts into....? The simplicity of it all comes down to its being the revelation of a Person, revealed in the face of a Person, communicated by a Person. And the Persons are One. Not many. This is objectivity. This is the rule of meaning: a God who is not other than what He is. And because objectivity is a Person, I have as much possibility of comprehending the Word of God as someone way smarter, and way more informed about cultures, etc. Even as much as the barely literate woman at my church ?

Well I was inspired by something J.C. Ryle said about the guts to be simple.... It does seem that meaning being found in the Person of a self consistent God, and our approach to meaning being found in a relationship with a Person are very simple, and very key.

TheBlueRaja said...

Preach it, HZ - I don't think either Bryan or I would disagree! For my part, I'm trying to give an account for what I think is fairly intuitive - that texts have meanings independent of what we bring to them. That, incidentally, Bryan, is what I mean by "realism" with respect to texts.