Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Notes on Hermeneutics

What determines meaning? Sometimes we say that the meaning of an utterance is what someone means by it, as though the intention of a speaker determined meaning. Sometimes we say meaning in text as if meaning were the product of the language itself. Sometimes we say context is what determines meaning: to know what this particular utterance means, you have to look at the circumstances or the historical context in which it figures. Some critics claim that the meaning of text is the experience of the reader, intention, text, context, reader—what determines meaning?

A famous article called, “The Intentional Fallacy” argues that for literary works arguments about interpretation are not settled by consulting the author. The meaning of a work is not what the writer had in mind some moments during the composition of the work, or what the writer thinks the work means after it is finished, but rather, what he or she succeeded in embodying in the work."

Critics who defend the notion that intention determines meaning seem to fear that if we deny this, we place readers above authors and decree that anything goes in interpretation. But if you come up with an interpretation, you have to persuade others of its pertinence, or else it will be dismissed.

None of this is to say that author’s statements about a work have no interest: for many critical projects they are especially valuable, as texts to juxtapose with the text of the work. They may be crucial, for example, in analyzing the thought of an author or discussing the ways in which a work might have complicated or subverted an announced view or intention.

If we must adopt some overall principle or formula, we might say that meaning is determined by context, since context is boundless; there is no determining in advance what might count as relevant, what enlarging of context might be able to shift what we regard as the meaning of a text. Meaning is context-bound, but context is boundless.

Major shifts in the interpretation of literature brought about by theoretical discourses might, in fact, be thought of as the result of the widening or re-description of context.

Accounts of hermeneutics frequently distinguish a hermeneutics of recovery, which seeks the original context of production (the circumstances and intentions of the author and the meanings a text might have had for its original readers), from hermeneutics of suspicion, which seeks to expose the unexamined assumptions on which a text may rely (political, sexual, philosophical, linguistic). The first may celebrate the text and its author as it seeks to make an original message accessible to readers today, while the second is often said to deny the authority of the text. But these associations are not fixed and can well be reversed: a hermeneutics of recovery, in restricting the text to some supposedly original meaning remote from our concerns, may reduce its power, while hermeneutics of suspicion may value the text for the way in which, unbeknownst to its author, it engages and helps us to rethink issues of moment today (perhaps subverting assumptions of its author in the process).

More pertinent that thins distinction may be a distinction between (1) interpretation which takes the text, in its functioning, to have something valuable to say (this might be either reconstructive or suspicious hermeneutics) and (2) ‘symptomatic’ interpretation which treats the text as the symptom of something non-textual, something supposedly ‘deeper,’ which is real source of interest. Symptomatic interpretation neglects the specificity of the object—it is a sign of something else—and so is not very satisfying as a mode of interpretation, but when it focuses on the cultural practice of which the work in an instance, it can be useful to an account of that practice.

Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford U Press: New York, 1997.

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