Category Archives: Hermeneutics

What I Tell You Three Times Is True

Quadriga Nothing will protect you from interpretive error. No way of reading will ensure that you’ve understood or implemented the text correctly. You can, however, increase the likelihood of a sound or commendable interpretation in a number of ways. Most of them boil down to “loving what you’re interpreting so much that you willingly, eagerly, seek out more and more aspects and dimensions of the text” (here, “the text” meaning in the principal case “the Bible”, but more generally “whatever you’re interpreting, whether a gesture, a pastry, a painting, a film, a poem, whatever). When I was a kid, I so loved baseball that I wanted to understand it inside out. I played some — as well as my athletic gifts permitted, which mostly meant “throwing a tennis ball against the strike zone chalked on the outside wall of the gym while pretending I was pitching for the Orioles,” although there was also a catastrophic year of Little League. I attended baseball camp and was advised by coaches and sometimes real baseball players (!!). I watched a lot of ball games. I studied baseball history. I analysed baseball, in the way one did before the advent of sabermetrics. I played, devised, refined, and played again a series of baseball simulations. I understood a lot about baseball from exploring, considering, studying, trying (and failing), and keeping at it. In no way was my understanding definitively correct, but my interpretations of baseball depended on specific reasons I could cite and explain.

Likewise my understanding of the Bible has been enhanced by study of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, by learning about the ways that generations of readers have construed it, by observing ways that artists have represented it, by observing and participating in the organised practice of shaping community life more closely to reflect what we read therein, and so on. If I were to say, “I love baseball, but I hate mathematical analysis of it” (as many people do), one could make a plausible case that my appreciation of baseball was limited by that disavowal. Likewise, if I were to say that I love the Bible, but only in the way that the churches have received it over the millennia — not in the light of what we may for heuristic purposes call disinterested historical analysis — we provide a prima facie reason for an observer to think our love of the Bible is limited, and we as much as admit that our understanding of the Bible is limited, too. In the end, some dimensions of the text and its interpretation will matter more to us for particular purposes and in particular settings. The rules of baseball are not especially fascinating as literary prose, but understanding and applying them carefully requires thorough study. One can certainly say “The baseball rules are dull as dishwater” while at the same time endeavouring conscientiously to make sure that a baseball game is played in compliance with those rules. One can even propose a poetic reading of the rules that brings out the admirable geometry of the physical dimensions of the playing field (nonetheless subject to variation in the pattern of the outfield walls and the proximity of the stands to the field), the rhetoric of reticence which studiously recoils from identifying a player or team by name, the force of the repetitive invocation of earlier rules in the later stages of the nomothetic corpus — but I doubt such an endeavour would win assent from many readers. Your poetry teacher, the ardent baseball fans among more than a hundred years of literary appreciation of baseball, and current audiences all would agree that your ardour for the poetics of the Official Baseball Rules was misplaced, and that your high estimate of their poetic qualities was erroneous. Although nothing will protect us from interpretive error, the best way to minimise the likelihood that we stray from sound interpretation into outlandish folly requires us earnestly to seek out as much as we can learn about the texts we care for, and to consider them on their merits, in consultation with other learners, with broad horizons of possibility, and articulate our interpretations carefully.

On Meaning, the all-in-one page


Once In A Lifetime

Quadriga You may ask yourself — Why is this guy trying to hard, in so many ways, to disabuse us readers of the notion that there subsists a “meaning” as a property of a text, such that we correctly interpret that text by replicating as closely as possible the text’s subsistent meaning? This is not my beautiful text! This is not my beautiful meaning! You may ask yourself, but if you ask me I’ll reply, “Only when we recuperate from the misplaced premise of subsistent meaning can the innumerable benefits of taking an alternative approach come into clear focus. Only when we realise that we’ve been managing perfectly well without subsistent meaning can we see how much better we get along without that distraction.”

Once you accept the possibility that the extremely powerful consensus of language-users accounts sufficiently for success in linguistic communication (apart from any subsistent meaning) and, indeed, accounts much better for linguistic change and other phenomena, myriad implications crowd to mind. To take one example (one I used in my essay for Yale Div School’s Reflections), one can make the sound argument that the wisest interpretation of the Matthean Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats is not for an ageing white academic to write an article about the nature of parables, whether the sheep, goats, and recipients of charity are Gentiles, disciples, or any other group, but rather simply to go out and offer a meal to a hungry person. The practiced interpretation does not eclipse or invalidate the technical interpretation — and I’ll continue pursuing the more academic kind anyway, cos I just am that way — but discerning the meaning and applying the meaning aren’t necessarily separate processes. Moreover — and here we touch on a residual comfort of conventional subsistent-meaning hermeneutics — one can arrive at practiced interpretations clumsily, misguidedly, wrongly; but the same applies, as it turns out, to technical exegetical interpretation, and separating the latter out as the primary function of interpretation hasn’t demonstrably diminished the amount on interpretive “error” in churches and culture. It is more complicated than that — as is interpretation-as-practice — and neither exegetical diligence nor practical activism precludes the possibility of error. Nothing will protect you from error, or insure that you have the right interpretation that will authorise you to compel others to abide by your (that is, “the Bible’s”) command.

On Meaning, the all-in-one page


Dis-Coding Interpretation

Quadriga At this point — having catalogued the reasons for recuperating from the immanent-meaning hermeneutics of conventional interpretive discourses — we can better see the problems concerning “application” or about interpreting non-linguistic expression as problems that arise from taking an approach that works adequately for one particular interpretive practice and deploying it not only as a canonical method for other interpretive practices, but treating it as the authoritative approach. Thee’s nothing whatsoever wrong with looking for verbal equivalents, guided by authorial intention, when pursuing certain distinct ends. But that conventional approach misfires, stalls, falters and projects its own maladaptation onto practitioners and texts when brought to bear on non-linguistic expressions.

Linguistics scholars versed in relevance theory point to this as a breakdown of the “code metaphor”, the latent assumption that verbal (and often non-verbal expressions as well) expressions can be mapped one-to-one onto “interpretations,” in the way that a coded message can be decrypted by the methodical application of the correct process. (My paper “A Code in the Head” from the SBL a couple of years ago, which I cleverly posted over at instead of here, addresses this in more detail.) To repeat: rather than decrypting expressions according to “real meaning”, we venture attempts at apprehension, exchanging responses until we arrive at a mutually-agreeable state of satisfaction (or dissatisfaction). Relevance theory’s extremely convincing descriptive insights illuminate the aporias that arise from embedding the code metaphor into our interpretive assumptions. It goes awry when its practitioners go forward from there to treat relevance theory’s maxims as something close to a prescriptive regimen for interpretation (just as speech-act theory helpfully describes what usually goes on in communication, but goes catty-wumpus when it assumes prescriptive authority over interpretation). Sans code, however, we do our best to apprehend the rationale and import of an expression, and respond thereunto in the way that best expresses our understanding of the expression (utterance, gesture, composition, whatever) in view.

On Meaning, the all-in-one page


All In One

If you’re interested — bless your heart — in reading all the two-paragraph bits I’m writing about hermeneutics, I’ve compiled them into a WordPress page, with links out to the comments for each particular segment. The whole thing doesn’t flow as smoothly as I’d wish, but if I were to write this for publication I would iron out the wrinkles. It’s starting to get long, considering I only write two paragraphs at a time, but over the course of a few weeks all those paragraphs add up. Anyway, the “On Meaning” link in the “Pages” bar above will take you to the “the story up to now” page.

Translated Literally Really Means

Quadriga Finally, I hope, with regard to “literal”, as Bryan Bibb has been insisting, the literal-paraphrase equivalence spectrum as it applies to translation theory doesn’t hold water. Translation, as a fundamental interpretive act, partakes always of the metaphorical and literal both, and the translator’s taste, intuition, audience, fluency, imagination, and so on all affect questions of the success of a translation. However powerfully one may prefer one translation style or another, however good one’s reasons, there will not be an intrinsically “correct” or even “better” way of translating. The right way to translate is to learn the source language — but that renders translation otiose. Just as there is no “really means”, no “intrinsic meaning”, no objective, no ideologically innocent meaning, so there is no intrinsically good, bad, right, or wrong translation.

We can assess translations based on various criteria, but (again, as Bryan points out) these always interweave with political, ideological, theological, and other considerations. The best English translation for low-complexity readers may be Good News For Modern Man; the best translation for a conservative traditionalist independent church might be the King James Version (the best designation of which may be the KJV or the Authorised Version); a “progressive” congregation may choose to read from The Scholars Version. I might criticise each of those choices, but much of the force of my criticism would be blunted by the ideological differences between me and the audiences that adopt these different translations. In exasperation, as a shorthand, I may expostulate that the Scholars Version is just a bad translation, but the force of my rant remains that it’s a translation for which I’m not a fitting audience.

Of course, many times translators, audiences, and critics have in view a sort of maximal audience — an audience that wants very broadly sound semantic and syntactical judgments, fluent apprehension of both the source and target languages, and attentive appreciation of the source culture and its differences from the target culture. In those cases, arguments about good and bad have traction (though they’re still bounded by the explicit and latent assumptions of the author, translator, critic, and audience); but a great many of the remaining arguments boil down to arguments concerning taste. The “de gustibus” maxim does not cover this quite correctly, but it does point toward the difficulty and intractability of such arguments, arguments that we cannot expect to resolve on the basis of loud claims about the “real meaning,” the “literal sense,” or “objectivity.”

Three paragraphs. So sue me.


Out Of Place

Quadriga I beg your patience — I have fallen victim to a side effect of writing two paragraphs a day, namely, that I forgot one day what on the previous day I had anticipated writing next. I meant to wrap up my literal/metaphorical screed with the following two paragraphs (at least, I hope it turns out only to be two).

Since the categories of “literal” and “metaphorical” don’t work in a straightforward way, we should be doubly suspicious about claims that that certain people do or do not read the Bible “literally.” Interpreters have long perceived one of the obvious hitches in this phenomenon — that certain elements of the Bible apparently ought not be taken literally (parables, for instance) — and have decreed that in some cases, the “literal” sense of the text is itself metaphorical. That provides a rickety, but viable, work-around, but it’s also a strong hint that the literal/metaphorical distinction entails significant conundrums. We need not restrict ouselves to abstract discussions of hermeneutical axioms, though; the plain, observable fact is that even interpreters who try to read the “literally,” for whom “literalness” marks their very public identity, do not in fact read the Bible literally. The principle of inerrancy trumps the principle of literalness, and in order to make every detail (including eschatological events that haven’t yet happened, as far as I know) warrantably correct, they construe apparently plain discourse in figurative, indirect, “symbolic” ways.*

I’m not so worried here about eschatological figures, though, as I am concerned about accusations of “literalism” (directed against conservative interpreters) and “only just a metaphor” (directed against “liberal” interpreters). When one group decries same-sex intercourse, their detractors accuse them of literalism; but those same detractors often enough proclaim that they favour feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting prisoners, and so on. And similarly, when the apparent literal sense of a biblical text suggests something scandalous or unworthy about God or David or Jesus, some interpreters quickly find an indirect way of construing that passage — while others jump on it with glee, suggesting that the God whom Jews and Christians worship is a bloodythirsty, misogynistic sadist. Neither “literal” nor “metaphorical” effectively designates a consistent hermeneutical strategy. As readers, [almost] everyone needs to take some stuff “literally” and some stuff “figuratively” — but “More literal than those other guys” or “We only take the ideologically-acceptable stuff literally” don’t sell the product.

* Pointer here to Fred Clark, whose dogged work on the Left Behind series has turned up instance after instance of a situations in which a “literal” interpretation of the Bible depends on non-literal interpretive work.

Oh, phooey, I just thought of a way that “literal” stuff warrants at least another two paragraphs.


Spaceless Meaning

Quadriga So if interpreting a text amounts to a sort of recipe in which a main ingredient is complemented, accompanied, enhanced by seasonings and cooking, one of the hoary tropes of interpretive discourse goes by the boards: namely, “the world of the text, the world behind the text, and the world in front of the text.” And I won’t miss it when it’s gone. It does appear to make sense at first, but if one takes it at all seriously, the trope’s utility rapidly dwindles and disappears. Same with “text as window, text as mirror” (and I always want to add “text as picture plane”). There’s no interpretive “behind” to a text, no “in front,” only an expression and the amplificatory adjuncts we use to complete a palatable interpretation. (No one eats their texts raw.)

What makes “the world behind the text” refer to a social, material, cultural gestalt (a “world”) different than “looking at a text in the contexts of social conventions, archaeological artefacts, and identifiable contemporary presuppositions”? Someone will say, “Don’t be such a grouch, it’s a heuristic pedagogical device!”, a mind-map for considering the relation of various interpretive regimes to the expression. Why then “behind”/“in front”? Why not “a pie of interpretive interests: some in the northwest of the compass, some in the south, some east-north-east”? My objection is not to using figures to facilitate understanding — but to reifying those models and using them sub rosa to enforce particular priorities and necessities. The “world behind the text” becomes a “real world” or a privileged originary setting; the “world in front of the text” becomes the reader’s world, distinct from and opposite to the pastness of the “behind.” The self-conscious readerly reader, though, is no more involved in discerning meaning than the self-abnegating historicist. Everyone in this game is looking at an expression, adding context until satisfied, and offering the result for social approbation. The best interpretations (by my lights, and probably by yours) involve reasoned culinary supplementation and preparation, not just “Aw, let’s just throw some spinach, clams, marmalade, and tarragon into the oven at 450° and see what it’s like after thirty-five minutes.” Culinary styles can be aggregated into schools and families, but medieval European cuisine isn’t intrinsically superior to Asian fusion. Expressions, additional information, interpretive approaches, bingo! And no “behind” or “in front.”


Splitting, Lumping, And More

Quadriga If we don’t think about interpretation as decoding an encrypted meaning intrinsic to a particular expression, what do I propose that we think about interpretive processes (and especially the hard kind of interpretation, where we’re genuinely puzzled by an expression about which we care)? First, when we’re trying to puzzle out an interpretation we want to, try to, learn more about that expression. We accumulate some data about the expression and about features of the expression that seem salient to us based on our histories of successful interpretation. Very often we hark back to the question of what somebody wanted us to apprehend from an expression, asking “What did she mean?” and imitating Sherlock Holmes or the CSI team, searching for clues. At other times we put less emphasis on intention (for good enough reasons), but here I submit that our cardinal activity involves digging, researching, musing, parsing, seeking — wanting more information about the expression in the expectation that when we know more about it, we will perceive how best to interpret the expression in question.

Second — granted that we’ve turned up additional information of various sorts — we pursue a variety of activities that (ideally) help us to identify a satisfying paradigm for interpreting the expression in question. We analyse the expression, breaking it down into smaller bits; we correlate it, identifying it as a single example of a larger body of known data; we aggregate it, associating it as one data point in a greater field, which might be differentially weighted and assessed; and sometimes we explode it, project from it to fields and possibilities defined less by data already in hand than by hypotheticals we imagine on the basis of the expression. These are very rough and ready distinctions — I’ve already forgotten one or two, and I’ve changed the way I describe these even as I’m typing, so I’m sure I’m wrong about some of this and you can help me do it better — but they serve the heuristic purpose of underscoring that (for instance) looking a word up in a dictionary, or trying to remember why a saint might be depicted with a square halo, or other such activities differ from identifying an expression as a parable, or a devotional icon, or a delicious bowl of lentil soup; how saying that “All Cretans are liars” differs from “Very often, Cretans have lied to me and my family, although not always, so I will not instantly give credence (nor disbelieve) what this Cretan tells me.” And all these differ from “This soup discloses the future destiny of humankind,” or “I like to think that this is about times like when I just can’t get my necktie properly tied.” We dig up more interpretive materials, then by deliberation arrive at the most satisfactory ordering of “expression plus relevant additional considerations” we can find.


Meaning and Differences

Quadriga On the premises I’ve been developing (and, I fear, repeating) here, we anticipate correctly that there will be no exact outcomes for interpretation — that when Rembrandt interprets the parable of the Good Samaritan, his painting will look different from the Chagall’s depiction in stained glass.

The Good Samaritan paying the innkeeper for the upkeep of the traveler
Chagall's stained-glass window incorporating scenes from the Good Samaritan

And not solely because they were working in different media — each of these interpreters wants us to focus on, to recognise different aspects of the story. Interpretive difference isn’t a problem, it’s an inevitable reflection of the profound differences that attend (and make up) our motivations, our audiences, our cultures, our capacities, our experiences, our media, and so on. The same principle applies to interpretive difference in linguistic interpretation; we stumble into the dead end of struggling for interpretive homogeneity from the extent to which we can align our linguistic interpretive interests into disciplines and practices that, when accorded effectual power in temporal affairs, upholds their own premises, axioms, methods, and so on as necessary, solely legitimate.

We can essay relative assessments of Rembrandt and Chagall just as easily as we can compare and evaluate Hans Conzelmann and Kavin Rowe — and just as easily as we can compare the interpretations of the Good Samaritan implicit in two government policy statements, or by the simple gestures of pedestrians who approach (and pass, or not) somebody curled up on the pavement. However insightful Rowe’s interpretive work on Luke’s Gospel, one oughtn’t imagine that he has more truly articulated its meaning than has a sympathetic passer-by who accompanies an injured man to a surgery, or an artist who produces a luminous window. If we bracket the impulse to treat interpretation as a zero-sum death match between muscular scholars struggling for domination, we can advance toward interpretive practices that both comport better with difference and afford ample space for articulating reasons for considering one better than another (by specific criteria).


Ephemeral Interpretations

QuadrigaOne last point that helps make my transition away from the literal/metaphorical distinction to the continuous interweaving of particular expressions in divers expressive modes: Even the most apparently nakedly verbal expressions entail inflections of appearance, tone, style that destabilise the question of whether they are “literal” (or even what “literal” means in such situations). To deploy an example I’ve used in other contexts, the same text represented differently must be allowed to mean differently:


Likewise, imagine the words “Yeah, sure, Mom!” spoken by an eager-to-please eight-year-old child and the same words spoken by a sullen teenager. A focus solely on the words of an expression can never attain the goal of a definitive account of what it means, no matter how determined and expert the researcher. Even if a researcher had access to the original verbal expression — and the idea of “original” in this context is itself intensely problematic — that researcher could never determine just what Snell Roundhand or Comic Sans “means,” what the aural notes of the spoken filial response “mean.”

When discussing and evaluating interpretations, the terminology of “correct” and “incorrect,” “really means” or “doesn’t mean” or “can’t mean” or “has to be understood as” or any of these arm-twisting expressions betrays a category mistake about the activity and goal of interpretation. We can always propose better or worse interpretations (and in specific circumstances these can casually but never rigorously be conveyed by “right” or “wrong”), and we can give reasons for our discernments — that’s it. The willed determination to squeeze “right” and “wrong” into the interpretation of verbal texts arises not out of an feature of textuality, but out of the interpreters’ desire to enforce their judgments upon others, to authorise binding inclusions and exclusions, to extract particular judgments from the to and fro of inevitable historical change and install them as idols of the technical cult.


Literal Pizza

Quadriga About six weeks ago I pushed my argument against the categories of “literal” and “metaphorical” again, and in the next two paragraphs I’ll take another pair of small steps. In between then and now I’ve marked a great many exam scripts, recuperated from marking exam scripts, and gradually brought my brain back to focusing on scholarly pursuits. I regret falling off the blog habit, but there we are. To resume from where I left off: “Symbols and metaphors work not because of mystical linguistic properties, but they work in the same way that literal language works.” Readers encounter familiar and unfamiliar words, consider what best accounts for their combination in this context, and ascribe that meaning to the the expression in question. Now, back to the flow of my previous chains of paragraphs.

Rather than reifying “literal” and “metaphorical” as categories (or abandoning the notions altogether, per impossible), we understands the world better by treating expressions as more or less direct, perhaps, or obvious; or we can contrast “prosaic” with “poetic.” Such a gesture may appear superficial, a scrim of hermeneutical exactitude covering exactly the same discourses as before, but (to my mind) they serve helpfully to remind us that when we try to apply the “literal”/“metaphorical” dichotomy to other instances from the more general phenomenon of expression — let’s say “dance” and “baking” — it’s easy to see that they categories don’t work well. Some dance more closely simulates narratives and themes that it appears to depict, and other dance defies assimilation to such a schema. Some cooked foods involve the careful preparation of particular edible items without particular transformation (I’m partial to lightly stir-fried broccoli, for example) and other foods are prepared to resemble, or taste like, or suggest, other foods or inedible items or themes. That doesn’t make a medium rare steak more literal than a pizza whose ingredients are laid out in the configuration of a human face, or sushi made to resemble Ewoks (no, I’m not kidding).

We operate with a literal/metaphorical distinction in language because language offers a degree of conventional precision in expression that we find it convenient to deploy terms that point toward particular patterns of usage. Since no one’s going to mistake seaweed-wrapped rice for adorable short furry aliens from a Star Wars film, we don’t need to make that distinction. We struggle in graphic arts, working with the distinction between representational (or “photo-realistic”) and non-representational or abstract; likewise, even less successfully, in music. Instead of trying to force other expressive modes onto the Procrustean bed of linguistic precision (a precision that nonetheless falls short of what its partisans ask of it), we do better to recognise language as an atypical instance of expression, letting our expectations of language to begin from (and continue some of the imprecisions of) music, sculpture, cookery, and painting. Some verbal expressions are more evocative and indirect; some are more plain and obvious. And that’s OK, and it doesn’t require us to multiply entities.


Metaphorically Literal

Quadriga Ages ago — the last time I blogged a two-paragraph hermeneutics post — I opened the case that the familiar distinction between literal and figurative (and its relatives “metaphorical” and especially “symbolic”) should be abandoned. Of course, the terms do very well for casual and heuristic purposes. I’m not in the least suggesting that we can’t say “No, I meant a literal brick wall” or “Donne’s use of metaphor sets him apart from his contemporaries.” The heuristic usefulness of the terms, however, does not warrant reifying the distinction nor extending it from a useful tool to a pair of ontological categories.

Symbols and metaphors work not because of mystical linguistic properties, but they work in the same way that literal language works. Where “literal” expressions rely on utterly familiar, unambiguously conventional usage, “metaphorical” language slides the usage from “quite predictable” further toward “unusual” (that could be as slight a difference as using a less common “literal” word or phrase) to “rather unconventional” (a word or phrase for which established patterns of usage haven’t worn a clear enough path to warrant calling the usage “literal” at all) to perplexing (“Is that a metaphor, or is she just talking nonsense?”). [I have two digressions to mark here, before I resume my second paragraph. First, yes, this is straight out of Nietzsche and Derrida, among others. As I said the other day, I’m not claiming to have invented this. Second, the relation between “metaphorical” and “nonsensical” warrants my exploring, too. Just not here.] In other words, metaphor isn’t an abuse of language, or a woo-woo special use of language: it’s a gamble on the part of the offerer (composer, artist, writer, speaker, whatever) that some portion of those who receive the expression will twig to the oblique association that the offerer envisions between the metaphorical phrase and what would be its ordinary, everyday, who-he-is-when-he’s-at-home “literal” usage. Sometimes those gambles don’t work out. Sometimes the oblique offering generates a rich field that includes unanticipated. But in the hands of a capable communicator, the choice of a less-than-obvious offering (be it linguistic or musical or a piquant combination of flavours) actually communicates very effectively indeed.