Category Archives: Hermeneutics

Here’s the Thing

QuadrigaIt’s been a long week of marking and revising and meeting and saying Masses and leading classes, so I’m allotting myself more than two paragraphs (if I want them — we’ll see how this turns out) to point to an oblique aspect of my hermeneutical proposal.

First, I acknowledge that this hermeneutic of offering-and-uptake risks undermining some deeply-help theological convictions about biblical inspiration on one hand, and the significance of a theology of the Word on another. Probably some third and fourth hands, too, but those two come to mind right away after years of gentle arguing and intense discussing with unconvinced sisters and brothers. Add to those factors the human inclination to resist destabilising changes, and I can understand a number of powerful reasons for doubting, or simply ignoring, the work I’ve done. (I don’t understand quite so well when people who have read, and reviewed, my work write essays that make points similar to my own, without mentioning my prior art; but I am small-minded that way, and if I wanted you to think I’m humbler than I really am I wouldn’t mention this.)

But here’s the thing: even if you want to uphold your unwavering commitment to a hermeneutic of subsistent meaning, of the unique semantic capacities of linguistic communication, of the objective and unchanging meaning of The Word — even if you’re set on all those fronts, and your hermeneutics have to work around the aporias these premises raise for you, you can look at meaning from the perspective I commend to you on an ad hoc basis. If you want to understand misunderstanding better (and I insist that if your hermeneutics can’t explain misunderstanding, you’re in a very bad spot), or if you want to understand the relation of verbal to gestural or artistic or musical expression, or if you want to understand how the catholic tradition could flourish without insisting on texts having single determinate meanings, or any of a variety of other issues, you can just pick up my gesture-and-inference hermeneutics for the short term and put it back down once you’ve resolved your conundrum. “This approach to interpretation explains the role of gestures in pastoral communication, but of course it fails to honour what we know to be necessary about linguistic communication, so it can’t provide a comprehensive angle of insight into biblical hermeneutics.” That’s OK with me, and it might be of help to you.

I have referred to this as “my” hermeneutic several times here (and probably in earlier posts as well). I don’t mean by that to imply that I thought this up and that I, the lonely genius of hermeneutics, lay claim to a discovery or a proprietary priority in this. I’m constantly embarrassed by how much this work draws on the authors in the syllabus of my imagination for instance. I constantly reread a favourite essay or book and realise that it makes one of the points that I feel obligated to drive home myself. So, let it be said firmly and emphatically, this is not original to me: Augustine, Thomas, Nietzsche, Peirce, Magritte, Wittgenstein, Goodman, Barthes, Derrida, Kermode, Fish, and numerous comrades have done the heavy lifting on all these issues. I’m only reminding people about what their work may add up to.

I don’t insist that anyone buy these wares in a single vast lump. Pick them up, use them for what they’re good for, put them down again. So far as I can tell, if using these ideas becomes habitual to you, you may find that the whole megillah is a more viable basis for hermeneutics than you thought before; that’s how I got here. But if you aren’t satisfied with the conventional dictum about meaning and application, or the necessity of historical criticism, or single determinate meaning, or whatever, this work may help you out.

And very soon I’ll return to my abolition of the “literal” and “symbolic.”

Exit the Symbolic

Quadriga If you’ve been following along more or less agreeably, you’ve assented to a number of very powerful points. You are on board with my characterisation of words as an extraordinary but highly atypical (hence, at risk of misleading) mode for expression and apprehension. You have allowed me the notion that any verbal mode of expression involves a great deal more than words alone, and it’s not that rare an event when words are among the less important elements of the semiotic economy. Of course, most importantly, you’re allowing me to proceed on the premise that meaning is not a quality inherent in any expressive gesture, but is a way of talking about the process of offering and uptake.

Now I’ll suggest something more contrary even than what I’ve been saying before: namely, that the distinction between “literal” and any alternative (“symbolic” or “figurative”. Or “spiritual”, for starters) confuses more than it clarifies, and should be abandoned. The principal uses of “literal” in polemical discourse all construct false differences, and many of the uses of “literal” in constructive discourse mystify the interaction they’re being used to advance. Although there are certainly innocuous ways to talk about the “literal” and its alternatives, the innocuous uses begin when the theoretician can say at the outset that this is just a heuristic distinction with no effectual purchase on words or reality. Where dominant discourses of meaning propose a distinction between “literal meaning” and “metaphorical meaning“, we should think instead in terms of more and less familiar (“conventional”, “probable”, “ordinary”) usage. Un-reifying the “literal” and “symbolic” clarifies quite a bit in our interpretive discourse, but that would take me beyond my two-paragraph-per-day limit.


Seasonal Hermeneutics

Quadriga On an “offering-uptake” model for hermeneutics, the hermeneutical problem becomes a problem of information design, an exercise in communicative strategy and tactics. Your communicative expression unfolds not solely in the words you choose (though those remain very important), but in the inflection with which you express those words, the gestures that accompany them, and so on. If you want to convey to your mother that you care for her, deeply and sincerely, and that you thank her for her maternal ministrations — then you probably oughtn’t to say, with a snarl, “Happy Mother’s Day, MOM.” (I do know at least one person who might well take that positively, though.)

That points to the variability of reception; your mother might be wounded by a snarky-sounding Mother’s Day greeting, whereas someone else’s mother might think that was just exactly the correct way to negotiate the complexities of expressing a threadbare sentiment in a hypercommercialised environment: “I’m supposed to say ‘Happy Mother’s Day,’ but if I just utter those words, they won’t effectively differentiate my greeting from the facile, cloying slogans on mass-marketed notecards; so I’ll pitch my voice to convey the sense that I’m only speaking out of a sense of obligation, and my hip mother with a lot of attitude will pick up the honest affection and respect that motivates me to speak.” The phrase “Happy Mother’s Day, Mom” can’t simply have intrinsic meaning; its force depends on how it is expressed, and on who is offering the expression, and to whom it is addressed, and so on. The words are only a small part of the interaction; the power of the gesture engages a whole congeries of modes and elements, and constructing a satisfactory Mother’s Day greeting requires one to consider information design (what to include, how to indicate emphasis or to cue particular types of response, how the anticipated audience is likely to apprehend the offered information, and so on), skill at putting that planned design into effect, good timing, and favourable contingent circumstances. Not. Just. Words.


Seeing It Opposite-wise

Quadriga Up to now, we’ve been moving from non-verbal, non-glyphic communicative modes and trying to see how verbal communication functions as a remarkable, powerful, precise extension of gestural, visual, aural (etc.) expression and apprehension. As gestures, sigla, tones, even patterns of smell and texture become familiar and eventually routinised with very particular associations and expectations, so verbal expression draws on intensely formalised associations and expectations to lead auditor-readers to reach particular interpretative inferences. But Chris Spinks’s recent blog reminds me that my expression-apprehension hermeneutic leads to an equally powerful insight in another direction.

Chris cites the example of the photo of a coathook which looks distinctly like a cockeyed pugilistic octopus once that interpretation has been suggested (original source seems to be lost to the wave of online replications; perhaps this is it, as noted by Reddit in 2010). Chris suspects rightly that this sort of phenomenon stands to shed some light on the hermeneutical puzzles that have long been bothering him, and it’s just the sort of “not from within our discipline” exploration from which these two-paragraph essays emerge. Once you see that “Dans un tableau, les mots sont de la même substance que les images”/“In a picture, the words are made of the same stuff as the images”,

a great many other things come clear as well (from the Magritte section in the Beautiful Theology blog). We communicate via all manner of gestures, sounds, images, scents, touches, and more; words are at an extreme of this repertoire, an outlying data point, but they’re not sui generis. And once you get accustomed to thinking of interpretive activity in terms of expression and apprehension, of gesture and inference, or offering and uptake, a great deal of what puzzles Chris looks much less mysterious.


Where Meaning Stands

Quadriga Rules do not prevent bad interpretations. No one really supposes that they do, I hope; do we imagine a scene in which Dan Brown considers writing a megablockbuster novel, but then realises that his interpretive background for the novel and its claims that “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate” were arrant poppycock, and so realises he simply can’t publish the novel. No one thinks there are sessions at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature at which a panelist jumps up and silences an interlocutor by saying “But you’ve broken this rule of interpretation.” Moreover, what would these “rules” be, and how did they come into effect? Before the interpretive rule, was misinterpretation not reckoned? Do interpretive rules govern everyone, or only those who assent to them (and if they don’t govern everyone, of just what use are they)?

The short answer to these question dodges their specifics, and gets straight to the heart of the matter: interpretive rules have [at least] two functions, one creditable, and one disreputable. The creditable use of interpretive rules sets them out as a guideline for the learner, or as an internal criterion for a more experienced interpreter. We don’t learn about interpretation all in one go, in a moment of blinding insight, and interpretive rules help us make our way from “whatever I feel like” toward “what makes sense to the people around me.” Such use of interpretive rules serves as a shorthand for “We resolve this sort of semantic or semiotic confusion according to that principle.” The disreputable reason for wanting interpretive rules is so that one can control interpretation. In the long run, this never works, but in the short run it can function to silence obstreperous dissenters. If it really worked, you would probably never have heard of Dan Brown.


Semiotic Economies

Quadriga Observe the consequences of the few paragraphs we’ve walked through. Granted that there’s no subsistent “meaning”, and granted that verbal meaning is an atypical instance of the more general phenomenon of expression and inference, I submit that words in verbal communication function in the same way as gestures do in the frantically-mimed communication of someone who has just bit his tongue (for instance); there is no single exact right meaning to them. One may propose an indefinite number of meanings, depending on one’s interests. A psychoanalyst listens to your speech with specific interest to things that you are not saying, to things that you didn’t intend to say, on the basis of which she quite justly says “The meaning of these omissions and those unintended slips is….” Her assertion is not simply the assertion of a personal preference for viewing your slips and evasions in a particular way; you are both participants in a semiotic economy in which slips and evasions constitute an intelligible basis for interpretive inference.

“So can anything means anything? Are there no boundaries?” This question crops up all the time. Now, we know two things from the start: First, and this is important, we know full well that anybody can say “X means Y” no matter how daft we may think that assertion. At the same time, second, no assertion about meaning stands on its own; under most circumstances, such assertions carry the unstated subtext “In the semiotic economy of psychoanalysis…” or “Among all speakers of more-or-less standard English…” or “Assuming the speaker knew the word’s usual semantic range…”. Since those qualifying subtexts almost always remain tacit, though, it’s easy for people to mismatch assumed qualifications (“I thought we were talking about our relationship, and she thought we were talking about welfare policy”). Sometimes speakers deliberately operate with asymmetrical assumptions (psychotherapy again, for instance). And sometimes we deliberately interpret statements from one (presumed) semiotic economy in terms of another. But — and this is the key issue — no interpretive mandate can prospectively regulate the interpretations someone offers. (I’ve written about this before, in “Twisting To Destruction”; interpretive rules can function descriptively, but no interpretation was ever precluded because there was a rule against it.) Anything can mean anything to somebody, in some semiotic economy or another; the only boundaries come from our interest in participating in certain discourses, discourses where transgressive interpretive behaviour would be unwelcome.


Desire and Interpretation

HoopoeAs the Sturm und Drang about the (apparently forged) Jesus’ Wife Fragment waxes and wanes (the Sturm waxes, the Drang wanes?), my predictably eccentric interest concerns the role of evidence and of non-evidential factors in shaping positive or negative assessments of the fragment.

Let’s start again by noticing that, even at its very earliest plausible date, its most genuine condition, the fragment doesn’t tell us anything that we didn’t already know: that in the late second century, some people thought Jesus had been married. If we didn’t think Jesus was married before, we don’t have more reason to think he was; we just have further evidence affirming this particular view (often associated with, or dismissed as, Gnostic). Apart from the ordinary interest that the discovery of a hitherto unknown manuscript from early Christianity, this fragment should not generate much excitement in any but the more arcane academic circles — and that’s on the assumption that it’s genuine.

So the furor over the fragment, and the side-taking over its authenticity, require an explanation. If the JWF is not particularly novel, if it may not even be genuine, why did it become controversial? Certain aspects of the fuss can easily be explained: there is money in media coverage, and a television special would certainly line somebody’s pockets. Likewise media attention to the fragment, for which each click and link meant more advertising revenue. And even high-minded scholars like attention; most of the time, most people ignore us, and the glamour of broadcast authority would be difficult to resist for all but the most ascetical among us. (I mean no slight at my colleagues who appear in documentaries or news coverage — those whom I know are all lovely people whom I respect, and for whom I wish only the best, for whose good fortune I congratulate them.) One can dispose of much of the sizzle by ascribing it to cash considerations and publicity — “most”, but not by any means “all.” The role that money and publicity play in the construction of academic controversy and knowledge warrants closer attention, but I’m particularly interested in the residuum.

For instance, why did anyone think the fragment was genuine in the first place? I am not a papyrologist, a palaeographer, or a reader of Coptic — but the early photos of the fragment looked odd to me right away. Clearly, they looked right enough to pass muster to Karen King and the experts she consulted, so my unease doesn’t count for much.

I can’t keep from thinking that somewhere in the alchemy of academic judgement, some people wanted to think the JWF was genuine, and others that it wasn’t. In fact, I’ll be bold enough to say that I know this was true. Did a prior disposition in favour of revolutionary, disruptive, rebellious parties in early Christianity have any effect on Prof. King’s judgement about the fragment? In an irreproachably sound academic way, it certainly did: she more than many other scholars is open to the possibility that non-standard traditions about Jesus circulated broadly and for centuries after the consolidation of conciliar doctrine about Jesus (as in fact it still does). Many scholars would be less disposed to consider anything about a JWF from the start. So without impugning her scholarship in the least, it seems fair to say that her disposition affected her judgement at least as far as her interest in the fragment and her willingness even to consider its genuineness.

By the same token, plenty of vociferous scholars have the opposite disposition, and we saw some immediate negative responses to the JWF which may well have owed as much to the scholars’ inclination to downplay the genuineness of apparent evidence that early Christians held divergent views about Jesus as they owed to identifiable faults with the evaluation of the fragment.

And some scholars, I should add, contributed substantive evidence to the discussion. The direction of their inquiries may have been affected by their desires to support or debunk the genuineness of the fragment, but evidence resists desire somewhat more effectively than do sentiment and temperament, and the comparisons to other fragments and to other texts (and their provenance, and their conditions of publication) help immensely in reaching a thoughtful conclusion about the JWF.

Over and above the reasonable, inevitable, productive inclinations (“positive prejudices,” as Gadamer called them), though, is there not visible a certain longing-to-[dis]believe, wishing-it-were[n’t]-so, that we see more clearly when non-specialists latch on to particular notions regardless of the historical or evidential basis? The attraction of metanarratives such as “the church conceals the truth from you”, or “in the twenty-first century no rational person can believe…”, or “this is the truth unambiguously and definitively handed down changelessly from the first century to now…” resides not in the evidential basis for any of them so much as in the desire that they be so.

We cannot extirpate desire from our interpretive reasoning, not even by dint of determined will. Must we then be silent about our entanglement with desire? When a professed radical interpreter finds Paul to be an anti-imperial subversive, is it disrespectful to note that the exegetical conclusion conveniently fits the interpreter’s wishes? And most difficult of all, what of the interpretive desires of people whose allegiances and principles cannot conveniently be labelled and mapped? And — when any charge of interpretation-by-desire can be answered with a tu quoque (“the same to you”) so that one can’t simply dismiss an interpretation because of its background, how can we construct a discourse in which desire is neither a taboo nor a blank cheque?

One might think that the hermeneutics of desire follow relatively straightforwardly from autobiographical interpretation, but I don’t remember hearing the topic addressed as a matter of methodological or metacritical reflection. If I missed something, please let me know.

Pervasive Latent Criteria

Quadriga Summing up from last time: “meant” and “means” aren’t distinct from one another in the way that the standard account presupposes; and, there is no theoretical account to be adduced which will arbitrate how to apply a posited meaning. (This paragraph doesn’t count against me.)

Absent a subsistent “meaning” that provides a polestar for interpretive validity, we reckon the soundness of our interpretive activity by more proximate criteria. A tremendous proportion of interpretive legitimacy is not itself reasoned out, but “caught”, assimilated, from the interpreters whom one regards as authorities. Sometimes they hold authority by force: as in the academy, where students learn positively that “so and so is an admirable interpreter of whom our tutors speak highly, and we should endeavour to emulate his moves” or negatively that “Such and such never even appears on our reading lists; we can regard her work as utterly insignificant” or “Our tutor referred derisively to this book; we’d better not say anything good about it.” Learning interpreters strive to be like their positive models (“Be imitators of me, as I am of Raymond Brown” or “Tom Wright” or “Bart Ehrman”). Even among more advanced interpreters, a tacit sense of “what goes” in academic discourse affects the tenor of interpretive deliberation. We can make some of these criteria explicit, but others remain difficult to articulate (if we can recognise them as criteria at all, so deeply have they been assimilated).

Our interpretive activity does not simply observe the expression-and-apprehension interplay; it is itself an exercise in apprehension (of criteria, of tone, of acceptable conclusions, of audience) and expression (not only “This is my interpretation” but the representation of one’s deliberation as revolutionary or as compliant with extant discourses, as easily intelligible or as arcane, as authenticated by institutional authority or as self-justifying, and so on. The persona of the interpreter plays a role in the interpretation offered (“She explicitly alludes to Christian theological points of reference”, “He cites continental critics whose work I can’t read”, “He’s smartly dressed”, “She’s wearing shredded blue jeans”, “He slouches and mumbles”, “She looks us in the eye, speaks clearly and fluently and confidently”). All of these function willy-nilly, regardless of anyone’s intentions. The speaker/writer may intend to sound intelligent and confident, and a hearer/reader may think of him as pompous; a speaker/writer may intend to sound sensible and humble, and a hearer/reader think she’s not sure of herself and her case is weak. Even the most fair, even-handed, balanced interpreters are — cannot help being — affected by elements of a discourse that are not exhausted by an author’s intended meaning. Interpretive judgments comprise a great deal more than an inferred intent in words with subsistent meaning — and any account of hermeneutics that neglects, or suppresses, or circumvents, or denies the reality and power of these elements in the offering-uptake interaction misses some of the most important aspects of interpretation. And simply saying “Those other factors don’t count, they aren’t legitimate, we only accept the real meanings of words” doesn’t change the realities with which those who express and those who infer are daily dealing.


Meant, Means, Application

Quadriga For the purposes of my developing this argument, let’s take my expression-apprehension model of interpretation as read. On this account, now, we can explain a great many problems that the standard “subsistent meaning” account generates. For instance, the standard account gets into great headaches about “the difference between what it meant and what it means today” (Krister Stendahl); on the expression-apprehension model, there is no static “meant” or “means” to diverge. Under particular circumstances two millennia ago, people apprehended a particular expression in several identifiable and explicable ways; today, people apprehend the words of that expression (usually in translation, in this example) in several identifiable and explicable ways, and that’s just what we would expect. Is there an interesting, convincing vector of continuity among these apprehensions? My best answer to that sort of question involves the next paragraph.

A second persistent toothache for the standard account involves the question of how one gets from “meaning” to “application”. It’s all very well, we are told, to develop a technical argument that some biblical passage “means” X, but how do we apply that in the lifeworld? I answer that an argument about a text’s “meaning” that does not already (or imminently) correspond to a manner of living can be correct only in the most narrow of senses. In other words, “application” is not a problem to be solved in theory; ethos is itself a primary commentary on any purported textual application.

???? ??????? ??????
Êthos Anthrôpôi Daimôn, on Flickr


What It All Means

Quadriga To sum up from the past eight paragraphs, or so: Most of the problems in hermeneutics can be addressed most productively by regarding the problem as in interplay of expression and inference. A canvas by Monet entails one particular sort of expression; an installation by Tracey Emin is another sort of expression; Nigel Hess’s theme for the BBC television series “Campion” is another sort of expression; Margaret’s irresistible Oatmeal Lace Cookies are a different kind of expression; and a letter from St Paul is yet another sort of expression. St Paul expressed himself in words, but not only in words: although his facial demeanour, his posture, and vocal inflections are lost to us, we can be sure that we would apprehend his expression somewhat differently if we were on the spot. That doesn’t mean that our interpretations are insufficient in Paul’s physical absence, only we infer meaning differently when we draw on different pools of circumstantial information. When we have access to information that suggests that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 are an interpolation into the text of Paul’s letter, some of us read the passage differently from the way we read it in the absence of that information.

Hence there is no intrinsic meaning. “Meaning” is something we infer, sometimes prospectively (before attempting a particular expression), sometimes retrospectively (drawing inferences from an expression from days past), sometimes in the moment (though of course that’s best considered as a blend of retrospect and anticipation — but all expression, I suppose, is extended in time). This sense of “meaning” — the zone where expression and inference, apprehension, uptake approach and perhaps converge — doesn’t require a subsistent quality to the words, paint, dough, marble, harmonies, or whatever. It partakes of the same faculties that make inferences about what wordless phenomena such as sunrise or smoke or the scent of bitter almonds imply. That’s the heart of my picture of hermeneutics: gesture and inference, expression and apprehension, offering and uptake.


High Five

Quadriga Adding words to our account of the communicative landscape does not fundamentally change what we’ve observed about inference and communication. Just as I make inferential estimates of what time in the morning it is (speaking of which, I need to find my sleep mask soon), or from my beloved wife’s mimed gestures when babies are sleeping, so I make inferential estimates of the most likely sense for the words she speaks or writes. There’s no “inner” or “real” meaning in the words; they’re a gesture, a verbal gesture, with the same status as a finger held to her lips, or a flat hand raised above her shoulder.

But that’s the second key element in the picture: when Margaret (or anyone, but we’re talking about Margaret now) speaks or writes words, they are words she has chosen based on her estimate (as speaker) of what I am most likely to infer from them. Again, there’s no intrinsic meaning at stake; she produces words calculated to elicit from me the results she wants. If she wants me to go to the grocery store to obtain food for dinner, she says, “Sweetheart, would you go to Tesco for a couple of things?” and it’s a pretty safe bet that I will in fact satisfy her desire. Were she to aim at the same effect by saying “Rapidly piddlepot strumming Hanover peace pudding mouse rumpling cuddly corridor cabinets?”, we may safely predict that the results would be different. Linguistic communication, on this account, is not sui generis nor paradigmatic for other modes of communication; it is continuous with other communicative modes, albeit in an extraordinarily precise, rule-governed way. It would be a dire mistake, however, to leap from “atypically precise” to “intrinsically precise” in order to amp up the degree of certainty that our inference can provide. We may be able often to recognise “time to wake up”, but that doesn’t entail our capacity really to ascertain that it’s 6:47.


Adding Words

Quadriga You have graciously borne with me in considering communication by wordless inference, in both non-intentional (“natural”) and intentional (“conscious animal life”) circumstances. I used inverted commas in my parenthetical characterisations because I’d like to allow for non-intentional inference in circumstances that aren’t simply “natural”, and because I want to be careful about what I say about intentional communication among some animals (without prejudging the circumstances for or against). Clearly animals interact in ways that seem to imply “communication” of some sort — and again, that’s all I’m after at this point.

I’m ready to add words to this picture, but please allow me to do so not all in a rush, but very slowly and carefully. Let’s go back to Margaret and me communicating; you’ve already allowed that we can get by, when we need to, without words (for topics that don’t require intense intricacy or precision). Once we begin to add words into the picture, our capacity to communicate effectively enters an entirely different domain of economy, precision, and effectiveness. We’re about to go buy some groceries; if we had to work out our shopping list, indeed even the premise of “going to the grocery store”, without words, we would take a very long time and might not arrive at a fully agreed agenda. With words, we can assent to the premise of a shopping trip, determine what we anticipate purchasing, and change our plans on the fly with minimal trouble. Yes, sometimes we misunderstand one another and find ourselves at cross purposes — but compared to the practice of communicating for such errands without using words, our verbal communication functions with fabulous ease and success.