Insufficient Response

David Weinberger and Tom Matrullo (via email) have both gotten back to me about hermeneutics. I’ll answer David first, because I think it’ll be easier.
David tosses me a softball to start, asking whether his representation of my proposed distinction between “integral” and “differential” hermeneutics rings true. Yes, though I think that in the definition of integral hermeneutics, I’d substitute “unitary” where David says “single”: “Integral hermeneutics thinks that to understand X is to see the simple, unambiguous, single meaning behind X.” Some of my friends on the integral side of the fence are subtle enough to allow for intentional duplicity of meaning, so that the meaning is unitary but not single (if you take my point). So that’s number one.

Number two, David keeps a close eye on my treatment of specifically Scriptural interpretation. (Be sure to read his wise characterization of the Judaic hermeneutical tradition — I want to have that to quote for my students, whom I try desperately to teach to read like rabbis.) He goes on to suggest that I don’t “giv[e] enough weight to the scriptural text. His view of DH finds all of interpretation’s value in the play of differing interpretations and none in the meaning behind the text or the text itself.” To illustrate, he suggests that one difference between interpreting a restaurant menu and the Bible lies in the fact that the Bible’s author is God (a not inconsiderable difference, I should add).

This one’s harder, and I think I have to answer it backward. That is, God’s authority/authorhood in Scripture is something that he and I can take for granted, but it’s not intrinsic to the text of the Bible. The claim of divine authorship binds David (for the sake of argument) and me into a strongly, deeply-held set of interpretive conventions, but each of us knows friends who not only don’t think God is author f the Bible, but doubt that there’s any God to have done it at all. It doesn’t do any good at this point to say, “No, but really, God did write it”; the disagreement goes a great deal deeper than whether God can intelligibly be characterized as author of the Bible. I’m not reluctant to ascribe authorship of Scripture (in some sense) to God, but I refuse to exclude people who disagree with me on this from my account of hermeneutics.

Or take a Borgesian example: imagine an impious blasphemer who writes out longhand a copy of the words of the Bible, but illustrates it not with exquisite medieval woodcuts and delicate illuminations, but with caricatured exaggerations of all the most awkward passages, and who emphasizes everything that would embarrass the sensitive interpreter. I’d argue that one might make a case that this vandal had not in fact written out a copy of the Bible, even if the text of the scroll, or book, were identical to an approved version of that book.

So if that which makes the Bible special isn’t a feature of the book’s essence or nature, but of the way particular peoples regard the text, then we’re where I left off, where David didn’t want to be. Calling a book that begins “Bereshith bara elohim eth ha-shamayim. . .” (forgive my dodgy transliteration) “the Bible” already constitutes an interpretive decision that includes some people and excludes others; ascribing its authorship to God narrows the body of agreeable interpreters even further. And (as a differential hermeneutician) (“Do you have an appointment. sir?”) I have to account for those people’s interpretations, too.

Which brings me back to my main point, that I’m not beginning from a failure, but from difference. It’s failure only if we being with by defining “success” as interpretive unanimity, and I don’t do that.

I affirm David’s six-point version of a differential-hermeneutic account of revelation, except that I’m not sure how I would say that “Scripture needs a differential hermeneutic” (my tags). I think we need a differential hermeneutic to appropriate Scripture rightly.

And I don’t abhor “tyrannical relativism” — I don’t believe it exists (people who adopt the deplorable pose of being “relativists” are concealing their adherence to some occluded ideology).

So on the whole, I agree with David quite an awful lot, and I thank him heartily.

As for Tom — I ought to go to bed before I answer him, ’cos it’s past my bedtime and I’m liable to say something foolish, more foolish than usual. I need to clarify several matters for Tom (if I understand him aright): first, the business of what interpreters think and argue about, and second, the status and location of meaning, and third, how we are to go on if I’m right.

First, I’d propose that interpreters think and argue about different things. Some interpreters argue a lot about what the author meant by a text, but some interpreters argue about what the text means relative to our present situation, and still others about a sort of atemporal meaning that escapes any situational specificity. Many interpreters suppose that there’s a unitary quality to a text, a quality we may call “what it means,” that establishes the legitimacy of anything else we might say about the text; they then endeavor to show that their interpretations reveal the true meaning of the text, and other (different) interpreters have gone astray at some point.

On my account, the place that integralists fill with “the true meaning” can just as well be occupied by “the most convincing account of the text in question,” where “convincing” will always remain a more-or-less local set of criteria to which the (local) social formations adhere.That’s not because I don’t believe in God or transcendence or truth — it’s because I don’t know how to de-localize myself to recognize the universal/transcendent in a way that’ll convince anyone but me and my local colleagues. (Isn’t this the topic about which I first emailed David Weinberger, when he didn’t know me from. . . ? Oh well, I never liked that idiom.)

Which leads to the second clarification: differential hermeneuticians can’t dispense with the notion of a text’s author. We can’t think “textual meaning” without the imaginative gesture of positing an author who meant something. Differential hermeneuts will, however, allow that different people will imagine different authors, and there’ll be no way to pin a really real intention to a really real author and make from that a really final interpretation.

In that case, interpreters make an aesthetic judgment about which version of author, text, audience, history, motivation, and intention (and other elements) hang together for the soundest interpretive argument. I don’t contrast that imaginative, aesthetic judgment with ‘the meaning of the text,’ though. Either I’ll colloquially identify the imaginative construal with the meaning, or I’ll more carefully avoid talking about “the meaning” altogether. I just don’t believe texts have “meaning” in any way that escapes our attributing meaning to them.

Then third, if textual meaning depends not on the pole star of “meaning,” but on the wandering stars (the planets, from Greek planaw, “I err”!) of human judgments, how do we know where to go?

I suppose we go in the directions we believe in: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1) and (and this one’s for the Tutor) “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” More obviously constructively, we will go on and navigate as we always have (for if now there is no meaning leading us about from extra nos, there hasn’t been such a magnetic meaning all along). We’ll rely on people we trust, we’ll look back on what the ancients have taught us, we’ll try to help one another along, and we’ll try humbly to accept correction when people whom we respect suggest that we’ve got something important wrong.

What this doesn’t allow us is a stick with which to beat the annoying people who persist in promulgating erroneous interpretations; we can’t say, “That’s just not what it means!” (not in an absolute way). In response to mistaken interpretations, a differential hermeneutic would advise that we make as plain and persuasive a case for our interpretation as we possibly can, and let willful or foolish interpreters do their best. If show-off looudmouths get more than their just share of attention and acclaim, we can with the Psalmist fret not ourselves over evildoers, nor envy those who prosper from wickedness. We can’t force our rightness into the hearts of others anyway. “Truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.” — Pope Paul VI, Dignitatis Humanae.

Bedtime. Tomorrow evening Margaret gets home, so I had better spend tomorrow productively cleaning up and writing and running errands. I hope these responses clear the air somewhat, Tom and David. Thanks for your patient attention. Tomorrow I’ll try to respond to Juliet.

DRMA: “Praise You,” Fatboy Slim (Nate’s got it bad for Fatboy); “Hung Up,” Paul Weller; “Wicked Little Critta,” They Might Be Giants; “Midnite Cruiser,” Steely Dan; “Stormy Weather,” Billie Holiday; “Love On a Farmboy’s Wages,” XTC; “Everybody’s Crying Mercy,” Elvis Costello (“Everybody’s crying ‘Peace on earth’/just as soon as we win this war,” and “Everybody’s crying ‘Justice!’/Just so long as there’s business first” — great!); “There Must Be a City,” the Fairfield Four; “The Only One,” Roy Orbison; “Tore Up,” Otis Rush; “Red Beans and Rice,” Keb Mo; “House of the Rising Sun,” the Animals; “Power of the Gospel,” Ben Harper; “In and Out,” the Pogues; “I Feel Like Going On,” the Dells; “There’s a Barbarian in the Back of My Car,” Voice of the Beehive; “Body and Soul,” the Benny Goodman Orchestra; “Can You Heal Us Holy Man,” Paul Weller.
SoundJam playlist hand-blogged by Stubborn Cuss meatware.

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