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.


2 thoughts on “What It All Means

  1. Ok, so I think my entry point to all this must be here: ‘there is no intrinsic meaning’. What exactly is this thesis about intrinsic meaning that you’re rejecting?

    1. Alec, a great many people with whom I argue suppose that “meaning” is a quality that subsists in words and expressions, such that “the correct interpretation” matches a correct interpretive paraphrase (or ekphrasis or analysis or whatever) to the meaning supposedly intrinsic to the initial expression. You will probably have encountered such an outlook in your biblical papers. It gives rise to casual phrases such as “what it really means” or “exegesis leads the meaning out of the text; eisegesis reads into the text a meaning foreign to it”.

      This is a deeply erroneous premise, but it’s woven into the fabric of the biblical-studies discipline, and trying to unravel the mistake consigns one to the margin of the discipline.

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