On Correctness

When I read papers or give presentations about hermeneutics, people always ask me, ‘If you’re right and there is no intrinsic “meaning” in texts about which to be right or wrong, are all interpretations equal? Aren’t some interpretations just plain wrong? I mean, you talk about The da Vinci Code all the time as an example of terrible biblical interpretation…’. (Note: actually, they don’t always ask me about The da Vinci Code, but they could use that against me if they wanted.) I’ve resisted giving a specific answer to that question, since what counts as ‘bad biblical interpretation’ depends on where and when and why and how you’re offering it. Still, there is a sort of über-answer, and it goes this way:

Any proposed interpretation [of anything, not just the Bible] rests upon a thick network of conventions and inferences pertaining at least to the medium of the thing being interpreted (text, painting, fossil, hairstyle, hand gesture). Assuming a linguistic text, the conventions of semantics and syntax provide one dimension of interpretive validity. If I say, ‘Dogs typically land on their feet when they fall,’ you might intelligibly respond ‘Surely you mean cats usually land on their feet.’ You have soundly inferred my claim to be coherent with respect to the norms of English grammar and semantics; you have no argument on that point. You point, however, to a divergence between my observation and demotic knowledge of animal life: people take it for granted that cats always land on their feet, such that one can make a joke by suggesting that if one ties buttered toast to a cat and drops it, the elemental forces of nature will be rent asunder since the creature will either land on the toast (‘Toast always lands butter side down’) or its feet (see above). My claim is sound with respect to the English language, but unsound with respect to demotic knowledge of mammalian behaviour.

(Excursus: this, it seems to me, is the only viable way of construing ‘the literal sense’ — that is, as the grammar and semantics of the utterance. Even these do not foreclose plurality in interpretation, since individual words are subject to ambiguity and equivocation, and much more so phrases and sentences. Still, one can imagine two opposing interpreters arriving at an agreed grammatico-semantic interpretation of an utterance while at the same time disagreeing fervently about the reference and implications of the utterance in question. When someone wants ‘the literal sense’ to do more work than ‘the minimal agreed sense of a text’, they will always inevitably be infusing claims about literalness with codicils that favour their particular interpretation. The literal sense has to be as close to trivial as is possible under the circumstances.)

In the example above, we judge my claim as valid in one respect, and invalid (or at least questionable) in another. But supposing I said, ‘Your puppy’s vaults risk no malign defeat / Like others of its sort, it lands upon its feet’? One might then judge my claim literally sound, demotically unsound, and a cracking rhyme. And you might criticise the scansion — the ‘of’ doesn’t want to be stressed, weakening the iambic pentamenter.

This example points toward my general response to interpretive soundness: that is, the stronger the interpretive fit with a particular interpretive discourse (that of English language, of demotic zoology, of rhyme, of meter), in the greater quantity of discourses, weighted toward discourses of greater importance,* with greater intensity of this convergence, the more convincing the case for the soundness of the interpretation.

In other words, the more dimensions of discursive intensity back up your interpretation, the likelier you are to be ‘correct’ (where ‘intensity’ designates the convergence of widely-acknowledged discourses).

Some interpretations will divide otherwise-homogeneous sets of readers. English-speaking readers of popular fiction include both those who find Dan Brown’s literary style almost as atrocious as his understanding of the Bible, but also demonstrably includes many millions who think he’s ace on one or both fronts. But there’s no way ever to compel the latter group to come to their literary or historical senses. They like to hear about the conspiracies that historic Christianity has perpetuated on a hapless populace, and they want to think it all merely a cynical charade. But the role of desire in interpretation comes up in my contribution to Biblical Exegesis without Authorial Intention? (ed. Clarissa Breu; Brill, 2019), and will also play a role in the monograph on which I’m currently working.

* Of course, different interpreters will assess the importance of different discourses differently; this accounts for a great proportion of the disagreements over textual interpretation. The ordering of discrusive importance is not, however, simply given or natural or necessary; they are always subject to contestation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *