Friday, September 05, 2014

My Response to Ricoeur

For a little over a month now, I have been reading through Paul Ricoeur's Interpretation Theory. I would now like to appropriate it (see what I did there).

1. First, let me mention some aspects of his enterprise that I most appreciated. The first is his sense that the approaches of philosophers of meaning like Ferdinand de Saussure and his trajectory ending with Jacques Derrida are insufficient because 1) they do not properly take into account the fact that a sentence is a different level of meaning than a mere word and 2) the fact that the sentence often involves a reference to the world outside language. There are reasonable, although not definitive, limiting factors in the proposed meaning of a text.

The second is his sense that a written text is severed from its author. It takes on a life of its own. We call this the semantic autonomy of the text. An author cannot control what a text will come to mean once he or she is no longer present. In that sense, it potentially takes on a universal audience. Once Paul dispatched his letter to the Philippians, he lost control over its potential meaning and he opened up the door that not just the Philippians would read the letter but that countless people 2000 years later would.

On metaphor, I am very good with his basic definition, which I take from Time and Narrative--a metaphor is the creation of a new semantic pertinence by the comparison of two unlike things. I agree that a metaphor is not a mere ornament but that new meaning is created in its use. Indeed, I believe metaphor, figure, poetry, and ritual tend to be far more powerful than the literal--a sign of the impoverishment of a certain strand of Protestant thinking (not Wesleyan).

2. I used to feel stupid a lot in school when I didn't understand a thinker. To be sure, there were those who were able to catch on to those thinkers from the start. But over the years I've come to have two other thoughts as well. First, sometimes those thinkers just didn't make sense. I didn't understand some of them because I expected what they were saying to make sense and they just plain didn't (Plato, Leibniz come to mind).

The second thought is really more a matter of annoyance. Some philosophers invent their own language and then call you stupid for not understanding them. I find Heidegger and Hegel the worse offenders here. I'm not sure I would entirely put Ricoeur in that category, but there were times reading this book that I wondered if he was being unnecessarily "poetic."

It's fine to engage in a discussion with peers who are already in the discussion with you. You don't have to explain Gadamer or Dilthey to a room of philosophers. Actually, in that respect Ricoeur explained a lot that he wouldn't have had to. Thanks, Paul. :-)

3. Ricoeur wrote in the hey day of structuralism, so his lingering on the text-in-itself was understandable. I thought his run through Jakobson's six factors in relation to the fixation of meaning in writing quite brilliant. Ricoeur rightly points to "ostensive" features of texts that refer to things in the real world outside of language.

However, I believe he is ultimately wrong to believe that a text has a meaning-in-itself. There is no sense inherent in a text-in-itself. There is no understanding that corresponds to the text-in-itself. There is no objectivity in the text. There is no logical or atemporal or ideological aspect of a text that is not a construct or an abstraction, a heuristic device, not truly something that inheres in the text itself. There is only a text-as-uttered and a text-as-received. A text has no fixed meaning-in-itself without a context.

The text-as-meaning does not exist in itself. It only exists as understood by a mind against a context. This is, I believe, a fundamental implication of Wittgenstein. There is no unambiguous meaning "behind" the text. The text does not point to a stable meaning beyond or behind it in itself. The text has a meaning as a function of a mind receiving it as interpreted against the language games the reader can play against the forms of life of which the reader is aware.

That meaning is a function of the language-games-situated-in-forms-of-life of the person receiving the text, including its own author. These interpretations of the text can be as varied as those who read the text. The understanding of the author is one of these interpretations, but it is not the only one. Concrete references to the outside world can be part of those language games and forms of life but they can also be fictive.

I think I'll leave it at that. It would be fun to rewrite this book and tweak it from my perspective, but no time or reason for that.

4. As relates to the Bible, we can apply these fundamental insights as I have repeatedly over the years. There was an event of meaning when these texts were fixed in writing. An expert will point out that some biblical writings were formed in multiple events of meaning, yielding at times complex layers of potential meaning in biblical texts beyond the bare polyvalence of texts in general.

These first meanings were overwhelmingly if not entirely functions of the language games and forms of life of the original authors and audiences. Even the original situation involved potential variations between the writer and audience/reader who shared the same forms of life and language games.

The language games and forms of life of those in New Testament times were already different from those of the Old Testament. Therefore, it is completely predictable and expected that the New Testament authors would interpret the OT texts in different ways than they were originally understood. The resistance of some to this notion in certain circles is intellectually perverse in the extreme.

The overwhelmingly vast sea of differing interpretations of the Bible especially in Protestantism is also entirely predictable. The "autonomous text," freed from the moorings of its original contexts, assumes the form of the countless readers throughout history reading these words in countless forms of life against the domain of possible language games within those forms of life. "Scripture alone" does not exist. Scripture-as-interpreted is all that exists.

When there is an external authority to render the "right" interpretation, the meaning of the text stabilizes.  This was the case to a great extent within Roman Catholicism and it is increasingly the case within the evangelical hegemony in the United States. But the stable meaning of the text in these cases is deceptive. What is stable is the interpretive community with its authoritative reading of the text.

The situation is complicated by the fact that we are more aware of historical meaning since the historical revolution of the 1800s. Fundamentalism was a reaction to this "attack from within." Whereas the pre-modern might simply reinterpret the words, history threatened to fix the meaning in the times and places when the texts were written. But these fixed points weren't always what traditional faith wanted them to be.

So boundaries were fixed to what you were allowed to let the text mean, and a kind of pretend historical method was used in the process. So you looked like you were playing the game of history, a game that you cannot, not play (or intentionally choose not to play), to the extent you understand it. But while the motions of historical evidence gathering were played, the game was rigged so that the right interpretation would be attained.

So fundamentalist and mainstream evangelical interpretation is a strange amalgam of old and new. We find original meaning glued to theological re-appropriations in order to create a sociologically enforced interpretation.

5. I would rather keep the hot part hot and the cold part cold. The text had a meaning-in-context. We cannot fully reconstruct the intention of the author but we can reconstruct a spectrum of more and less likely originally intended and received meanings to the biblical texts. Let them be what they are. Anything else is just dishonest and the sign of an errant hermeneutic.

But we can still allow for theologically reinterpreted readings of the text. This is a category that Spirit-oriented traditions should be open to. Cannot the Spirit speak in new ways through the same texts? The NT use of the OT would suggest so.

What is the excluded middle? The text-alone approach. The mainstream evangelical/high Protestant approach becomes the one that is more or less hermeneutically incoherent.

There is room for progressive revelation, which sees a developing and unfolding in the biblical texts, as God moves and speaks from situation to situation. There is room for an orthodox reading of the text, which takes as its Archimedian point the consensus of the Church written large but does not in pre-modern fashion pretend that these were always the original meanings. There is room for pneumatic traditions, that see the text still as an instrument of revelation by the Holy Spirit.

All these are coherent readings. Everything else is either unreflective or hermeneutically perverse.

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