Getting it right
- Interpretation: An Essay in the Philosophy of Literary Criticism by P.D. Juhl
Princeton, 332 pp, £11.20, January 1981, ISBN 0 691 07242 6
Literary theory is somewhat bewilderingly in the news, and it is worth pausing over this well-written book, in which a young American Germanist develops his thoughts about the variety of it known as hermeneutics. One sometimes hears this word uttered in tones of deep distrust or derision, as if it were some foreign novelty recently imported into a soundly pragmatical Britain by trendy malcontents intent on disturbing the peace: in fact, it is very ancient, though it has, of course, widened its scope and altered its aims. In its earlier forms, it usually amounted to prescriptions and prohibitions relating to the interpretation of Scripture. Its promotion to the status of the science or art of interpreting texts generally was effected in the early 19th century by Schleiermacher; and it achieved with Heidegger a philosophical apotheosis. Modern hermeneutics is predominantly German in provenance. Central to it are Schleiermacher’s principle of the hermeneutic circle, which will be mentioned below; and the distinctions developed by his successors between the natural sciences and humane studies (Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften). Neither of these developments has attracted much comment over here.
So far as I know, there was not much American interest either, at any rate until 1967. This doesn’t mean that problems classifiable as hermeneutic weren’t discussed under other rubrics. One such problem is authorial intention, a favourite with critics on both sides of the ocean since the late Forties. It is still in progress, but the terms of the discussion have altered a bit. Most forms of structuralist analysis exclude the author on principle, so intention simply isn’t relevant. But although structuralism superseded phenomenological criticism, which was of course intentionalist, the ‘traditionalist’ philology, equally opposed to both, was still intact. One result was the historically useful pitched battle between Barthes and Picard, a Sorbonne professor who reacted to Barthes’s book on Racine with a pamphlet called Nouvelle Critique ou nouvelle imposture (1965), and so provoked from Barthes a reply entitled Critique et Vérité (1966). These books make the issues plainer, and Barthes’s book is, if one may so put it, a classic defence of Modernist criticism, though a great deal has happened since 1966.
‘Deconstructionist’ criticism differs greatly from structuralism: one respect in which it does so is material to the present discussion. Since the deconstructionists mean to tell you what a text is saying in spite of itself, it has to keep something like the ‘author’s meaning’ in place, so as to subvert it. But neither kind of criticism shows any concern for hermeneutics (though to some extent they have a common ancestry). The modern hermeneutist has an interest in intention quite different from that of the deconstructor. His need arises, historically, from the secularisation of his subject, Formerly it had been supposed that the text requiring interpretation – namely, the Bible – was omnisignificant, so that within certain constraints anything that could be said about it was likely to be true: there was no end to the task of explicating the intention of the divine author. Difficulties associated with changing interpretation therefore hardly arose. Moreover there was a powerful institution that claimed the right to validate or suppress interpretations. The Reformation brought some changes in these arrangements: there was, as one might expect, some wild interpretation, but there was also a newly-orientated authority, more philological and scholarly than before. It was this Protestant tradition that led eventually to Schleiermacher, whose object was entirely intentionalist in that he sought to restore the sense a text had had for its author and for the original audience.
As he saw it, the chief obstacle to bringing that off was what he called the ‘hermeneutic circle’. In order to understand the part, you must understand the whole, which you can’t do without understanding the parts. To break out of this bind you have to perform an act of divination: that is, you have to bring something to the text that was not already in it. This intuitive leap must be the historical warrant for all theories which allow the interpreter to make his own productive contribution to the text. Another way of saying roughly the same thing is to speak of a necessary prior understanding, Vorverständnis. This fore-understanding has a basis in common sense: the next sentence I speak is likely to be one that my interlocutor has never heard before, and it is probable that I myself do not know, when I embark upon it, precisely what its course and end will be. Yet neither of us will be hopelessly lost in mid-sentence. We know, if only intuitively, the grammar of the spoken language; we know the conversational context; and we know what is sometimes called the ‘genre’ of the sentence. But fore-understanding becomes a more complicated notion in the hands of such modern hermeneutists as Heidegger and Bultmann. My fore-understanding cannot be quite the same as that of St Thomas Aquinas or Spinoza or indeed of anybody whatsoever: which leads to relativism, and the opinion that because all fore-understandings are different there can be no one universally acceptable reading of a text.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 3 No. 14 · 6 August 1981
SIR: Professor Kermode’s central objection to my book, Interpretation, is that I beg the crucial question as to whether the meaning of a text is indeed logically tied to the author’s intention (LRB, 7 May). I do so, according to Kermode, in three ways:
a. Kermode seems to assume that, on my view, only the meaning of the text constitutes evidence of the author’s intention. ‘ “Any (and only) evidence of the author’s intention is … evidence for the meaning of the work.” How do we come by such evidence except by divining the meaning of the text?’ I state in the Introduction very clearly how I am using the term ‘intention’, namely: what a man intended to convey is ‘what he meant by the words he used’ (or by his, or a speaker’s, utterance). So Kermode’s contention is that there cannot be anything which is evidence for what a man intended in this sense except the meaning of the text. But this is clearly not true. Surely an author’s beliefs (expressed elsewhere), his other works, parallel passages, diary entries, or remarks by the author in other contexts about his work, and so on, are all evidence, though, of course, not conclusive evidence, of what the author meant by the words he used (or by a speaker’s utterance or the whole work). Surely there is no merit in Kermode’s suggestion that this sort of information does not constitute evidence of what the author meant.
b. Kermode endorses Graham Hough’s view that what is not planned, premeditated or done with due forethought cannot have been intended. But we do not always or even typically plan out in advance, ‘with due forethought’ or ‘premeditation’ what specifically we will say to someone else in a casual conversation, for example. Surely our intentions are typically formed in the process of formulating the sentences we use. Often there is no specific ‘forethought’ at all. Yet we do not, for that reason, say that most of what we say is said unintentionally, or that we did not mean what we said. If this is true, then Kermode is wrong in claiming that I stretch the term ‘intention’ so that it will ‘include what in more ordinary language is said not to have been intended’.
c. Kermode claims that the distinction between meaning and significance, or my use of this distinction, begs the crucial question: ‘if you reserve the expression “meaning” for “what the author intended” (however you explain that), it follows that nothing you will not allow into that category can be called meaning.’ But I do not in fact regard the distinctions between meaning and significance as implying that the meaning of a work is what the author intended. Rather, I emphasise that ‘this distinction does not, of course, show that the assumption [that the meaning of a literary work is logically tied to the author’s intention] is correct. It may still very well be true that a literary work does not mean what its author intended and hence that “A Modest Proposal”, for instance, is about inter alia the Vietnam War. What the distinction shows is that this does not follow from the fact that a work survives its age.’
Kermode implies that I evade what is in fact one of the central tasks of the book: i.e. to show that anti-intentionalist critics, in speaking of the meaning of a work, are in fact speaking about the author’s intention. He does not even mention the fact that I examine numerous and detailed examples of practical criticism by M.C. Beardsley, W.K. Wimsatt, J. Culler, M. Riffaterre, H. Bloom, C. Brooke-Rose. P. Szondi, H.R. Jauss, G. Hough, R. Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss, J. Wain, G. Dickie, J. Hospers, G. Hermeren, A. Isenberg, E. von Savigny, and others – all of whom reject the view that there is a logical connection between the meaning of a literary work and the author’s intention. Kermode does not offer the slightest evidence that in any of these cases I beg the question. As for Empson: although I may be mistaken in taking him as an exemplary anti-intentionalist, certainly the major anti-intentionalist theorists of the past two or three decades have regarded his critical practice as among the best examples of the kind of criticism they were concerned to promote.
Kermode mistakenly attributes to me the view that the meaning of Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’ is ‘entirely a matter of Irish conditions in Swift’s own time’. Here is what I say:
Let us suppose, for example, that Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ is merely about a certain unique historical situation [italics added] … This may not, of course, be true. I have made this assumption primarily to show that even an unduly restrictive view of what a literary work means is entirely consistent with the fact that a work may be of wider interest and of value to readers of later ages … Swift no doubt intended to say something not just about a situation of his own time, but about certain general human tendencies.
Kermode appears to have misunderstood my discussion of the role of the context in disambiguating utterances in ordinary discourse and in literary works. According to Kermode, I assume that an author can disambiguate his text in exactly the same way as a speaker his utterance an ordinary discourse. I do not assume or claim this. What I do argue is a. that the meaning of an utterance in a literary work, just as in ordinary discourse, depends on the speaker’s intention. I go on to argue b. that, though we cannot, of course, identify the speaker or a character in a literary work with the author, what the (or a) speaker means is what the author has him/her mean (intends him to mean). This may be wrong, of course, but it doesn’t follow from it that ‘a phone-call from Shakespeare … could … disambiguate Hamlet’ – if for no other reason than that an author’s statement about his intention is only one kind of evidence of intention and constitutes, as I emphasise, by no means incontrovertible evidence of his intention. But Kermode offers no argument or evidence for his claim. He simply asserts that Hamlet, ‘it might be maintained, is undisambiguable’. Sure, it might be maintained. All sorts of things might be maintained. But that does not give us a lot of reason to suppose that they are true.
Kermode contends that the last chapter is ‘the weakest’ because it doesn’t actually produce ‘the One Correct Interpretation’ of a work. Since I do not claim that we can in fact find the correct interpretation of any given literary work, I do not see what could lead Kermode to expect that I would produce such an interpretation. In any case, he seems to think that ‘this refinement of recognitive hermeneutics is without much use. If the correct interpretation, though it exists in principle, is in practice (virtually indeed in principle) undiscoverable, why should they [“plain men”] bother about it?’ Who said they should bother about it? Kermode seems to be unclear about the issue. The issue, after all, is not: ‘How can we help critics find the correct interpretation of a work?’ On my view at least, they know that already. The issue is whether or not interpretations can properly be characterised as ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’, or whether no sense can be attributed to these terms when applied to an interpretation. Kermode seems to be confusing Hirsch’s position with mine. Hirsch is indeed concerned to change what he takes to be the state of interpretive practice. I have no such ambition. My aim is rather to analyse critical practice, to bring out our tacit assumptions, our logical commitments, in speaking about the meaning of a work, not to make recommendations as to what critics ought to do.
Kermode claims that I am ‘a disciple’ of Hirsch’s. I find this somewhat strange, since I affirm, and try to establish, precisely what Hirsch denies: namely, that there is a logical connection between the meaning of a literary work and the author’s intention. Hirsch holds that there is no such connection and that a critic can set up any normative conception he likes as his criterion of what a text means. Of course, Hirsch recommends that we ought to interpret texts in accord with the author’s intention. But this is a position on a wholly different issue: i.e. what we ought to do, as opposed to what in fact (as a matter of logic) we do. Hence my view also cannot be characterised as ‘a strengthened form of the Hirsch doctrine’, since it is not ‘a form’ of Hirsch’s doctrine at all. I must gratefully decline Kermode’s compliment that my book ‘has the merit of not assuming a great deal that is often too crudely taken for granted’. For if his main objection is valid, then I take at least as much for granted as those ‘crude’ chaps he has in mind.