Getting it right

Frank Kermode

  • 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 But although structuralism superseded phenomenological criticism, which was of course intentionalist, the ‘traditionalist’ philology, equally opposed to both, was still intact.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.

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