Tuesday, 8 June 2010

There is no one true interpretation?

Having completed our look at moral relativism we are today going to examine another kind of relativism. This kind relates to how we interpret the things we read. It is the belief that there is no one true interpretation of a text. Although it's a bit wordy we will refer to this form of relativism as 'Hermeneutical relativism'. Often you will hear this belief expressed when the Bible or another important text is being discussed. The following sort of exchange is quite common, at least in Britain...

Benny: The Bible is really cool. It says that Jesus was the Son of God.
Jimbo: Well that's just your interpretation. Many people interpret it differently.
Benny: My interpretation is correct. Let me show you how I reached this conclusion.
Jimbo: Please! Every interpretation is just as valid as another.

Hermeneutical relativism claims that a text doesn't have one true meaning, but many meanings depending on who reads it. So I can read the Bible, and you can read the Bible, and we can come to different conclusions about what the text says, and neither of us will be more right than the other. Is this belief really compelling? I'm going to argue 'no', and to do so I think it'll be helpful to make a distinction between "what the text says" and "the personal significance of a text." It may not be automatically clear as to what that distinction is so I'll have a go at clarifying.

Personal significance

Often when we use the word "meaning" we use it to signify that something has value for us. You might say "this picture means a lot to me!" or "thanks for doing that, it really means a lot." This might happen when we read a book, especially stuff like poetry. We find a way to 'connect' with it and grow attached to it so that the poem has personal significance and ends up "meaning a lot to us". Perhaps it reminds us of particular memories or feelings. Someone else could read that same poem and find personal significance in it in a wholly different way. Whereas the poem might remind you of your first love, to the other person, it may remind them of a special holiday. In this sense, it is correct to say that no one meaning is right and others wrong. This kind of meaning is particular to each person and no-one's personal significance can be more correct than another's. Although this is a valid way of thinking about meaning, hermeneutical relativism confuses the boundaries between personal significance and what the text says.

What the text says

If you and I are talking over MSN or Facebook and I think I haven't understood something you've said, I will ask you something like "what did you mean when you said that?" I will be asking you for the meaning you intended to convey. No doubt you intended to say something in particular and not just anything. If I interpret your message without regard to your intent I won't understand you. Imagine the following conversation on Facebook,

Jimbo: Hey Benny did you hear that Nick Clegg and David Cameron formed a coalition government?
Benny: That's wicked!
Jimbo: Wicked? Urm, that's not evil at all. I mean, I voted labour but this ain't all that bad.
Benny: No I meant "wicked" as in "that's good!"
Jimbo: I interpreted what you were saying to mean that you thought it was bad. And every interpretation is equally valid so don't try and correct me.
Benny: But that's not what I meant! Argh.

In this context the meaning of a message refers to the author's intent for the message. And it is simply not true that every account of what the author's intent is can be equally valid. Jimbo's interpretation of Benny's message did not accurately reflect Benny's intent. True, the word "wicked" can be used to represent goodness or badness, but Benny's intent in using the word was for it to express goodness. The meaning of his message was equivalent to saying "that's very good!" Any interpretation of the message which does not reflect that, has misunderstood the message and is wrong. In an earlier entry we saw that 'truth' is about how ideas and reality match up. When we are talking about what a text says, the interpretation is the idea and the reality it matches up to is the author's intent. An interpretation must adequately reflect the author's intent to be true.

It doesn't mean what you want it to mean!

There is clearly a distinction then, between the personal significance of a text and what the text says. Perhaps there is a poem I love and I know the author's intent for it was to recount a bad experience with drug abuse (I read an interview where the author said so). When I read the poem however, it has the personal significance of reminding me of a past break-up. I feel that the personal significance of the poem is meaningful to me, but at the same time I recognise that what the poem is saying is about drug abuse. Everyone's personal significance for the poem is equally valid but not everyone's interpretation of what the poem is saying is equally valid. If there is more than one correct way to interpret a text it is only because the author intended there to be more than one way.

To return to the Bible then, while it is true that there are lots of interpretations of it around, the only ones which are true are those which match up to the authors' intent. How we can know that we have a correct interpretation is a matter that will likely be developed in detail later on through the blog. For now note that the more attention you pay to the context of a message, the more likely you'll arrive at the correct interpretation. For such considerations we should ask questions like the following:

What kind of person is the author?
Who is the intended audience of the message?
What literary genre is the message composed in?
What is the historical/social context?


Tom said...

Good blogging, you're rather good at bringing down concepts into real-life examples.

I wouldn't consider myself an absolute relativist (see what I did there?), but think our judgements should lie on the better/worse scale instead of right/wrong, or in the extreme relativist standard, all equal.

Something interesting I'd like to point out is when the author doesn't know what their own piece is about. I may write a few lines of poetry, thinking it just sounds/looks good, look back on it after some time and see some deeper significance that applied to me at the time of writing.

Supposing I didn't realise this significance, and supposing it was any good and someone else read it, their interpretation would be correct, and mine incorrect. I suppose this is playing with the idea of intent, and the author's own awareness of such intent.

Martin said...

Thanks for the feedback Tom!

While I definitely don't think there's any middle ground between truth and falsehood, I certainly think there is variance when it comes to precision and also certainty. For instance, I can understand roughly what an author's intent was and produce a true statement about that without being completely precise about it. And with certainty, it might be the case that we regard some interpretations as merely more probable than any other without regarding them as being certain enough to be considered correct. But that is an issue of knowledge rather than truth.

You raise an interesting question with your poetry example. I think if an author wrote and published a poem without any intended meaning that would be the only time when several interpretations could be equally correct (or perhaps more to the point, equally incorrect in presuming the author had a meaningful intent.) It gets quite interesting however, if the author produces a work without intent and then recognises some significance behind it. It actually brings me to a detail I skipped over in this blog entry. The reality our interpretations match up to is not just the author's intent at any time, but the author's intent at the point of delivery.

In your example the author produces a work without an intended meaning. At this point of delivery no interpretation of the poem could be correct for there is no intent to correspond to. If the author however later sees some personal significance to the poem, this situation could change depending on what the author does. There are two choices. The author could choose to acknowledge that while he/she has found some personal significance to the poem, the meaning attached to this significance was not intended, and so properly speaking the poem is still not saying anything and the poem could be published without the intent of expressing the new found personal significance. Alternatively the author could choose to retransmit the same poem but with the intended purpose of conveying his/her personal significance. At this point of delivery the text now says something and it is possible for some interpretations to be right and others wrong.