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Validity in Interpretation. Reading Guide to the selection from E. D. Hirsch’s book, reprinted in Ross. How do we decide what is the right interpretation of a text?. “Banishing the author”

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validity in interpretation

Validity in Interpretation

Reading Guide to the selection from

E. D. Hirsch’s book,

reprinted in Ross

how do we decide what is the right interpretation of a text
How do we decide what is the right interpretation of a text?
  • “Banishing the author”
    • Hirsch says it’s common sense that a text means what the author means by it. It’s common sense, but lots of people don’t believe it anymore. He’s referring to writers like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, to Heidegger and Jung, and to the American philosophers Beardsley and Wimsatt.
    • Hirsch proposes not to banish the author. Rather, the author is the authority on what the text means.
banishing the author continued
Banishing the Author (continued)
  • You don’t need to banish the author in order to pay close attention to his or her text (p.333).
  • In fact, by banishing the author theorists have introduced the critic; somebody must be the final authority on what a text means.
  • If you want the text to have a determinate meaning, it will have to be the meaning that the author intended.
hirsch refutes objections
Hirsch refutes objections
  • Objection 1: changeable meaning (p. 335).
  • It is thought that meaning changes, either from time to time, depending on historical circumstances, or from reader to reader, depending on individual psychology.
  • But this is just wrong. The meaning of the text does not change, for the author; what may change is the author’s reaction to the text (she may come to disagree with or dislike it).
changeable meaning cont
Changeable meaning (cont.)
  • Notice that Hirsch has skipped over the change of meaning to readers. He will deal with this topic in the next sections.
objection 2 the text not the author determines meaning
Objection 2: The text, not the author, determines meaning
  • What was called (in the 1960’s) “The New Criticism” made the text, not the author, the authority about its meaning.
  • The reasoning behind this is that language has (relatively) fixed meanings. Humpty-Dumpty might have claimed that “a word means what I want it to mean,” but authors can’t really do that to language (see middle p. 338, on Wimsatt & Beardsley).
semantic autonomy objection continued
Semantic Autonomy objection (continued)
  • The semantic autonomy objection fails because there is never any clear consensus on what a text means. So “if a text means what it says (to its readers), then it does not mean anything in particular.
  • Question: how would you measure this view of Hirsch against the common phenomenon of misspeaking (saying something different from what you mean)?
the unavailability objection
The unavailability objection
  • How can we know what an author meant? Especially if it’s someone from many years ago. The thoughts of the author aren’t available to us.
  • Hirsch responds: of course we can’t know for certain what the author meant. But we can very often make a well educated guess; and that is almost always good enough. In any case, as with most human affairs, it’s the best we can do.
sometimes the author doesn t know what he means
Sometimes the author doesn’t know what he means
  • Can an author say more than he or she means?
  • No, says Hirsch.
  • Case 1: Kant says that “not even Plato knew what he meant,” however Kant thought he knew. This isn’t Kant knowing what Plato meant better than Plato did, says Hirsch, though it might be Kant having a better understanding of the topic in question than Plato had.
authorial ignorance continued
Authorial ignorance (continued)
  • Case 2: An author might mean more than she is consciously aware of.
  • Hirsch responds: Yes, that’s true. But unconscious intention is still intention. What you unconsciously mean is still something that you mean.
  • Question: Does this response of Hirsch work for you? Suppose you took Jung’s view of the unconscious. Would the response still work?
hirsch s bottom line
Hirsch’s bottom line
  • It is true that a text can only communicate meaning by means of its words. But it does not have its meaning independently of its author’s intention. And in general, words don’t have a meaning independent of their use by speakers of a language. That is, they depend on intention for their meaning.