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Schleiermacher and others (key ideas)

Schleiermacher lectured on hermeneutics frequently between 1805 and 1833. The following
are his main principles:

(a) Hermeneutics is strictly the theory of understanding linguistic communication—as


contrasted, not equated, with explicating, applying, or translating it.

(b) Hermeneutics should be a universal discipline—i.e., one that applies equally to all
subjects areas (such as the Bible, law, and literature), to oral as well as to written language, to
modern texts as well as to ancient ones, to works in one’s own language as well as to works
in foreign languages, and so forth.

(c) In particular, the interpretation of sacred texts such as the Bible is included within it—
this may not rely on special principles, such as divine inspiration (either of the author or of
the interpreter).

(d) Interpretation is a much more difficult task than is generally realized: contrary to a
common misconception that “understanding occurs as a matter of course”, in fact
“misunderstanding occurs as a matter of course, and so understanding must be willed and
sought at every point”.

(e) It is essential to distinguish clearly between the question of the meaning of a text or
discourse and the question of its truth. Assuming that a text or discourse must be true will
often lead to serious misinterpretation.

(f) Before the interpretation proper of a text or discourse can even begin, the interpreter
must acquire a good knowledge of its historical context. (The suggestion found in some of the
secondary literature that Schleiermacher thinks that historical context is irrelevant to
interpretation is absurd.)

(g) Interpretation proper always has two sides: one linguistic, the other psychological.
Linguistic interpretation’s task consists in inferring from evidence that consists in particular
actual uses of words to the rules that are governing them, i.e., to their usages and thus to
their meanings; psychological interpretation instead focuses on an author’s psychology.
Linguistic interpretation is mainly concerned with what is common or shared in a language;
psychological interpretation mainly with what is distinctive to a particular author.
(h) Schleiermacher implies several reasons why an interpreter needs to complement
linguistic interpretation with psychological in this way. First, he sees such a need as arising
from the deep linguistic and conceptual-intellectual distinctiveness of individuals. This
distinctiveness at the level of individuals leads to the problem for linguistic interpretation
that the actual uses of words that are available to serve as evidence from which to infer an
author’s exact usage or meaning will usually be relatively few in number and poor in
contextual variety—a problem which an appeal to authorial psychology is supposed to help
solve by providing additional clues. Second, an appeal to the author’s psychology is also
required in order to resolve ambiguities at the level of linguistic meaning that arise in
particular contexts (i.e., even after the range of meanings available to the author for the
word(s) in question is known). Third, in order fully to understand a linguistic act one needs
to know not only its linguistic meaning but also what more recent philosophers have called
its “illocutionary force” or intention. For example, if I encounter a stranger by a frozen lake
who says to me, “The ice is thin over there”, in order fully to understand his utterance I need
to know not only its linguistic meaning (which in this case is clear) but also whether it is
being made as a factual observation, a threat, a joke, or whatnot.

(i) Interpretation also requires two different methods: a “comparative” method (i.e., a method
of plain induction), which Schleiermacher sees as predominating on the linguistic side of
interpretation, where it takes the interpreter from the particular uses of a word to the rule
for use that governs them all; and a “divinatory” method (i.e., a method of tentative, fallible
hypothesis based on but also going well beyond the empirical evidence available; the
etymology to keep in mind here is not so much Latin divinus, which would point toward
prophecy, but rather French deviner, to guess or conjecture), which he sees as predominating
on the psychological side of interpretation. (The widespread notion in the secondary
literature that “divination” is for Schleiermacher a process of psychological self-projection
into texts contains a grain of truth, in that he does think that interpretation requires some
measure of psychological common ground between interpreter and interpretee, but is
basically mistaken.)

(j) Ideal interpretation is of its nature a holistic activity (this principle in part rests on but
also goes well beyond Schleiermacher’s semantic holism). In particular, any given piece of
text needs to be interpreted in light of the whole text to which it belongs, and both need to
be interpreted in light of the broader language in which they are written, their larger
historical context, a broader pre-existing genre, the author’s whole corpus, and the author’s
overall psychology. Such holism introduces a pervasive circularity into interpretation, for,
ultimately, interpreting these broader items in its turn depends on interpreting such pieces of
text. Schleiermacher does not see this circle as vicious, however. Why not? His solution is
not that all of these tasks should be accomplished simultaneously—for that would far exceed
human capacities. Rather, it essentially lies in the (very plausible) thought that
understanding is not an all-or-nothing matter but instead something that comes in degrees,
so that it is possible to make progress toward full understanding in a piecemeal way. For
example, concerning the relation between a piece of text and the whole text to which it
belongs, Schleiermacher recommends that we first read through and interpret as best we can
each of the parts of the text in turn in order thereby to arrive at an approximate overall
interpretation of the text, and that we then apply this approximate overall interpretation in
order to refine our initial interpretations of each of the particular parts, which in turn gives
us an improved overall interpretation, which can then be re-applied toward still further
refinement of the interpretations of the parts, and so on indefinitely. 1

Johann Herder’s theories of interpretation and translation both rest on a certain epoch-
making insight of his: Whereas such eminent Enlightenment philosopher-historians as
Hume and Voltaire had normally still held that, as Hume put it, “mankind are so much the
same in all times and places that history informs us of nothing new or strange” (1748: section
VIII, part I, 65), Herder discovered, or at least saw more clearly than anyone before him, that
this was false, that people from different historical periods and cultures vary tremendously in
their concepts, beliefs, values, (perceptual and affective) sensations, and so forth. He also
recognized that similar, albeit usually less dramatic, variations occur even between
individuals within a single period and culture.

Herder espouses three further important principles in interpretation-theory:

A principle of secularism in interpretation: Contrary to a practice that was still common in


Herder’s day in relation to the Bible, the interpretation of texts must never rely on religious
assumptions or means, even when the texts are sacred ones, but must instead rely only on
secular ones. (This principle is already prominent in Herder’s writings on biblical
interpretation from the 1760s.)

A principle of generic interpretation. In addition to the nature of a work’s meanings,


interpretation must also identify the nature of its genre (i.e., roughly, a certain set of general
purposes and rules that it aspires to realize and conform to). As in the case of meanings,
genres vary from age to age, culture to culture, and even individual to individual, and the
interpreter therefore faces, and needs to resist, constant temptations falsely to assimilate a
work’s genre to others with which he happens to be more familiar (for example,
Shakespearean “tragedy” to Sophoclean “tragedy”, or vice versa).

A principle of methodological empiricism in interpretation: Interpretation must always be


based on, and kept faithful to, exact observations of relevant linguistic (and other) evidence.
This applies when the interpreter investigates word-usages in order to discover meanings (a
1
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/schleiermacher/#HermIeTheoInte
point that is already prominent in the Fragments); when he makes conjectures about an
author’s psychology; and when he attempts to pin down a work’s genre, or the purposes and
rules that constitute it.

Herder insists on a principle of holism in interpretation. This principle rests on several


motives, including the following: (1) Parts of a text taken in isolation are typically ambiguous
in various ways (in relation to background linguistic possibilities). In order to resolve such
ambiguities, an interpreter needs the guidance provided by surrounding text. (2) That
problem arises once a range of possible linguistic meanings is established for a piece of text.
But in the case of a text that is separated from the interpreter by radical mental difference,
knowledge of such a range itself presents a problem. How is he to pin down the range of
possible meanings, i.e., possible usages, for a word? This requires a collation of the word’s
actual uses and an inference from these to the rules that govern them, i.e., to their usages, a
collation that in turn requires looking to remoter contexts in which the same word occurs or
in short: holism. (3) Authors typically write a work as a whole, conveying ideas not only in
its particular parts but also through the way in which these fit together to make up a whole.
Consequently, readings that fail to interpret the work as a whole will miss essential aspects of
its meaning—both the ideas in question themselves and meanings of the particular parts on
which they shed important light.2

Herder’s theory of interpretation had an enormous and beneficial impact on subsequent


hermeneutics. His theory was taken over almost in its entirety by Schleiermacher in his
much more famous lectures on hermeneutics, delivered during the first third of the
nineteenth century. In particular, such fundamental and famous positions in
Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics as his supplementing of “linguistic” with “psychological”
interpretation and his identification of “divination” as the main method of the latter are due
entirely to Herder. Moreover, where Herder and Schleiermacher do occasionally disagree
concerning interpretation, Herder’s position almost always turns out to be philosophically
superior on inspection.

2
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/herder/#TheoInte
How texts were interpreted through hermeneutic approach –
grammatical interpretation and psychological interpretation

The seperation of form from meaning seems to begin with Schleiermacher's sense of the
need for a 'psychological' as well as 'grammatical' or literal reading of texts. Grammatical
study is concerned with the meanings of and interconnections between individual words,
but not with form or structure in an aesthetic sense. Psychological reading, on the other
hand, understands the text from within and thus breaks the hermeneutic circle. It seeks an
'identification with the author' through a return to the point of origin of a text. For
psychological reading requires readers to engage in a more conservative version, making the
text our own, in order to grasp it as part of our lives and not just a historical document.
Because the concept of application locates the significance of the text partly in its effect on
the reader, it raises a problem implicit in psychological reading as well: namely, that
meaning is not something that remains suspended until it is confirmed through
understanding and enactment.

F. A. Wolf posits three complementary methods of reading: the grammatical, the historical
and the philosophic. Grammatical interpretation is concerned with the signifier , historical
interpretation is concerned with the text»s contexts, and philosophic interpretation
counteracts the centrifugal tendencies of history and biography by returning to what the text
says. 3

3
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt207g6qj.7?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
Subjectivity/ objectivity in text interpretation

Hirsch “In defense of the author”

In his essay “In Defense of the Author,” E.D. Hirsch sets out to defend authorial intent as the
normative hermeneutical factor of a text. Hirsch adopts a defensive posture throughout the
essay, seemingly because of the prevailing opinions of certain literary theorists. Hirsch quotes
Northrop Frye at the beginning of the essay, but references other thinkers ranging from T.S.
Eliot to Carl Jung and Martin Heidegger to Roland Barthes. The common thread that Hirsch sees
running through these diverse thinkers is that they each would deny the author's intended
meaning as what defines validity in the interpretation of a text. Hirsch's claim is that authorial
intent is precisely what determines the validity of an interpretation and gives the text a fixed
meaning; in order to accomplish this, he argues against four different arguments that seek to
“banish” an author from her text.

Hirsch briefly provides some positive arguments before defending his position against
arguments that argue for semantic autonomy. The most important of these is that “meaning is
an affair of consciousness not of words.” 4 Here Hirsch states that while there are multiple
legitimate meanings of a word in a given language, the word or word sequence only acquires
meaning when a person intends to mean something by using it. He shows that conflicting
interpretations of a text prove that multiple legitimate meanings for a word or word sequence
exist, and argues that this also highlights his essential question: how do we determine which of
the conflicting interpretations is valid? Hirsch contends that if it is granted that the author's
intention is not normative then we are left in the relativity of a “chaotic democracy of
'readings.'”5

After this, Hirsch examines an argument that contends meaning in a text changes, even for
the author. Hirsch does not address whether meaning in general can change, but does seek to

4
Hirsch Jr., E.D. “In Defense of the Author.” in The Philosophy of Art. Neill, Alex and Aaron Ridley, eds. 392.
5
Hirsch 393.
disprove what he calls the “psychologistic view,” which essentially argues that the author's
intended meaning of a fixed text 3 can change over time. Hirsch argues for a distinction
between meaning and significance for the author, holding that while the significance of a
certain text for an author can change, the meaning cannot. This understanding follows
directly from Hirsch's earlier comments about meaning as an affair of consciousness;
meaning is the fixed intention of an author's use of signs. By contrast, the significance of a
text is the relationship between the author and the meaning.

Next, Hirsch takes up the argument that only what an author's text says matters, not what
the author means. Here Hirsch points out that proponents of semantic autonomy often cite
the example of T.S. Eliot, who repeatedly refused to comment on the meanings of his texts.
However, he points out that Eliot did not assert that he had no intended meaning in a given
text. Hirsch suggests that, because of this, we can attempt to find out what he meant; in
writing a text, Eliot's task had a “determinate object,” which is his meaning. It follows then
that Eliot accomplished this task correctly or incorrectly, and determining this is the task
that Hirsch ascribes to the critic. According to Hirsch, then, it is fallacious to try to
distinguish what a text says from the author's intended meaning. Similarly, Hirsch holds that
the notion of public consensus governing the interpretation has no empirical foundation
outside of authorial intent.

Following this, Hirsch contends that an argument which states that the author's meaning is
inaccessible to the reader is rooted in an untenable distinction between the public fact of
language and the private fact of the author's intended meaning. Hirsch simply notes that he
has not encountered an interpretation that has inferred a truly private meaning from a text.
Additionally, Hirsch argues that it is incorrect to dismiss authorial intention because we
cannot get inside of an author's head to reproduce his original meaning. He calls this process a
“meaning experience,” but argues that it is a separate issue from the textual meaning; while
“meaning experiences” are private, they are not meanings in a strict sense. Finally, Hirsch
examines the argument that the author often doesn't know what she means. He gives the
examples of Plato's attack on the poets and Kant insisting that he knew what Plato meant
better than Plato. Such cases may prove that the author is not always conscious of an intended
meaning, but it does not follow that, using the example above, Kant understands Plato's
meaning better than Plato. What Kant understands better is Plato's given subject matter, in this
case the Ideas. As such, according to Hirsch, authorial ignorance has hardly any “theoretical
significance” in relation to the author's meaning. Hirsch's defense of the author is clearly set
forth, but his defensive posture seems to betray an unsubstantiated burden of proof that runs
throughout his essay. Hirsch seems to take it for granted that the burden of proof lies with
those who support “semantic autonomy.” While he does set forth a quick argument about
meaning as an affair of consciousness, he does not offer the reader any argument in favor of
authorial intent. Perhaps it will be argued that Hirsch clearly dismantles arguments in favor of
semantic autonomy, but it should be noted that Hirsch formulates these arguments himself and
mostly refers to those that he sets himself up against in passing. This is fine, but these negative,
general arguments are not persuasive for a proponent of semantic autonomy or someone who
is undecided. Why should it be granted that the author has autonomy but her text does not?
Each of Hirsch's points follow directly from the presupposition of authorial autonomy, and if
this foundation is not established, the reader who will agree with Hirsch in arguing for authorial
intent as the normative hermeneutical factor in interpreting a fixated meaning must simply
presume such a state of affairs to be the case. The notion of a “chaotic democracy of readings”
undergirds Hirsch's defense of authorial intent, but Stanley Fish has argued that simply because
we recognize meaning and interpretation as contextual, it does not follow that meaning is
relative. Or, more pointedly, meaning is not relative in the sense that “anything goes,” but
meaning and interpretation happen within a particular shared context, in which communities
live and communicate confidently. As such, Fish argues, the kind of relativism which Hirsch
fears is not a possible mode of being. 6 Thus, instead of a fixed authorial intention as normative
for meaning, Fish insists that we must first acknowledge that communication always occurs in a
certain context, and that in this context, there already exist shared structures of assumptions.
To acknowledge this fact about our understanding is to remove the author's intention as
authoritatively constitutive of meaning, but does not erase the possibility of interpreting and
communicating confidently within a community.

It must be granted that authorial intent can be a helpful factor in understanding a text, but as
the sole normative and controlling factor, it closes off the writing in such a way as to silence
other plausible meanings of a text. Fish's understanding of meaning as taking place within the
context of a community better speaks to how a question such as “Is there a text in this class?”

6
Fish, Stanley. “Is There a Text in This Class?” in The Philosophy of Art. Neill, Alex and Aaron Ridley, eds. 457
can have multiple meanings; these meanings depend on the context of which the one who
hears the question hears it, not the ability of the speaker to infuse her words with a particular
meaning. In this sense, context is all we have, and we must not shy away from this in our
understanding of a text.7

R. Barthes “The Death of the Author”

In his ''The Death of the Author'' essay, Barthes argues against the method of reading and
criticism that relies on aspects of the author's identity to distill meaning from the author's
work. In this type of criticism against which he argues, the experiences and biases of the
author serve as a definitive "explanation" of the text. For Barthes, however, this method of
reading may be apparently tidy and convenient but is actually sloppy and flawed: "To give a
text an author" and assign a single, corresponding interpretation to it "is to impose a limit on
that text."

Readers must thus, according to Barthes, separate a literary work from its creator in order to
liberate the text from interpretive tyranny. Each piece of writing contains multiple layers
and meanings. In a well-known quotation, Barthes draws an analogy between text and
textiles, declaring that a "text is a tissue [or fabric] of quotations," drawn from "innumerable
centers of culture," rather than from one, individual experience. The essential meaning of a
work depends on the impressions of the reader, rather than the "passions" or "tastes" of the
writer; "a text's unity lies not in its origins," or its creator, "but in its destination," or its
audience.

No longer the focus of creative influence, the author is merely a "scriptor" (a word Barthes
uses expressively to disrupt the traditional continuity of power between the terms "author"
and "authority"). The scriptor exists to produce but not to explain the work and "is born
simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the
writing, [and] is not the subject with the book as predicate." Every work is "eternally written

7
file:///C:/Users/%D0%B0%D0%B4%D0%BC%D0%B8%D0%BD/Downloads/16342973-A-Fish-Out-of-Water-E-D-
Hirsch-on-Interpretation.pdf
here and now," with each re-reading, because the "origin" of meaning lies exclusively in
"language itself" and its impressions on the reader.

Barthes notes that the traditional critical approach to literature raises a thorny problem: how
can we detect precisely what the writer intended? His answer is that we cannot. He
introduces this notion of intention in the epigraph to the essay, taken from Honoré de
Balzac's story Sarrasine in which a male protagonist mistakes a castrato for a woman and falls
in love with him. When, in the passage, the character dotes over his perceived womanliness,
Barthes challenges his own readers to determine who is speaking, and about what. "Is it
Balzac the author professing 'literary' ideas on femininity? Is it universal wisdom? Romantic
psychology? ... We can never know." Writing, "the destruction of every voice," defies
adherence to a single interpretation or perspective.

Acknowledging the presence of this idea (or variations of it) in the works of previous
writers, Barthes cited in his essay the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who said that "it is language
which speaks." He also recognized Marcel Proust as being "concerned with the task of
inexorably blurring ... the relation between the writer and his characters"; the Surrealist
movement for employing the practice of "automatic writing" to express "what the head itself
is unaware of"; and the field of linguistics as a discipline for "showing that the whole of
enunciation is an empty process." Barthes' articulation of the death of the author is a radical
and drastic recognition of this severing of authority and authorship. Instead of discovering a
"single 'theological' meaning (the 'message' of the Author-God)," readers of a text discover
that writing, in reality, constitutes "a multi-dimensional space," which cannot be
"deciphered," only "disentangled."

"Refusing to assign a 'secret', an ultimate meaning" to text "liberates what may be called an
anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse meaning is, in
the end, to refuse God and his hypostases—reason, science, law."8

8
Roland Barthes' "The Death of the Author''