On Validity in Interpretation


I have two volumes of critical theory, and an excerpt that appears in both of them is a selection from E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Validy in Interpretation. I just got the full book, because I’m fascinated by the argument. This is one of those things where I’ve made a complete reversal of opinion over the course of this blog. Let’s start at the beginning.

If you’re unfamiliar academic literary criticism, there was a period of time starting around the early 40’s (still kind of going on) where literary theorists thought a text could stand on its own. It began with Wimsatt and Beardsley’s The Intentional Fallacy, which argued that the intention of the author shouldn’t matter when interpreting a text. The text would make you feel something. The symbols and themes would mean something to you. And that was how it should be, since you were the one doing the interpreting.

That description is an oversimplification, because these were complicated academic papers making these arguments. The nail in the coffin of the author came a bit later with Barthe’s Death of the Author. This school of thought was roughly associated with something called “New Criticism.” The New Critics argued for doing close readings of a text, and this came to dominate the scene so much that we were all taught this as the only way to analyze literature.

It is extremely difficult to get out of this mode of thinking, because we were taught to think this way in school. When talking about literature, we are told there are no wrong answers. We can come up with a theory of what the book is about and then find passages to support it. We get an A if we do this successfully. What is interesting is that despite the fact that this is what people will publicly espouse, everyone secretly believes that there are wrong answers.

The whole point of this post was to point out that we recognize some interpretations as nonsense even if they are well-supported. But we’ve been taught this New Criticism stuff so thoroughly that it becomes impossible to call someone out on it. This is because most people aren’t familiar with a philosophy of literature that allows you to talk about valid versus invalid interpretations. Isn’t the whole point of an interpretation that it is personal and can change from person to person? I say no. If a text can mean anything to anyone, then it doesn’t really mean anything.

Hirsch gives us a way out of this bind with Validity in Interpretation, published in 1967. The excerpt I’ve read is the first chapter, and it is brilliant. Before going on to describe a positive theory of validity, he first goes through and dispels the common objections to a notion of validity for interpretation. That’s what the rest of this post will be. Note that Hirsch’s argument is a whole chapter of a book, so I can’t do it justice here. I just want to give an overview.

Counterargument 1: The meaning of the text changes (throughout time), even to the author. Thus, the original intention of the author should be irrelevant.

This is obviously nonsense. The example used to support this is of authors that reject their old work. But it isn’t the meaning of the text that has changed, but the author’s attitudes or opinions. If the meaning had changed with the author, then the author would have no need to reject it. In this example, the changed author still recognizes the original meaning as the meaning.

Counterargument 2: It doesn’t matter what the author means, only what the text says.

To expand on this argument a bit, it often appears in a different form: an author may intend something, but not have the technique to effectively convey that meaning. This is part of the argument in The Intentionally Fallacy. A text must be evaluated on what it does and not on what the author intends it to do.

We must pull apart a few distinct concepts here. If the point is evaluation, then the intention is important. We can’t evaluate whether the author effectively conveyed their meaning without first knowing their intended meaning. The other concept is meaning.

The only way to successfully argue that authorial intent doesn’t matter is to find examples where there is a consensus that a text meant one thing and the author intended something different. The New Critics use this example as a thought experiment, but in reality no such example exists. Even if these examples were abundant, then we wouldn’t need to have a theory of interpretation at all, because everyone would agree to the valid interpretation confirming the fact of validity in interpretation.

Counterargument 3: We can never truly know what the author meant, because we are not the author.

Implicitly, this argument is asking: why bother trying something that is an impossibility? First, we don’t have to be the author to claim that a certain proposed meaning is highly improbable. To take Beardsley’s own example, a poem in 1744 in reference to God, “He raised his plastic arm.” We know beyond all doubt that “plastic” was not intended to mean the material that wasn’t invented yet.

All a theory of validity involving authorial intent is trying to do is bring up a range of possible valid meanings. There can be interpretations that hit every part of the spectrum from highly likely to literally impossible (as the above example). We get around the problem of knowledge of the author’s internal states by using probabilities.

One more thing. Certainty is also impossible in science, but that doesn’t mean it is not worthwhile to try to understand what is happening in the universe around us. Similarly, being certain of what the author intended is impossible, but it is still worthwhile to try to reconstruct the possible intentions.

Counterargument 4: The author often doesn’t even know what they mean.

The example given is that Kant claimed to understand Plato better than Plato himself. This is a subject/meaning confusion. Kant doesn’t understand what Plato meant better than Plato. He better understands the subject matter.

The other example is where someone makes a compelling case that an author had an unconscious meaning that came out in the artistic process, but was not intended. Hirsch beautifully counters by asking, “How can an author mean something he did not mean?” In other words, things that come out from subconscious processes are still part of the author’s meaning.

That’s it. All common objections to authorial intent and validity in interpretation have been dealt with. Hirsch can proceed to constructing the theory. I’m quite excited to read it!

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