Validity in Interpretation Chapter 2


I thought my last post would be the only one on this topic. Then I realized, if I’m reading the book, why not just take notes on it and post them? My goal is to give a good enough summary so that later, if I want to recall what was in a particular chapter, I can figure it out from this. I’ll also try to be explicit where I’m adding my own thoughts (which should be minimal).

Chapter 2 begins with a positive argument for developing a notion of validity in interpretation. The first chapter addressed common objections. This one begins by pointing out that one major purpose of art is to expand your mind with other people’s thoughts and actions and to feel what others have felt. If we take the usual modern approach that anything can mean anything to anyone, then you have a Rorschach inkblot test and will only encounter yourself.

Chapter 2 is all about showing that the author’s intended verbal meaning provides a viable principle for measuring the validity of an interpretation. Hirsch states that such a principle must be determinate, reproducible, and able to deal with the problem of implication. The subsections of the chapter deal with each of these.

First, we need to know what is meant by verbal meaning. Hirsch says, “Verbal meaning is whatever someone has willed to convey by a particular sequence of linguistic signs and which can be conveyed (shared) by means of those linguistic signs.” He explains how verbal meaning is variable and context dependent, but not indeterminate. For example, we should be careful of “the Humpty-Dumpty effect” (based on the scene in Through the Looking Glass where Humpty-Dumpty insists his name means the shape that he has). We can’t just say words at random and expect them to mean something because we claim they do.

The next section is on whether we can actually reproduce the intended meaning. First, he admits that interpreters can misunderstand an intended meaning, but the fact that mistakes happen does not invalidate the idea of reproducibility. It is a logical fallacy to argue that something is impossible in theory by pointing to a specific example. The person that objects has to demonstrate that such misunderstandings always occur. Hirsch points out that we will never know such a thing, and hence it cannot be used as a valid objection.

The most common objection to reproducibility comes from the empirico-psychologistic notion of perception which says that we never encounter anything in real life. We merely encounter our perception of things. For example: That isn’t a table you see, but your perception of the table. This type of objection disappears if you are careful in distinguishing meaning vs significance (a central theme of the whole book). Verbal meaning is the thing itself (the table or the author’s intended meaning), and significance is your relationship to the thing (your perception of the table or your particular reading of the text).

There is also a radical historical skepticist objection to reproducibility which says that we can never understand the writings of a different time period, because we do not have the linguistic, cultural, and so on perspective for a proper understanding of the verbal meaning. This radical form of criticism should not be confused with the healthy version (which Hirsch admits is true) that an interpreter will always encounter some difficulties if the culture is too far removed.

Personal note: The odd thing about the radical skeptic view is how backwards it has often proved to be in reality. How many times have we seen a poet or writer be completely misinterpreted and torn down by their contemporaries only to be better understood by later generations? This is especially true of really old texts in which we have a good general understanding of the culture and etymology of words that people living at that time never could have known.

The next concept Hirsch moves to is determinacy. Determinacy is necessary to share meaning, because something without boundaries would have no identity to share with someone. He upgrades his terminology, “Now verbal meaning can be defined more particularly as a willed type which an author expresses by linguistic symbols and which can be understood by another through those symbols.”

A type is defined to be something that has boundary and can be fully understood through one instance, but can always be represented by more than one instance. My example: The concept of snow is a type, because the word “snow” is an instance that has that verbal meaning. Another, different instance would be “that white stuff that falls from the sky in winter.” Both instances have the same verbal meaning, and the verbal meaning can be recovered in full from any instance.

Personal note: I think of this in terms of computer science. You can make a class in object oriented programming, and you can make instances of that class. One instance may not have enough information to recover what the class contains, so this is not a type…it is a class (Hirsch uses the same terms but isn’t thinking of computer science).

The next section is about the difference between unconscious and symptomatic meanings. The main point is that verbal meaning may contain things that come subconsciously. Verbal meaning does not contain things are unintended due to symptoms of something else. The example is a boy who has a tell when he lies. The tell is symptomatic of not wanting to lie, but it is not part of the verbal meaning of the lie. The tell changes our interpretation to something that was not verbally intended by the boy, and that’s why we should not include it.

Personal note: Something makes me feel funny about this section. Even though the example makes it clear why we do not want symptomatic meaning to influence our interpretation, nothing will be that clear in pure writing. I’m not sure in practice it is ever possible to determine the difference between symptomatic and unconscious meaning. Suppose a story has sexist undertones the author is not aware of. Do we consider this symptomatic of the author’s sexism or is it an unconscious intended part of the story? Since we are allowed to include symptomatic meaning in the significance of the work, maybe this doesn’t matter very much.

There is then another section on the difference between meaning and subject matter which we discussed last time. The last section is about implication. (Personal note:) This seems a thorny issue given little space, so I hope it comes up again later. The main point is that implication is a learned convention, because it relies on the reader’s past experience with a given shared type. He explains it by analogy: an implication belongs to a meaning as a trait belongs to a type.

That ends the chapter. The next chapter is about genre and context which should be interesting.

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