Validity in Interpretation Chapter 3


Today we will look at the third chapter of E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Validity in Interpretation. In case you haven’t read the early posts, these are notes I’ve taken while reading it. I’ll make it clear when I’m inserting personal comments.

He opens up by recalling a few basic ideas from the philosophy of language, notably Saussure and Wittgenstein. He points out that some of the ideas from Chapter two relate to Saussure’s idea of parole vs langue or actuality vs possibility. The more important idea comes from Wittgenstein’s language games.

This chapter is about the importance of genre in interpretation. He illustrates this by pointing out that even if all people knew all the rules for all the games, they could still disagree on which game they were playing. Thus, identifying the language game (i.e. genre) is of utmost importance.

He gives an anecdote. His students misunderstand a Donne poem they think is about death. They come in with a genre preconception, and everything they find in the poem supports it. This skews their interpretation. One must determine the genre first, otherwise you will fulfill your expectations and miss the intended meaning.

Hirsch also points to a study done where students analyzed poems with no title or author given. There were as many interpretations as students. The author pinpoints a time period and style, and the title helps further specify the genre. These markers are important for interpretation.

He then discusses the standard hermeneutic paradox: to understand a part, you must understand the whole in which it resides; but to understand the whole, you must understand the individual parts that make up the whole. Of course, many people try to escape the hermeneutic circle by saying you can keep circling from part to whole to part to whole getting a little bit better understanding of each until you develop a deep understanding.

Hirsch claims that using the terms “trait” and “genre” rather than “part” and “whole” solves the paradox, but then admits a similar problem persists: genre “is apparently not something stable, but something that varies in the process of understanding.”

In the next section, he goes on to describe something called “intrinsic genre.” “Understanding can occur only if the interpreter proceeds under the same system of expectations, and this shared generic conception, constitutive both of meaning and of understanding, is the intrinsic genre of the utterance.”

Hirsch takes the opening lines of Paradise Lost for an example. He gives an alternate way to phrase part of it. This altered phrase has a subtly altered verbal meaning, yet the intrinsic genre stays the same. This illustrates that the same intrinsic genre can have several verbal meanings associated to it. He goes on to refine the definition: “It is the sense of the whole by means of which an interpreter can correctly understand any part in its determinacy.”

He describes extrinsic genre as the more familiar use of the term genre. It is a broad starting heuristic such as calling Paradise Lost a Christian-humanist epic poem. One of the main tasks of interpreting is rejecting the extrinsic genre for the more nuanced intrinsic genre by examining what is written.

The next section is about genre in solving the problem of implication. This is vital, because interpretive disagreements tend to be centered on whether a meaning is implied. Since implied meanings are logical implications (if P, then Q), we can rephrase the disagreement in terms of intrinsic genre. If P is the correct intrinsic genre, then the words imply Q.

Hirsch admits we can never be sure we have grasped the correct intrinsic genre, but this rephrasing of implication at least lets us have the right conversation in our disagreements. Personal example: If this statement is ironic, then the literal interpretation is incorrect. Everyone agrees to that. Now the discussion is on the internal evidence to tell whether the intrinsic genre of that sentence is irony.

Each intrinsic genre has a set of conventions attached which help in interpretation. Hirsch gives the interesting example of someone who took a sentence of prose from a source and inserted line breaks to make the same words into a poem. Some say the words are the same, so they must have the same meaning. Others say (including Hirsch) the intrinsic genres are different, and hence the same words must be interpreted in different ways. Interpretation depends on genre.

The next section is on the historicity of genres. New genres come from combining earlier ones or from sudden insight by changing conventions. Sometimes genre is a useful tool for interpreters that wasn’t in the thoughts of the writer. Often this is not the case. For example, a poet who writes a sonnet did not do it on accident. The conventions and implications that go with a sonnet were part of the poet’s intention.

Genre in broad terms is the “common elements in a narrow group of texts which have direct historical relationships.” Personal note: historical relationship is key here. Think of early modernist poetry where poets used the form and content of the sonnet in subversive ways. One cannot interpret those in the same way you would a sonnet of Shakespeare.

The last section argues that this intrinsic genre idea is not just a hodge-podge method where every text must be interpreted using different procedures. The proposal fits under one unifying principle. “…the proper categories are nevertheless always determined by a universal principle–namely, their appropriateness to the intrinsic genre of a text… To be more blunt, there is no such thing as the philosophical interpretation of philosophy or the literary interpretation of literature, but there emphatically is such a thing as the intrinsic interpretation of a text.”

Hirsch gives a good example from a math text. He gives two passages that consist of the same math statements, but one has been rewritten in a different style. He points out that a valid literary analysis interprets them as having different meanings, because stylistic concerns affect meaning in literature. The one is authoritative, cold, and forceful with its active verbs and clean prose. The other is passive and timid with stray, sloppy words.

This is an example of an incorrect interpretation due to the intrinsic genre. Maybe one of the two is preferable, but they have the same meaning. In the intrinsic genre, indicated by phrases like “areas of triangles,” we must understand the intended verbal meaning consists of the mathematical statements being made. The style is not intended to have content that affects the meaning.

To bring this back to the terminology of Chapter 2, the fact that the author changes to passive voice and includes extraneous words is a symptomatic implication which must be rejected in interpretation. The symptom stems from the author wanting to change the prose to not sound so repetitive. He didn’t intend it to affect the meaning.

The last two examples are also enlightening, but this post is getting long. The first asks whether the Freudian interpretation of Hamlet is valid. Hirsch says no, because Hamlet does not want to sleep with his mother under Shakespeare’s willed type. Important Note: Hirsch does not reject the Freudian interpretation on the grounds that Freud’s theory came after Shakespeare, and so could not be part of the willed type.

It is possible that part of an author’s intended meaning encompasses things that do not exist yet. An example is a legal document that says all wheeled vehicles using a public road must come to a stop at a red light. If in the future hover cars without wheels are using a public road, the intended meaning of “wheeled vehicles” encompasses them. To go back to the original example, pre-Freud characters can be interpreted through Freud if the internal evidence points to the character wanting to sleep with their mother.

Lastly, recall from Chapter 2 the discussion of the role of implication. Part of Shakespeare’s intent was to embrace the widest possible range of implications about human nature. Thus the Oedipal interpretation could be valid. The mistake comes from forcing Oedipal implications that do not exist intrinsically as part of the willed type.

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