Validity in Interpretation Chapter 5

You know the drill by now. These are just notes from my reading of E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Validity in Interpretation. We have finally reached the last chapter. The main thrust of this last chapter is on how to tell whether our interpretation is valid. It rehashes a lot of stuff we’ve already covered, and it gives some examples of putting the theory to use.

The first point is that we can often trick ourselves into self-validating an invalid interpretation. Hirsch doesn’t use the term, but this is a direct rephrasing of confirmation bias to literary interpretation. If we go into a text thinking it must mean something, then try to find confirmation of this interpretation, we will always find it and will overlook conflicting evidence. This is not the correct way to validate an interpretation (or anything for that matter!).

We are led back to the hermeneutic circle, because some of the evidence will only appear after a hypothesis about the interpretation has been formed. In the next section, Hirsch doesn’t say this, but he essentially argues for a Bayesian theory of interpretation. The process of validation is to take all the hypotheses and then figure out which one is most likely correct based on the evidence. As new evidence comes in, we revise our view.

All that matters are the relative probabilities. Sometimes two interpretations are equally likely, and then we say both are valid. The point is not to have one victorious theory, but to have a way to measure how likely each is in terms of the others.

Personal Note: Whenever someone brings up probabilistic reasoning in the arts (or even history) the same sorts of objections get raised. The assignment of a probability is arbitrary. You can make up whatever priors you want to skew the results in favor of your pet interpretation. These are very recent debates that came decades after this book was published. Surprisingly, Hirsch gives the same answers to these objections that we still give.

First, we already speak in probabilities when analyzing interpretations. I think it is “extremely unlikely” that the word “plastic” means the modern substance in this 1744 poem, because it hadn’t been invented yet. It is “likely” that this poem is about the death of a loved one, because much of Donne’s work is about death. These statements assign relative probabilities to the likelihood of the interpretation, but they try to mask this.

By clearly stating what we are doing, and coming up with actual quantities that can be disputed and argued for, we make our reasoning more explicit and less likely to error. If we pretend that we are not dealing with probabilities, then our arguments and reasoning become sloppy.

As usual, when determining probabilities, we need to figure out the narrowest class that the work under consideration fits in. A good clarifying example is the broad classification of women vs men. Women live longer on average than men. But when we pick a specific woman and a specific man, it would be insane to argue that the woman will probably live longer based only on that broad class. If we note that the woman is a sedentary smoker with lung cancer, and the man is an Olympic marathon runner, then these narrower classes improve our probability judgments.

This was the point of having an entire chapter on genre. We must analyze the intrinsic genre of a work to find the narrowest class that it fits in. This gives us a prior probability for certain types of interpretation. Then we can continue the analysis, updating our views as we encounter more or less evidence.

Hirsch then goes on to talk about the principle of falsifiability as we know it from science. Rather than confirming our hypothesis, we should come up with plausible evidence that would conclusively falsify the interpretation. He goes on to give a bunch of subtle examples that would take a lot of time to explain here. For simplicity, we could go back to the plastic example. If a poem dates before 1907, then any interpretation that requires the substance meaning of the word plastic is false.

He ends the section by reminding us that we always have to think in context. There are no rules of interpretation that can be stated generally and be practical in all situations. There are always exceptions. The interpretive theory in this book is meant as a starting point or provisional guide. This is also true of all methods of interpretation (think of people who always do a “Marxist reading” or “feminist reading” of a text).

I’ll end with a quote:

“While there is not and cannot be any method or model of correct interpretation, there can be a ruthlessly critical process of validation to which many skills and many hands may contribute. Just as any individual act of interpretation comprises both a hypothetical and a critical function, so the discipline of interpretation also comprises the having of ideas and the testing of them.”


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