Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Ideology of Intention

Yesterday I had an interesting email discussion with a friend of mine re: his assigned textbook for a second-year Hermeneutics course he is teaching in the autumn, Grant R. Osborne's The Hermeneutical Spiral. Osborne's book is regarded pretty highly by those evangelical Christian seminaries that don't want to come off as fundamentalist nutjobs. In my friend's words: "Osborne's deal is that you get closer and closer to the meaning of the text the more and more you deal with it. In other words, you don't just move in the circle of the author's meaning that you can't extract, nor the reader's meaning that you can't avoid. Rather, his vision is of a spiral that gets closer and closer with each subsequent reading. It is fundamentally an exegetical model, and he explicitly admits to following E.D. Hirsch."

What's wrong with this picture of interpretation? Well, very shortly, I don't buy Hirsch's conservative conception of authorial intention. Namely, that it (authorial intention) is the ultimate horizon of a text's meaning. I certainly think it is possible to come up with reasonable authorial readings, and to that end Osborne's (and Hirsch's) method is reasonably sound). However, the assumption that the elusive authorial meaning is what keeps the 'spiral' in motion (i.e., keeps us reading), is not one that I think is all that compelling. It's telling that when Hirsch tried to support intentionality with philosophy, he ended up appealing to a very suspect reading of Husserl. When he saw that that wasn't going to fly, he appealed, far more successfully I might add, to common sense and pragmatics. There's something to be said for the latter, at least insofar as it displays how normative meanings are conferred to texts and discourses (a necessary step if we're going to make sense of one another). But critically speaking, and to an extent ethically, I think the underlying assumption of both Hirsch and Osborne leaves a lot to be desired, as it ultimately forecloses the hermeneutical horizon to a single (elusive) referent. What you seem to have in Osborne, if I remember correctly anyway, is a pretty standard foundationalist assumption that there is an ultimate meaning lying just beyond our subjective purview, and inasmuch as we search for it in good faith, we'll get closer to it. What you also have, though, is the also pretty standard foundationalist / rationalist caveat that, if hermeneutical activity is to continue, said ultimate meaning must remain further down inside the spiral. Alice, upon her descent into the rabbit hole, as it were, never quite reaches Wonderland. In other words: you have a foundationalist assumption, with no foundationalist payoff. Where is the exegetical money shot?

It is hard to see how one of two things will not arise from such an impasse: (a) strong interpretations that claim tentative / open status, but do not readily accept deviant / alternative positions; or (b) weak interpretations that (implicitly or explicitly) anticipate new contexts to be be unearthed that will lead us closer to an author's meaning -- which will, in a sense, discredit previous interpretations (that do not coincide) as obsolete or solipsistic play. Inasmuch as Ultimate Meaning remains the inaccessible horizon that other (bad) interpretations keep us from achieving, I think hermeneutics remains dangerously blind to its ideological function. Keeping Truth on the far side of reality is just as standard in the ideologue's handbook as casting alternative / deviant interpretations as the hurdle to said Truth. (E.g., 'If it weren't for those damned liberals mucking around with our biblical studies, we might know what Paul really meant!', or 'Deconstruction is the death of biblical interpretation!', 'Queer theory [or whatever other special interest theory] is a mockery of biblical scholarship!')