The autonomy of the text

Philosopher Merold Westphal:

Central to the hermeneutical theory of Paul Ricoeur is the thesis of the autonomy of the text. . . . This autonomy is not a total independence. It does not banish the author, and by implication the original context and original audience, to irrelevance. Ricoeur is quite explicit about this:

Not that we can conceive of a text without an author; the tie between the speaker and the discourse is not abolished, but distended and complicated. . . . The text’s career escapes the finite horizon lived by its author. What the text says now matters more than what the author meant to say, and every exegesis unfolds its procedures within the circumference of a meaning that has broken its moorings to the psychology of the author.

Indeed, “the ‘world’ of the text may explode the world of the author.”

* * *

If we ask why meaning “escapes” the immediate context of the author and the original audience, Ricoeur gives us two reasons beyond the obvious empirical fact that legal, literary, and religious texts are regularly interpreted differently by different interpreters in different circumstances. One is the polysemy of language, even ordinary language. By polysemy, Ricoeur means simply that meaning is contextual, that words have different meanings in different contexts. The meaning of a text cannot be determined by a passive, merely mirroring intuition but only by an active interpretation. The role of the author’s context is not “abolished” but “complicated” by the role of the reader’s context, which inevitably becomes part of the hermeneutical circle in which interpretation occurs. While this is true of ordinary discourse, it is especially true of metaphorical language.

The second reason is at least as important as the first. . . Meaning is contextual in the sense that the meaning of parts of a text is dependent on the meaning of the whole, and the meaning of a whole text is dependent on various larger wholes––linguistic and cultural––to which it belongs. Interpretation is construal rather than intuition for the simple reason that no one, neither the author nor the reader, is in actual possession of the whole that would give fully final and determinate meaning.

* * *

Does this mean that anything goes, that a text can mean whatever any audience takes it to mean? Hardly! Ricoeur has already insisted that the role of the author is not “abolished” but only “complicated” by the plurality of invisible readers. Nothing in his analysis suggests that Dad might rightly hear Mom’s “Only two more days till Christmas” as the announcement that she has just won the lottery and he will soon be driving that long-coveted Porsche. . . Ricoeur writes:

If it is true that there is always more than one way of construing a text, it is not true that all interpretations are equal. . . . The text is a limited field of possible construction. . . . It is always possible to argue for or against an interpretation, to confront interpretations, to arbitrate between them, and to seek for an agreement, even if this agreement remains beyond our reach.

Ricoeur’s hermeneutics develops a dialectic of belonging and distanciation. By belonging he means the embeddedness of (human) author and reader alike in contingent and particular horizons, contexts, and perspectives to which the meanings they put or find in a text are relative. . . By distanciation Ricoeur means the adoption of methods of testing interpretations that render the reader as objective as possible and that treat the text as an object to be explained. . . . Ricoeur thinks that objectifying methods are an indispensable “guardrail” to interpretation, a necessary protection against lapsing into an “anything goes” attitude. But he also thinks they should be the tail wagging the dog. To make the text an object to be explained with the help of some method for the sake of objectivism in interpretation and to identify this task as the whole hermeneutical task is to treat the text like “a cadaver handed over for autopsy” and to act “as though one were to give the funeral eulogy of someone yet alive. The eulogy might be accurate and appropriate, but it is nonetheless ‘premature,’ as Mark Twain might have put it.”

Whose Community? Which Interpretation? Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church


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