Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Hirsch, Meaning, and Hermeneutics – Part 1

Here’s something a little heavier than normal for you. I post it because it was recently brought to my mind, and I am interested in some feedback on it. In  a nutshell, I am proposing that E. D. Hirsch (Validity in Interpretation) inadequately dealt with implications. This has particular significance (no pun intended) for biblical studies with respect to the divine/human authorship of Scripture.

Hirsch’s definition of meaning

Hirsch’s definition of meaning proves a good starting point for discussion. He 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.”[1] Hirsch stresses several factors necessary to meaning. First, it must be reproducible, i.e., able to be actualized by someone else. This is very similar to his use of shared.[2] Second, it must be determinate, i.e., possess a boundary that “discriminates what it is from what it is not.”[3] Third, it must be willed, i.e., “a distinction between what an author does mean by a word sequence and what he could mean by it.”[4] Therefore, reproducible (sharable) puts meaning in the realm of communicable (able to be understood by the recipient); determinate puts it in the realm of discriminatory (what it is vs. what it is not); and willed puts it in the realm of specificity (what is actual vs. what is possible). Kaiser adopts Hirsch’s definition for his own use in biblical studies.[5] Meaning therefore is inseparably tied to the author and his communicative intention and cannot be separated from him.

The difficulty of such a definition is that an author did not record his intentions directly for us. Therefore, it is somewhat of a problematic goal to attempt to enter the thought process of an author who, in the case of Scripture, is dead and cannot further comment on his work. However, here the “intentional fallacy”[6] objection is shown to have an inaccurate understanding of meaning. While the author’s thoughts cannot be ascertained, his truth intention is understood by the signs he chose to convey his intention. Therefore, while an author might say, “I want you to get a book,” his deeper intention (or intention behind his proposition) is of little consequence to his meaning; what he intended to communicate was his desire that the interpreter get a book. Had additional explanation been necessary to his willed type,[7] he would have chosen a more definitive set of signs with which to communicate his intention. In other words, because of the supposition that intelligible and rational communication is possible through a chosen set of signs that communicate reproducible, determinate, and willed ideas, the author chooses the set of signs that he believes will accomplish his intention. The search for intention behind the text may be loosely related to the child who asks “why?” From the parent he receives the reply that a reason is not necessary; obedience is. In the same way, an author communicates a truth intention of any sort through a set of signs. Further explanation as to his intent, while it might be interesting, is not necessary to understand the meaning.[8] For now, Hirsch’s definition will be accepted though it will later be refined slightly.

Hirsch’s definition of significance

Hirsch defines significance as “a relationship between that meaning and a person, or a conception, or a situation, or indeed anything imaginable.”[9] Later he says, “Significance is always ‘meaning-to,’ never ‘meaning-in.’ Significance always entails a relationship between what is in a man’s verbal meaning and what is outside it, even when that relationship pertains to the author himself or to his subject matter.”[10] As Hirsch defines significance, there is “virtually no limit to the significance of the shortest and most banal text.”[11] Hirsch’s significance is most clearly communicated by the word application, the relationship of a text to a situation outside of the text. Osborne calls this “derived meaning.”[12] In this conception, meaning is limited to a narrow corridor of authorial will or truth intention, where significance is broadened to encompass any conceivable situation to which a truth intention might have a relationship.

Hirsch’s definition of implication

For Hirsch, implication is an inherent part of meaning. Since he conceives of meaning as a “whole,”[13] an implication is a

… component within a larger whole. The distinction is between a submeaning of an utterance and the whole array of submeanings that it carries. The array, along with the principles for generating it, I call the “meaning” of the utterance, and any submeaning belonging to the array I call an “implication.”[14]

An implication is not therefore, necessarily stated, or even a product of conscious thought.[15] The determining factor for a valid implication is that it falls within the determinacy (the boundary that separates what it is vs. what it is not) of an utterance. Implications of an utterance are not limitless as significances are. They “lie within the meaning as a whole and are circumscribed by some kind of boundary which delimits that meaning. … An implication belongs within a verbal meaning as a part belongs to a whole.”[16]

Tensions involved in Hirsch’s definitions

The tension in Hirsch’s conception of meaning/implication and significance comes from his assertion that a meaning is a willed type and his inclusion of unconscious implications in meaning. For Hirsch, a type is “like a class, though it has the advantage of being a more unitary concept.”[17] A type can “always be represented by more than one instance,”[18] which he calls traits.[19] These individual instances may or may not be products of the consciousness, yet according to him they still can be considered objects of the will. “If a text has traits that point to subconscious meaning (or even conscious ones), these belong to the verbal meaning of the text only if they are coherent with the consciously willed type which defines the meaning as a whole.”[20] He likens a willed type to an iceberg of which only the top shows; however, underneath it hidden by the water is a massive foundation. The visible part is the consciousness of the will; the invisible part is the subconscious or unconscious.

The difficulty of resolving such a conception is that it is difficult to imagine that an unconscious implication (trait, submeaning) can be ascribed to a voluntary choice in anything other than a purely conceptual sense. He says, “… will involves not merely choices and goals, but voluntary choices and goals, and again our habits of language remind us of the conscious element of will.”[21] So while admitting the conscious element of will, he apparently admits an unconscious element as well and ascribes to this unconscious element an equally binding intention. However, it cannot very well be conceived that an affair of the unconscious can be a “voluntary choice.” It might be said to be consistent with the conscious as well as vitally connected to the conscious. Yet it seems tenuous at best to call it an intention since by definition, to intend is “to have in mind something as a purpose; plan; purpose.”[22] Intention similarly is “an intending, determination to do a specified thing.”[23] The question that must be wrestled with is precisely this: How can an unconscious or sub-conscious implication meet the qualifications of a voluntary, willed intention? Can something that is less than conscious (whether un- or sub-) be placed in a category of intent which is by definition an act of the mind? Does an unconscious meaning become an unintentional intention? It seems to this author that such a construct is at best tenuous, perhaps even inconsistent.

The significance of this is that there are implications in the biblical text that were unknown to the human author, but known to God as the divine author. This lays the foundation for sensus plenior, the idea that there is a fuller sense of the passage than the human author was aware of, fuller than the human author intended to communicate., but fully consistent with what God ultimately intended, particularly in light of later revelation.

Part II to come.

[1] Hirsch, Validity, p. 31.

[2] Ibid., p. 31, 44. He says, “… reproducible, that it be always the same in different acts of construing” (p. 46.)

[3] Ibid., p. 32. See also pp. 44ff.

[4] Ibid., p. 47.

[5] Walter C. Kaiser, “Legitimate Hermeneutics,” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), p. 119. He cites Hirsch’s definition from an earlier chapter: “Meaning is that which is represented by a text; it is what the author meant by his use of a particular sign sequence…” (Hirsch, Validity, p. 8).

[6] See Payne, “Fallacy,” and Norman L. Geisler, “The Relation of Purpose and Meaning in Interpreting Scripture,” GTJ 5 (Fall 1982): 229-245. It is not possible to discuss the Intentional Fallacy in this treatment. However, the thrust of the argument is that the quest for intention is to try to get behind the text to some elusive prior determiner of meaning. See also D. A. Carson (Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996], pp. 134-35) who warns of attempts to “psychoanalyze one or more of the participants in a past event, without having access to anything more than fragmentary records of the event” (p. 134). He relates this to redaction critical study that searches for reasons behind changes.

[7] See later discussion on willed type.

[8] There are exceptions to this general rule because of the possibility of misunderstanding. However, such misunderstanding does not negate the rule; it rather supports it. If multiple meanings or truth-intentions were possible from a single set of signs, then the recipient would act on what his interpretive response and the author would have no basis to disagree with the interpretation for one would be as good as another. Hence, the authorial control over language is magnified and confirmed by misunderstanding.

[9] Hirsch, Validity, p. 8.

[10] Ibid., p. 63.

[11] Ibid. He continues, “Not only can its verbal meaning be related to all conceivable states of affairs … but it can also be related to at different times to changing conditions in all conceivable states of affairs. … [it] is by nature limitless.” (p. 63).

[12] Osborne, Hermeneutical Spiral, p. 395. This is an unfortunate choice of words since meaning is held to be single while significance can be many.

[13] Hirsch, Validity, p. 42.

[14] Ibid., p. 62.

[15] He says, “the one negative characteristic common to all varieties of unconscious meanings is that the author was not aware of them. Obviously, this definition is not very reassuring since there is no limit to what an author may not be aware of” (p. 51).

[16] Ibid. p. 64.

[17] Ibid., p. 50.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., p. 54.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., p. 53, emphasis his.

[22] Webster’s New World Dictionary, s. v. “Intend.”

[23] Ibid. s. v. “Intention.”

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