Saturday, September 29, 2007

Literalism and Automatic Interpretation

Some interesting remarks from Jason Kuznicki:
Fundamentalism is an interpretive strategy. Fundamentalism is not a divine command; it is a human decision about how to read a text, and it should be made to prove itself against all of the other equally human approaches to reading. No one has a magical hermeneutic key descended from Heaven, and there is no reason whatsoever to believe from the outset that fundamentalist readings are any closer to God than any other. The fundamentalist interprets his text just like anyone else does. The only difference is that he claims not to interpret, and the sacredness of the text causes many people to believe what would in any other context be an obvious imposture.

It is tempting to claim that a literal interpretation is somehow the most 'natural', or the 'default' option. But I think this is simply because it comes most easily to us literal-minded folk. Some past cultures were, I gather, not nearly so literal-minded. I vaguely recall reading an ancient Roman historical text, calmly relating the role that the gods and sea monsters played in the day's events. Even if my memory misleads me, we can certainly imagine a culture where their talk is infused with mythological references, which have more poetic than literal significance. (They may treat religion as a cultural practice, rather than a collection of metaphysical beliefs, and so be puzzled if an outsider were to ask them if they thought it was "really true?" They didn't take themselves to be making such assertions.)

The point is this: given our cultural background, we tend to automatically interpret text literally. (There are some exceptions, e.g. idiomatic expressions.) It may not even occur to us to interpret it any other way - or if it does, it may seem forced or artificial. But this is a wholly contingent fact about us. We could have been different. In the imagined culture, one automatically interprets text poetically. It may not even occur to them to interpret it any other way. No more than we are tempted to think that a man needs a wheelchair upon making a purchase that "cost him an arm and a leg."

Does that sound right? I've heard of similar views in aesthetics, i.e. that there is no natural distinction between "realistic" vs. "abstract" art or representation. There are only signs that are more or less conventionally familiar. The more familiar ones are recognized automatically, and so no conscious interpretive effort is required, which misleads us into thinking that there is no interpretation involved at all. Contingent ease is thus mistaken for essential naturalness. There's surely something right about this, though the leap to full-blown interpretive relativism seems a bit suspicious. Any thoughts?


  1. That's a good point about cultures in the past. Many have made the same point about the ancient Greeks as well. I have no idea whether it's historically accurate, but it's interesting nonetheless, as you point out.

    I'm not sure, though, whether it's the best strategy to cleave the issue between how we modern humans in general interpret texts and how another (past) culture in general interprets texts, taking us to be more literal-minded and them not to be. You're certainly right about idoms. But I think there's more to it than that: For surely, we don't interpret a great deal of poetry literally. And we don't interpret prose literature literally either, at least in the sense of thinking it to be be making direct factual assertions about the real world. (Though in both cases we probably think the literature is getting at truth, only obliquely). Likewise, in ancient Rome, a citizen would probably not have interpreted a note "I will be at the Forum this afternoon" in a non-literal fashion. So I'm doubtful that either we or the real/imagined past society have an "automatic" mode of interpretation. We're probably both very sensitive to context. (And it's probably true that those contextual rules themselves vary in our respective cultures; we no doubt expect more literalism from historical writing than the Greeks expected from Herodotus).

    Jason says: "It is a human decision about how to read a text, and it should be made to prove itself against all of the other equally human approaches to reading."

    I think that's absolutely right. We may even have a safeguard against the anarchy of total interpretive relativism. There are some aesthetic theories that assign authority to "interpretive communities," who in a sense make up the rules of interpretation. (These rules are implicit, more often than not). I'm sympathetic to these views. It gives us grounds, at least within a given "artworld" context, to say that an interpretation is wrong, even if those rules of interpretation are simply a matter of convention.

    There are others, though, who would see the correct meaning of a text as being fixed by the author's intentions, or by our hypothetical reconstruction, based on the text we have before us, of what his/her intentions were. This view is taken to be ludicrous in English Depts., and in certain strands of recent (especially French) continental philosophy, where the "death of the author" is heralded. But it is much more popular among those working from a (primarily analytical) philosophical bent in aesthetics. I wonder if this kind of intentionalism could be taken to establish whether a text is to be interpreted literally or figuratively. ??

  2. I don't quite understand, Richard, what you mean by "automatically interpret text literally". If that's you main point, I'm confused at how you get there or where you're going with it.

    Let me try and understand the problem in this way. Joe is reading The Book of Job, and doing so with a "fundamentalist hermeneutic". Joe takes the expressions and the arguments in Job on the basis that he recognizes them from examples in his own life. Yet there is a problem: Joe is not an ancient Israelite, he is not reading the text in archaic Hebrew, he does not suffer the trickery of Satan, neither is is a member of Solomon's court or the priestly caste, etc. I gather that you recognize this as a problem, that Joe's reading of Job is not natural, rather its contingent on Joe's own cultural background.

    But I think that you stop short of looking at the other half of the problem, which is the half that deserves your suspicion. If Joe's reading is not natural, what could be a natural reading? I think we could rattle off those historical conditions that distinguish Joe from the ancient Israelite; however, that's not enough. We need to look at the author of the text and ask what his/her (H. Bloom insists the author of Job is female) conditions of experience are; and it just so happens that that's the step fundamentalists are reluctant to take.

    So we can go back to the notion that "fundamentalism is an interpretive strategy" and that literal interpretation is the default, responding that such literal mindedness is no hermeneutic due to the fact that it denies access to the author. Similarly, you can think of this problem in art, where a museum patron might go up to Picasso's "Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler" and fail to see the subject of the painting.

    ("Kahnweiler" image Can you see everything Picasso has put into the painting automatically? Would you want to?)


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