Friday, September 14, 2012

On Hermeneutics: Meaning and Significance

In this book, E.D. Hirsch takes the difference between meaning and significance as one of his largest thematic concerns. I intuit that it is also his most correct one. Basically, meaning is what Protestants would call the "plain sense" of a text, that is to say, our best, most basic understanding of what any text might mean. Yet significance is what it means that the text means - or, to put it another way, the broader context or field of understanding of a text. So the sentence "The dog bit John" straightforwardly means something about a canine mandibly mauling a person named John. Meaning, of course, can get quite a bit more complicated than that, but this is one of the simplest cases and it happens to be what I believe most language truly does: somehow convey a sense of what is actually the case, or at least what the speaker believes to be so.

Significance, or thought-world, for Hirsch comprises the field of understanding which makes meaning or denotation possible. So the sentence "The dog bit John" in the setting of a night-club might refer to a low sort of man drunkenly chomping off the ear of our good friend - or in the context of a park, a poodle having a go at our Labrador who we for some reason we can't precisely remember happened to name John. The obvious upshot is that meaning and significance are not unrelated, and that significance, particularly, can have a great influence on meaning.

This is clear in Hirsch's most salutary example of the case of Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal." A puzzle, and one of interpretation's oldest knots, is what to do with irony. In the Proposal, Swift obviously does not mean what he says, but conveys what he means by saying its exact opposite. When one grasps the significance of the Proposal, its meaning becomes clear. Hirsch's contention is that where much modern hermeneutics posits the inescapability of the hermeneutic circle, where a reader re-iteratively returns to significance in light of meaning and meaning in light of significance, what actually happens is a more linear and narrowing process: slimming from an originally broad array of possible meanings, as we grasp more and more of the significance of a text, its meaning becomes more and more clear to us- a kind of hermeneutic dickering that eventually arrives at a determinable price: once we "get it" we understand that Swift does not, in fact, want the Irish poor to sell their children to the English rich for consumption on a massive scale.

Does this system of meaning and significance work for paradigms other than irony? Hirsch would have us believe it does, reflecting it on everything from denotation and connotation to whether or not literature can have intrinsic value - it can and does, he says, but only in the light of the broader ethics of a culture. And it helps Hirsch avoid hermeneutic's Two Wrong Answers. Right? It's not that Hirsch thinks the one right answer is in the text - he's clearly against the New Critics. And it's certainly not that he thinks that any interpretation is correct. The man's clearly reacting to popular relativism with this book.

It's that he thinks we can objectively get what we have in fact gotten. The price is right because we have agreed to it, ruling out all those other bad deals in the interpretive marketplace. And once that price has been set, you can't really argue that much more about it. It is what it is. And so Hirsch has given at least a clever way of thinking through many knotty contemporary problems, though Hirsch's reading of Gadamer struck me as flat-footed - I don't think they disagree as much as Hirsch thinks they do, but that is all neither here nor there. And I think he might have pulled the theory along for more miles in more different directions than it was really ready to go.

But I would love for Hirsch's paradigm to work for my own test of healing in hermeneutics - we should pray that all our interpretations heal. So when I say that, of course, I don't mean that the meaning of any particular text should heal or else we've got the wrong meaning. That would be absurd. What I'm saying is that when we "get it", our understanding of the significance of healing in all understanding would make any and all texts newly clear, in the same way that Hirsch understands irony in the case of Jonathan Swift. We would have new ground for interpretation, new weights for the valuation of texts, and new rules for the process of slimming down its possible meanings. Where I suspect Hirsch and I would disagree is that my narrowing isn't going to take it all the way down to one. Hospitals, after all, always have many rooms.

the Curious Monk


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