Part I: A Gadamarian Critique of Hirsch’s Meaning/Significance Distinction

gadamer_02.jpg Is interpretation primarily about a relation between the reader and the subjective intentions of the author?  Might it be the case that the hermeneutical method that E.D. Hirsch espouses in his book, Validity in Interpretation, lands us right back into the egocentric predicament, as the sole goal of interpretation becomes re-producing the original subjective meaning of the author?  According to Hans-George Gadamer, Hirsch’s method misses the essential dialogical character of interpretation.  (The very fact that Hirsch proffers a “method” seems to harmonize more with modern rather than premodern or postmodern hermeneutical practices). For Hirsch, the text becomes an object of scientific investigation rather than an occasion for the interpreter to be changed by the subject matter of the text through locating its question and then being himself/herself questioned by the subject matter of the text.  Gadamer, by contrast, has a more dynamic view of understanding.  According to Gadamer, 

the real event of understanding…goes continually beyond what can be brought to the understanding of the other person’s words by methodological effort and critical self-control.  It is true of every conversation that through it something different has come to be (“Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem,” p. 58).  

In addition to his focus on the dialogical character of a text (emphasizing the text’s flexibility or dynamism, yet still affirming the text’s identity), Gadamer develops what he calls a “phenomenology of the game” to highlight the inadequacy of a theory of understanding that focuses solely and exclusively on the subjectivity of the author or the interpreter.[1]  In his editorial introduction to Gadamer’s Philosophical Heremeneutics, David Linge describes how, in the phenomenon of play, the player, so to speak, “loses himself” in the game-he or she is “absorbed into the back-and-forth movement of the game, that is, into the definable procedure and rules of the game.”[2] The game is not understood as an “action of subjectivity,” but rather as a “release from subjectivity.”  As Linge explains, “what is essential to the phenomenon of play is not so much the particular goal it involves but the dynamic back-and-forth movement in which the players are caught up-the movement that itself specifies how the goal will be reached.  Thus the game has its own place or space (its Spielraum), and its movement and aims are cut off from the direct involvement in the world stretching beyond it.”[3]

The structures that Gadamer finds in the phenomenology of play are then put in service of Gadamer’s attempt to develop an alternative theory of understanding–one that neither confines the meaning of the text solely to the subjective intention of the author, nor construes the project of understanding as merely an attempt to re-produce the original intention of the author.  As Linge observes, the customary authorial intention hermeneutical approach is fashioned in the image of the methodology of modern science. “Just as scientific experiments can be repeated exactly any number of times under the same conditions and mathematical problems have but one answer, so the author’s intention constitutes a kind of fact, a ‘meaning-in-itself,’ which is repeated by the correct interpretation.”[4]


[1] David E. Linge (ed.), Hans-George Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics, (Berkeley:  Univ. of California Press, 1977) p. xxii.

 [2] Philosophical Hermeneutics, p. xxiii.

[3] Philosophical Hermeneutics, p. xxiii[4] Philosophical Hermeneutics, p. xxiv.

5 thoughts on “Part I: A Gadamarian Critique of Hirsch’s Meaning/Significance Distinction”

  1. but aren’t you actually trying to reproduce the original, authorial meaning of Gadamer’s text and don’t you assume it is quite determinate and stable? You still seem to be perceiving its meaning as confined to the author’s intention, just as I am confining the meaning of your post to your intentions.

  2. Not really. I am presenting one interpretation of Gadamer; there are of course hundreds of others out there which go beyond mine and Gadamer’s. That is simply part and parcel of the “ontology” of texts-as-interpreted–dynamic, uncontrollable, generative.

  3. Thank you for your reply!

    I think that Hirsch would agree that this is one of your interpretations, and there are others, that can be different than yours and even different than Gadamer’s own opinion of the meaning of his text (as the interpreter construes meaning from the text and he is not a biographer), all of which can be valid.

    Hirsch says that we can never be ultimately certain about the meaning of a text (hence his probabilistic direction), but nevertheless we always formulate hypotheses about what it means. Those “meanings” and hypotheses can change over time (in this sense they are dynamic, they are prone to change) with the emergence of new information. Since we cannot be sure about the meaning, and we are usually left with more than one hypotheses about its content, which amounts to saying that in practice we have various (compatible or competing) valid interpretations. So in this sense, the idea of a text-as-a-dynamic structure would not be something that Hirsch rejects in principle. Despite his rhetoric, those points might eventually be compatible with Hirsch’s own hermeneutics.

    But the differences appear elsewhere. When you say that you interpret a text by Gadamer, that implies an existence of an author of this text and a whole background of understanding. The age he lived in, his place in the intellectual tradition, knowledge of his other works and so forth, all of which contribute to the final shape of your interpretation.If not, there would be no need to name Gadamer as an author, as your interpretation would be derivable from just any random piece of language. But somehow, language (even literary) does not work that way.The same string of words that constitute Gadamer’s “Philosophical Hermeneutics” would have a totally different meaning if they were published by Ancient Greek philosopher or by a Dadaist pastiche artist. So, agreeing with your reply I still think it is impossible to get away from some (more or less conscious) hypothesizing about the authorial meaning. In the end, as Hirsch noticed, if we reject wholeheartedly the original author’s meaning, we ourselves become the new authors, who provide the text with meaning.

  4. Very good thoughts, “random student of hermeneutics.” I don’t think that Gadamer completely denies or fails to consider the author and his/her intentions; however, he does not want to *limit* the meaning of a text solely to authorial intent. It’s uncomfortable, but we just don’t have as much “control” over texts or works of art as we might want. But perhaps, given the human condition, that is a blessing in disguise!

  5. What is stable is not the author’s intention(which can only be reconstructed–even if the author is alive to chime in), but the text itself. The text is a check on overly subjective forms of reader-response–there should be evidence in the text to support the interpretation.

    Another check, noted both by Ricoeur and Nicholas Lash, is the community of interpreters for a particular genre itself. Lash compares biblical interpretation to the performance of a Shakespearean play. There is the text of the play, and there is input from critics (historians of Elizabethan England, of the subject matter of the play in question, drama experts, etc.), but the final interpretation is the production itself. The adequacy of the interpretation is judged by Shakespearean theatre-goers.

    Likewise with the interpretation of a biblical book or passage: There is the text. There is input from critical scholarship. But the final interpretation is the performance of the text by the individual Christians and the churches reading the text. The adequacy of that interpretation is finally made by–the church.

Comments are closed.