One of my required texts in a recent course was Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics. Most people, when they hear the word hermeneutics, probably think it applies strictly to reading and interpreting the Bible. At least, that’s how I always thought about the word prior to being enlightened through education. However, hermeneutics as a term refers to the methodology used in the task of interpretation. Typically, this applies to the interpretation of written texts. And although it can apply to any written text, its use as a term is normally restricted to the interpretation of biblical, religious, wisdom, and philosophical texts. Strictly speaking, a scholar of medieval French literature is engaged in hermeneutics, but one is more likely to hear terms like literary criticism or textual criticism in this and similar fields.
As far as the term textual criticism goes, there are countless scholars of the Bible and early Christian literature who would call their work textual criticism rather than biblical hermeneutics. As far as I can tell, the distinction lies in the context in which the scholar is working. A scholar working in a primarily orthodox Christian environment will call their work biblical hermeneutics while a scholar working in a primarily secular environment will call their work textual criticism.
That distinction, of course, says nothing about any individual scholar’s personal religious beliefs. And I understand that it’s an oversimplification. None of that is the point. The point is to draw attention to the methodology and field of study known simultaneously as biblical hermeneutics and/or textual/literary criticism and/or various combinations thereof. And the even larger point is that ideas have consequences — even ideas that start out as scholarly reflections in obscure journals dedicated to the study of subjects that the average person rarely, if ever, thinks about.
Subjects like hermeneutics.
Most people engage in hermeneutics every day without realizing it. You, the reader of this blog post, are engaging in hermeneutics right now. You are reading a written text and you are interpreting it using an established methodology. Of course, you probably don’t think of it that way, but it is what you are doing. You are employing your knowledge of English grammar in conjunction with your English vocabulary along with your ability to pick up on contextual clues, and you are extracting meaning from the text displayed on your screen.
You are confident enough in your hermeneutical skills to realize that you have extracted the proper meaning. And I am confident enough in my skills as a writer to have properly utilized my own knowledge of English grammar and vocabulary to accurately convey an intended meaning to you.
But . . .
Some of those scholars who write reflections that are published in obscure journals dedicated to the study of subjects that the average person rarely, if ever, thinks about don’t believe that it’s possible or even meaningful to believe that I, as a writer, can have any expectation that you, my reader, will receive my intended meaning. Some of those scholars think that it’s impossible that my intended meaning could be conveyed at all. Some of those scholars think that my intended meaning has absolutely nothing to do with the meaning of this text and that as soon as I click “Publish” and release this post to the world, my intent, whatever it may have been, will be lost forever to irrelevance.
Samuel Johnson wrote that “a writer only begins a book, a reader finishes it.” What Dr. Johnson meant, of course, was that the magic of literature is found in the interaction that takes place through space and time between an author and his reader, that a book, a poem, a story can connect two distant unrelated individuals with ideas. Inherent in that idea is, I admit, the fact that a text can have different impacts and a different meaningfulness to different readers. But that does not deny the intent of meaning that an author or his text conveys.
Shakespeare wrote, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” with the clear intent of conveying a positive message about the sonnet’s subject. But what if I hate the summer, it’s oppressive heat and life-draining humidity? What if my conception of summer is not as “sweet” as Shakespeare’s? Does his sonnet change its intentional meaning? Hardly.
Naturally, there are serious religious consequences to be found in this discussion. Christians, Jews, and Muslims all believe that God has revealed a corpus of truth to humanity primarily through the medium of written religious texts. If the reliability of any text’s meaning can be called into question, how could God have provided for such a revelation? Can we rely on those texts to extract religious truth if original intent is meaningless, irrelevant, or even non-existent?
But the consequences go beyond questions of religion.
Most of the people who live in what we generally refer to as Western Civilization live in constitutional republics of one type or another. This form of government — the constitutional republic — is predicated, in large part, upon the rule of law. Inherent in the idea of the rule of law are a number of major concepts: that citizens of the republic can participate in the making and changing of laws; that citizens of the republic have recourse to the law both against each other and against the government; that the governments themselves are subject to the law; that the law is publicly accessible.
I could go on, but it’s not necessary. You get the point (my intended meaning!).
Most importantly, inherent in the concept of the rule of law and its philosophical components is the presumption that the law — a corpus of written texts — conveys a meaning that can be understood as the makers of law intended. So when we read in the law things like, “A misdemeanor of the second degree shall be punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for any period not to exceed one year or a fine of up to one thousand dollars” and “It shall be a misdemeanor of the second degree to engage in conduct A,” we can know and understand that if we engage in conduct A and are called to account for that conduct before a court of competent jurisdiction, then we can be lawfully imprisoned up to one year or fined $1,000.
And if the judge attempts to sentence us to two years in a state prison or fine us $2,000, then we can raise an objection that the penalty is outside the boundaries of the law. Not to mention the fact that we can raise a defense that our conduct did not, in fact, constitute A, but rather B, and B is not a crime.
None of this is possible, however, if we cannot know the meaning or intent of the law.
Western liberalism’s entire conceptualization of liberty depends on the intelligibility of language generally and the intent of written texts specifically. Not to mention the fact that we navigate our world every day using hermeneutic methodologies that necessarily presuppose the meaningfulness of linguistic communication — written or otherwise.
Ideas have consequences, even ideas that start out as scholarly reflections because eventually those reflections get taught in classrooms and put into practice in real life. And when ideas like the irrelevance of authorial intent get put into practice, we wind up with people who claim silly, incoherent things like “what’s true for you isn’t true for me.” And what’s worse, these people grow up to be the citizens who, in a constitutional republic, are capable of influencing laws and policies.
Of course, I haven’t even touched on the logical inconsistency in a writer claiming in a written text that a writer’s intent in any written text is irrelevant.
To be honest, I’m not quite sure what they mean. But I am quite sure you get what I mean.