THE SEARCH FOR MEANING IN OUR POSTMODERN CULTURE
Humanism - The Loss of God; Secularism - The Loss of Shame; Pluralism - The Loss of True Truth; Narcissism - The Loss of Meaning in Postmodern Hermeneutics.
“What’s in a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather mournful tone; it means what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “This question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be the master, that’s all.” (Lewis Carroll, Through The Looking Glass (Philadelphia: Winston, 1923, reprint 1957), p. 213)
The contention of Alice has entered the Secular City maze of Narcissism (cf. The issue stems from the nominalistic implication of Empiricism). Humpty Dumpty continues, “Popinetrability, that’s what I say!” “Would you tell me, please,” said Alice, “what this means?”. . . “When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra.” “Oh!” said Alive. She was puzzled too much to make any other remark.” (Ibid., pp. 213,214). This brilliant social criticism centers on “nominalism,” i.e., only nouns have meaning.
Postmodern Humpty Dumptys
The problem of “meaning” changed dramatically in 1946. Two literary critics, W.R. Winsott and Monroe Beardsley, fired a shot that was eventually heard around the literary world. The ultimate conclusion of their work was the death knoll to “authorial intentionality.” Whatever an author meant or intended to say by his or her words is irrelevant to our obtaining the meaning of that text. The consequences of this postmodern view of meaning was that once a text was finished and delivered to its readers, it became autonomous from its author so far as its meaning was concerned. The crucial error of all previous generations of interpreters was the “intentional fallacy,” that is, the fallacy of depending on what the author meant to say by his own use of words in the written text as a source of meaning in that text. (W.K. Winsott and Monroe Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy,” Sewane Review. 54, 1946)
Prophets of The Loss of Intentionality
The postmodern theory of interpretation received another jolt in 1960 when Hans-Georg Gadamer published in Germany his book Truth and Method (E.T., NY: Seabury, 1975; reprinted Crossroad, 1982). Gadamer’s main thesis is that “truth” cannot reside in the reader’s attempt to get back to the author’s meaning, for this ideal cannot be realized because every interpreter has a new and different knowledge of the text in the reader’s own historical moment (cf. E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), treats Gadamer’s theory of interpretation in appendix 2, pp. 245-264).
From Gadamer’s thesis flowed four affirmations in his method: (1) Prejudice cannot be avoided. This preunderstanding comes from ourselves and not from the text, since the text is indeterminate in meaning. (2) Meaning always goes beyond its author, hence understanding is not a reproductive but a productive activity. The subject matter, not the author, is the determiner of the meaning. (3) The explanation of a passage is a “fusion of horizons.” In the process of understanding, the two perspectives are subsumed into a new third alternative (cf. My paper, “Thomas Kuhn’s Concept of Paradigm,” and the consequences in “Seeker Friendly” mode in the Mega Church. Note the difference between “True Truth” and Relevance from Epistemology to Hermeneutics.) (4) Past meaning cannot be reproduced in the present because the being of the past cannot become being in the present (cf. Linguistic assumptions of Kittel’s TDNT classical commentaries project and compare the work of Nida and Pike and their work in Tagmemics.)
Paul Ricoeur’s Contribution
Paul Ricoeur’s contribution to the demise of authorial intentionality (see my bibliography on Ricoeur). In his book, Interpretative Theory: Discourse on Surplus of Meanings (E.T. Fort Worth, TX: Texas Christian University Press, 1976), Ricoeur challenges the notion that a text is simply “talk written down,” a dialogue placed on paper. Writing fundamentally allows the nature of communication and sets up a new set of operation, including these four: (1) A text is semantically independent of the intention of its author. The text now means whatever it says (to me), not necessarily what its author has meant (cf. Thesis enters postmodern Outcome Based Educational theory, Seeker Friendly/Reader Friendly); for issues relating Gadamer, Ricoeur and Hirsch see Sandra M. Schneider’s “From Exegesis to Hermeneutics: The Problem of Contemporary Meaning in Scripture” Horizons 8 (1981), pp. 23-39). (2) Literary genres do more than classify texts; they actually give a code that shapes the way a reader will interpret the text. (3) Once texts have been written their meanings are no longer determined by the understanding the original audiences had of the same texts. Each subsequent audience may now read its own situation into the text, for a text, unlike talk, transcends its original circumstances. The new readings are not any less valid; the new meaning must not contradict the original audiences’ understanding. (4) Once a text is written, the sense of what it says is no longer directly related to its referent, that is what it is about. The new meaning is freed from its situational limits, thereby opening up a whole new world of meaning.
Counter Prophet to Postmodern Hermeneutics
E.D. Hirsch’s influence on hermeneutics during epochal decade of the sixties. Hirsch ran counter to the trends established by Winsott and Beardsley, Gadamer and Ricouer. He affirmed that the meaning of a literary work is determined by the author’s intention (Hirsch, Validity of Interpretation and his The Aims of Interpretation (Chicago, 1976). He was influenced by Emilo Betto, an Italian historian of law, who had funded an institute for interpretation theory in Rome in 1955. But it was Hirsch who popularized this view in American hermeneutics. His view is best known for the following concepts:
(1) Verbal meaning is whatever someone has willed to convey by a particular sequence of words and which can be shared by means of linguistic signs (compare with Pike and Nida--these issues were crucial at the 1994 SBL and ETS discussions about postmodern hermeneutics in relationship of history to text and postmodern interpreters. This issue is also the foundation of the 1994 Homiletics Society meeting where the theme was “Preaching in The Postmodern Culture” (see my paper on “Postmodern Homiletics”).
(2) The author’s truth intention provides the only genuinely discriminating norm for ascertaining valid or true interpretations from invalid and false ones. (In postmodern hermeneutics there is no false doctrine, heresy vs. orthodoxy, etc.).
(3) The first objective of hermeneutics is to make clear the text’s verbal meaning, not its significance (cf. Epistemology is concerned with True Truth; Hermeneutics is concerned with relevance to the reader, listener, audience). (See my essays, “Hermeneutics, History, Truth and Story Narrative);” “New Hermeneutical Horizons in Logic, Epistemology and Language Communication;” and “Philosophical and Psychological Horizons of Postmodern Hermeneutics.” Meaning is that which is represented by the text and what the author meant to say by the linguistic signs represented. Significance, by contrast, names a relationship between that meaning and a person, concept, situation or any other possible number of things.
(4) The meaning of a text cannot change, but significance can and does change. If meaning were not determinable, then there would be no fixed norm by which to judge whether a passage was being interpreted correctly (cf. A musical score, classical Semitic, Greek, Roman, or Biblical texts, etc.).
The effects of this Paradigmatic Revolution can be illustrated in four models for using the Bible (cf. Or any text--Is there a text in the house?--see book by Kevin J. Vonhoozer, Is There A Meaning In This Text? (Zondervan, 1998). The schematic analysis derives from Schneider’s “From Exegesis to Hermeneutics,” pp. 23-39).
(1) The Proof Text Approach to understanding the Bible’s meaning emphasizes the practical and pastoral side of the Christian life. The search here is for a biblical text which addresses some real life purpose. This method, insofar as it ignores context, is completely inadequate. The proof-text model often relies on a naive reading of the text. Consequently, this method is vulnerable to allegorization, psychologization, spiritualization and other forms of quick-and-easy adjustments of the scriptural world. This method is concerned with the contemporary relevance of the textual message.
(2) The Historical-Critical Method: The historic tension between the Proof Text and the Historical-Critical Method of the 19th and 20th centuries is apparent (see my paper, “The Search for The Historical Jesus” and “Search for The Wrong Jesus;” compare the historical and hermeneutical revolutions of the 19th/20th centuries and the foundational themes of the Restoration Heritage; the availability of True Truth and Unity by restoring the normativeness of the New Testament Church/Doctrine/Ecclesiastical structure, Men/Women, etc.) And my “Historiographic Revolution of the 19th/20th Centuries: From Lessing’s Ugly Ditch to Postmodern Pluralistic and Radical Revisionist Contextualization thesis; also see my “Revisionist History” paper.)
(3) Reader Response Method: The historical critical method died the death of a thousand deaths. A third method has grown up around the contributions of Gadamer and Ricoeur. This method allows the reader and interpreter to determine what the text now means. How do we relate a text in its original setting to the questions of postmodern readers of the text? The pendulum swing from the Historical Critical Method to the Reader Response has produced unavoidable polyvalency. There is no correct (orthodox) meaning. What has been lost is the primacy of authorial intention and all but pragmatic methods for testing the validity of the various suggested interpretations. All meanings now potentially have an equal footing with no available normative message. Loss of Biblical authority is one of the results of this method. There is hermeneutical horizon from which to judge competing and often contradictory interpretative schemes (see my bibliography on Authority, Inspiration and Revelation).
(4) The Syntactical-Theological Method: Perhaps Karl A.G. Keil, who first used the term in 1788, is the modern father of the grammatico approach (simple, plain, direct, ordinary). He was referring both to “grammar” and the historical context of the text. The interpreter’s work is not finished when all the words are parsed and their sentence structure analyzed. Too often modern interpreters have failed to observe the “syntactic and theological” relationship words and literary pericope have in scripture (see my paper “Theology of Promise” as an effort to fuse the diverse harmony between words and literary genre and contexts).
The essence of this model of understanding meaning stresses the need for taking whole pericopes/units of discussion as the basis for interpreting a text. Only when the meaning of words and phrases are fused with purpose and scope can the theology for which the text was written be understood. The biblical text must cross at least two horizons: (1) The total biblical context; (2) The cultural context in which the biblical narrative takes place; (3) The postmodern context that seeks theological relevance for its auditors (cf. Contra marketing dynamics and adjusting message to make it acceptable to its seeker friendly audience). We must not market Christ (Romans 1.10ff; I Cor. 1.10ff; II Cor 10.4).
In the seeker-friendly mode we are always in danger of syncretistic accommodation. In our pluralistic maze of interpretive modes, where is “biblical authority” to be located in order to publically evaluate its claims? Before beginning our trek into the world of meaning, we must take note that “meaning” is intimately connected with several other key concepts of hermeneutics, such as those as reference, sense, intention, and significance (cf. See especially G.B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of The Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster) 1980, chp 20, “The Meaning of Meaning,” pp. 37-61).
Meaning As Referent
One can know every word of a given narrative without a clue as to what is being spoken about the referent. The referent is the object, event or process in the world to which a word or whole expression is directed. The Ethiopian reader of The Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 asked Philip, “. . .does the prophet talk of himself or someone else?” (Acts 8.34) In other words, to whom do the words refer? The Ethiopian understood the words but he had no idea what or who their exact referent was (cf. The same issue is in John 6.53; II Corinthians 11.5,13 (chp 10-13). Gnostic pneumatics or triumphalistic miracle working Hellenistic Jews--who are these “super apostles?”; who is the ‘man of lawlessness’ in II Thessalonians 2.3,7; “one shepherd of Ezekiel 34.23-24. The issue of referent is critical. When we ask, “what do you mean?” we sometimes are trying to find out what the whole discussion is all about or who or what is being talked about.
Meaning As Sense
Meaning as the referent tells what is being spoken about, but meaning as “sense” tells what is being said about the referent (see Moises Silva’s book, Biblical Words and Their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics (Zondervan, 1983), pp. 102-108). Once the subject as the object of the discourse has been established, we move to find out what the author attributes to that subject or object. Beyond the sentences, the relationship of propositions within the paragraphs and discourses carry the sense the writer wishes to convey (cf. Romans 9.30-10.12--who is the audience? (See esp. Romans 9.31, “Israel pursued a law of righteousness;” Daniel 9.32, “not by faith, but as (if it were possible) from works;” Romans 10.2, they are “zealous for God not based on knowledge;” Romans 10.3, they sought to establish “their own (righteousness).” What meanings did Paul attach to each phrase? Don’t blame “the law” or “God’s righteousness.” Israel insisting on turning righteousness into a works program (cf. O.T. description of righteousness (Leviticus 18.5; Deuteronomy 30.10-14). The word that Moses preached was the same word of faith that Paul preached (see my paper, “Theology of Promise” for fusion of horizons of faith, blessing and righteousness, etc God’s righteousness is solely by faith in Christ, not by works; 9.30, sustained in each of the four contrasts inherited in the proposition of the paragraphs. The passage fuses sense with referent.
Meaning and Intentions
By intention we do not propose to enter into the mind and feeling of the author. We have no way of obtaining or controlling such data. We are only interested in the “truth intention” of the author as expressed in his or her discourse (words, phrases, sentences, literary genre (to form a meaning).
Often the above terms overlap. The impact left by Winsott and Beardsley is that an author’s intention does not determine what a literary work means. Instead, what a speaker meant does not necessarily coincide with what the sentence means. (Cf. D. Johl, Interpretation, An Essay in The Philosophy of Literary Criticism (Princeton, 1980), pp. 52-65).
How “Intention” affects meaning: (1) Are author’s words to be understood literally or figuratively? (2) The author’s intention determines the referent a word is to have (cf. G.G. Baird, The Language and Imagery of The Bible, p. 56-58). Mark 10.25 states that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle then for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Mark 7.6, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites.” The words of Isaiah are transferable to the contemporaries of Jesus. There is change in authorial intentionality. The problem of polyvalency and authorial intentionality is crucial in our search for meaning (Daniel 7.8, 11,25--Antiochus Epiphanes IV that found manifestation of evil in the last day. I John 2.15, “Many anti Christs have come,” note “you have heard that the anti Christ is still coming.” Multiple levels of fulfilled prophecy does not state “authorial intentionality;” multiple meanings in the Antiochian school of intentionality- 5th-7th centuries A.D. The single sense or meaning that incorporated all of them.
We must not confuse “a purpose intention with Truth intention.” These concepts often overlap (cf. Individual claims to corporate intention. (GMC, MCI corporate solidarity) In scriptures there is also God’s intentionality (promise, purpose, providence, etc.) Is God’s intention the same as human authorial intentionality? (Genesis 50.20; Isaiah 10.5-11; Isaiah 45.1-4) But none of these examples is about the writing of scriptures. Again, we must not confuse purpose intention with truth intention (cf. I Cor. 2.6-16, Kaiser, “A Neglected Text in Bibliology Discussions: I Corinthians 2.6-16 Westminster Theological Journal 43 (1980-81), pp. 301-319).
Meaning As Significance
In many contexts the terms “meaning and significance” overlap. C.H. Hirsch clearly states that significance of this distinction, “Meaning is that which is represented by a text. It is what the author means by the use of the indicator signifying consequence to it is what the sign presents. Significance and the other he doesn’t name a relationship between meaning and a person or a conception, or a distinction or, indeed, anything imaginable.” (Hirsch, Validity of Interpretation, pp. 29-80).
In these terms, interpretation and changing significance are never fixed and always changing. Hirsch argued, “to banish the original author as determiner of meaning is to report the only compelling normative principle that should lessen validity to an interpretation (Hirsch Validity, p. 4,5). The hermeneutical task must continue on to say what the text means to the postmodern reader or listener. (Acts 5.30; Deuteronomy 29.22,23). The relationship of the heart’s condition and outward acts (Hosea 6.6; Matthew 9.10-13; 12.1-7 (Kaiser’s The Use of The Old Testament in The New Testament (Moody Press, 1985), pp. 203-220). (See my papers, “A Theology of The Meaning of Life, Narcissism in Our Postmodern Culture” and “The Search For A Criterion of Meaning” with special attention to the contribution of Popper’s “The Verification Principle”).
Dr. James Strauss, Emeritus
Lincoln Christian Seminary
Lincoln, IL 62656