Sunday, October 21, 2007

Authorial Intent

One of my favorite Anglican blogs is TitusONENine, by the Rev. Canon Dr. Kendall Harmon, who is the Canon Theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. If I read correctly those writings of his that I have perused, the Reverend Canon and I are on the same page on most issues, if not, indeed, all but one issue, namely, where to go to church given what page we're on. Add to that the fact that he has, virtually single handedly, more than doubled my daily traffic simply by quoting from an essay of mine, and I feel not merely obliged, but honored to return the favor and refer my readers to TitusONENine, though I will refer you particularly to the discussion of my essay on the "plain meaning of Scripture", which is raging here.

One comment in particular that can be found there, from William Witt, who holds a PhD in theology from Notre Dame and who has been a quondam commenter at such fine blogs as Fr. Al Kimel's Pontifications as well as TitusONENine (and who has his own web page here), deserves a detailed comment here, as it raises an issue that I sort of expected to be raised but felt that I had already adequately addressed in my original essay, and that is the issue of the so-called "authorial intent" behind the Scriptures. The appeal to "authorial intent" will already be familiar to most, as it was the Shibboleth of scholarship in the humanities, particularly in philology, during the 1970s and early 1980s. It was proposed at that time, a time redolent with the relativisms of the age, that one way to "fix the meaning" of a text, especially those texts that the pesky deconstructionists and other postmodernists were playing around with trying to get tenure, is to lay it down by fiat that any given text means precisely what its author intended it to mean, and basically nothing else, except for the purposes of preaching where, as I think we all know to our sadness that it is possible to make a text meaning just about anything at all and get away with it, at least until Monday morning when folks have sobered up a little.

Here is what William Witt says about my essay on PMS:
Of course, Scripture needs to be read in the Church. That’s what it is for. This does not mean that the Church provides the Scripture with its intelligibility, or that the Church cannot misread the text.

To provide a parallel example, the score of a Mozart symphony has an inherent intelligibility to those who know how to read music, and especially to those who are trained classical musicians. To me, who has a minimal ability to read music, and no musical training whatsoever, it is just notes on a page. However, this does not mean that even my amateur ears cannot pick out a Mozart symphony when I hear it played--at least those pieces with which I am familiar.

The intelligibility, however, is not provided by the listener, nor even by the classically trained symphony. Mozart who was, of course, part of a musical tradition himself, provided the intelligibility, and the trained musician does his best to be faithful to the text. Should a new Mozart score be discovered, trained musicians could play it because of its inherent intelligibility.

None of this has anything to do with “private judgment.” Someone (either with or without the relevant musical skills), who just decides to wing it as he goes along rather than follow the score, is not “playing Mozart.” Someone with amateur skills, who does her best to follow the score, will nonetheless be playing Mozart, even if not with the adequacy of a classically trained musician.

In both cases, the inherent intelligibility is in the text. In the former, it is ignored. In the latter, it is revealed. The question of whether or not the musician correctly interprets the text is not provided either by the private musician, or even by the skilled guild of classical musicians. It is only because the text has an inherent intelligibility that skilled (or even unskilled) musicians can listen to a performance, and respond: “That is (or is not) Mozart.”
It is difficult to tell from this comment whether William has really read my entire essay, since much of his argument, if taken at face value, either ignores my point or else begs the question against the position I have staked out. In an effort to be fair to him, I have left in a rather curious comparison with a musical score, on the grounds that, in spite of the fact that it is irrelevant, it may perhaps help the reader to see what the man is trying to say. Let's assume, just for a moment, that there is no incommensurability between a musical context and a theological one. Let's accept William's point and ask, how would it be possible, then, for you to "pick out a Mozart symphony when [you] hear it played--at least those pieces with which [you are] familiar"? Surely it would not be by virtue of some innate capacity to distinguish early classical from late baroque compositional principles. In fact, the reason one would be able to pick out such a piece as being by Mozart is given in the example itself: it is due to the fact that the listener is "familiar with" the piece. That means that the listener has been brought up in a community in which the piece was played for him, and that he was taught--again, by the community--that this is Mozart that is being played for him, and by listening to it over and over again, he learns to recognize it upon hearing it. There is nothing about the music itself that enables him to recognize it, it is strictly due to the fact that his own cultural community has taught him that that is what it is that he gives it the label that he does. If he were to hear another piece, say, by Schubert, and declare it to be by Mozart because, "to him", it "sounds like Mozart", the community of persons who know better would quickly correct him. Is it due to Schubert that he is corrected? In one sense, yes, because it was Schubert rather than Mozart who wrote the piece. But we are not talking about whether the Church determines who wrote a particular text, or even how we come to have knowledge that a particular person wrote a particular text. We are talking about how we come to know what a particular text means, and that is, sadly, entirely unrelated to how we recognize a particular piece of music as being by this or that composer. None of this has anything to do with the real point at issue, however.

In spite of the fact that this particular analogy falls rather flat, there is still an interesting point buried in William's comment, and it is this. Presumably, when an author produces a text, he means something by what he produces. William relies on this assumption when he writes "the inherent intelligibility [of a text] is in the text". This is certainly true at a grammatical level, and I don't think anybody will deny that we cannot simply take words from a text and give them whatever meaning we like, Humpty Dumpty style. To this, we may add that every text is produced in its own cultural and semantic context, and it would be wrong to try to impute to an author a point of view that he simply could not have held. (This is rather important issue in the interpretation of the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, by the way, and constitutes one of the major areas of scholarship in ancient philosophy.) The point that William wants to make, if I am not completely misreading him, is that it is not "up to us" to construct a meaning for a text and impose it from the outside, as it were, whether we do that as individuals or as the corporate body that is the Church. In his view, then, my own argument is something of an ignoratio elenchi.

If we begin with William's opening remark, however ("Of course, Scripture needs to be read in the Church. That’s what it is for. This does not mean that the Church provides the Scripture with its intelligibility, or that the Church cannot misread the text") we are immediately confronted with a problem. To assert, without argument (beyond a hapless and ineffective analogy) that "the Church cannot misread the text" is to rather baldly beg the question. On the one hand, nobody will deny that the text has a meaning independently of how the Church reads it. It is evident beyond question, however, that disputes over what that meaning is arise with rather alarming frequency, and it is only natural to look for some hermeneutic principle that may be appealed to for the purposes of settling those disputes. In short, in spite of William's rather fatuous claim to the contrary, the question is closely linked to the authoritativeness of the reader to determine what the principal meaning of the text is and, hence, the question is indeed closely connected to the issue of private judgment.

It is tempting to say that the text means what the author of the text intended it to mean, but such a temptation, like the temptation to pick at a scab, ought to be resisted if one wants to avoid further trouble. Granted, the author meant something by his text, but it is unclear why, in this context, we should care very greatly what he meant. What matters far more is why the Church thought that the text ought to be read by other Christians. It is possible that the author of the Gospel of Thomas intended his text to be orthodox, and to be so-regarded by orthodox Christians. But whether he intended that or not, what matters is that the Church thinks that the text fails to be orthodox, and does not recommend it as Christian reading. So the Church's reasons for accepting a text into the Canon of Scriptures are essentially more normative in settling the meaning and significance of a text than either mere surface grammar or authorial intent.

I don't know what William does for a living, but I'll bet you that if he were actively teaching young philosophy majors, he would be more familiar with the problem of students handing in essays in which they intend to refute this or that argument, only to discover upon getting their graded essays back that they said many things that they did not intend to say but that their own surface grammar and logic committed them to. Very recently I had a discussion with a fellow blogger who kept making arguments that he did not intend to make, and when I pointed out to him what followed from the position he was defending, he was rather quick to distance himself from his own words. He complained rather bitterly, too, asking who I thought I was to tell him what he was saying. Well, I'll tell you who I am: I'm a reader, a part of a community of readers that recognizes a certain standard of rationality according to which he was not saying what he thought he was saying, but something else. It's not really up to him to tell the community that the standards are wrong, it's up to him to adhere to the standards. That's why teachers hand out the grades on essays rather than the students.

The case of the Scriptures, of course, is not quite analogous here, since we do not regard the Sacred Writers as being like students whom the Church "grades", as it were. If anything, it's the heretical writers, such as the author of the Gospel of Thomas, to whom we give a grade of F. But the Church does issue grades to other readers of the Scriptures, just as professors grade their students on how well they have understood some assigned reading. The Church will examine your essay on the import of, say, St Paul's letter to the Romans, and if your understanding of it is up to snuff, that is to say, up to the standards that have been established by the Church herself, then you will get a passing grade. But it is up to the Church, not you, to determine whether your reading of the text meets the grade. If you miss the mark, you will get a heretical grade.

How the Church goes about establishing the criteria for evaluating this or that understanding of the genuine import of the Scriptures naturally takes something like authorial intent in view, but it is not limited to that, and this is important, because anybody can come along and claim, on the basis of their own private judgment, that this or that is what a particular text means or what a particular author intended. But no Sacred Writer would be admitted to the Canon if he did not write what the Church thought ought to be said, so we owe to the Church a special deference in determining the meaning of the Scriptures, and whatever that meaning turns out to be it will not be "plain", but a function of the many factors that I described in my earlier post.

1 comment:

Strider said...

Scott, a thoughtful response to this discussion has been posted at Siris. Please take a look. I think it is definitely worthy of a rejoinder by you.

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