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Monday, September 24, 2012

Is There Meaning In This Text? by Vanhoozer

Is There Meaning In This Text: the Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge
by Kevin J. Vanhoozer

"Texts, like dead men and women, have no rights, no aims, no interests. They can be used in whatever way readers or interpreters choose. If interpreters choose to respect an author's intentions, that is because it is in their interest to do so." (Rober Morgan, quoted on page 371). Vanhoozer disagrees with this conclusion, and argues that there is a way that a reader is able to understand and appropriate a text.

Vanhoozer skillfully leads the reader through this difficult discussion by addressing a number of pertinent issues. He begins by evaluating the deconstructionists and their attempt to undo the text. Those seeking to eliminate any meaning from the written word have first attacked the author and his initial intention. Men such as Derrida, Rorty, and Fish have all taken it upon themselves to facilitate this deconstruction.

They move from refusing meaning to the author to robbing the text from its meaning. This is the natural step in the progression, because there can be no meaning in an "authorless" text. This finally results in the undoing of the reader. He is left afloat in the sea of subjectivity and allowed to do with the text whatever suits his needs.
Hermeneutics has not always been such a hot bed of discussion. It was only in the nineteenth century that hermeneutics became essentially a study of human understanding (20). Since that time it has served as the conversation piece of the academia. In the midst of the theorizing and discussion it has been made evident that language and meaning combine to become the most important instrument for the progression of humanity (22). It almost seems as though they were to late in realizing this fact as they had already robbed meaning from language.

Schleiermacher was on the forefront of the relieving assigned meaning from the author. As his theories spread, a multitude of other intellectuals stood and continued the movement. As meaning was relinquished, relativism ensued. "Hermeneutic relativism shadows the epistemological discussion like a parasite that lives off its host" (27). Vanhoozer argues that the death of the author is a direct result of the "death of God" in the previous century (43). Nietzsche, arguably the most notable in this "discovery", taught that all words and concepts are devoid of internal meaning. Rather, they have only been ascribed meaning by mankind. This was a reaction against Plato's belief in the correspondence of truth (57).

Hermeneutical non-realists have relinquished themselves from any need of determining the meaning of the text because they reject the notion that there is any meaning to be found (49). They open themselves to the abyss of nothingness, and lose all connection with reality. Some have attempted to assign meaning through consensus of community, but this only slows the inevitable conclusion of complete relativity.

As with other ideas and authors with whom Vanhoozer interacts, he makes a fair and helpful observation concerning deconstructionism. It is not a synonym of "destruction." Destruction involves demolition, deconstruction involves disassembling. The deconstructionist does not seek to annihilate the text, but to take it apart one piece at a time and demonstrate its arbitrary nature (52). He also notes one of the benefits of this movement. Vanhoozer states, "I wish at this point to commend deconstruction as a standing challenge to interpretive pride" (184). Those who have excelled at separating the text have offered a valuable critique of those who believe they are the sole proprietors of interpretation. The author is able to make this statement because he does not believe that meaning is absolutely knowable, though he disagrees with those who believe that it is absolutely undecidable (187). This evaluation, however, must be guarded. If Vanhoozer is going to argue for meaning from the author, in the text, available for the reader, then at some point one must be able to say that they understand a given text. The complete intentions and understanding of an author can never be known, but the meaning ascribed to it at some level must be knowable.

The author argues that "the process of interpretation is governed by certain rational procedures" and that meaning can be determined through a method of "thick description" (27). This must be carried on through responsible authors and readers (207). These readers, in contrast to the subjective creatures of the postmodernist mindset, are required to seek out the intended meaning of the text. This is the focus of the second half of his book.

In part two of the work, the author takes up the task of restoring some semblance of order in the chaotic world left by deconstructionism. He begins where his opponents began, with the author. If there is to be any meaning in a text at all, the author must be recognized as the giver of meaning. The text is then able to be read for its intended meaning. The author as well is assigned a role in the interpretive process, a role which is not free to read anything he desires into the meaning.
The "speech act" is the process by which an author ascribes meaning to a text. Vanhoozer would argue that this is the only way in which meaning can be ascribed. A text without an author is a text without a meaning and ceases to be a text itself.

An author communicates a variety of messages in any text. Some of the messages are intentional, some unintentional. Vanhoozer argues that the author's intended message is that which contains meaning (259). Here he leaves questions unanswered. At times an author may not intend to convey a certain message to the reader, but through the very medium through which he is communicating, he is. Even though this message was not intended by the author, it was communicated. Is there not real meaning there?
Following his view of the author as the investor of meaning in a text, the next step is to accept the fact that the text must have some meaning to be discovered. Because the author is not always available, the text itself is left with the responsibility to hold meaning for the interpreter (303). The reader is therefore accountable to the text in order to come to the meaning of the author. This involves a detailed process, seeking to "to specify the what, whys, and wherefores of the text considered as communicative action" (293).

The reader must display honesty, openness, attention, and obedience in order to properly evaluate the text. These interpretive virtues are developed through the reading of great literature (377). The author concludes by reviewing the ground covered in the previous chapters, and encourages the reader to develop humility and conviction in one's hermeneutic.

Vanhoozer takes a few pages (424-26) to describe his reaction against "fundamentalism." He desires to disassociate himself from this mentality because first, they ascribe to a common sense interpretation of the Bible. Second, they assume "that the truth of the Bible is a matter of its correspondence to historical fact." They have clung to a "misleading, and modern, picture of meaning and truth." Third, fundamentalists have declared that they are the sole proprietors of valid interpretation.

These critiques are duly noted. At times, fundamentalists have erred in grievous ways. However, if Vanhoozer believes that there is meaning vested in the text, by the author, for the reader, at some level that meaning can be known. This interpretation is clearly not as easy as common sense realism, but it can be known. As far as taking the Bible as historical fact, Vanhoozer would admit himself that the Bible does contain historical fact. How much it contains is now the only question.

This short section reveals some of the inadequacies of his work. In all his attention to the text, he seems to come short on the exegetical work done by interpreters of the Scriptures. This process can properly be employed to assist the reader in coming to a possible interpretation of the Scriptures. The word "possible" is used because exegesis alone cannot reveal the complete meaning. The Holy Spirit is necessary, as was duly noted by the author.

Vanhoozer has provided an exceptional volume for the student of hermeneutics and philosophy. He has interacted with key intellectual leaders and has given a fair and thoughtful critique of their positive and negative contributions. He has not resorted to characterization nor straw man tactics. Instead he has taken many pages to explain those with whom he disagrees. This work is a valuable contribution to the study of hermeneutics

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