[Another post from Adam Arnold, FotP "Friend of the Podcast"]
Recently I read a short story entitled "My Brother's Foot". My interpretation of the story, like my interpretation of just about anything these days, was philosophical. I took the story to be a critique of the idea of an existential hero and a radical notion of self definition. How when we forget or push off our intersubjective world of meaning, the very notion of meaning eats itself up (the first sentence says: "On the last day my brother ate his foot."). I took the story to be a critique of our modern nihilistic world in which the only thing we champion, the only thing we hold in regard, is those who "do something" with their lives. Where this to "do something" is not an objectively meaningful task but one that is nothing more than a subjective impulse with no other purpose then to fend off boredom.
How are we to judge if this is a correct interpretation? One possible method is to ask the writer. Full disclosure, the author is my significant other so I did just that. When I told her my interpretation she said that that was not her intention at all. She did not give, and generally does not give, thought to a possible philosophic meaning to her writing. This is not because she isn't a philosophic person or that she doesn't have interest in philosophy. She just got her masters degree in philosophy with a dissertation on Hegel.
Does this mean my interpretation is non-sense? Did I completely miss the point? Perhaps. However, many have argued that authorial intent does not matter or matters only a little. I would like to make a different claim. That the author comes back in at a different level. Not on the level of right or wrong interpretation (I am not sure such a thing makes sense) based on their intent but rather at a more general level of possible verstehen or understanding that could be reached with the author.
The thesis which I would like to put forward is that for one to properly understand a text one must present an interpretation which the author could understand. If the author could not come to an understanding with an interpretation then something is inadequate with that particular interpretation. Let me return to the beginning and my conversation about my significant other's short story. When I told her my interpretation, she clearly had not intended it. However, after I explained to her why I interpreted the text in that way, she did understand how I got there.
The author need not agree with an interpretation but rather if a mutual understanding is reached or could be reached:
the interpreter cannot believe that he has understood the text if he does not at the same time suppose that his interpretation fundamentally offers a basis for reaching an understanding with the author himself... A successful interpretation warrants the hope that the author could agree with us on a common understanding of the context of his utterance if he could bridge the temporal distance through a learning process complementary to our interpretive process" (Jürgen Habermas, "On Communicative Action")
It seems to me that this way of approaching a text is more productive than a discussion of what is the right or wrong interpretation. When it comes to works of art, it seems to me that there is no right or wrong interpretation but a field of interpretations that yield different experiences. However, with the principle of mutual understanding we can avoid a relativistic notion of interpretation by fixing the boundary as the possible interpretations that the author of a work could possible understand.
Wayne Schroeder says
It’s cool to have an actual author to discuss interpretations with. And to seek mutual understanding with the author is good, but I think the more general goal is to include the author with any reader, and not privilege the author with unique understanding for accurate interpretation. Donald Davidson argues for taking a “third person stance” for valid interpretation, meaning a shared perspective on a common public world, and that even our own perspective needs to be run through the third person stance, or the perspective on a public world shared with others. Davidson’s approach is not perfected, but represents an analytic/objective approach to interpretation with an informed position regarding the limits of interpretation presented by Wittgenstein, Gadamer, Derrida, etc. Much more to be done here.
Adam Arnold says
Wayne, thanks for the comment. I wasn’t arguing for the author having a unique understanding. In fact, I don’t care what the author’s understanding is at all. This is more of a hypothetical for a reader to check his/her understanding of a work. That is, could the author understand (if the gap between them could be closed) the reader’s interpretation? I am completely comfortable with the idea that the author might strongly disagree with the reader’s interpretation. What I am more looking for is a response along the line from the author of: “Oh, I see where you are coming from” He might add: “But you are wrong.” That addition doesn’t matter because as I said what the author intended to say isn’t the point.
I am not sure, based on how you characterized it, Davidson’s approach and what I argued couldn’t be fit together. I mean for any author we are reading the only information we have about them is (potentially) public. That is, we can’t know what the author was thinking but we can know (at least some of) the context in which a text was written.
Simply put, what I proposed was simply a heuristic devise that narrows the set of acceptable interpretations. What Davidson seems to be concerned more about a method to reach the valid interpretation (or did I misunderstand what you were saying, haven’t had a chance to read the Davidson). If that is the case, I don’t, at least superficially, disagree with Davidson.
Wayne Schroeder says
A book regarding Davidson’s ideas is by Lepore and Ludwig: Meaning, Truth, Language and Reality.
Call make a pragmatist, but I think the reasonableness an interpretation depends on your goal in making an interpretation. In tHis case ( Discussion with the author), your standard (Whether the interpretation makes sense to the author) sounds wonderful. I’m skeptical that it’s the best rule of thumb for most other ends of interpretation, though. It’s worth looking into the argument between Derrida and Umberto Eco on this topic.
Adam Arnold says
jxn, Thanks for the comment.
I am just not sympathetic to this form of pragmatism (although there are some forms of pragmatism that I am sympathetic to). It seems to me that this form of pragmatism (and maybe this isn’t you, if you said more) cuts off theory by only employing instrumental reasons to get to whatever given goal; this form of pragmatism doesn’t seem to care what that goal is…
The idea of the author understanding your interpretation works fine if you stay within the limits of a specific culture or time-frame.
However, I doubt that Aeschyulus could understand Nietzsche’s interpretation of his work in the Birth of Tragedy or my existentialist take on his drama and yet Nietzsche’s interpretation seems worthy of consideration.
Similarly, I suspect that Jane Austen would not understand a feminist interpretation of her work nor would Dickens understand a Marxist interpretation of his novels.
Swallerstein, I completely agree.
This thesis posits only ‘rational’ author who is capable of understanding not only thier own work but empathizing with the view of another. William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch may be a good exmaple of where this thesis falls apart but a better example, I think, is an outsider author named Francis E. Dec (see ubu web for some wonderful recordings of his rants) who was a paranoid schizophrenic but whose work I have been considering writing on in relation to a Deleuzian view of schizophrenia. At any rate, his appropriation of language is what you might expect from a paranoid schizophrenic and though his writings may be only tenuously ‘literature’, they certainly are compellingly poetic. My point is that Dec would never be able to consider any notion of his work as, literary or poetic or even, for that matter, schizophrenic (which supplies the most immeadiate interpretive lens for any viewing of his work but is fundamentally not an interpretation that Dec could understand) and that his inability to cognize ANY interpretation beyond his own does not delegitimze even the most basic readings of his work.
Chris "Jesdisciple" says
Literature inherently has its author’s intent, and indeed the author’s entire being, as an essential part of its context, so I don’t think it makes sense to say that an author can’t dictate a canonical interpretation. On the other hand, literature is often useful for illustrating ideas which were not intended; even if the author would totally reject an interpretation, it can be valid in this way. But that is re-contextualizing the work and can’t replace canon.
So maybe there is a spectrum of how involved an author is in an interpretation, yielding various types or degrees of validity.
“Literature inherently has its author’s intent, and indeed the author’s entire being, as an essential part of its context.”
I disagree emphatically. That is a pre-text rather than a context. A context is formed on reading by the reader.
Jennifer Tejada says
Love this! I wish I could tag Michael Murray!
Pervaiz khan says
As student of contemporary English literature, I
proudly appreciate you all our ancient enchanters whose immortal sacrifices have illuminated us in terms of making things clearer…