Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Intention and Interpretation

In A Rhetoric of Irony, Wayne Booth uses a distinction (which he credits to 'the hermeneutic tradition' in philosophy) between a text's ‘meaning’ and its ‘significance’; he is, he explains,

relegating to "significance" all of the indefinitely extendable interpretations that works might be given by individuals or societies pursuing their own interests unchecked by intentions. (1974: 19)
This captures well for me a distinction between much critical writing that I find useful or convincing, and much that I find merely indulgent, insubstantial, or unconvincing as criticism.* If it is to constitute an attempt to grasp a text's meaning, rather than its significance, I think that an interpretation must appear to be licensed to some degree by what we can reasonably hypothesise are the text's intentions. While it will forever remain true that even the best hypotheses may turn out to be wrong, I would suggest that it nevertheless remains the critic's responsibility to attempt this best hypothesis as far as is possible. Of course, one needn't stop there, but one also probably shouldn't start from anywhere else.

*That is to say: while it strikes me as uninteresting criticism, it may seem useful and convincing to others (and even to me) as an example of something else: philosophy, for instance, or sociology, or simply as a record of how the writer's analytical mind works.

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