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.

Irony and Reason


"On the one hand, one wants to say that Western reason has been used to domesticate, subordinate and tyrannise its others, but such a judgement also employs the very sense of reason and properly universal justice it would deny." (Claire Colebrook, Irony 2004: 165)

One potential response to this state of affairs is to abandon, or consider somehow tainted, the activity of critiquing tryanny and the accompanying need to fight for a more just world, since one cannot do so without recourse to concepts and values about which one is suspicious. This route, sometimes favoured by critical theory, has the ring of radicalism, but it is also comforting, since it effectively relieves one of the responsibilities of commitment: if all affirmative positions are equally so tainted, why should we pursue any? 

Another possible response is to take from this ironic state of affairs the lesson that it is not the concepts of reason and justice themselves that are at fault, but rather merely too many of their applications in practice; this is the more challenging route, since it starts one on the path of having to examine individual cases where  'reason' and 'justice' might be needed, rather than denouncing the ideas bankrupt in all cases. This, though, is surely the necessary starting point for any responsible and practicable forms of commitment.