History and the Future of Meaning

Philosophy and Literature 9 (2):139-151 (1985)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Joel Weinsheimer HISTORY AND THE FUTURE OF MEANING In "meaning and Significance Reinterpreted," E. D. Hirsch, Jr. offers what he calls a "new and different theory" of meaning, one which radically reduces the role of the mens auctoris as the normative principle defining validity in literary interpretation.1 Clearly this essay marks a noteworthy shift in Hirsch's own thought, though in the history of hermeneutics such a reduction is of itself hardly new. More interesting are the arguments Hirsch offers for this "correction" of his views, and in particular his thesis that in the process of application "responsible interpreters can adjust old concepts to new beliefs" and still say that they "have not really changed the text's meaning. They can properly say this, first of all, on grounds that... the original speech-intent subsumes new contents in the way that a concept subsumes examples, whether or not the examples were available to the original speaker. But in addition to this, the provisionality of speech sanctions a degree of adjustment in the original concepts as well" (p. 223). Application does not alter meaning if the new example can be subsumed under the original concept or if the original concept is itself originally provisional and adjustable. Thus Hirsch now concurs with Gadamer that application belongs to meaning and yet still dissents from Gadamer's thesis that application to situations unlike those the author envisioned necessarily changes the meaning. If determinacy of meaning is to be preserved, the essential question is, how far can sameness be unlike without becoming difference? Hirsch replies, "It appears... that meaning can tolerate a small revision in mental content and remain the same — but not a big revision.... In our ordinary talk about language, our judgment of sameness of meaning is based on our ad hoc judgment about the closeness of two contents" (p. 221). 139 140Philosophy and Literature Since I (and, I think, Gadamer) agree in great part with this conclusion, Hirsch's theory in my view does not need to be refuted and replaced with something new and different. Rather, in the spirit of his essay, I propose to adjust and build on it — by showing first that the development of Hirsch's argument rehearses Kant's movement from the first Critique to the third, second that the result of merging the two Critiques is unacceptable, and finally that Gadamer's reading of Kant anticipates and refines Hirsch's new theory while avoiding its unacceptable consequences. "The first amendment I must make in my original explanation of the distinction between meaning and significance is to reject my earlier claim that future applications of meaning, each being different, must belong to the domain of significance" (p. 210). In this first phase of his argument, Hirsch argues that the details of literary texts exemplify concepts that are themselves broader than the particulars that exemplify them. In Shakespeare 's sonnet 55, "marble" exemplifies what will last long but not forever. Just as the sonnet itself offers additional instances of this concept, so also the interpreter can find still other, more modern examples of it. Even if Shakespeare did not mention these modern examples and could not be said to have had them in mind, yet they too belong to the poem's self-same meaning if they can be subsumed under the original concept and thus belong to its extension. We can always find more examples, then, and in Hirsch's view this means that through its applications a poem can always become fresh again without altering its meaning. But here's the rub: if new instances are always to be found and thus no instance ever exhausts a concept, then no instance ever fully exemplifies a concept. Every example is a bad example, and Shakespeare would have done better to stick to conceptual language in the first place. If this conclusion is unacceptable, then we can reverse it. When the purpose is only to exemplify a concept, the difference between two examples (say, marble and steel) can be ignored as irrelevant. But it is nonetheless real. Certain elements of the particular example must be eliminated before it can be used to exemplify the general concept. But...



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