Book Review, Hermeneutics

Book Review: “Validity of Interpretation” by E.D. Hirsch

E.D. Hirsch, Jr. Validity in Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967. xiv + 287 pp.805b6f2936b64576681223006ba3b7c9

E.D. Hirsch is the founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation and professor emeritus of humanities and education at the University of Virginia. As an American educator and academic literary critic, Hirsch has influenced education both in the U.S. and in the U.K. His work being reviewed here, Validity of Interpretation, established Hirsch as the founder of contemporary intentionalism and an advocate of “new criticism” as opposed to other literary interpretative frameworks. In addition to literary theory, most of his works are on the topic of American education, including Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987), The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1996), The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children (2006), and his most recent work, Why Knowledge Matters (2016).

In Validity of Interpretation, Hirsch maintains the need and legitimacy of objectivity in determining the meaning of any literary text wherein objectivity consensus on the validity of interpretation can be achieved. In chapter 1, Hirsch makes the case against the theory of semantic autonomy which denies the need for authorial intent in interpretation. Opponents of the literary theory of authorial intent argue that the meaning of the author either changes, is not necessary, is inaccessible, or not known by the author himself. After analyzing various arguments against authorial intent, he demonstrates how each argument is either fallacious or irrelevant. In chapter 2, Hirsch argues that authorial intent is the normative principle towards a valid interpretation by demonstrating that the author’s verbal meaning is both determinate and reproducible. Verbal meaning is the concept that an author intends to convey through the sequence of words (or linguistic signs) (p. 31). Since verbal meaning is meant to be conveyed, it must be sharable. If it is shareable, then it must have identifiable boundaries; it must be determinate. Furthermore, Hirsch exposes the fallacy of psychologism and radical historicism by distinguishing “meaning” from other ideas that were wrongly thought to be the same as “meaning,” like “symptoms of meaning,” the subject matter, and the implications of the meaning.

Chapter 3 moves from the discussion of meaning to the discussion of interpretation. The bridge between the two is what Hirsch calls “intrinsic genre.” The intrinsic genre is the generic concept shared by author and interpreter, and within it comes the specific meaning conveyed by the author (cf. p. 86). A valid interpretation of meaning takes place when the author’s will (meaning) and the social understanding of linguistic genres (interpretation) combine.

The aim of chapter 4 is to analyze corollaries from the distinction between meaning and significance towards both the practice of criticism and the demonstration of the feasibility of valid interpretation. This chapter develops how one judges and criticizes this understanding of meaning. While inappropriate criticism (that is disagreeing with purposes that the author did not mean) could be useful, the ideal is judicial criticism based on valid interpretation. In chapter 5, Hirsch unpacks the underlying principles towards objectivity in discerning between conflicting interpretations. The most plausible meaning of the text among others is a valid interpretation. In addition, while correctness as the goal of interpretation is achievable, it cannot ultimately be known if it has been achieved. Probability theory—informed, rational hypothesis—assumes that complete correctness cannot be achieved. A valid interpretation can be objectively determined by selecting the most plausible interpretation based on the evidence that is presented.

Hirsch’s work, though not without its weaknesses, demonstrates clear and logical arguments for an objective analysis of interpretation based on authorial intent. One of his strengths is his ability to expose the weaknesses of opposing views. For example, he argues why an author’s original meaning cannot change (p. 9) or how the idea that meaning is determined by public consensus is fallacious (p. 13) persuasively with use of common sense and logic. Hirsch displays great aptitude in distinguishing closely related terms or ideas. Against the notion that readers gain a greater understanding of meaning than the author, Hirsch argues that perhaps a reader could understand the “subject matter” better than the author, but not the understanding of the author’s “meaning” (cf. p. 20). “Meaning” is distinguished from “subject matter” (or with “components of meaning,” [p. 21], “mental processes” [p. 32] responses to the text [p. 38]). While distinguishing words and clarifying definitions is one of his strengths, it could also be a weakness when overdone. Hirsch dismisses the idea of “context,” preferring “intrinsic genre,” despite both words having an overlap in semantic range (pp. 86-88). Consequently, the traditional interpretive principle of “interpreting by context” is replaced by “interpreting by intrinsic genre.” But isn’t this an argument based merely on semantics?

Other questions for further clarification are necessary. First, is it possible that some authors, like T.S. Eliot, intentionally write their poems in such a way that the reader would subjectively determine its meaning instead of an objective “authorial intent”? If that is the case, would not such aim still qualify as the authorial intent of the author, viz. to make his text subjective? Secondly, regarding sensus plenoir (p. 126), is Hirsch suggesting that one must approach scriptural interpretation as reading two different texts (human intended meaning and the divine intended meaning) despite having the same word sequence? In pp. 202-207, Hirsch maintains that interpreters must not rely on methodology or rules of interpretation but on the logic of validation. But doesn’t the logic of validation itself based on certain underlying principles (or rules) create a kind of methodology? Also, is Hirsch implying that having a methodology or principles of interpretation is entirely useless or unhelpful? Lastly, if the objectivity in selecting a valid interpretation is based on the evidence presented and on objective criteria having been determined in assessing the evidence, who determined that these criteria are indeed objective? Was that determination made objectively and not subjectively? In other words, is it truly possible to have a completely objective means of assessing evidence without any taint of subjectivism?

One more principle from Hirsch is worth highlighting for its application in the field of biblical interpretation. In pp. 125-126, Hirsch argues that an author has created certain boundaries to any possible implication of meaning though not previously thought of when writing the text. This argument, when used biblical interpretation, could mean that implications (including contemporary applications)—though not originally perceived by the author—are limited to the boundary willed by the author. In other words, sermon applications, though stated in a contemporary context, must remain within the boundaries set forth for the original audience.

Lest this analysis be deemed an example of inappropriate judicial criticism, it must be confessed that I had difficulty either agreeing or disagreeing because of the uncertainty of fully knowing the verbal meaning of the author, which, according to Hirsch, no one can truly know with certainty. If Rod Decker summarized Stanley Porter’s dissertation in his essay, “A Poor Man’s Porter,” then it would be greatly beneficial if one would write “A Humble Man’s Hirsch.”

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