Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, 1st ed., 1958; 2d ed., 1981.

8. Literary Interpretation

In the first edition I suggested that we distinguish between three forms of critical activity that are aimed at increasing our understanding of a literary work: explication (Chapter 3), elucidation (Chapter 5), and interpretation in the narrowest sense (Chapter 9). I was struck by the differences in the problems met with in these activities, but also aware of their common problems and procedures, so that I am not unwilling to follow widespread usage among literary theorists by letting the term "interpretation" range over all three -- reserving the distinctions, however, for suitable occasions. In this broad sense, of discovering and reporting on implicit meanings in literary works, interpretation is certainly a considerable part of the critic's work, and poses difficult theoretical problems for the aesthetician of literature. Exactly what kind of inquiry does interpretation involve? And to what extent, if any, can it claim to produce objective knowledge about literature?

Although I go so far, my tolerance for stretching the term has limits, a and I would prefer to keep interpretation, even in this broad sense, distinct (if the distinction can be clearly made and steadily preserved) from looser operations now commonly performed by "post-modern" critics on literary works, and, indeed, on texts of all kinds. In its most advanced form at present, it is known as "deconstruction," but many well-known critics who probably don't deserve this label (supposing that it has a fairly determinate sense) enter into the spirit of it, a willfulness and even ruthlessness toward texts that was first vigorously recommended by Nietzsche. These critics usually speak of their work as "interpretation," but this consists in using texts for the purpose of spinning ideas that are not claimed to be part of their meaning in any usual sense: psychoanalytic speculations about the unconscious motivation of the work, puns and plays on words in the work to make it seem to contradict or undermine itself, free associations of arbitrarily selected bits of the work with passages from Heidegger or Hegel that are really unrelated to it. This form of criticism has become highly active, and deserves far more critical discussion than it has received from philosophers (for an introduction to it and examples of it, see Hartman, ed., Deconstruction and Criticism, and Harari, ed., Textual Strategies); but here I shall concentrate on the aesthetic problems of interpretation in the narrower broad sense.

The two questions centrally at issue are (1) whether critical interpretations in general can be verified or confirmed -- that is, adequately supported by evidence -- and hence shown to be more acceptable than rival interpretations, and (2), if so, how. A good deal of the discussion has touched in one way or another on a little poem by Wordsworth that was first introduced into the debate by E. D. Hirsch ("Objective Interpretation," in Validity in Interpretation) and picked up by me for use in a defense of the objectivity (vs. the relativity) of interpretations (The Possibility of Criticism, Chapters 1, 2). It goes:

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

Hirsch cited opposing interpretations by F. W. Bateson (the poem is pantheistic; Lucy is now part of the life of Nature) and Cleanth Brooks (the poem is mechanistic; Lucy is horribly reduced to mere matter). There are various other recent commentaries on this poem; see, for example J. Hillis Miller ("On Edge") and Norman N. Holland ("Literary Interpretation")

An affirmative answer to question (1) has been given a vigorous an sustained defense by Hirsch (Validity in Interpretation and The Aims o Interpretation), who argues that the only escape from relativism -- that is, the only basis for a "cognitive" concept of interpretation -- consists in identifying the meaning of the poem (or other literary work) with the author's intended meaning. A dispute such as that between Bateson and Brooks is then settled by appeal to available biographical evidence that in 1798, when he wrote this poem, Wordsworth was inclined toward patheism and would not have seen the world the way Brooks describes. (If we regard the poem, following Section 7 above, as the representation of illocutionary actions, the relevance of biographical evidence becomes more problematic.) Hirsch's view has been criticized by me (The Possibility of Criticism, Chapter 1), arguing that to identify textual meaning with authorial meaning is untenable. William Tolhurst ("On What a Text Is" has replied that a poem is an utterance and its meaning is to be understood in the way proposed by H. P. Grice (see Section 4 above), that understanding the poem "is essentially a matter of correctly discerning what [the poet] intended by it" (p. 10). Tolhurst's argument is very well worked out, and if Grice's theory of meaning were tenable, it would effectively support Tolhurst's view. Jack Meiland "Interpretation as a Cognitive Discipline") has made a careful analysis and penetrating criticism of Hirsch's view, and defended the text's meaning's independence of the author's intention. (Cf. John Ellis, "Critical Interpretation.")

The intentionalist thesis -- that appeal to information about the author's intention is indispensable for establishing the meaning of a text -- has been supported in an interesting variety of ways in recent years: by P. D. Juhl ("The Appeal to the Text"), who regards interpretations "functional explanations" that refer essentially to the poet's reasons for writing, say, "earth's diurnal course," rather than some alternative (see my comments in "Some Problems of Critical Interpretation"); by Stein Olsen ("Interpretation and Intention"), who seems to argue that because the classification of discourses as literature involves a reference to intention, their interpretation must also (cf. "The Philosophy of Literature") by Michael Steig ("The Intentional Phallus"), who presents some striking literary examples that seem to demand an appeal to what the author has in mind. John Reichert (Making Sense of Literature, Chapters 3 and 4) has presented a sustained defense of the relevance of intention to interpretation, dealing subtly and judiciously with a number of the problems, such as irony and metaphor. But his argument is based on what I consider to be a mistaken version of speech-act theory (see Section 4 above) -- that to grasp the nature of an illocutionary action is to grasp the intention with which it is performed -- and despite many excellent points, the basic defense does not succeed. It still seems to me that evidence of what the author intended, although it may be helpful in construing the text he wrote can neither override nor supplement what the text tells us when approached with the appropriate rules and conventions (see "Intentions and Interpretations") -- and this applies especially to a form of argument that frequently turns up in literary studies (see Steig above), where the author significantly alters his text from the first draft, and meanings are read into the final version on the ground that they were plainly there earlier, though now deleted! This is eisegesis, not exegesis.

My view remains that we must settle such issues as that over Wordsworth's poem by appealing to the potentialities of meaning (at the time it was written, if that is what we are interested in, as we generally should be), given the lexis and syntax. Where multiple meanings remain uneliminated, we can often accept them both, and should then do so; where they conflict, we are left with ambiguity (in the strict sense) and simply cannot decide among them. I do not believe that the Bateson and Brooks interpretations of the Wordsworth poem are equally defensible; what Brooks correctly interprets is the poem that Wordsworth would have written (perish the thought!) if his second stanza had read:

No motion has she now, no force;
She feels no thrills or shocks;
Whirled round in earth's erratic course,
With trees, and stones, and rocks.

In my earlier treatment of explication (Chapter 3) I was evidently aware that for explication to be a shared critical procedure that produces objective, verifiable (in a sense), and reasonably disputable results, there must be agreement on some methodological principles that go beyond those of linguistics. This idea has been carried much further, and admirably in my view, by Jonathan Culler (Structuralist Poetics), who regards the command of such rules as constituting a special "literary competence" (see my "Philosophy of Literature"). A good deal of worthwhile work remains to be done along these lines.

Attacks on the objective view of literary interpretation, whether intentionalist or nonintentionalist, have taken a variety of forms and have been launched with a number of challenging arguments. There have been defenses of "pluralism" in a fairly loose sense that seems to imply the charitable admission of various critical methods and approaches (see Walter Davis, The Act of Interpretation); insofar as these methods answer different questions, I see no problem; but when incompatible answers are given to the same question (Is Wordsworth's poem pantheistic -- yes or no?) I cannot regard them as jointly acceptable. Much has been made of Schleiermacher's "hermeneutic circle" as revived by recent theorists to prove the unavoidable "subjectivity" of interpretations: that we cannot understand what a particular word in the poem means until we have first understood the poem's general meaning, and vice versa. But it seems to me clear that the poem is far from a closed circle: the standard senses and the range of available connotations of "rolled" and "diurnal" are in the language, and there is a general rule of style or rhetoric that emphasizes the final "trees" over "rocks" in the original. Richard Lind ("Must the Critic Be Correct?"), who is very good on this appeal to connotation and suggestion, does not seem to deny the possibility of correct interpretations, but he holds that the critic should prefer the interpretation that makes the best poem, since the value of an interpretation is its aesthetic instrumentality. Michael Hancher ("The Science of Interpretation") has similar view.

Other writers have argued the "logical weakness" of interpretation statements (e.g., the elucidation "In The Turn of the Screw, the ghosts corrupt the children"). Joseph Margolis ("Robust Relativism") apparently holds that such statements are neither true nor false, although they take other predicates, such as "apt" and "plausible" (which are apparently epistemic, rather than semantic). Thus formally incompatible interpretations (cf. the one just given with "In The Turn of the Screw there are no ghosts; the governess hallucinates them") do not logically conflict, and both may be accepted by critics. But, like me, Margolis has great difficulty in adhering to this denial of truth value to interpretations: he alleges, for example, that Wordsworth's poem "does appear to support two dififferent interpretations" (p. 43), but if the interpretations have no truth value, how can facts or evidence "support" them? Denis Dutton ("Plausibility and Aesthetic Interpretation") agrees with Margolis thai practicing critics are far more concerned with plausibility than with truth, but since plausibility is the appearance of truth, or of deserving belief (or something close to these), it would seem to me irresponsible to be interested in the one but not the other. Robert Matthews ("Describing and Interpreting a Work of Art") nearly agrees with Margolis in holding that "critical interpretations are as a general rule evidentially undetermined, and hence neither true nor false" (p. 13). (I question the suitability of "hence" as a logical connective here.) Matthews says that, by definition, to interpret (rather than to describe) is to concede that one is not in position to know that what one is saying is true. Thus if we found sufficient indications in James's novella to decide with some assurance whether or not the ghosts are real, then our report of this decision would no longer (on Matthews's view) be an interpretation. Perhaps we might become accustomed to this usage, although it strikes me as abnormal and inconvenient, and although it makes the term "interpretation" rather useless by confining it to undecidable statements (e.g., that Quint once worked in a brewery); but I would still claim that many more statements about literary works are in fact decidable (by a reasonable reading of the text) than Matthews concedes. (Cf. Colin Radford and Sally Minogue, "The Complexity of Criticism.")


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