Is There a Meaning in This Text?
A review of Kevin Vanhoozer's, "Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge," by Vaughn Thompson.
Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998. 496 pp. $29.99 pb. ISBN 0-310-21156-5.
At the dawn of a new millennium, academics and practitioners from a cross section of disciplines have become increasingly aware of the wide spread changes happening in our world often referred to as “postmodernism”. It is in this context of postmodernity that Kevin Vanhoozer seeks to locate his work Is There a Meaning in This Text?
Vanhoozer takes up the formidable task of defending the role of the author in the interpretive task. His goal is unabashedly apologetic in this regard. But to accomplish his goal he must provide a nuanced account of the author that responds to the criticisms of postmodern literary theorists who deny the same. He accomplishes this through a very careful critique of his critics followed by a very nuanced proposal of his own.
Vanhoozer’s work is divided into two parts. The first part Undoing Interpretation is a critique of postmodern critics and literary theorists. He subdivides these into two categories which he calls the “undoers” (deconstructionists) whose figurehead is the noted French philosopher Jacques Derrida and the “users” (pragmatists) whose figurehead is the American literary theorist Stanley Fish. Borrowing from discussions of reality in Metaphysics, both are referred to as hermeneutic “non-realists” suggesting that these theorists do not believe that there is anything that is “real” in the text.
Part one is neatly divided into three sections looking at the issues surrounding the “author”, the “text”, and the “reader”. Focusing on the author, the main issues revolve around an author’s intention, the authority of the author, and as an extension to these discussions, the ability of the Bible to speak meaningfully to readers in a postmodern context. Vanhoozer suggests that by following the trajectories of the Users and Undoers, the author has ceased to become a meaningful idea. The result is that authors not only do not have any authority but may be rendered “dead” upon arrival. Inevitably, such an approach does not allow room for the Bible to speak meaningfully to readers.
Next Vanhoozer looks at the “undoing of the Book”. Focusing on the text he shows how Users and Undoers have eliminated meaning from the text. He then makes the comparison to metaphysics to show how Users and Undoers take “non-realist” positions on the text’s meaning. Texts are simply devoid of meaning. In this section, Vanhoozer also discusses major theorists who disregard the author but give regard to the text as a place for meaning to occur. Such thinkers as Hans Gadamer and Paul Ricouer maintain very helpful mediating positions that resist the extremes of Users and Undoers. From there, issues related to the reader’s context and textual indeterminacy all find a discussion. Ultimately, Vanhoozer concludes that Users and Undoers provide no basis from which to adjudicate interpretations. He distinguishes between three different positions: absolute meaning, indeterminate meaning, and adequate meaning. Vanhoozer agrees with postmoderns that absolute meaning is not possible but does not want to adhere to indeterminate meaning where he believes no meaning is possible. Thus, he opts for the later option, adequate meaning. Vanhoozer maintains that we cannot know absolutely but we can know adequately the meaning of a text.
After following the categories of author and text, Vanhoozer turns his attention to the reader. With the death of the author and the indeterminacy of the text, the “reader” has been born. Vanhoozer looks at how ideology and the reader’s context inform the meaning of the text. He discusses the various aims that a reader could be reading for and the ethics of each. By appealing to the category of ethics, Vanhoozer suggests that one may do “interpretive violence” to the text or the author. Vanhoozer applauds the deconstructionist ethical concern for the other but rejects their method that never fully addresses the other. Such interaction is always “deferred” (Derrida’s Differance).
Vanhoozer has been very judicious in his critique of postmodern literary theory. As he constructs his own account of the reading process, he suggests that there are certain pitfalls that must be avoided. First, Interpretation cannot be done from a foundationalist epistemology. Vanhoozer assumes the critique of foundationalism and suggests that one cannot begin from an indubitable belief (287). He contrasts this foundationalism with the approach of Users and Undoers, which he refers to as interpretive fideists. Vanhoozer then suggests that the New Reformed Epistemology associated with Alvin Plantiga and Nicholas Wolterstorff may offer a third alternative. He looks to them for the formation of “properly basic beliefs” which, Vanhoozer suggests, provide an adequate starting point for literary knowledge.
Second, Vanhoozer distinguishes between viewing texts as writing or as speech. At this point Vanhoozer follows Ricouer in viewing texts as “embodied discourse.” The text is an embodied “speech-act” that carries with it the intention of an author. Such a move is strategic on the part of Vanhoozer because he is able to avoid the critiques of writing put forth by Derrida. Writing, he maintains, is a communicative action and is therefore not bound merely to rules of semiotics but to the rules of communicative action. The text as a communicative action embodies an intent that is directed towards a receiver. Here, Vanhoozer looks to Speech Act theorists as J.L. Austin and John Searle. By utilizing the category of Speech Act Theory he suggests that texts have an embodied locution (propositional content), an illocutionary force (a context of action in which the text does something), and a perlocutionary effect (an impact upon the intended receiver).
By looking to Speech Act Theory and viewing texts as communicative action, Vanhoozer makes an important move away from traditional accounts of the author’s intent. Vanhoozer will not look for an author’s intent in the mind of the author; rather he suggests that an author’s intent is a textually embodied public act. Thus, attempts to reconstruct the author’s situation are limited in their usefulness. He suggests that the author’s intent is in the text. To discern what an author intended is to discern the meaning of a text.
Third, Vanhoozer’s argument relies on theology and ethics. As a Christian, Vanhoozer sets out to provide a Christian theological account for interpretation. At this point Vanhoozer draws on the resources of the Trinity to construct what he calls a Trinitarian hermeneutics.
Vanhoozer appeals to a number of threefold distinctions in his book (456):
- The literary triad of author-text-reader;
- The traditional triadic division of philosophical labor: metaphysics-epistemology-ethics;
- The three key interpretive issues that follow from these branches of philosophy:Hermeneutic realism, hermeneutic rationality, and hermeneutic responsibility;
- The three components of the speech act: locution, illocution, and perlocution;
- Three central Christian doctrines: creation, Incarnation/revelation, sanctification;
- The triunity of God: Father, Son, and Spirit.
These distinctions help provide a framework for his argument. For Vanhoozer, the first category of his triads (author, metaphysics, realism, locution, Father, etc.) relays his belief in a metaphysically real meaning (or locution) in the text that was created by an author. The second category in his triads (text, illocution, epistemology, rationality, incarnation, Son, etc.) relay his belief that the text in it’s context can be known from the rules of grammar, literature, and communication. The final category of his triads concerns his belief that readers are responsible to seek out and respond to the text’s perlocutionary effect. This argument is based in his doctrine of God, namely, that God is real, has spoken (locution) through his Word (illocution), and uses His Spirit to accomplish a perlocutionary effect on humanity.
Vanhoozer suggests that to the degree that contemporary literary theory’s view of an author and of the text is diminished, it corresponds to a diminished view of God. Thus, every interpretive act is also a theological act. He follows that readers are also ethically responsible for their interpretations and for their respect for the “other” (the author & the text). Here Vanhoozer forwards what he calls “interpretive virtues”. Borrowing from the categories of faith, hope, & love, he maintains that readers must act virtuously towards the “other” and respect the “other”. At this point, the “other” becomes a point of transcendence for Vanhoozer that allows a text to have an ethical and authoritative stance over the reader. It likewise provides a boundary that helps prevent readers from looking into the text and seeing their own reflection.
Vanhoozer’s work is one of the more important works to appear in recent hermeneutics discussions. He is not only informed by postmodern literary theory but also draws on the resources of communication studies, theology, ethics, and philosophy to construct a truly interdisciplinary account of the role of the author. Even those whose hermeneutical persuasion may differ need to take seriously this work. Especially commendable is his discussion on the role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation. This work is to be commended.
This having been said, Vanhoozer’s work could be furthered in one very significant area. Vanhoozer refers often to the “reader” but does not give sufficient regard for reading communities or the reader in community. He is rightly weary of Fish’s communal interpretive pragmatism, but Fish has provided us a service by reminding us that we all read in community. This is especially important as Vanhoozer has a concern for the role of the Bible in the Church. This is not to suggest that communities ought to find their own reflection in the text, but that communities inform readers and their interpretations. Greater attention could be paid to how reading takes place in community and how texts might function in relationship to reading communities. Extending from this might be a discussion of the categories of the transcendence and the immanence of the text and how the text is both informed by communities and is able to transform communities.
This book should be of particular interest to those looking to better understand interpretive issues related to postmodernism as well as conservative exegetes of the Bible seeking a theoretical and theological account of their exegetical practice.