What I meant to say…

“What the text says now matters more than what the author meant to say…”
– Paul Ricouer

“Really?” you might ask.

I think most of us have a hard time believing that.  How could anyone make such a statement?

Surely the most important thing is what the author meant to say when he wrote it.  I tweeted this quote recently and someone responded in such a fashion.  The meaning then is more important than the meaning now.  I am inclined to agree.  As a student of the New Testament (and the Hebrew Scriptures), and someone who preaches, I spend a lot of time working hard to understand what a text meant when it was originally written, in other words, ‘what the author meant to say’.

My assumption is that the more I can understand the original intention, the better job I’ll do of being true to that text. So from this perspective, what the text originally meant seems to be the most important thing!  Upon first glance then, Ricouer, a French philosopher of language, appears clearly wrong.

But here arises the challenge of understanding what the original intent actually was. We don’t always get this exactly right, do we?  Someone says something, and we want to know what they intended to mean.  In reality, this isn’t always accomplished even in everyday life, in face-to-face conversation.  We want to be understood, and get incredibly frustrated when we are not:

Didn’t you say…?

“But I meant to say…”

“You misunderstood me!”

“That’s not what I meant at all.”

One of the worst things possible is being misunderstood.

Yet if it can happen to us today, in face-to-face direct speech acts, how much more might the written word— indirect speech—be misunderstood?  And even further, the written word from a different language and culture by an author who is now centuries and even millennia dead.

(Of course this is where, in an act of faith, one might trust that the Holy Spirit will step in and say, “What I meant to say was…”!)  But for the purposes of this post, let’s leave that component to the side for the time being.  (Invoking the Spirit is necessary, but can often be an easy out in place of the hard work I believe God calls us to do in understanding the text).

Since misunderstandings can (and do!) happen, it seems that our best recourse is to disagree with Ricouer, and assume the original meaning as intended by the author is the most important.  After all, why would we spend all the time we do trying to understand this meaning if it were not the case?  In fact, it seems such an open and shut case, that perhaps we should be done with it.

But… yet…  perhaps…

Importance of the Now

Back to the original provocative statement:
“What the text says now matters more than what the author meant to say…”

We noted earlier that it seems almost intuitively obvious that this statement is wrong.

Yet I wonder… perhaps there is something to this after all.

I wonder, if our interpretation, our attempts at recovering what the author meant to say and thus declaring what in fact the text said and says, is, in fact, more important.  Think of it this way:  When a preacher preaches on any given text, and supplies it with meaning —that is the meaning the listeners take away.  When a person reads a verse with their morning coffee and senses, “What I just read means [this] to me”—that is the meaning this person is taking away.  In this sense, I think Ricouer is right.  What the text says now is more important than what the author meant to say.  In fact, this has to be the case.  Think about it.  What the text says now is all we have.  The author is dead.  The Apostle Paul cannot rise up when we read a selection from 1 Corinthians and say, “But what I meant to say was…!”  (Though we surely wish he would!)  What we have is our understanding of the text now.  What we have is what the preacher interprets the text to mean.  What we have is what we ourselves take a text to mean anytime we read the Bible.  That is what we have.  That is the meaning of the text here and now—and it is that meaning, not the original meaning, that goes on to have impact and live into the world.

Now don’t misunderstand me.  I am not saying that what the author meant to say is irrelevant or unimportant.  Hardly!  It is crucial.  And we must work hard to attempt to recover that meaning in any reading and work of interpreting.  But the facts are that we can’t sit down with the writer of Matthew when we open that Gospel and make sure we ‘get it’.  It’s impossible.  We can’t sit down with The Teacher when we read Ecclesiastes to make sure he was as skeptical as he seems.  We can’t dissect a Psalm and have David back up our interpretation.

In that sense—a perfect recovery of what any given author meant (of a text in the Bible or any other text)—is impossible.  The meaning we supply to the text is the meaning we have.  That’s it!  That’s the meaning that lives in the world today.  And the meaning that lives in the world at any given moment is the more important meaning—that is the meaning that causes people to act in certain ways, to believe certain things, to commit themselves to a certain path. We simply don’t have the original meaning in full.  What the text says now is more important, as Ricouer so daringly ventured.

And this actually squares with a Reformed understanding of preaching.  There’s a classic statement that says, “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” (As stated in the Second Helvetic Confession.)  I always thought this was a bit presumptuous, and laid too much emphasis on the role of the preacher.  Yet, in light of Ricouer’s analysis, I think there is a  lot of merit to this approach.  When the community gathers, and the Word comes forth, and that Word is explicated, interpreted, delivered: we all have some sense that something sacred is happening, that God is engaging us, indeed, that God is speaking.

Consider Calvin:
“When a man has climbed up into the pulpit… it is [so] that God may speak to us by the mouth of a man.”

Or Luther:
“Tis a right excellent thing, that every honest pastor’s and preacher’s mouth is Christ’s mouth…”

Invisible Readers

Ricouer notes that through writing, “discourse escapes the limits of being face to face. It no longer has a visible auditor.  An unknown, invisible reader has become the unprivileged addressee of the discourse.”

In other words, at one time, the text belonged to the writer—he wrote it down, and he shared it with people, and could inevitably correct misunderstandings if they engaged the writing in person.  But once the work becomes widespread – such corrections vis a vis a face-to-face encounter with the writer, becomes less and less possible.  And once the author dies, impossible.  The text will reach readers that were invisible to the author, indeed, readers who did not yet exist.

Merold Westphal says it is this invisibility that gives the text an autonomy, an independence from authorial intention. This is known in interpretive circles as “the death of the author.” The absolute author (the one who knows what he or she meant to say) is not replaced by an absolute reader, but by one whose authority is limited, relative to a particular context, and without the presence of the author.

You and I are such readers when it comes to any ancient text (or even reading Steinbeck or Updike).

But here our interpretive journey takes another turn.

Perhaps the author him- or herself is not in full possession of the meaning of what they have written.  Perhaps more is being said than even the author was intending!

Merold Westphal notes that “not even the author is in full possession of the whole that would give fully final and determinate meaning.”

In other words, perhaps what the author intended isn’t the whole of its meaning. (I would say this is particularly the case when it comes to Scripture.)

Nick Wolterstorff gives an example of this possibility of a multiplicity of meanings:

At dinner Mom says, “Only two more days till Christmas.”  To her young children, who think that Christmas will never come, her speech act is a word of comfort and hope.  But to her husband “she may have said, in a rather arch and allusive way, that he must stop delaying and get his shopping done.  One locutionary act [vocal utterance], several illocutionary acts [words of comfort and hope, words of warning, even command], different ones for different addressees.”

Wolterstorff shows how a single utterance can have different meanings for different hearers, and they can each be right!

Merold Westphal notes that as Wolterstorff tells the story, Mom is the godlike author whose words have just the meanings she put into them.  They mean different things to different hearers so that the meaning of her discourse is a plurality of different meanings.  In godlike sovereignty she knows all the hearers and controls the meaning each receives.

Westphal then proposes:

But suppose they weren’t all at dinner and Mom didn’t know that Dad was in a position to overhear her.  Dad would rightly take Mom’s speech act to be one of reminder, warning, and perhaps even command, though that was not the meaning she (intended to) put into her discourse.  The meaning of the utterance escapes the horizon of its author and its original, intended audience precisely because of the invisibility of at least one additional audience.  This is the situation of human authors in general, says Westphal, biblical or otherwise.

By now you’re incredibly uncomfortable with this analysis.  You’re resisting this approach.  You’re thinking that preachers and scholars are in an awfully important (and scary) position – because they most often are entrusted with helping us understand the text.

This is true.  Yet in a sense we all are in this position, we are the invisible readers, at least those of us who read and engage texts (of any sort), especially the Bible.

But fortunately, there is more to it.  We’ll get to this in the next post.


7 thoughts on “What I meant to say…

  1. In this post, you distinguish at least between what the text meant originally, and what it means now. The “what it meant originally” is typically interpreted as what the author intended to say to his intended audience. The “what it means now”-to-a-particular-reader is often something less precise, like “what I’m getting,” “what I’ve learned,” “what this makes me feel,” “what I think I ought to do on the basis of this,” or, as you elucidate, “what my authoritative contemporary interpreter tells me it means.” As Eric Sybesma points out, sometimes people manage to glean a useful lesson (what it meant to them) despite not understanding what it meant originally. The opposite might also occur.

    But there are lots of other “meanings” to deal with.

    There’s also the related meaning in the sense of mere significance (colloquially) or importance to me. For example, this stone/text/card/lock of hair means a lot to me, not because of its content or beauty, but because of, say, who gave it to me.

    There’s also meaning as mere intention: he means business; she means to marry me.

    There’s also meaning in the sense of likely consequences: those dark clouds mean rain.

    There’s also meaning in the sense of arbitrary but socially agreed upon conventions: the red light means stop.

    And there are distinctions within these categories. Take the first category of what the text originally meant. There is a distinction between what an author meant (speaker meaning), what the words together meant (sentence/phrase/word meaning), what the author intended to convey by saying what he or she did in a particular context to a particular audience (pragmatic meaning), and meanings associated with different co-occurring speech acts: what the author literally did, linguistically speaking, by uttering/writing those words (locutionary), what sort of action the author intended to perform by uttering those words in that context (illocutionary), what the author effected in the audience, typically intentionally, by saying what he did with the meaning the intended audience would likely have assumed(perlocutionary), etc.

    Then there are postmodern approaches to textual meaning, which Ricouer and Westphal appear to draw on. The idea here is that the author’s intention is irrelevant either because she is merely channeling the Zeitgeist or because the author(‘s intentions) is (are) inaccessible to the reader. The former might occur because the author is not aware of the biases, social/cultural framing, etc., of her time and place; the latter might occur because the author is dead, otherwise unreachable, unwilling to explain, or incapable of explaining her intentions more precisely.

    Believe it or not, I’m barely scratching the surface as well.

    Meaning is a complicated thing, to say the least. And interpretation is an equally complicated flip-side. As for which of these many meanings/interpretations is most important, well, there are many meanings/interpretations of ‘important’ … 🙂


  2. I occasionally teach an online class or two, so I know a lot about misunderstanding caused by written communication! But anyone who’s had an email or Facebook exchange go wrong is painfully familiar as well.

    It’s a wonder, then, that people with such experiences can still insist that they can know what an ancient author meant without knowing any of the literary, historical, linguistic, cultural, or geographic context of that writing. (Equally frustrating is a group of people who will commit their careers to the study of one or two books of Aristotle but haughtily dismiss any attempt to arrive at a scholarly understanding of Romans or Ecclesiastes. But I digress!)

    Your–or Ricouer’s–suggestion is that there is another aspect of meaning, and that one is more important than the other.

    This is interesting and fun stuff! You’re just scratching the surface here, but there’s plenty of room to dig. Let me scratch a little deeper, and expose more of the complexity.


  3. A thought-provoking article. I think the weight of being “Christ’s mouth” is one that should be accepted as a sacred trust, and yet it’s equally incumbent on the listeners to discern that Christ’s mouth is replicated only so much as it can be, given the limitations of context, interpretation, insight, and even how much of the text is actually properly assumed to be authoritative or prescriptive. Perhaps as you allude, it’s not “what the text says now” that is the most important, but rather what the reflection on that text results in, in the here and now. How shall people of faith emerge from that reflection on God’s word (or potential word) and then accordingly treat God’s world and the people in it. Prescriptive authority, for instance, is something that is always appealing for some to want to glean from Scripture, a directive on explicit rights and wrongs or truths that are absolute, and yet when we look at the value of theology as primarily prescriptive, we miss out on the value of the interpretation to the individual, the value of a reflection that shapes us to better love God and love others, and to do so despite entirely missing the original point.


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