Blog author: jballor
by on Tuesday, October 18, 2005

We’ve discussed textual interpretation a bit on this blog here before (here, here, and here). Paul Ricœur, who is famous for his “attempt to combine phenomenological description with hermeneutic interpretation,” passed away earlier this year.

One of Ricœur’s important contributions involved an observation about the nature of textual interpretation in distinction to personal dialogue. He writes, for example in his book Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences,

Dialogue is an exchange of questions and answers; there is no exchange of this sort between the writer and the reader. The writer does not respond to the reader. Rather, the book divides the act of writing and the act of reading into two sides, between which there is no communication. The reader is absent from the act of writing; the writer is absent from the act of reading. The text thus produces a double eclipse of the reader and writer. It thereby replaces the relation of dialogue, which directly connects the voice of one to the hearing of the other.

Ricœur notes some effects of this “double eclipse” and formulates a theory of the “sense of the text” to norm textual interpretation. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates makes a somewhat similar observation about the nature of writing:

I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

Of course, general agreement with Socrates and Ricœur does not entail a necessary acceptance of a kind of “sense of the text” radically disconnected from any authorial intent.

Even so, the inherent limits to written communication form an essential point of reference for articulating any coherent interpretive scheme. Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, in his 1993 Wilde lectures, published under the title Divine Discourse, makes a key point in his critique of Ricœur on the pervasiveness of the “double eclipse” problem:

It is not only the temporal endurance of texts but also the spatial transportability of texts which grounds the difficulties of interpretation to which Ricoeur calls attention. But our technological ability to broadcast utterance, as well as record it, has the consequence that we are forced to interpret even “live,” non-recorded, utterance in situations spatially distanced from the originating situation. Thus what Ricoeur attributes to writing is in fact equally true of recorded and broadcast utterance. Ricoeur conducts his discussion as if we were living in a pre-Edisonian age!