On Authorial Intent
D.A Carson writes:
I sometimes tell the story of how a few years ago I was teaching an evening course on hermeneutics, a course jointly offered by several of the seminaries in the Chicago area. Not very successfully, I was trying to set out both what could be learned from the new hermeneutic, and where the discipline was likely to lead one astray. In particular, I was insisting that true knowledge is possible, even to finite, culturebound creatures. A doctoral student from another seminary waited patiently through two or three hours of lectures, and then quietly protested that she did not think I was escaping from the dreaded positivism of the nineteenth century. Deeper appreciation for the ambiguities of language, the limits of our understanding, the uniqueness of each individual and the social nature of knowledge would surely drive me to a more positive assessment of the new hermeneutic. I tried to defend my position, but I was quite unable to persuade her.
Finally, in a moment of sheer perversity on my part, I joyfully exclaimed, “Ah, now I think I see what you are saying. You are using delicious irony to affirm the objectivity of truth.”
The lady was not amused. “That is exactly what I am not saying,” she protested with some heat, and she laid out her position again. I clasped my hands in enthusiasm and told her how delighted I was to find someone using irony so cleverly in order to affirm the possibility of objective knowledge. Her answer was more heated, but along the same lines as her first reply. I believe she also accused me of twisting what she was saying.
I told her I thought it was marvelous that she should add emotion to her irony, all to the purpose of exposing the futility of extreme relativism, thereby affirming truth’s objectivity. Not surprisingly, she exploded in real anger, and accused me of a lot of unmentionable things. When she finally cooled down, I said, rather quietly, “But this is how I am reading you.”
Of course, she saw what I was getting at immediately, and sputtered out like a spent candle. She simply did not know what to say. In one sense, of course, my example was artificial, since I only pretended to read her in a certain way. But what I did was sufficient to prove the point I was trying to make to her: “You are a deconstructionist,” I told her, “but you expect me to interpret your words aright. More precisely, you are upset because I seem to be divorcing the meaning I claim to see in your words from your intent. Thus, implicitly you affirm the link between text and authorial intent. I have never read a deconstructionist
who would be pleased if a reviewer misinterpreted his or her work: thus in practice deconstructionists implicitly link their own texts with their own intentions. I simply want the same courtesy extended to Paul.”
– Carson, “The Challenge from Preaching of the Gospel to Pluralism,” in Criswell Theological Review 7.2 (1994), 22-23. Online here (pdf). A version of this text appears in Carson’s book The Gagging of God (102-103).
Debate with this kind of deconstructionist over what a word or passage means is self-defeating for two reasons:
1) If anyone’s interpretation is fair game, then so is yours, and therefore the debate is a non-starter.
2) If you are insistent on authorial intent it puts you in an immediately defensive and rhetorically losing position — barring some trickery, a la Carson’s above — because a deconstructionist interlocutor doesn’t care what you or the author means; they “know” that what you mean and the author mean is what they mean for you to mean. Know what I mean?
I recently proposed an application of the 10 Commandments for Writers. I suppose one for readers could be helpful too, but the chief would be that loving God with all our minds and hearts means “loving the author as ourselves,” and surely this means that we should agree that, as we would want others to understand our meaning and not to impose their own interpretation contrary to evidence upon our words, we should afford the same charity to an author in seeking to understand his or hers.