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  • Eighteenth-Century Hermeneutics: Philosophy of Interpretation in England from Locke to Burke
  • Paul J. Korshin
Eighteenth-Century Hermeneutics: Philosophy of Interpretation in England from Locke to Burke, by Joel Weinsheimer; xiii & 275 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993, $30.00.

Hermeneutics has until the present study had little application to eighteenth-century England. The omission is curious for, although there were few advances in biblical scholarship during the Restoration and eighteenth century, modern literary criticism begins in this century with Dryden and Johnson, modern aesthetics with Shaftesbury and the Scottish school of taste, and modern theories of art with Reynolds and writers on the picturesque. Joel Weinsheimer’s treatment of this topic, then, instantly possesses originality, not only from a lack of serious competition but because of its approach to [End Page 365] hermeneutics. He “does not offer a historical narrative” of what happened in hermeneutics in eighteenth-century England (p. xi). Rather, Weinsheimer prefers to see hermeneutics as a series of snapshots of how various writers, of whom only a few are conventional exegetes, deal with matters of interpreting texts. In all, the book treats eight major figures (Swift, Locke, Toland, Bolingbroke, Hume, Reid, Blackstone, and Burke), devoting a chapter to each.

The method in each one is approximately the same: Weinsheimer produces a reading not of a single work alone but of all, or almost all that an author writes about interpretation. In the case of Swift, for instance, his principal contribution on exegesis, A Tale of a Tub, is a satire on styles of exegesis Swift considered ridiculous. This chapter adds little to what we know of Swift but, in relation to Weinsheimer’s analysis of Sir William Blackstone, we can see that there is a legal background to parts of the debate among the three brothers on the meaning of Scripture. Locke (pp. 23–45) also dealt with the Bible extensively, but his tendency to prefer the doctrine of “sola scriptura” limits what an author can say about his hermeneutics. John Toland (pp. 46–71), in his Christianity Not Mysterious, proposes radical notions of biblical exegesis, and Weinsheimer gives us a lucid reading of the first English skeptical exegete. All the other figures he studies, however, had little interest in traditional literary exegesis. Weinsheimer sees Bolingbroke (pp. 72–102) as a philosopher of history who tried to generate a theory of decoding the past, but he does not clearly distinguish Bolingbroke’s rules for writing history. Hume (pp. 103–34) wrote extensively on exegetical topics without actually being an exegete; although this is one of Weinsheimer’s more opaque chapters, it does succeed in showing the diversity of Hume and his inability to reason conclusively on matters of interpretation. Hume basically did not think that there is any problem in understanding others, so his theories of exegesis are not coherent. So, too, Thomas Reid (pp. 135–65) considered language, properly used, as lacking in opacity; hence elaborate theories of interpretation have little use for him.

However, with Blackstone and Edmund Burke, Weinsheimer contributes his two most interesting chapters. The law, as Blackstone conceived of it, is extremely difficult to understand, so his Commentaries on the Laws of England is an attempt to read legal texts “in the context of general literacy” (p. 168); Bentham would later imitate him. Burke, Weinsheimer argues, started as an aesthetician and ended applying principles of good and bad taste to political behavior, always one of the weaknesses of reactionary politics.

In a brief epilogue (pp. 226–33), Weinsheimer speculates on the effort of eighteenth-century hermeneutics to understand historical reason, but he does not comment on the failure of the period to produce a single important hermeneuticist. His own choice to avoid major exegetes such as Samuel Johnson and Joshua Reynolds abridges his results dramatically, but a study based on scholarly snapshots always courts this risk. Hermeneutics is a [End Page 366] recondite concept, yet Weinsheimer renders his topic more difficult than it need be by frequent shifts in its definition and a complex, often unclear, style. Eighteenth-Century Hermeneutics provides a start, if not a definitive treatment, for later students of exegesis in the English Enlightenment.


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