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Jack W. Meiland INTERPRETATION AS A COGNITIVE DISCIPLINE Interpretation is the fundamental method of the humanities. The humanist is concerned first to understand what a text, a speech, a work of art, means; and interpretation has this understanding as its goal. All of the other activities and aims of the humanist depend on interpretation. One cannot properly appreciate a work of art until one grasps what it means. Nor can one appropriately evaluate it until this condition is met. Moreover, the importance of interpretation reaches far beyond the humanities into everyday life, where we interpret what we hear and read in order to grasp meanings. Its importance reaches into the sciences: the social sciences where one must interpret this individual behavior and that institutional practice, and the natural sciences where one must interpret the results of one's experiments. Because interpretation is of such fundamental and pervasive importance in our lives, it is urgent for us to understand what interpretation is and what it should aim at. In this article, I investigate the activity of interpretation by focusing on the interpretation of literary texts and by beginning with the views of E. D. Hirsch, Jr. Eleven years ago, Hirsch published Validity in Interpretation, a book which delves into the nature of interpretation in great detail.1 Richard Palmer has said that Hirsch's book is "the first full-dress treatise in general hermeneutics written in English," and continues, "In the years to come, it will undoubtedly take its place among the significant American works on the theory of interpretation. In a systematic and carefully argued presentation, the book challenges some of the most cherished assumptions that have guided literary interpretation for some four decades."2 1 think that Palmer's prediction has been fulfilled. Hirsch's book remains a decade later one of the very few systematic American works in this field,3 and it has been widely read, much used in university courses, and has significantly influenced thought on its subject. Validity in Interpretation presents a carefully worked-out position buttressed by philosophically-informed 23 24Philosophy and Literature and systematic argumentation in a way which reveals the fundamental questions at issue. Although there have been scattered criticisms of Hirsch's views,4 in my opinion there has not so far appeared the kind of searching critique which this book deserves in view of its attempt to deal with these issues so seriously and at such a fundamental level and in view of the influence which the book has had. The necessity for a critique is now reinforced by the recent publication of another book by Hirsch, The Aims of Interpretation, more than half of which is devoted to a further explication and defense of these same views.5 In undertaking to reply to Hirsch's position, I hope not only to cast doubt on that position but also, and mainly, to provide better foundations for the view which I hold. It is one of the great merits of Hirsch's work that it facilitates that constructive effort by attacking the issues at such a basic level, enabling us to come to grips with them immediately. In what follows, I will describe Hirsch's view, make clear what kind of position he holds, and defend his view against criticisms which I consider misguided. Then we will be in a position to assess his contentions and to defend an alternative theory. Hirsch's view is, briefly, that the interpretation of a literary work should aim at re-creating (or, as he sometimes puts it, "re-cognizing") the meaning which the author of that work intended the work to have. He opposes all views which ignore authorial meaning; views which hold that the meaning of a work may change through the ages, so that the work may have one meaning at one time and another meaning at another time; views which hold that the work may have meaning in virtue of its relation to the interpreter's interests, to the needs and problems of the interpreter's times or the spirit of his age, or in fact to anything except the author's intended meaning.6 The first point that must be...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 23-45
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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