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Interpreting Contextualities

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 20, Number 1, April 1996
pp. 20-38 | 10.1353/phl.1996.0037

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Philosophy and Literature 20.1 (1996) 20-38

If, as so often demanded, the context of a literary work should be considered in interpreting it, which context is that? Is it the past context within which the work was created, or, rather, the different context in which the book and interpreter presently are located? In this essay, I consider theories of interpretation that disagree on the answers to these questions. To appropriate terms that have become fashionable, one presents a model for interpretation that is "readerly" in being restrained and backward-looking, while the second allows for interpretations that are "writerly" in being creative and forward-looking. Both kinds of interpretation are used in literary criticism, with the first paying homage to the efforts of the work's creator and the second showing respect for meanings the work presents to the critic's contemporary audience. I argue that, despite appearances to the contrary, the first theory is no less capable than the second of accounting for actual critical practice. If not by seeing which account better matches the practice, how might we adjudicate between them? This is to be done by considering whether the creation and appreciation of literature answers primarily to an interest in works alone, or to works as the product of human authors. I prefer the second alternative and suggest that an interest in works as of their authors can be consistent with the widely held view that literary works admit of multiple interpretations.


I call the first account of interpretation the Original Context Theory. It holds that the meaning of a literary work is fixed by factors holding at the time of the work's creation. (A work might be revolutionary in style, of course, but in that case it will be apparent that standard literary practices are invoked only to be challenged or repudiated.) The original context theory comes in at least three versions, depending on which of the factors present at the work's creation is given primacy.

Actual intentionalism maintains that the author's successfully realized intentions determine the work's meaning. This variant of the original context theory holds that a literary work has the meaning that its author intends, provided that the author carries through the relevant intentions in appropriately employing the language of the day, as well as the then recognized conventions of the given genre and artistic practice. The artist's intentions, if successfully executed, are publicly manifest in the work but will be recognized only by those familiar with the linguistic and artistic practices by which their expression is facilitated. The meaning of a work can be ambiguous or multi-layered, but usually this is because it is created to be so. The intentions need not be present to the author's mind; they need not be self-consciously formulated as he works. Moreover, the author might have difficulty in articulating or formulating his intentions if asked, just as one often has difficulty in describing what one does in performing a familiar yet complex action. But they are nonetheless his intentions, nor are they the more difficult to discern in the product of those actions, for these facts.

Hypothetical intentionalism holds that the work's meaning is determined by inferences made by a suitably placed audience to the intentions of a hypothetical author, where these inferences are founded on a grasp of the linguistic conventions and artistic practices of the day, as well as publicly available knowledge concerning the creation of the given work. Here the meaning of the work is generated by hypothesizing intentions authors might have had, given the context of creation, rather than relying on their actual intentions. Such inferences must have interpersonal validity if they are to reveal a meaning that can be attributed legitimately to the work. Because more than one set of inferences can be justifiable, a work might possess or display a multiplicity of meanings, even if the actual author intended only one of these.

Conventionalism maintains that the conventions of language and art in place when the work was created are sufficient to secure the work's meaning. This last variant focuses on "utterance" rather than "utterer's" meaning...

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