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  • Ronald Dworkin and the Classics1
  • Nikoletta Kanavou

How shall I interpret a classical text? However I interpret it, someone else will interpret it differently.

Heath 2002.9

Interpretation of interpretation: the act of interpretation has a way of turning into the subject of interpretation itself.

Whitman 2000.xi

Ronald Dworkin (1931–2013) is widely accepted as one of the most important Anglo-American legal philosophers of the past forty years. Besides his numerous writings on legal philosophy, he also wrote extensively on interpretation in general: how the concept should be understood and what it should include. Among the different genres of interpretation attached to different fields of knowledge, he gave particular attention to literary interpretation and pointed to the analogies between legal and literary interpretation: he saw both as belonging to the same very broad interpretive genre of “collaborative interpretation.”2 He believed that thanks to these [End Page 93] analogies, legal interpretation could benefit from a study of the principles that guide literary analysis. His long-term preoccupation with the practice of interpretation led him further to develop his own interpretive philosophy, which (as will become evident below) to some extent emerged from his fruitful engagement with literary criticism and hermeneutics. In this paper, his ideas are imported back into a theoretical discussion of how to interpret literature; this might seem an odd enterprise, but it is justified by the fact that Dworkin usefully reshapes and advances some of the concepts of literary theory.

Although Dworkin’s ultimate focus was the exegesis of law, his interpretive philosophy—which he often applied to examples drawn from English literature—constitutes an important contribution to the ongoing debate about literary interpretation and to the so-called “literature and law movement” (which studies the intersections between literary and legal hermeneutics). This movement, and, indeed, Dworkin’s name, are familiar to those working on literary interpretation theory and to some English literature critics,3 but they seem so far to have gone unnoticed by classicists, although classics is no stranger to fierce theoretical debates about interpretation.

My aim is to introduce Dworkin’s philosophy to classicists: I shall present his theoretical thinking on the nature of interpretation (the aesthetic hypothesis, the chain novel concept) and on the place of author and interpreter in the interpretive process, as well as his main ideas concerning what is involved in the act of interpretation (the role of presuppositions and interpretive stages). I shall not engage (let alone take sides) in the philosophical debate regarding interpretation, especially regarding the notions of objectivity and truth—though I shall briefly refer to these in the context of presenting Dworkin’s interpretive concepts. Admittedly, the literature and law movement is marked by controversy and heated debates,4 [End Page 94] and Dworkin’s own conception of interpretation is far from uncontroversial. Despite this, his interpretative philosophy is relevant and potentially rewarding for our reading and understanding of ancient texts—not least because it can provide a useful angle from which to review the diverging interpretative results obtained by contemporary applications of literary theory to ancient texts.5


Dworkin hints at the theoretical problems surrounding the nature of interpretation at various places in his work, but here we shall focus on three book chapters in which he more specifically implicates literary interpretation: 1) “How Law is Like Literature” (1985.146-66), 2) “Interpretive Concepts” (1986.45–86), and 3) “Interpretation in General” (2011.123–56). The issues addressed are familiar to classical scholars who resort to literary theory for the formulation of and solutions to interpretive questions.

Literary theory is, of course, a general term that encompasses a multitude of very different and sometimes contradictory standpoints, but despite their differences, these standpoints have much in common with each other and with Dworkin’s interpretive philosophy: they all deal with fundamental problems concerning the nature and meaning of literature and pose a number of common questions. In his useful introduction to literary theory and the classics, Thomas Schmitz (2007.2) provides a checklist of questions posed by literary theory; among these, we shall see the following also being addressed by Dworkin: How does a...


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