Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Anglais) Broché – 1 janvier 1976
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But how can we make sense of this alien written discourse, now separated from the mind of its author by the simple act of putting words to paper? First, the reader must take a guess! Ricoeur says:
"With writing, the verbal meaning of the text no longer coincides with the mental meaning of intention of the text. This intention is both fulfilled and abolished by the text, which is no longer the voice of someone present . The text is mute. An asymmetric relation obtains between text and reader, in which only one of the partners speaks for the two. The text is like a musical score and the reader like the orchestra conductor who obeys the instructions of the notation. Consequently, to understand is not merely to repeat the speech event in a similar event, it is to generate a new event beginning from the text in which the initial event has been objectified."
In other words, we have to guess the meaning of the text because the author's intention is beyond our reach. A musical metaphor: Listen to Wilhelm Furtwangler's World War II recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Compare it with Arturo Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra version a decade later. The tempos are slow to the breaking point in Furtwangler's reading--except for the latter portions of the fourth movement. Toscanini's interpretation maintains a tension in pace throughout (simply put, his is a "fast" version and Furtwangler's a "slow" one--until the latter's manic reading of the last segments of the fourth movement). The same notes on paper, but two very different guesses about Beethoven's meaning. Who is right in their reading of the text? How do we establish that? Since we cannot converse with Beethoven, can we ever know the "real" text, can we apprehend "reality," in a word?
Ricoeur does not believe that it is a hopeless situation. He believes that there are ways of validating our guesses. He claims that:
"An interpretation must not only be probable, but more probable than another interpretation. There are criteria of relative superiority for resolving this conflict, which can easily be derived from the logic of subjective probability."
In a sense, different interpretations that are advanced to describe the meaning of a text (and a text can be a work of art or the written word, for instance) must be compared and examined separately and against each other to see which seems to make the most sense. A kind of discourse takes place, perhaps analogous to two persons speaking, where they can concretely ground their speech. Some interpretations of Beethoven, like the Furtwangler performance, do violence to the structure of the symphony as a whole and are less compelling than others, such as Toscanini's version.
What about the relationship of the author to his or her reader(s)? Ricoeur points out that it becomes irrelevant what the author's original audience was and what the historical circumstances of the author were in creating a text. The meaning of a text is open to anyone who can read. The context in which the original words were composed has no special weight in our interpretation of that text. He notes that ". . .since the text has escaped its author and his situation, it has also escaped its original addresses." In a sense, the text belongs to anyone who can read it and interpret it in convincing ways.
To conclude, Ricoeur presents one argument about how we might read and interpret texts. Those who believe in "original intent," in trying to understand exactly what the authors of texts meant will be critical of this work. The value of works like this (and also note Gadamer's work, e.g., "Truth and Method") is that they challenge our efforts to understand the meaning of texts. By doing that, such works make us more self-reflective and critical in our own efforts to understand texts.
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