Whose Community? Which Interpretation? by Merold Westphal (Part I)

This volume is Westphal’s contribution to Baker’s The Church and Postmodern Culture series,  edited by James  K. A. Smith.  For those interested, the series’ namesake blog can be  found here.  Westphal announces in the  preface his hope that the book will prove beneficial to  academic theologians, pastors, and lay persons, whose  labors in biblical interpretation tend,  respectively, to be written (i.e., published), oral (i.e., preached), and silent  (i.e., developed in  private Bible study).  The subtitle, Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church, is indicative of   the author’s aim to explore potential contributions of philosophical reflection on interpretation  in service to the  ecclesial task of attending to Scripture.  Westphal defends his foray into the  realm of philosophical theory by  suggesting that, when theology resists acquaintance with  philosophy, it is then most susceptible to being unwittingly ensnared by a particular  philosophical tradition.  Moreover, he says, philosophical hermeneutics may well possess  positive resources for the project of biblical interpretation.  As one of Westphal’s purposes is to  familiarize readers with the influence of presuppositions in interpretation without sliding into  relativism, the preface also anticipates charting a course between “hermeneutical despair  (‘anything goes’)” and “hermeneutical arrogance (we have ‘the’ interpretation).”

In the first chapter Westphal chides naïve realism’s “claim to immediacy” in understanding reality in general and textual meaning in particular.  He suggests that no one denies realism’s fundamental acknowledgment of mind-independent reality but invokes Kant to caution against claiming that said reality is pristinely mirrored in the mind of the knowing subject.  For Kant (and, apparently, Westphal), the external world is filtered through the mediating categories of the human mind; the act of “just seeing” belongs to God alone.  Against realism’s intuitive grasp of things in themselves, Westphal avers that, in view of human finitude, “theists…have a sound theological reason for being Kantian antirealists” (19).  Though he sympathizes with the desire to deny the inevitability of interpretation in the name of preserving objectivity in knowledge, Westphal has in mind to curb the “rush to immediacy,” using the story of the elephant and the blind men to underscore that perspectival diversity can signal complementarity rather than relativism.

Having oriented the reader to some of the critical issues in hermeneutics, Westphal moves to trace out the historical background.  The second chapter treats the hermeneutical habits of Romanticism, highlighting four major developments: 1) the “deregionalization” of hermeneutics, in which Schleiermacher and others sought to formulate a general theory of interpretation that might apply to all texts regardless of their peculiar subject matter; 2) the concept of the hermeneutical circle, which was thought to be operative at the linguistic and psychological levels; 3) the pursuit of a psychological connection between author and reader whereby the reader may access and experience what the author felt as he or she produced the text; and 4) the quest for objectivity and universal validity in interpretation funded by a prescribed, scientific method.  Westphal points out that Gadamer, the primary mentor of Westphal’s proposal, rejects the third and fourth items in the list, opting instead to focus on the author’s written communication and to concede that authors do not “impose meaning unilaterally on the text” and readers cannot escape their situatedness by way of following a regimented methodology.

The next chapter discusses speech act theory as well as Nicholas Wolterstorff’s “authorial discourse interpretation,” which centers on the Bible as divine discourse and the reader’s duty to discern the reader-independent meaning of the authorially governed discourse.  Here Westphal seems to appreciate Wolterstorff’s repudiation of the “psychologism” of nineteenth century hermeneutics but also to charge Wolterstorff with chasing too hastily after objectivity in interpretation.  For Westphal, it remains that the interpreter’s work is conditioned by his or her presuppositions, though this does not entail hard relativism, which absolutely no one, “except for a recent pizza ad,” espouses.

If Wolterstorff is an object of skepticism in the third chapter, E. D. Hirsch is an object of scorn in the fourth.  Hirsch is held up as the champion of the author as “the determiner of textual meaning.”  According to Westphal, the assertion that textual meaning is entirely determinate, immune to material change over time, is built on “anxiety about relativism” and fosters an “arrogance” in which one claiming to have the meaning of the text can simply dismiss the rich history of Christian interpretation.  Again, Westphal submits that recognizing human relativity need not imply an “anything goes” relativism.  He muses that, when Hirsch notes the reality of unconscious or implicit connections and meanings in texts, Hirsch may have inadvertently conceded that texts are “not as fully determinate as Hirsch would like.”  While Hirsch stresses that any hermeneutical actualization wrought by the reader consists in a sharing of meaning with the author or an imposition of meaning alien to the text, Westphal hints that textual meaning might be “coproduced” by author and reader.  Here there are still “generous boundaries” in discerning what qualifies as a justifiable interpretation, but “a given text might legitimately mean somewhat different things to different people in different circumstances” (54).

The fifth chapter turns to an appraisal of the likes of Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, and Riceour.  Westphal finds in their work, not a descent into relativism, but a chastening of authorial sovereignty in which the author is no longer the “sole producer” or “unilateral source” of meaning in the text.  In Westphal’s view, such an author never truly existed and so the announcement of this author’s death should be quite uncontroversial.  Authors themselves are conditioned and limited by “the language in which they live and move and have their being” (59).  Therefore, authors are “at most cocreators of meaning” and interpreters, rather than setting out merely to decipher a fixed meaning in the text, are active in creating meaning.  Inasmuch as an author will be brought into conversation with multiple readers, different conversations will yield different meanings.  However, Westphal wishes to reiterate the importance of the author and calls attention to Derrida’s notion of “doubling commentary” and Gadamer’s belief that the reader’s textual understanding includes moments of “reproduction” as well as “production.”  With Riceour, Westphal judges that a text “escapes” the horizon or context of its author and original audience, becoming open to assuming new meaning in new author-reader conversations. Yet he is keen on having a method for obtaining some objectivity in interpretation as an “indispensable guardrail.”

I’ll continue the summary and offer my reactions in Part II of the review.  Any thoughts on the material in these early chapters?


6 thoughts on “Whose Community? Which Interpretation? by Merold Westphal (Part I)

  1. Pingback: Flotsam and jetsam (6/11) « scientia et sapientia

  2. Authors (often) think they know what they are writing about; right or wrong, it is useful to know what they THOUGHT they were doing. The writer’s conscious “intention” is still somewhat important.

    Though to be sure, we are all part of a larger wave, that we ourselves cannot fully comprehend.

  3. Looking forward to part 2 Steve. Well done – the book looks compelling as you present it. How Westphal proposes that anchor to moor the reader reproduction is the key I think. Thanks for your work here.

  4. I don’t think it’s fair to pick on Realists here; how about theists’ frequent “claim to immediacy” and even absolute certainty, vis-a-vis “Revelation”?

    I agree that you want a working definition of “truth,” or at least accuracy, in our time, some variation on simple reproduceability might do something useful….

    Thanks for your useful summary of this text.

  5. I read Westphal’s book and was, to be honest, pretty disappointed, even irritated, if I could say so. I thought he represented Gadamer alright – for the context, a brief and readable presentation, I think that part was nice. But Hirsch – cheap caricature in my opinion. Westphal’s defense of the “french trio” was in many aspects plainly dishonest. Esp. Derrida and Foucault, to try to soften deconstruction etc. to make it more appealing to Christian orthodoxy is really reaching. I can’t imagine Derrida or Foucault being happy with that “interpretation” of their thought.

    But my main contention is the tone of Westphal’s book over all. He really goes to town on whoever he is imagining is unfriendly to postmodernism, practically calling them names – comparing them to racists, terrorists and bigots (I’m not kidding, this is exactly what he does). The language is just over the edge, but more than that, its so emotional it made me uncomfortable. Add to that the fact that Westphal intended to make postmodern interpretation more inviting to people less comfortable with it, I just can’t understand why he would chose to speak that way in publication.

    There was a challenging review of the previous volume by JKA Smith, Who’s Afraid? published in the Westminster Theo Journal in ’07 which I read after reading Westphal’s book. For all the cheap shots, and even if you disagree with the review, the conservatives def. come out sounding more sophisticated.


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