Having taken the award for most time betwixt two portions of a book review, I’ll round out the summary of Westphal’s book Whose Community? Which Interpretation? and conclude with some critical reflections. With chapter six Westphal commences his presentation of Gadamer’s view of interpretation, underscoring Gadamer’s notion of tradition:
We belong to tradition by virtue of our thrownness into it, our immersion in it, and our formation by it. This is an ontological claim about our being and an epistemological claim about our understanding of ourselves and our world (70).
Westphal notes three features of the role of tradition: 1) it enables the enterprise of human thought by giving us a place from which we can explore and attempt to understand the world; 2) each of us is shaped by multiple traditions; 3) tradition cultivates prejudice, or pre-judgment, rendering every interpretation of a text “relative to the traditions that have formed the perspectives and presuppositions that guide it,” though this doesn’t entail “anything goes” relativism as some interpretations remain more illuminating than others (71). Westphal also unfolds three theses that are corollaries of Gadamer’s take on tradition: 1) the alterity thesis (texts are voices with an otherness from which we must be willing to learn); 2) the authority thesis (the traditions that shape us deserve a measure of respect and deference); 3) the fallibility thesis (the traditions that shape us are subject to error and may be critiqued and revised over time).
The seventh chapter centers on the inescapability of the relativity of the reader. Authors, say Gadamer and Westphal, cannot free readers from their relativity for two reasons: 1) authors are unable to deliver determinate textual meaning because they lack the wherewithal to discern fully what it is they’ve actually written; 2) authors can’t deliver determinate textual meaning because the power of tradition is ever unconsciously operative in the author’s labors, which reinforces the author’s limitations indicated under reason one. Similarly, while method remains important, it too cannot rescue readers from their relativity for several reasons: 1) the emphasis on deploying a scientific method itself arises under the contingency of a particular tradition; 2) rigorous application of method can lead us to honor only our own conclusions and thus blind us to the findings of others; 3) total distanciation is impossible for us since we remain situated within our traditions.
In chapter eight, Westphal highlights Gadamer’s appeal to the humanist tradition. Probably the most significant item here lies in the proposition that the being of a thing reaches its full flowering only when it is understood by human knowers. The presentation of something “does not stand like a copy next to the real world, but is that world in the heightened truth of its being” (95). Indeed, “[t]o be is to be shown, manifested, revealed” (96). For texts in particular, this means that interpretation belongs to the very nature of the text.
The ninth chapter locates interpretation under the rubric of performance, characterizing literary works as events to be completed and tracing out several implications. First, there is a pluralism inherent in a text in the sense that, while retaining its identity over time, it is susceptive of being represented differently in different circumstances. A text’s “own original essence is always to be something different” (103). Second, while the goal is to perform the text at hand, a performance is a unique event and, therefore, enjoys a measure of originality even akin to that of the work itself. Third, a textual work, like a piece of music, is still itself even as it is diversely performed. Performances are necessarily bound to the works they construe and exhibit, but because of the productive, original moment here a variety of performances may be “correct” in view of their “illuminating power” (105). This brand of “hermeneutical pluralism” finds an analogy in the task of translation, the best efforts of which display “a combination of discipline and freedom” (106).
Westphal also discusses the place of application in Gadamer’s thought. For Gadamer, understanding entails application, without whose practical concretizing of textual meaning there can be no legitimate claim to the discernment of meaning. Gadamer and Westphal aver that past and present textual meaning cannot be separated and that the former is only the penultimate object of interpretation, whereas the latter, what the text says to us here and now functions as the ultimate object. Along with construing interpretation as performance, translation, and application, Gadamer considers it as a matter of conversation. Westphal accentuates four characteristics of interpretation as conversation: 1) it requires genuine listening to the voice of the another; 2) it includes reciprocal questioning between text and reader; 3) it is often led by the spirit of conversation, in which both parties are “surprised to discover where the conversation leads” (116); 4) like conversation between two persons, it has as its goal communion and attendant personal transformation.
Reflection on the concept of conversation anticipates the next two chapters, which deal with the usefulness of conversation among readers. Chapter 11 probes the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification penned by Roman Catholics and Lutherans as a model of healthy conversation. For Westphal, it exemplifies several things. First, it is an authentic expression of unity. Second, it indicates a way of managing theological differences without resorting to violence or condemnation. Third, it honors the fact that each collection of believers belongs to something larger than its own company. Westphal pairs these virtues with certain commendable commitments he uncovers in communitarianism (as outlined in the previous chapter). First, the comprehensiveness of doctrinal frameworks should be reverenced rather than stripped away for the sake of superficial agreement. Second, virtue ethics should inform interpretive conversation, cultivating epistemic humility, good listening habits, and a desire for friendship. Third, the reality of our perspectival situatedness should be checked by the practice of listening to those of other perspectives. In fact, “[t]he way to objectivity is not to flee perspectives but to multiply them” (142).
The final chapter of the book touches on some hermeneutical implications of Scripture being the word of God. Westphal suggests that those who espouse the “no interpretation needed” approach to reading the Bible do so in part because they believe in its divine origin. While he judges that revelation doesn’t eradicate the influence of our presuppositions, he does stress that it has the transcendent power to break through our presuppositions, calling them into question and eliciting reform.
After finishing this volume, I’m left with mixed feelings and I’ll first recognize some positive features. First, for the overly confident reader, the book does offer a reminder of our noetic limitations and an exhortation to listen carefully to others before becoming entrenched in our own conclusions. Second, I am sympathetic with the notion that understanding textual meaning is not to be separated from applying or embodying it. We are indeed situated creatures who inevitably approach the text according to the conceptual resources and needs of our situatedness. It seems to me that we would have to deny this in order to bifurcate understanding and application via, say, an appeal to a pristine, aperspectival principlizing wholly antecedent to considerations of concrete application. However, I think Westphal goes in the wrong direction when he suggests that the concreteness of our understanding somehow affects the meaning of the text (more on this below). Third, in a little section entitled “Conversations Closer to Home” Westphal gestures toward the power of parents modeling virtuous biblical interpretation before their children and I was quite taken by the prospects of this family dynamic.
I’ll venture some criticisms and hesitations as well. First, Westphal persistently labels those with whom he disagrees, especially Hirsch, as “anxious” and even “hysterical” (85). I regard this as uncharitable as it is a cheap way to discredit one’s opponent. The subtle effect is to make the uncritical reader muse that if the poor fellows would only take some Zoloft they would finally wise up and agree with Westphal. It is less pejorative to speak of so-and-so’s concern about such-and-such, their contention that, and so on. One can observe a similar phenomenon in relation to, for example, the new perspectives on Paul wherein critics are characterized as archaic or opposed to fresh research when perhaps they simply disagree with the exegesis of Dunn, Wright, and others.
Second, Westphal never attempts a definition of “meaning” and, thus, his proposal is both incomplete and difficult to evaluate at certain points. Third, though he insists that his and Gadamer’s angle on hermeneutics doesn’t entail an “anything goes” relativism, he fails to move beyond generalizations (“flexible criteria,” privileging interpretations with “illuminating power”) in mapping out just how it doesn’t entail this. This isn’t to accuse Westphal of secretly subscribing to hard epistemic relativism but to note that he doesn’t clarify how it can be avoided in his theory of interpretation. Fourth, Westphal’s use of the story of the blind men and the elephant without an acknowledgement of its frequent employment in buttressing religious pluralism is, I think, unfortunate. The problem with using it to propound religious pluralism lies in the fact that the world religions don’t offer limited descriptions of one dimension of ultimate reality but instead set forth comprehensive outlooks on the whole of reality, making their perspectives open to, not merely complementarity, but contradiction. I think Westphal would have done well to address the baggage that accompanies this analogy.
Fifth, I would suggest that his advocacy of “Kantian antirealism” is misguided. On the one hand, epistemic antirealism supposes that human subjectivity and situatedness is incompatible with human cognitive contact with the real world. On the other hand, this seems more pessimistic than Westphal’s own view of the possibilities of human knowledge. Sixth, and here is where I let the cat out of the bag, I am far from convinced that meaning is shaped by what readers bring to the table. Frankly, I would prefer, in the vein of Vanhoozer or Jeannine Brown, to define meaning in terms of what an author wishes to communicate in the text. I welcome the insights of relevance theory, but I disagree with the proposition that a text escapes the horizon of its author and assumes in quasi-agential fashion a life of its own. Though Westphal implies that the determinacy of meaning renders the text a cadaver or a mere object over which the reader seeks to gain mastery, a number of happier descriptions are readily available. We could speak in terms of a text being ongoingly animated by the voice of its author (especially in the case of Scripture) or the determinacy of meaning as a greater impetus for humble listening and submission than the indeterminacy of meaning to which we can and must actively contribute something. Seventh, and following from the previous reservation about the book, I am skeptical of interpretive performance heightening or consummating the being of a text. We might say that by enacting the intended perlocution(s) of the text we are realizing the author’s will for the author-text-reader communicative interchange, but Westphal treads beyond this in contending that diverse realizations of meaning are integral to the nature of the text itself.
Eighth, there are several instances in which the distinction between ontology and epistemology is elided. One of the most glaring examples occurs when Westphal reasons that upholding the determinacy of textual meaning entails that readers are set up then to claim that they have the one true interpretation and need not be open to the readings of others. Maintaining that textual meaning is complex but ultimately fixed by the author properly concerns the being of a text rather than readers’ ability to access that meaning. If one keeps in mind the crucial distinction between ontology and epistemology, then one can affirm both the determinacy of textual meaning and our notably restricted noetic powers and consequent need to lean on the help of others. Ninth, and finally, while the final chapter provides some reflection on interpretation rooted in Christian doctrine, the liabilities of the general consignment of biblical interpretation to the sphere of “de-regionalized” philosophical reflection are apparent at certain junctures. Nothing is said of the perspicuity and sufficiency of Scripture in historic Protestant theology. Westphal’s assertion that authors have no God’s-eye-view of even their own writing, and, therefore, cannot determine textual meaning runs into trouble when one considers the divine authorship of Scripture. For my money, Jeannine Brown’s Scripture as Communication is the better option if one is looking for something that shares many of the aspirations of Westphal’s project.