Will this work?
Postmodernism, Biblical Interpretation, Constitutional Interpretation, and What I Learned as an English Major
Can I save you people some time? This whole ‘what is the meaning of words?’ thing seems to me a very fruitless debate, so I’ll settle it. There is an intended meaning of the text, which depends on the author, a literal meaning of the text, which depends on the language, a legally accepted meaning, which depends on court cases, and many more meanings. The discussion about an ‘inherit’ meaning is probably half quibbling over the definition of ‘meaning.’ If we are to interpret texts, we need to choose the most appropriate meaning for the situation, which can admittedly be difficult. But trying to find a one-size-fits-all meaning for all situations is a fool’s task. Dan, I disagree with your implication that the intended meaning is 1) too unknowable to be useful and 2) irrelevant. I also disagree that the implication that interpreted meanings are more a factor of one’s world view than of the literal meaning.
(I’m pretty sure this is a reasonable amount to tackle in one post.)
SDS posted a quote from Clarence Thomas, which included:There are really only two ways to interpret the Constitution — try to discern as best we can what the framers intended or make it up
Hilker commented,Insert “Bible” for “constitution” in Thomas’ quote.
This raises a few questions about appropriate authority to give to the views of the authors of our texts.
The old, Romantic view is that the authors were inspired and god-like men who had a special ability to reach into the void and pull forth art or meaning. This view properly fell out of use a bit over a hundred years ago. In an age where everybody who’s anybody has a blog and writes things there regularly, it’s pretty hard to believe that all authors have access to a special fount of mystical meaning. The author is a person who, for better or worse, slapped a bunch of words together. Over time, the work is commented on, interpreted, performed, analyzed, and discussed. Culture and language change. The plays we read today may have roughly the same words as the ones Shakespeare wrote—but there are countless layers of meaning that have been added and forgotten. When one of Freud’s disciples claimed Hamlet had an Oedipus complex it suddenly became impossible to perform Hamlet without somehow interracting with that claim. And yet, for certain texts, a lot of people insist that we should pay special attention to the intent of the author. This presumes a few things.
- The author is known
- The author’s intent is knowable
- The author’s intent has a special meaning
- The author’s preferred meaning is only—or at least—the best meaning
Who wrote the Bible?
This is a question with a factual answer—but it’s not always an easy one. Most books in the Bible have a traditional author—but (unless you take this extrabiblical tradition on faith) the evidence is pretty thin. Many (like Psalms) might have been written by many people and compiled later. Similarly, the U.S. Constitution was written as a deliberative process. It’s not always clear where one particular wording originated.
What were the founding fathers thinking?
They were thinking a lot of things. They disagreeed frequently. As Thomas Jefferson would say if he were here, “The Founding Fathers had diverse views, so you can find a writing by one of them to reasonably back pretty much any position you want to take.” Wait. Would Jefferson really have said that or did I usurp the position of reverence we give to Jefferson in order to support my own position? It was the latter. Thus it is every time somebody talks about the intent of the founding fathers.
Dumbledore is Gay
A while back J.K. Rowling suggested in an interview that beloved Hogwarts Headmaster Dumbledore’s dark secret included a homosexual relationship with a dark magician. This incited the expected praise and outrage from the appropriate corners. Did this suddenly make Dumbledore gay? Did Dumbledore know the dark wizard carnally?
No. Dumbledore is a fictional character. He doesn’t exist. He can’t know anybody carnally or otherwise. A buch of words appear in a book. We read those words and a world comes to life in our heads. If what happens in our heads is different than what Rowling intended to happen in our heads, are we wrong? No. We might be illiterate—but the whole work is fiction. None of it happened. Why should we have a particular deference to the thoughts of the person who put the words on the page?
So why do we particularly care what the founding fathers thought? They’re dead. They won’t be offended if we disagree with them. And we do disagree with them. Many of them were slave-owners. While they may have been progressive for their times, they would be (by any standard) regressive for ours. Why should the author be able to stretch a dead hand from the grave to tell us what to think? If a particular view is wrong—does it really matter if the founding fathers were also wrong?
Now, the Bible is a bit different. If the Bible is an inspired text, perhaps the inspired authors have some special bearing on it. And perhaps the inspired authors were part of an inspired culture. But that’s making a whole lot of unwarranted assumptions. We can cut out a lot of middlemen if we stick as close to the text as possible. The writers of the text chronicled a number of invents. Generally, the events were the important part, not the writers and the cultural era the writer wrote about. Nothing in the Bible suggests that we should strive to recreate the prejudices of that era.
How then can anything have meaning?
Meaning comes from the same place it did before. We read something. It means something to us. We read different things and it takes on a new meaning. We discuss it with others and it takes on a third meaning. Ultimately, we’re responsible for our thoughts—even when we pretend somebody else is. It’s convenient enough to justify prejudices or bad ideas by saying somebody important shared that prejudice or bad idea—but ultimately we’re always going to interpret a text in light of our own convictions and desires. If the text is as inspired as we hope it is—it can influence our convictions. And if the Founding Fathers are as bright as they’re supposed to be, their ideas should be worth adopting on their own merits. We don’t need some mystical-dead-guy-power to tell us what is allowed to mean something. We already have all the tools we need.
I think Dan’s right on this one. (Was the dig at AF strictly necessary though?) Society has been working on this women’s rights thing, and we’ve come a long way. While a lot of people feel that we’ve done the hard work, we’re basically close enough to equal rights. Feminists disagree intensely, and spend a lot of effort convincing people there’s still a problem, which is a daunting task. I think Sarah Palin gives off the vibe of ‘Look how far we women have come! We’ve made it! We’re done!’ This is not helping to convince people that women are still badly oppressed. I think AF is on the side that the worst of the inequality is gone, and I can sympathize. That makes it feel a little like feminists are inventing problems and forcing them on others. But feminists are very earnest that things are still slanted against them, and I have to respect that earnesty (if that’s a word).
Antifeminism, who (evidently) speaks with the royal we (presumably from nostalgia for a grander, more hierarchical era) has finally provided the long awaited explanation of feminism’s perceived ills. You can read it here—but the short version is that a lot of self-identified feminists said a lot of mean things about Sarah Palin. It concludes:
Why and when did feminism stop being about the advancement of all women?
If this is the primary issue, we can clear it up right quickly. Feminism, both now and in the past, seeks to eliminate forces that stand in the way of full equality for women. This does not mean that somebody whose beliefs run counter to that of the movement receives feminist support solely for being a woman. There was some debate in the feminist community as to whether Palin represented the new face of feminism—and the overwhelming (though not unanimous) answer was no. But let’s spend a few minutes investigating why feminists didn’t line up behind Palin.
There are a handful of issues where Palin comes down on a different side than the bulk of self-identified feminists. (Abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, abstinence only education, same-sex marriage, and so on.) But the real nail in the coffin for Palin and feminism is that Palin really didn’t seem particularly interested in any of feminism’s ideological goals. Did Palin want to look closely at how social structures contribute to gender discrimination? Does she have a demonstrated commitment to rooting out sexism and investigating its causes? Aside from being a symbolic presence, how would Palin’s election have changed gender expectations? Palin could have gotten away with any number of policy differences, so long as she had persuaded people she was committed to a core feminist thesis. She did not.
And frankly, feminists are people too. A lot of people’s dislike of Palin may have had nothing to do with their feminism. Palin went out of her way to anger a lot of people on the left. At that much, she succeeded brilliantly.
But surely the perceived mistreatment of one not-terribly-successful Vice Presidential candidate can’t be the sum total of your grievances against feminism. What else have you got?
Actually, as a a computer scientist, I’d like to refine that: Natural language (As in English instead of C++) is extremely hard. Logic is easy, but only if you know the rules in advance. The math puzzles are given in natural language, and the format is different between problems—some are algebra (easy) some are geometry (harder) and some are word problems (practically impossible). The analogy sections though have consistent format and consistent rules. All you need is a list of the top 20 analogies (opposites, part to whole, etc) and an enormous dictionary with the rules between each word. Very time intensive to enter, but possible. It’s the reading analysis that’s impossible.
In the smoking aftermath of the Robot Wars, we’ll look back and wonder why we couldn’t get along with our creations. Didn’t we program them to love us?
I think it will be because we’re bad at math. At least, we’re bad at the kind of math computers are good at. While we may not be irrational, we don’t always think in terms of precise numbers. If I set my coffee maker to make coffee at 8:00, it makes coffee at exactly 8:00. If I make coffee at 8:00 in the morning, I make it at approximately 8:00. If I start brewing the coffee at 8:02, it’s essentially 8:00 to me because the two times are about the same. To the coffee maker, on the other hand, 8:02 is a different time than 8:00—and no more like 8:00 than it is like 12:37. We’re much better at analogy than we are with manipulating numbers.
It wouldn’t be too hard to program a computer to ace the math portion of the SAT. The biggest difficulty would be input. But could the computer manage the analogies on the verbal section? Tree is to timber as sheep is to a) mailbox b) mutton c) stable d) goat. It’s easy for us—but programming a computer to manage that is incredibly difficult. We are much better at thinking by analogies than we are mathematically.
This is one of the difficulties neoclassical economics runs into. Value is caluculated numerically. While we’re capable of doing this—we usually don’t. If we buy a $5 drink and absolutely hate it, we might insist on drinking it because we paid for it. If $5 falls out of our pocket, we might spend the entire day being upset about it.