Aesthetics,  Hermeneutics

Single Meaning View

Does a literary work have one meaning or multiple meanings? Here is an argument in support of a singular view given by William Ames in 1629:

“There is one meaning for every place in Scripture. Otherwise the meaning of scripture would not only be unclear and uncertain, but there would be no meaning at all–for anything which does not mean one thing surely means nothing.” (William Ames, 1629)

This argument leaves much unsaid. What makes it the case that possessing any meaning, a text must possess only one meaning? How might the argument be elaborated?

The argument for the singular meaning view has been elaborated by various philosophers and, with respect to biblical interpretation, by many theologians most notably Walter Kaiser from whom I got the above quotation.

An enlightening extension of the above argument has been provided by David Novitz. Novitz argues for the singular meaning view based on what he calls the ‘singularity constraint.’ According to the constraint, there is only one way the world can be at any given time. Given this plausible assumption, Novitz argues that there can only be one right interpretation of a work: 

“there is and can be only one true interpretation … This is an indispensable assumption of rational inquiry … [T]he aim of elucidatory interpretation is to secure an adequate understanding of whatever it is that confuses or puzzles us. An understanding … will be adequate if and only if it enables one to negotiate the world successfully, where this includes both its natural and cultural objects, events, relations, and states of affairs. Since it is reasonable to assume that there is only one way in which the world and its objects can be at any one time (singularity constraint), one normally concedes that one has not finally understood an object or state of affairs if one also recognizes that the object of state of affairs is amenable to two conflicting interpretations: interpretations that impute different and exclusive properties to the phenomenon in question. For if there is only one way that the world is at any one time—one shape to an object, one set of semantic properties to a text, or one set of pictorial properties to a painting—this suggests that an adequate understanding has not been reached, that there is work to be done and a convergence to be sought.… [G]iven the singularity constraint, one and the same person will not consider herself to have understood, so long as she subscribes to, and cannot decide between, two interpretations that are recognized by her to conflict with each other.” (Novitz, 115). 

According to Novitz, rational inquiry takes place when an inquirer “negotiate[s] the world successfully, where this includes both its natural and cultural objects, events, relations, and states of affairs.” Novitz claims that rational inquiry is possible only if there is a single correct interpretation. His argument begins by claiming that the necessary and sufficient conditions for an adequate understanding of a work is that we have rational enquiry.

(1) We have adequate understanding of a work if and only if we have rational inquiry. 

Adequacy is connected with rationality. To be rational is to manage one’s beliefs about the world upon some basis. As a result of doing so, one has reasons for one’s beliefs, and one’s beliefs have explanations. Any time one seeks understanding, one is adequately doing so if and only if one’s beliefs are supported by reasons and one can explain one’s beliefs. For example, during a Bible study, one presents an interpretation of a text by supporting it from the text. One gives reasons for thinking that Paul is saying such and such and not saying so and so.

Adequate understanding is also a mental state. To satisfy adequacy, one must come to some positive resolution. In other words, adequacy requires positive beliefs. This is entailed by the fact that rational enquiry is the successful management of beliefs. Hence, agnosticism is not an adequate understanding. If, after a lengthy study, a group cannot come to a view of the meaning of a particularly tricky part of Hosea, the members of the group do not possess an adequate understanding.

Next, Novitz refers to the singularity constraint. The singularity constraint holds that there is only one way the world can be at any one time. This constraint applies to all works:

(2) There is only one way the world can be at any one time (singularity constraint)

The singularity constraint implies that any work is constituted by one set of properties at a given time. Whatever those properties are, they are only one set, not multiple sets of conflicting properties. The singularity constraint is global and, thus, includes all works including literary works. The Bible is also subject to the constraint. It has only one set of properties at one time.

It follows from the singularity constraint that the necessary condition for adequate understanding is that it is possible to have a single correct interpretation. Novitz suggests that if one and the same person subscribes to, and cannot decide between, two interpretations that are recognized by her to conflict with each other, then one and the same person will not consider herself to have understood. Hence, premise (3) claims:

(3) If there is only one way the world can be at any one time, then if there are conflicting interpretations, then one does not have an adequate understanding. 

If premise (1) is true, it follows that the necessary condition for rational enquiry is that works have single correct interpretations:

(4) Hence, if there is to be rational enquiry, there can be only one true interpretation.

There are two ways to avoid the conclusion: One might deny that the necessary condition for the meaning of a work is that there is only one them, or one might deny that there is an objective meaning of a work. 

Denying that there is an objective meaning of a work might sound odd. Surely works have meanings! However, some people think that meanings are things only interpreters possess. Readers provide meanings for works by interpreting them. If one holds to such a view, since there are many interpreters, one avoids the conclusion that there is only one meaning for any given work. 

Such a response concedes that works have no meanings. Hence, Ames is right to say that if works don’t have a single meaning, they have no meaning at all. Only readers possess meanings.

Leaving aside this view, alternatively, one might claim that though the singularity constraint obtains, nonetheless, works possess multiple meanings. Those who hold this view usually claim that works are historically and culturally constituted and that interpretation is itself an act of constituting a work. Hence, works cannot be understood without imputing some properties to them. Since those properties are properties are cultural, they are constantly changing. Hence, a work may possess multiple meanings dependent upon the culture and time in which they are interpreted. 

In order to avoid this conclusion, it is sufficient to claim that it does not follow from the act of interpretation being culturally constituted that works do not have single objective meanings. The defender of singular meaning might claim either that interpretation can both be culturally constituted and yet capable of reaching a true conclusion based on the objective properties of an object, or she might claim that even if she has no access to those properties, it does not follow that they are multiple. 

In regard to the first response, interpretive grids may be constituted by the cultural experiences of their possessors, but it does not follow that interpreters cannot interpret an object without somehow imposing those grids. Possession does not entail use. Further, one’s method of interpretation can remain neutral even if one’s conceptual grid remains somewhat skewed by bias and prejudice. 

However, there is a further problem with the argument. It gives us no reason to suppose that there is more than one meaning to a work. Even if we accept all the premises, all that follows is that we have no interpretation-free access to the meaning of a work. But why think that not having interpretation-free access to a work entails that an interpretation cannot be true or false? After all, interpretation has, as its aim, the purpose of discerning the meaning of a work. One might just as well say that interpretation is entirely useless. It doesn’t work. But that requires an additional argument. 

What do you think? Do works have singular or multiple meanings?

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.

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