Meaning, Knowledge, and ‘Culture’


In its broadest sense, a culture is a set of beliefs and norms held by groups of people and passed on from one generation to the next. When it comes to hermeneutics, the theory and practice of interpreting texts, culture is something the reader (and author) possesses. I can talk about my culture and your culture.

What I mean by possession is that we possess beliefs and norms that are passed on to us by a previous generation in virtue of which we belong to a particular culture. What constitutes a group is unclear. Technically, a group is a collection of people composed of at least one person. As I am using it, though, the term culture can’t be applied to a lone individual. In order for the set of beliefs and norms to count as the culture of a group, the beliefs and norms must be transmittable from one generation to the next. Thus, though a family might possess a culture, a hermit won’t.

Culture and Meaning

Unfortunately, the term meaning is as vague as culture. The term can be applied to life, usually indicating something like purpose or reason for living. It is also said to be the property of linguistic items such as words, sentences, texts, and literary works. Which one of those linguistic items one applies it to matters. For example, some people say words have meanings in the same way sentences have meanings. This is false. I can’t tell you anything by using a word. Telling you something involves expressing a proposition by using a sentence. Just saying a word can’t do that (unless a proposition is implicated by some established convention).

Further, the meaning of a literary work is not the same as a meaning of a sentence. A declarative sentence expresses a proposition that has a truth value. A literary work, though composed of sentences, which, in turn, are composed of words, has meaning in terms of a sequence of sentences. Discerning the meaning of lengthy texts involves developing a hierarchy of importance of various sentences until one can summarize the main sentences from a work. No one can remember all the sentences of a work and arrange them in order. Thus, the main ones must be selected in order to provide the central ideas of a work. Which sentences are selected and the relevant importance given to each one is the point at which honest interpreters disagree. It is also the point at which one’s culture plays a role. What sentences one raises to significance is dependent upon what one already finds important.

At this point, we want to know the negative aspects of possessing a culture and the positive ones. Sometimes the negative aspects hold sway. Suppose a particular book is about an educational program. It is this way because that’s what the author wanted to say in the book. Say we know this to be true. But suppose the book is also a personal narrative. It describes the author’s development of his educational program though many experiences all involving overcoming a historic injustice. It is not incorrect that the book should also lead one to lament injustice and feel something of the weight of history, but it is not the main point the author wants to make. Now, if a person focuses away from the author’s main points and to the sub-points due to his cultural background beliefs, then those background beliefs have, to some degree, negatively affected his interpretation of the text. In contrast, when a person’s background beliefs aid her ordering of sentences more in line with the author’s intentions, then they have aided her interpretation.

It is at this intersection that perspectives help interpretation. It is quite proper for interpretation to be improved by interaction between people from different cultures. As long as interpreters are committed to form of semantic realism (there is a determinative meaning to a work fixed by the author), then a fruitful discussion can lead to better interpretations.

Culture and Knowledge

Nearby to all this is a skeptical question: Does the fact that all people who read a work possess cultures entail that none of them can know the intended meaning of a work? After all, no one apart from the author can possess the same background beliefs as the author. Surely, then, we are determined by our cultural background beliefs to interpret the text wrongly.

This is a powerful argument, but it is not sound. It does not follow from possessing cultural background beliefs that one’s interpretation of a text is determined by them. Possession does not entail use. I can possess all sorts of cultural beliefs but read a text without deploying them. Sometimes this is more difficult than other times. Some texts require care to avoid reactions due to some belief or desire. Though difficult, it is not impossible to recognize that reactions are due to one’s culture rather than what is actually being said. When one does notice this phenomenon, it is possible to control one’s reaction and read the text objectively. If so, then it is not the case that possessing background beliefs entails that one apply those beliefs in every interpretation of a work.

Further, it is not as if everything could be determined by cultural beliefs. For example, methods of interpretation are not merely the products of culture. I know this is a controversial point for some. Postmodern criticisms of standard methods of interpretation usually claim that methods are culturally relative. Thus, one’s hermeneutic method is itself neither right nor wrong; it is just cultural. This is false. Methods rely on epistemic obligations to laws of thought such as the law of non-contradiction. I’m just as obligated to obey the law of non-contradiction as anyone else on the planet. Not even an alien can claim that the law doesn’t apply to him because his culture is different to ours.

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