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Ricouer: “What is text?” and “Metaphor and the problem of Interpretation”

Paul Ricoeur “What is a text? Explanation and understanding” from Hermeneutics and the human sciences. 1981.

In this article, Ricoeur attempts to deconstruct the binary between explanation and interpretation. Explanation, he explains, is thought to be borrowed from the natural sciences and is a central tool of positivism. Interpretation, on the other hand, as the main form of understanding, is thought to be specific to the human sciences and responsible for the division between the two sciences. Ricoeur explains, however, that for one, explanation is actually derived from the sphere of language and more specifically linguistics and two, explanation and interpretation are not opposites per se; rather, they have a complementary and reciprocal relationship and through reading are ultimately reconciled. By complicating the suppossed binary between scientific and philosophical interpretations of interpretation, Ricouer attempts to illustrate how interpretaton uses methodology to develop a hidden meaning of a text. Interpretation is thus both a scientific and philosophical practice.

In order to illustrate this point, Ricoeur begins by addressing the question, what is a text?. Asking this question allows him to explore the act of reading, an act where explanation and interpretation confront one another. Ricouer defines a text as “a discourse fixed by writing” (146). Several “upheavals” occur when writing replaces speech. One, unlike speech in which a speaker presents a “real” world to an interlocuter, the text, represents an imaginary world because of gaps in the text’s references, which ultimately must be filled by the reader. The author also becomes less distinct; the author of the text is constituted by the text rather than be self-designated and immediately identifiable as in speech. This distancing of the author from the text necessitates both explanation and interpretation in order to derive meaning from a text.

Structuralists claim that meaning is revealed through the structure of a text or more precisely, by analyzing the “logic of operations which interconnect” the relations between lower and higher units of language and the actants and actions within the narrative of the text (155). Text, in a sense, then is closed; it is both worldless and authorless. But Ricouer claims that explaining the structure of a closed text does not totally reveal the meaning of a text. Nor does it constitute reading. Reading is made possible because texts “opens out onto other things. To read is…to conjoin a new discourse to the discourse of the text. This conjuction of discourses reaveals, in the very constitution of the text, an original capacity for renewal which is its open character. Interpretaton is the concrete outcome of conjunction and renewal” (158).

Interpretation can be understood as appropriation in three senses. In one sense, the ultimate outcome of interpreting a text is self-understanding (158). In other sense, through interpretation, we make “one’s own what was initially alien” (159). In other words, interpretation overcomes cultural distance because we come to understand the world as well as the self. In the last sense, interpretation can be thought of as appropriation because we gain meaning from the text in the present. The subject of a text then is the world and the reader herself. Meaning is derived with a “realization of the discourse of the reading subject” and the culture around them (159). In this sense, a text takes on both a semiological dimension and a semantic dimension (159).

Ricouer thinks structural analysis is the first stage of constructing a critical interpretation. As he explains it: structural analysis can be regarded as “a stage—and a necessary one—between a naïve and a critical interpretation, between a surface and a depth interpretation, then it seems possible to situate explanation and interpretation along a unique hermeneutical arc and to integrate the opposed attitudes of explanation and understanding within an overall conception of reading as the recovery of meaning” (161).

He goes on to say that if we consider interpretation as revealing the here and now of the text’s intention, we must realize that we are not referring to the “presumed intention” of the author/writer but instead the text’s intention. Most simply then, “to explain is to bring out the structure, that is, internal relations of dependence which constitute the statistics of the text; to interpret is to follow the path of thought opened up by the text, to place oneself en route towards the orient of the text” (162). In this sense, a text objectively interprets itself through the process of signification. Drawing on Aristotle, Ricouer claims “interpretation is interpretation by language before being interpretation of language” (163).

Interpretation is not subjective in Ricouer’s eyes because it is possible to “depsychologise” interpretation and connect it with the text (164). Because of the relation between the text, the structure, and the realized meanings, interpretations are supported by the text. Appropriation as self-understanding, meaning-making, and cultural understanding is final act of reading derived through suspension of interpretation.

“Reading [in turn] is the concrete act in which the destiny of the text is fulfilled. It is at the very heart of reading that explanation and interpretation are indefinitely opposed and reconciled” (164).

“Metaphor and the central problem of hermeneutics” from same text

Ricouer begins by addressing two problems of hermeneutics concerning interpretation’s field of application and its epistemological specificity. Application is tricky because in written texts are autonomous (texts are independent of authorial intention, situaion of work, and original reader) and thus discourse must speak for itself. Epistemologically, interpretation is tricky because of its supposed opposition to explanation—the key to objective science. These two problems lead other scholars to believe in interpretation’s larger problem—that of subjectivity.

To get at this issue, Ricouer says we must go back to the binary of explanation vs. interpretation. Believing in the power of the hermeneutic circle, he explores metaphor as a “work in minature” (166). Work, by the way, according to Ricouer, is “the closed sequence of discourse which can be considered a text” (166). Ricouer explains that “all discourse is realized as an event but understood as meaning” (167) and since a living metaphor is both event and meaning, then it is justified to develop a deeper understanding of texts through exploration of metaphor.

Meaning of metaphor is dependent on context as well as on associations with commonplaces and cultural rules as well as semantic and syntactic rules. To understand new metaphors, we construct a network of interactions by directing our attention to the enitre semantic event, which is constituted by intersecting semantic fields (174). We construct meaning of text in a similar way.

Interpretation of text as well as metaphor is a dialectic of guessing and validating. Construction of interpretation in both cases depends on clues from the text and probability, which is determined both by facts from texts and connotations. Imagination comes into play.

“The world is the totality of references opened up by texts” (177). “Texts speak of possible worlds and of possible ways of orienting oneself in these worlds” (177). Interpretation thus becomes the apprehension of the proposed worlds which are opened up by the non-ostensive references of the text” (177). To interpret means to open one’s self to those possible worlds which texts discloses or opens up.

Ricoeur believes in the ability of the hermeneutic circle to make what is alien in a text familiar. The underlying principle of the hermeneutic circle according to the thinkers of Romanticism is that pre-understanding leads to interpretation leads to deeper self-understanding. Yet, “the hermeneutical circle is not correctly understood when it is presented, first, as a circle between two subjectivities, that of the reader and that of the author; and second, as the projection of the subjectivity of the reader into the reading itself” (178).

In terms of text, understanding parts leads to understanding of whole which leads to deeper understanding of parts. Therefore, according to Ricouer, the text directs itself to possible interpretations. Also, we need to think of a reader understanding herself “in front of a text, in front of the world of the work” (178). Standing in front of a text means that we do not project our own beliefs and prejudices onto the text; instead we “let the work and its world enlarge the horizon of the understanding which I have of my self” (178). Interpretation is ontological in this sense.

Essentially, what Ricouer aims to do is demonstrate that explanation of metaphor contributes to the interpretation of the whole text (180). He thus demonstrates through the hermeneutic circle and structural analysis that interpretation is to some extent methodolgical. Yet because of interpretation’s ontological nature, Ricouer also demonstrates the philosophical nature of interpretation. His scholarship, then, attempts to reconcile the long term debate between the natural and human sciences over the nature, role and potential of interpretation. Interpretation, in a sense, is both a science and an art, perhaps something in between….



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