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date: 27 April 2017

Hermeneutics and Literature

Summary and Keywords

Modern hermeneutics begins with F. D. E. Schleiermacher who systematized hermeneutics, developing it from a group of disparate disciplines meant to apply to different fields of discourse to a set of procedures applicable to all. Schleiermacher also insists on a methodical practice of interpretation including grammatical interpretation, which attends to an author’s language, and psychological or technical interpretation, which attends to an author’s intentions. In moving to philosophical hermeneutics, Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer refocus away from the procedures conducive to understanding and towards the conditions under which understanding occurs: namely, in the context of our ongoing projects and purposes and the interrelations they involve. For Gadamer, these conditions lead to a rethinking of the Enlightenment’s criticism of tradition and prejudice. The context of understanding is a historically developed one. Indeed, Heidegger and Gadamer conceive of the so-called hermeneutic circle of whole and part not as a method for coming to a definitive understanding of a text, as Schleiermacher does, but rather as a reflection of our historical circumstances. We are the result of the effective histories of the very texts and discourses we seek to understand. To the extent that we are, however, we participate in their traditions and are oriented or prejudiced by the assumptions they hand down to us. The problem with a Schleiermachian reliance on interpretive method, then, is that it pretends to an objectivity that it cannot attain and thereby gives up on the possibility of acknowledging and interrogating prejudice. Schleiermacher’s focus on intentions is equally problematic. To the extent that we concentrate only or primarily on the intentions or thoughts behind an author’s or speaker’s expression, we fail to take their expressions up as possible insights or valid claims. In contrast, philosophical hermeneutics asks us to take works of literature seriously with regard to their subject matter, or Sache, and to engage dialogically in a process of clarifying an issue or subject matter for ourselves. In short, we miss much of what we can learn about a subject matter if we look to intentions over content. Likewise, we miss much of what we can learn about ourselves if we look to method and forgo dialogue.

Keywords: hermeneutics, philosophical hermeneutics, intentionalism, literary method, Gadamer, Heidegger, Schleiermacher

Terry Eagleton entitles his 2013 book How to Read Literature and says in his introduction that he hopes it gives readers interested in literary interpretation “some of the basic tools of the critical trade.”1 In a 1992 article, the philosopher Noel Carroll maintains that those he calls “anti-intentionalists” illegitimately sever understanding in the realm of art and literature from understanding in other domains of human communication and intercourse. In his view, “Though it seems natural to interpret words and actions in terms of authorial intention, arguments of many sorts have advanced for nearly fifty years to deny the relevance of authorial intention to the interpretation of works of art in general and to works of literature in particular.”2 Eagleton’s reference to the tools of the trade may be more offhand than Carroll’s insistence on the interpretive relevance of authorial intentions.3 Nonetheless, both claims recall positions that F. D. E. Schleiermacher took on literary interpretation in the early 19th century, and, like this position, both are decidedly at odds with the later philosophical hermeneutics that stems from the work of Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer.

This discussion begins with the problems Gadamer raises with regard to the direction that Schleiermacher sets out for hermeneutics. It then turns to Gadamer’s Heidegger-inspired account of hermeneutics and to its implications for the concern with tools and methods, on the one hand, and with authorial intentions, on the other.

Gadamer on Schleiermacher

Although Schleiermacher published little on hermeneutics during his lifetime (1768–1834), his posthumously published work on the subject was immensely influential.4 Much of this influence can be attributed to Schleiermacher’s generalization of hermeneutics from what he calls a “collection of observations” that are specific to particular fields of discourse into a systematic set of procedures applicable to any field.5 He rejects the idea that separate subject matters, and in particular scripture, require separate forms of interpretation. Rather, a universal hermeneutics is concerned equally with scripture, classical and modern literature, and speech and texts in both one’s own and foreign languages. Moreover, in all of these cases, misunderstanding is a risk, and a universal hermeneutics consequently requires a set of rigorous techniques. Whereas a “laxer” hermeneutic practice assumes that we usually understand one another immediately and only occasionally need to follow explicit interpretive strategies, “the more strict practice assumes that misunderstanding results as a matter of course and that understanding must be desired and sought at every point.”6

For Schleiermacher, this strict practice includes what he calls grammatical and psychological or technical forms of interpretation. On the one hand, understanding a text requires that we understand the language an author is using; we need to attend to its syntactical rules, linguistic meanings, and possible differences between the way we may currently define certain words and the definition they had at the time the author used them. On the other hand, understanding requires that we understand the context of an author’s expression or utterance and therefore understand it in terms of an author’s life and individuality. Interpreters need two “talents”: a talent for “research into language” and a talent for “grasping … the individual.”7

Gadamer agrees with Schleiermacher that issues of understanding are the same whether we are dealing with scripture, classical texts, or ordinary conversation. In addition, he calls Schleiermacher’s work on grammatical interpretation “brilliant.”8 Nevertheless, he is less certain about his focus on misunderstanding. As long as we assume that we understand the claims that other people are making we can devote ourselves to engaging with them in an inquiry into a subject matter. We can consider with them how, for example, a particular virus works, what to do about the economy, or where we should meet for coffee. In contrast, if we assume that we generally misunderstand one another, as Schleiermacher does, then we must devote ourselves to ensuring that we correctly understand what our partner in conversation—or a text—is really trying to say or express. Two consequences follow. First, we will need to discover the methods that can ensure this sort of precise understanding. Second, those methods will focus primarily on trying to figure out the intention or thought behind the author’s or speaker’s expression: what exactly he or she means by, say, a virus or the economy or just which coffee shop he or she has in mind. The turn to method and the attention to authorial intentions thus follow from the same starting point: a presumption of misunderstanding.

In Gadamer’s assessment, this presumption marks a decisive shift from the older hermeneutics of Baruch Spinoza, Friedrich August Wolf, and Friedrich Ast. None supposed that misunderstanding could not arise; clearly, if we want to meet a friend for coffee, we will have to verify that we both intend to go to the same coffee shop. Nevertheless, rather than facilitating understanding in those special cases in which problems in mutual understanding could or do emerge, for Schleiermacher hermeneutics becomes a systematic method for avoiding misunderstanding in all cases and, moreover, a systematic method directed primarily at excavating intentions. Accordingly, Gadamer maintains that despite the attention that Schleiermacher gives to both grammatical and psychological interpretation, his “particular contribution is psychological interpretation.”9 In attending to speech and text, hermeneutics has as its main aim not the content or subject matter, or what Gadamer calls die Sache,10 but rather individual expression, or “thought considered as part of another’s life.”11 Thus, what Schleiermacher says he finds “most neglected and ignored is understanding a succession of thoughts as an emerging element of life.”12 The result, Gadamer thinks, is that any claim or proposition becomes “an aesthetic construct.”13

Gadamer suggests that this shift from content to individual expression, part of the Romantic cult of the genius, also effects a change in the “philologist’s rule of thumb” that Kant and Fichte employ, according to which the interpreter understands writers or speakers better than they understood themselves.14 Kant and Fichte consider the idea a principle of philosophical critique insofar as it is possible to acquire greater conceptual clarity on an issue than a given author’s text may have allowed; Schleiermacher, however, applies the idea to the creative act. Writers and speakers express themselves without being necessarily aware of the grammatical rules, tropes, cadences, and literary forms they are using. The hermeneutical inquirer understands better, then, in the sense that he or she explicitly articulates elements in the process of production that the writer effects unconsciously. Because Schleiermacher sees this understanding as a reproduction of the original production, Gadamer maintains that he also conceives of understanding as “a divinatory process, a placing oneself within the whole framework of the author, an apprehension of the ‘inner origin’ of the composition of a work, a recreation of the creative act.”15 While the upshot of attending to misunderstanding is a move away from the mutual consideration of a subject matter to the question of an individual’s intentions and requires a methodological approach, the upshot of attending to an individual’s intentions, Gadamer suggests, is that ultimately hermeneutical method is a divinatory process.

To be sure, not all commentators subscribe to this analysis. According to Michael Forster, divination has its roots more in the French deviner, meaning to guess or to conjecture, than it does in the Latin divinus, meaning prophetic.16 It follows that divination is not to be considered a form of “psychological self-projection,” as Gadamer assumes, but is rather “a procedure of fallible, corrigible hypothesizing scrupulously grounded in, but also reaching well beyond, the limited empirical evidence that is available.”17 Kristen Gjesdal makes the same point. Divination does not involve placing oneself within the author’s framework of production or recreating the original creative act. Rather it is a kind of “creative hypothesis-making.”18 Moreover, she maintains, it is not meant to be a method on its own but is, rather, linked with the method of comparison. Under Schleiermachian procedures, one makes a hypothesis about a text or passage and then revises or confirms that hypothesis by comparing it with one’s understanding of other passages and texts by the same author, as well as passages and texts by other authors of the same culture and time.

Gjesdal also objects to Gadamer’s account of psychological interpretation. Insofar as Gadamer takes Schleiermacher to overemphasize it, she thinks he fails not only to acknowledge its partnership with grammatical interpretation but also adequately to portray what it is. As a rigorous method, hermeneutics attains understanding through both “reference to language and … reference to the one who speaks”—in other words, through grammatical and psychological or technical interpretation.19 In some cases, as in scientific texts, the commonality of language will dominate and, hence, so too will grammatical interpretation. In other cases, as in poetry, the individuality of the use of language will dominate and require an emphasis on psychological interpretation. Nevertheless, both are necessary to understanding. Nor, Gjesdal thinks, can psychological interpretation be reduced to an interest in “the inner origin of the composition of a work” if that origin is meant to be “prior to, independent of, or behind language”. Rather, psychological interpretation concerns the way in which a particular author or speaker maneuvers within a common language. As an example, she points to a possible inquiry into differences in style or individual expression. One might look at “the features that set Goethe’s poetry apart from that of Hölderin or Tieck while also keeping an eye on the shared culture of these and other writers and artists.”20 In sum, according to Gjesdal, “grammatical and technical interpretation, comparison and divination are four closely related aspects of interpretation, the marks of a critically reflected, as opposed to an unreflected, lax hermeneutic practice.”21

Against Gadamer, Gjesdal endorses this critically reflected practice. Like Schleiermacher, she and Forster also think that understanding is about understanding others, “be they others who are close to the interpreter, or, more often, those who are temporally or culturally distant from his or her own horizon of experience,” as Gjesdal puts the point.22 Consistent with his critique of Schleiermacher, Gadamer’s own hermeneutics moves in a different direction. What follows considers his analysis and explores what it entails, first, for a methodologically directed hermeneutic practice and, second, for knowledge of others, or intentionalism in literary theory. Significantly, Gadamer begins with a different question from Schleiermacher’s: not what procedures conduce to understanding in any field of written or spoken language but under what conditions this understanding takes place:23 How, in other words, does understanding, whether of literature or anything else, happen? He begins by rethinking the hermeneutic circle, which in the hermeneutic tradition describes the codependence of our understanding of the whole of a text on its parts and of our understanding of the parts of the text on the whole.

The Hermeneutic Circle

Schleiermacher applies the hermeneutic circle to both grammatical and psychological interpretation. On the grammatical side, one begins with a skeletal understanding of the whole of the text as an orientation to its individual parts. We take a particular text to be a certain kind of text—an ode, for instance—and thus project a preliminary understanding of its parts as dimensions of the tribute it creates. We then fit these dimensions together to fill in the skeletal understanding we have of the whole. As for the psychological side, Schleiermacher says, “We get this same canon if we begin with the version which involves reconstructing the process of the author. For in every larger complex, the author as well saw the whole before he progressed to the particular.”24 Here, the interpreter begins with a skeletal account of the author’s life and approaches the ode, say, as a particular element of that life; the interpreter then uses a more detailed understanding of the ode to fill out his or her understanding of the life. Both grammatical and psychological uses of the hermeneutic circle result in a complete understanding for Schleiermacher. Indeed, he thinks they complement each other. The task of interpretation ends when “each side is dealt with on its own in such a way that dealing with the other side produces no change in the result, or when each side, dealt with on its own, completely replaces the other, but the other must equally be dealt with on its own.”25

How does the interpreter acquire an initial skeletal understanding of the whole, whether of the author’s life or of the text? If our understanding runs in a circle from whole to part and part to whole, how do we get into the circle in the first place? Gadamer’s answer builds on Heidegger’s and is decisive for his hermeneutics: We do not need to discover a means of entering the circle because we are always already in it. On Heidegger’s account, we understand something—whether a text or, to use his paradigmatic example, a hammer—in the context of our ongoing projects and purposes and the interrelations they involve. We do not first come upon an object and then ask what it is—using some method for finding the whole of which it is a part. Instead, we already understand the object as a hammer because we are already involved in that whole, in the activities or projected activities, of which it is a part. Indeed, the hammer is less an object than an aspect of our purposeful field. Things have meaning for us within a web of interrelated assumptions, practices, and activities, which for Heidegger comprise a practical know-how or skillful coping with our world. Hence, he stresses what he calls the “fore-structure” of understanding that consists of a “fore-having,” “fore-sight,” and “fore-conception,” where fore-having reflects our immersion in the projects and purposes that constitute the arena of our understanding, fore-sight signals the perspective this immersion opens up for us on that which we are in the midst of understanding, and fore-conception fixes its range of possible meanings.26

We revise aspects of this fore-structure if we encounter glitches or disruptions in our ability to get around in our world. What we took as a hammer in the context of our practical activities turns out to be an optical illusion, and we are suddenly brought up short. In this case, we may revise our understanding of the part in order to retain our understanding of the whole, or context, of our acting. In other cases, we may have to revise our understanding of the whole, or context, realizing, perhaps, that we are in a dream. Nevertheless, in neither case do we emerge from the circle of projecting meanings on the basis of preunderstandings rooted in our ongoing practice or what Heidegger sees as our “throwness”. Rather, Gadamer explains: “The process that Heidegger describes is that every revision of the fore-projection is capable of projecting before itself a new projection of meaning; rival projects can emerge side by side until it becomes clearer what the unity of meaning is; interpretation begins with fore-conceptions that are replaced by more suitable ones.”27

Gadamer situates this fore-structure in history and tradition and therefore thinks of it as a structure of prejudice. If our initial skeletal understanding issues from our immersion in ongoing projects and purposes, these projects and purposes have their place within particular cultures possessing particular histories and trajectories. We inherit modes of practice, ways of living, and assumptions or prejudices about our world as aspects of growing up. We know how to hammer, for instance, because hammering is part of the culture in which we live. We also inherit literary traditions; they are part of our cultures and histories before we encounter or read any of the texts that compose them. Moreover, when we do encounter or read these texts, we are already possessed of a historically developed fore-having, or prejudice, that has been handed down to us by previous generations of readers and interpreters. Readers brought up in the traditions for which Shakespeare’s work, for example, is foundational cannot come upon it afresh as if it did not have the status it has come to have in those traditions. Rather, for these readers it is already an exemplar of excellence. The same holds for their introduction to the works of other cultures: These already possess a status that is a result of their own “after-history,” or what Gadamer calls their effective history, in which they are taken up and assessed by their first readers, associated with other works in their own and other traditions, reread, reassessed, and reinterpreted in ways that become part of the legacy of meaning they hand over to new generations.

For Gadamer, this analysis means that we need to rethink the Enlightenment’s rejection of tradition and prejudice as sources of knowledge. The cultures and historical developments from which we acquire the fore-structure of our understanding constitute the interpretive traditions to which we already belong or in which we become acculturated. To the extent that this fore-structure is a structure of prejudice, the possibility of understanding is rooted in tradition and prejudice. The Enlightenment’s insistence, then, that prejudices always reflect either undue haste in coming to an understanding or the imposition of subjective and biased views is too radical. Here, Gadamer notes that in German law, a prejudice is a provisional legal verdict, a prejudgment rather than necessarily an unfounded one. Equally, the prejudices that we inherit from the traditions we inherit or adopt amount to resources for understanding that orient us toward our world and can either prove suitable or fail to work out. In understanding a text, the initial assumptions we hold about a text, our skeletal understanding, may not allow us to integrate its parts into a coherent whole, and we may have to resort to other frames or orientations for what we are trying to understand. Nevertheless, Gadamer insists, “That the prejudices determining what I think are due to my own partiality is a judgment based on the standpoint of their having been dissolved and enlightened, and it holds only for unjustified prejudices.”28

Accordingly, Gadamer maintains that the Enlightenment demand that we eliminate all prejudice is impossible to meet. If our further experience dissolves and enlightens certain prejudices, it does so only in the light of others that we continue to hold. Suppose, for example, our initial prejudices about a text fail to work out. We may be prepared to be moved and edified by Cordelia’s actions in King Lear, for example, but come to conceive of her as either a moralistic twit or someone who, despite the love she has for her father, has remarkably little patience for his idiosyncrasies. According to our new understanding, the tragedy she sets in motion stems not from her integrity in speaking truth to power but from either her exasperation or her posturing in being unwilling to follow standard protocols that allow for insincerity in ceremonial occasions. Nonetheless, if we do find Cordelia to be impatient or moralistic, we do so not as a matter of enlightened reason but in light of other valuations we inherit from our tradition: for instance, that love involves bearing with a loved one’s eccentricities or that standing on principle has a time and a place and that a ceremonial occasion is neither. Moreover, these valuations are a legacy to which Shakespeare’s works and their effective history have themselves contributed. Indeed, despite the possible category mistake in Cordelia’s initial response to her father, her subsequent actions reflect ideals of love to which we continue to hold and that continue to influence our judgments.

To be sure, this analysis may make it unclear how understanding can be anything other than an endless rehearsal of what the tradition already thinks and says. If we are always already not only affected but also effected in our judgments by the past we seek to understand, how can we ever say anything new about it or about the texts it hands down to us? Why is the hermeneutic circle not a vicious one? Gadamer’s answer looks to historical finitude. The effective history of texts is an ongoing one; texts connect up with other texts that had not yet been written when they first appeared, with criticisms that had not yet been formulated, and with events and ideas that remained in their future. This consequence adds another dimension to the “philologist’s rule of thumb” that Kant and Fichte employ. If we can understand a text better than its author did, it is not only because we might be able better to elucidate his or her point but also because we know some of the future of that point. Given the historical experience of the Holocaust, for example, we can no longer understand the figure of Shylock or Portia’s triumph in The Merchant of Venice in the way the play’s original audiences may have. Given the attention to gender and transgender issues highlighted by 20th-century struggles for recognition, we are attentive to gender swaps in Shakespeare in new ways.29 Equally, interpreters in the future will necessarily understand a text differently from the way we do. History continues on without us. Hence, whereas for Schleiermacher the hermeneutic circle ends in a complete understanding of the text, for Gadamer its involvement in history means that it cannot.

The same holds not only of interpretations historically distant from one another, however, but also of contemporaneous ones. We can draw on feminist criticism to think about what Ophelia’s role in Hamlet says about the play and women’s lives, or draw on Marxism to claim Hamlet’s bourgeois individualism as a key to the text, or interpret Hamlet as a Confucian hero and see the play as a political allegory. Although each of these interpretations might succeed in offering an understanding of the whole in terms of the part and of the parts in terms of the whole, each will also emphasize different scenes and roles and fit part and whole in different ways. It follows that no interpretive horizon will have a monopoly on the perspectives that can illuminate a text, and no text will have a determinate meaning. Rather than providing canonical interpretations, then, the contents of our understanding are contributions to our interpretive traditions, understandings from a particular perspective that provide new understandings to be handed down as resources to new generations of interpreters. Gadamer therefore maintains that “[t]radition is not simply a permanent precondition; rather we produce it ourselves inasmuch as we understand, participate in the evolution of tradition, and hence further determine it for ourselves.”30

The result of Gadamer’s analysis of understanding is to rehabilitate tradition and prejudice, on the one hand, and to affirm the indeterminacy of meaning and the incompleteness of understanding, on the other. If Schleiermacher shifts from a lax practice of hermeneutics to a more rigorous method and from written or spoken content to an author’s intentions, rehabilitating tradition and prejudice allows us to rethink the first of these shifts while affirming indeterminacy and incompleteness allows us to rethink the second. We can look at both reconsiderations in turn.

Critique of Method

In Schleiermacher’s view, the need for method arises from the ever-present possibility of misunderstanding. Like Schleiermacher’s predecessors, Gadamer does not deny that misunderstandings sometimes arise. Nevertheless, he thinks the supposition that a methodological approach will allow us to resolve them ignores the place of prejudice and tradition in our understanding. “In relying on its critical method,” he writes, “historical objectivism conceals the fact that historical consciousness is itself situated in the web of historical effects. By means of methodical critique … it preserves its good conscience by failing to recognize the presuppositions … that govern its own understanding”. As he continues, “In this respect, historical objectivism resembles statistics, which are such excellent means of propaganda because they let the ‘facts’ speak and hence simulate an objectivity that in reality depends on the legitimacy of the questions asked.”31 The problem with method, then, is that it pretends to an objectivity that tries to disown the orientations, assumptions, and interests—in short, the prejudices—that already guide it, and it thereby simply allows those prejudices to reign behind one’s back, as it were. To the extent that our reliance on method allows us to refrain from acknowledging our prejudices, we can neither expose nor interrogate them.

In contrast, Gadamer points to the significance of the questions on which the supposed objectivity of method rests, a significance he says we have learned from Plato’s Socrates. Here, he maintains that Socrates’ genius in asking questions stems from his awareness that he does not already know the answer. His questions advance the discussion of a topic because they issue from a genuine desire to know, and this desire comes from knowing that he does not know. For philosophical hermeneutics, what Gadamer calls the “consciousness of effective history” accomplishes the same outcome. This consciousness does not propose a new interpretive or genealogical method that would, for example, attempt to trace out all of the historical influences on its understanding of a particular text, historical event, or action. Such a method would itself be oriented and directed by prejudices developed through the effective history of that which it is trying to understand. Rather, once we are conscious of effective history, we can recognize that all understanding is effected and affected by its participation in a history and tradition. We thereby acknowledge that any understanding we have of a text, action, practice, or the like is partial in two senses. First, it is never the whole “truth” of the text, action, or practice but only a partial understanding to be supplemented, expanded, challenged, and so on as history continues. Second, our understanding is biased in certain ways by the history it inherits. To the extent that we recognize the partiality of our understanding, however, we recognize our Socratic ignorance and give ourselves the chance to ask questions of a text or others, as Socrates does, because we assume that we have something to learn.32 In other words, we open ourselves up to the claims of others and of texts.

What results is a dialogue in which we may not only clarify die Sache but also challenge the previous assumptions we held about it. “A person trying to understand a text is prepared for it to tell him something,”33 Gadamer writes. Indeed, he suggests that the only way we can begin to compensate for our double partiality is to acknowledge it and to engage in ongoing investigations and interrogations in which we sift through archives, listen to the testimonies of others, and engage in conversations with them. By so doing, we discover other ways of understanding that challenge our own and from which we may be able to learn. In this way, our questioning of others and texts glides into their questioning of us.

This conclusion brings us back to Gadamer’s worries about Schleiermacher’s attention to psychological interpretation and about intentionalism in literary interpretation, in general. In Gadamer’s view, an understanding that claims to know an author’s intentions comes at the expense of the mutual questioning through which we illuminate both a subject matter and our own prejudices.

Critique of Intentionalism

When Truth and Method first appeared in 1960, English-speaking intentionalists were appalled. In his 1967 book, Validity in Interpretation, E. D. Hirsch considered Gadamer’s text a version of nihilism, one that denied “the author’s prerogative to be the determinator of textual meaning” and thereby allowed a text to mean “whatever we take it to mean.”34 In the 1980s, Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels were equally dismissive for reasons identical to Hirsch’s. They write, “There is no necessary relation between the meaning the author intends and any one of the meanings the author’s words can have in the language—except the one the author intends.”35 More recently, moderate intentionalists, hypothetical intentionalists, and actual intentionalists have revised and updated intentionalist claims.36 Noel Carroll attempts to do so while trying to allow for the legitimacy of the kind of historical changes in the understanding of texts that Gadamer endorses. His analysis of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island is a case in point.

The novel narrates the experiences of a group of Union prisoners and loyalists who escape from Richmond during the Civil War by means of a hot-air balloon but are blown off course in a tempest and eventually land on a remote Pacific island. Among the group of castaways are the engineer, Cyrus Harding, and his freed slave, Neb, who refused to leave his former master and even traveled to Richmond when he heard his master had been captured by the enemy. According to Carroll, the novel presents Neb as “superstitious, naïve, docile, and childlike.”37 For example, he refers to Harding as “master” throughout the book and becomes close to the monkey that the colonists adopt as a pet. Carroll writes, “The inference from Neb to the idea that Verne is portraying African Americans as docile, naïve, and rather close to the simian origins of the human race seems irresistible.”38 At the same time, Carroll claims that the novel’s meaning is pro-Union and pro-abolitionist. Harding is an abolitionist and the novel exhibits no sympathy for the Confederacy. Indeed, the settlers name their new colony “Lincoln Island”. Consequently, Carroll maintains that Verne did not intend his portrayal of Neb to be a racist one but meant it, rather, as a depiction that could advance the case for treating African Americans humanely. To us in the 21st century, of course, the portrayal seems racist. How, then, Carroll asks, are we to understand The Mysterious Island? Is it racist or antiracist?

Carroll concedes that if the logic of intentionalism in literary theory forces us to understand the novel as a nonracist one, we may be tempted to dismiss intentionalist theory. Linking the novel’s meaning to Verne’s antiracist intentions for it does not allow us to attribute “racist biases” to it, and, as a consequence, we might be tempted to think that an intentionalist interpretation “should be forsaken.”39 Yet Carroll insists that such a move would be too quick. As long as we recognize the difference between intentions and results, what he considers a political interpretation of The Mysterious Island as racist is fully compatible with an intentionalist one that understands it as nonracist. Although Verne may not have intended to depict Neb in a racist way, he did intend to portray him to as naïve, docile, and childlike, and in doing so he produced a result that is undeniably racist.

According to Carroll, “When speaking of intentional activity generally, there is no problem in admitting that in doing something intentionally under one description, one may be also doing something else under another description, even though one is unaware of the applicability of this alternate description.”40 He goes further. Not only is a political conception of Verne’s depiction of Neb as racist compatible with an intentionalist account of the depiction’s meaning as nonracist, but the former also depends upon the latter. For if we are to call the depiction of Neb racist, we have to attribute certain intentions to Verne—that he means for Neb’s actions and, in particular, his behavior to the person he calls “master” to be sincere:

We proceed under the supposition that Verne was not being ironic—that Verne did not intend us to take his writing to signal that Neb in particular is not and that African Americans by extension are not docile, naive, childlike and even somewhat simian. For, of course, had Verne intended irony—had he intended that the character be understood to be not docile and so on—then political criticism of Mysterious Island of the sort attempted above would be inappropriate.41

In other words, in order for the political interpretation to make sense, it must presuppose an intentional interpretation. Verne intended for Neb to be nonironically “docile, naive, childlike and even somewhat simian,” and this intention forms the basis of our contemporary political judgment of the novel as racist.

Nevertheless, suppose we ask what leads us to understand that Verne intended for Neb’s speech and action to be sincere. Surely, here the answer is not a “supposition” or the attribution of certain intentions but the novel itself; there is no evidence in the text from which to infer that Neb’s actions are insincere. He does not say “master” while rolling his eyes or with a drawn-out inflection. To the contrary, he is, for example, inconsolable when he thinks that Harding is dead, and he exclaims “My master, my master” with almost religious devotion when he discovers him alive. Thus, we need not go outside the text to mine its author’s intentions in order to understand its view of Neb. Indeed, we decipher what the author’s intentions are only through the text. Carroll makes the same point. “The text or the artwork itself,” he says, “is a primary source for our hypotheses about what the artists intended in writing or composing.”42

In another article, he denies that authorial intentions are private mental events separate from the works attributed to them. Instead, an intention is a purpose internal to or, as he puts it “manifest” in the work. As he continues:

Searching for authorial intention is … not a matter of going outside the artwork, looking for some independent, private, mental episode or cause that is logically remote from the meaning or value of the work. The intention is evident in the work itself, and, insofar as the intention is identified as the purposive structure of the work, the intention is the focus of our interest in and attention to the artwork.43

Yet as long as intentions are evident in the work, as its purposive structure, why need we talk about intentions at all? Why can we not simply talk of the work? If talk about intentions amounts to nothing more than talk about the purposive structure or meaning of the work, then what is the difference between reading The Mysterious Island intentionalistically and reading it nonintentionalistically?

Carroll suggests that we need to insist on a difference in order to absolve Verne of racism. Carroll’s argument is that the purposive structure of the novel indicates that Neb is not acting ironically but, rather, behaving sincerely in a childlike way; in addition, because the text also supports the Union cause, Verne’s intention in depicting Neb in the way that he does must be to convince whites to treat African Americans humanely. On this analysis, our reaction to the novel’s depiction of Neb as a racist one is an external understanding and even, perhaps, one that illegitimately imposes contemporary values on a text that is possibly antiracist for its own time.

Gadamer actually makes the same point that Carroll does about the difference between intentions and results in his criticism of R. G. Collingwood’s logic of question and answer. For Collingwood, understanding a text or a historical event involves reconstructing the question to which it is an answer, where we necessarily read the question off of the answer. His example is Admiral Lord Nelson’s plan for the Battle of Trafalgar, a plan that, in Collingwood’s view, we can understand only by examining the course of the battle.44 Without appropriate answers or successful actions, we cannot discover what the intent might have been. Yet as Gadamer points out, this interpretive procedure assumes that where a battle is won it seamlessly follows the original—in this case, Nelson’s—plan. However, this assumption holds good only under the ideal and rare conditions when everything goes exactly as we had imagined it would. In ordinary circumstances, our plans and intentions intersect and may be at cross-purposes with those of others so that what actually happens differs from what anyone intended. We intend to turn left, and those in an oncoming car intend to drive straight ahead. As neither of us intended to crash and yet crash we did, it is hard to see how we might read our intentions from the result.

Nevertheless, despite his similar separation of intention and result, Gadamer moves in the opposite direction from Carroll in conceiving what it is we understand when we understand. If we apply Carroll’s intentionalist understanding of texts to actions and events, we will understand those events or actions in terms of agential intentions. We will understand our car crash in terms of our intention to turn left, and the event itself will be an unfortunate but external result, just as the racism of The Mysterious Island is. If we move in a Gadamerian direction, however, we will understand our car crash as a crash, and our intention will be a secondary matter. Verne may have intended to portray Neb sympathetically, as someone deserving to be treated “humanely,” as Carroll writes. By extension, Verne may have wanted us to treat all African Americans humanely. All the same, his portrayal of Neb has an after-history in which it intersects with the long history of the African American fight against a misplaced paternalism and for civil and political rights. It also intersects with struggles for recognition on the part of African Americans and other groups for full inclusion in American institutions and practices, not in spite of but because of who they are. Given these intersections, Verne’s equation of humane treatment with nonracism becomes questionable. Ethical human beings treat animals humanely; they treat their fellow citizens as equals.

Interpretation and Dialogue

From the point of view of philosophical hermeneutics, the most important facet of our engagement with a text such as The Mysterious Island is the way it encourages reflection on issues in which we take an interest: in this case, just what racism is and how it is expressed. In reading The Mysterious Island, we may appreciate Verne’s sympathy for African Americans, but the depiction he gives of Neb nevertheless shocks us in a way that leads us to consider aspects of racism we may not yet have adequately understood. Understanding literature is a dialogic affair. We come to the text with certain orientations and presumptions that we have inherited from the history of which we are a part but of which we may remain unaware. Confronted with Verne’s depiction of Neb, we are pulled up short and forced to ask questions of the text, as well as of our own orientations and presumptions. Is Verne’s depiction of Neb a nonracist one? What does it tell us about kinds of racism? What are the forms in which racism comes?

In insisting that in understanding we understand die Sache, philosophical hermeneutics directs our attention to what we learn in reading literature. Reading is less a reexperience of the genesis of a creative act than an engagement with ideas, questions, and issues that offers the possibility of going beyond ourselves and of recognizing and reflecting on our prejudices. In reading, we converse with a text about matters of common interest. We are confronted with the insights of others, and to the extent that we take them up, ask questions about them, and listen to answers, we can consider their validity for us. In this way, philosophical hermeneutics asks us to take works of literature seriously as claims to truth with which we engage dialogically in a process of clarifying an issue or subject matter for ourselves, a clarification that we hand down to the next generation to do with what it will.

In effect, then, Gadamer reverses Carroll’s claim with which this article began, namely, that only intentionalism in literary theory can link understanding in the realm of art and literature to understanding in other domains of communication.45 While for Carroll it seems natural to interpret words and actions in terms of authorial intention, the opposite turns out more nearly to be the case. Normally, when people speak to us, we try to understand not what they intend but what they are saying. Understanding literature, in the view of philosophical hermeneutics, is no different. We engage with what a text means, with what insights or claims it is asking us to consider, and in doing so we enter into a dialogue with it. Moreover, pace Terry Eagleton, Schleiermacher, and others, this is not a dialogue we can methodologically control. Indeed, its value lies in where it takes us and what we can learn. As Gadamer puts the point:

We say that we “conduct” a conversation, but the more genuine a conversation is, the less its conduct lies within the will of either partner. Thus a genuine conversation is never the one that we wanted to conduct. Rather, it is generally more correct to say that we fall into conversation, or even that we become involved in it. The way one word follows another, with the conversation taking its own twists and reaching its own conclusion, may well be conducted in some way, but the partners conversing are far less the leaders of it than the led. No one knows in advance what will “come out” of a conversation. Understanding or its failure is like an event that happens to us. Thus we can say that something was a good conversation or that it was ill fated. All this shows that a conversation has a spirit of its own, and that the language in which it is conducted bears its own truth within it—i.e., that it allows something to “emerge” which henceforth exists.46

Further Reading

Barthold, Lauren. Gadamer’s Dialectical Hermeneutics. Lanaham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010.Find this resource:

Caputo, John. Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction, and the Hermeneutic Project. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Carroll, Noel. Beyond Aesthetics: Philosophical Essays. Edited by Noel Carroll. Port Chester: Cambridge University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Di Cesare, Donatella. Gadamer: A Philosophical Portrait. Translated by Niall Keane. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Dostal, Robert J., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Foster, Michael N. “Schleiermacher’s Hermeneutics: Some Problems and Solutions.” Harvard Review of Philosophy 13.1 (2005): 100–122.Find this resource:

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Philosophical Hermeneutics. Translated by David E. Linge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.Find this resource:

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Hermeneutics, Ethics and Religion. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Grondin, Jean. Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. San Francisco: Harper, 1962.Find this resource:

Hoy, David. The Critical Circle: Literature, History, and Philosophical Hermeneutics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.Find this resource:

Malpas, Jeff, and Hans-Helmuth Gander. The Routledge Companion to Hermeneutics. New York: Routledge, 2014.Find this resource:

Palmer, Richard, and Diane Michelfelder, eds. Dialogue and Deconstruction. New York: State University of New York Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Ricoeur, Paul. The Conflicts of Interpretation: Essays in Hermeneutics. Translated by Willis Domingo et al. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1974.Find this resource:

Szondi, Peter. Introduction to Literary Hermeneutics. Translated by Martha Woodmansee. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Vilhauer, Monica. Gadamer’s Ethics of Play: Hermeneutics and the Other. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010.Find this resource:

Warnke, Georgia. Gadamer: Hermeneutics, Tradition, and Reason. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Warnke, Georgia. “The Hermeneutic Circle vs. Dialogue.” Review of Metaphysics 65 (September 2011): 91–112.Find this resource:

Warnke, Georgia. “Experiencing Tradition versus Belonging to It: Gadamer’s Dilemma.” Review of Metaphysics 68 (December 2014): 347–369.Find this resource:

Weberman, David. “A New Defense of Gadamer’s Hermeneutics.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 60.1 (2000): 45–65.Find this resource:

Wright, Kathleen, ed. Festivals of Interpretation: Essays on Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Work. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.Find this resource:


(1.) Terry Eagleton, How to Read Literature (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 10.

(2.) Noel Carroll, “Art, Intention, and Conversation,” in Beyond Aesthetics: Philosophical Essays, ed. Noel Carroll (Port Chester, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 157–180, 157.

(3.) The relation between textual meaning and an author’s intention is, of course, a large topic in analytic aesthetics, with formulations and debates over hypothetical intentionalism, moderate intentionalism, moderate actual intentionalism, and the like. See, for example, Donald Davidson, Truth, Language, and History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); William Irwin, Intentionalist Interpretation: A Philosophical Explanation and Defense (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000); Gary Iseminger, “An Intentional Demonstration,” in Intention and Interpretation, ed. Gary Iseminger (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), and “Actual Intentionalism vs. Hypothetical Intentionalism,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 54.4 (1996): 319–326; Michael Krausz, ed., Is There a Single Right Interpretation? (University Park: Penn State University Press); Jerrold Levinson, “Intention and Interpretation in Literature,” in The Pleasures of Aesthetics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), 175–213; Paisley Livingston, Art and Intention: A Philosophical Study (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); and Robert Stecker, “Moderate Actual Intentionalism Defended,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 64.4 (2006): 429–438.

(4.) See F. D. E. Schleiermacher, Hermeneutics and Criticism: And Other Writings, ed. and trans. Andrew Bowie (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

(5.) Ibid., p. 6.

(6.) Ibid., p. 22.

(7.) Ibid., p. 12.

(8.) Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2d rev. ed., trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshal (New York: Continuum, 1989), 186.

(9.) Ibid., p. 187.

(10.) Ibid., p. 185.

(11.) Ibid., p. 185.

(12.) Cited in Gadamer, Truth and Method, 186.

(13.) Gadamer, Truth and Method, 187.

(14.) Ibid., p. 195.

(15.) Ibid., p. 187.

(16.) Michael N. Forster, “Hermeneutics,” in The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy, eds. Brian Leiter and Michael Rosen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 30–74, p. 36.n. 29.

(17.) Ibid., p. 36.

(18.) Kristin Gjesdal, Gadamer and the Legacy of German Idealism (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 168.

(19.) Ibid., p. 161.

(20.) Ibid., p. 167.

(21.) Ibid., p. 168. Forster’s and Gjesdal’s points are debatable. In addressing differences in individual expression, Schleiermacher is arguably talking about grammatical rather than psychological interpretation: “If we objectify the language,” he writes, “then we find that … every individual is only a place where language appears so that in relation to significant writers we direct our attention to their language and see a difference of style in them.” Moreover, in the part of Schleiermacher’s manuscript that introduces the idea of divinatory reconstruction, divinatory replaces the word “prophetic (profestiche),” which Schleiermacher has crossed out. Indeed, as a preparation for divination, Schleiermacher maintains that “one must put oneself in the place of the author.” One does so on the “objective” side “via knowledge of the language as he possessed it” and on the subjective side “in the knowledge of his inner and outer life” (Schleiermacher, Hermeneutics and Criticism, 24). Gadamer concedes that Schleiermacher applies divination first to creative productivity, to poetry as opposed to science, say. Yet because Schleiermacher also thinks that language always expresses individuality, the line between the creative and the noncreative is fluid. Gadamer thus concludes: “The ultimate ground of all understanding must always be a divinatory act of con-geniality” (Gadamer, Truth and Method, 189).

(22.) Gjesdal, Gadamer and the Legacy of German Idealism, 160.

(23.) Gadamer, Truth and Method, 295.

(24.) Schleiermacher, Hermeneutics and Criticism, 28.

(25.) Ibid., p. 11.

(26.) See Hubert Dreyfus, Being in the World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 18.

(27.) Gadamer, Truth and Method, 267.

(28.) Ibid., pp. 278–279.

(29.) In the introduction to their edited book, Presentist Shakespeares (London: Routledge, 2007), Terrence Hawkes and Hugh Grady borrow Gadamer’s point: “We cannot make contact with a past unshaped by our own concerns … By the same token our experience of the ‘present’ is shaped and determined by the past and so to some degree only realizable in and on its terms” (p. 3.) While Hawkes and Grady refer to Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, and Walter Benjamin, rather peculiarly they do not refer to Gadamer.

(30.) Gadamer, Truth and Method, 293.

(31.) Ibid., pp. 300–301.

(32.) Here, Gadamer differs from Hawkes and Grady. They advise “deliberately employing crucial aspects of the present as a trigger for … investigations” and call for “a heightened degree of critical self-awareness and for a committed engagement with the developments in critical and cultural theory that have taken place since the 1980’s” (Presentist Shakespeares, p. 4). Gadamer does not see how we could not be oriented by our own concerns, whether consciously or unconsciously, but he notes that we read texts to find answers to those concerns. A methodical attempt to seek out those concerns in order to trigger answers to the meaning of the text cuts short precisely the learning about our own concerns—and even learning what our concerns are—that hermeneutic understanding facilitates.

(33.) Gadamer, Truth and Method, 268.

(34.) E. D Hirsch, Validity In Interpretation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967), 9.

(35.) Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels, “Against Theory 2: Hermeneutics and Deconstruction,” Critical Inquiry 14.1 (1987): 49–68, 57.

(36.) See note 3.

(37.) Noel Carroll, “Anglo-American Aesthetics and Contemporary Criticism: Intention and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion,” in Beyond Aesthetics, 180–189, 186.

(38.) Ibid., p. 186.

(39.) Ibid., p. 186.

(40.) Ibid., p. 187.

(41.) Ibid., p. 189.

(42.) Ibid., p. 189.

(43.) Carroll, “Art, Intention, and Conversation,” 160.

(44.) R. G. Collingwood, An Autobiography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939), 58.

(45.) See also David Weberman, “Reconciling Gadamer’s Non-intentionalism with Standard Conversational Goals,” The Philosophical Forum 30.4 (1999): 317–328.

(46.) Gadamer, Truth and Method, 385.