Some Passages from Hirsch on Validity in Interpretation

". . . before the critic construes the poem it is no artifact for him at all, and if he construes it wrongly, he will subsequently be talking about the wrong artifact" (1392).

"Textual meaning is not a naked given like a physical object.  The text is first of all a conventional representation like a musical score, and what the score represents may be construed correctly or incorrectly" (1392).  [N.B.: I make no case for either performance of Chopin's C-minor Nocturne being correct or incorrect, but careful listeners will discern that each pianist performs the text differently within a certain standard range of convention-governed correct performance.]

"The object of interpretation is textual meaning in and for itself and may be called the meaning of the text.  The object of criticism, on the other hand, is that meaning in its bearing on something else (standards of value, present concerns, etc.), and this object may therefore may be called the significance of the text" (1393).

"If textual meaning itself could change, contemporary readers would lack a basis for agreement or disagreement.  No one would bother seriously to discuss such a protean object. [ . . . ] Simply to discuss the issue [of Marvell's usage 'my vegetable love'] is to admit that Marvell's poem probably does not imply the modern connotation, for if we could not separate the sense of 'vegetative' from the notion of an 'erotic cabbage,' we could not talk about the difficulty of making the separation.  [ . . . ] the meaning of a text does not change and  . . . the modern, different connotation of a word like 'vegetable' belongs, if it is to be entertained at all, to the constantly changing significance of a text's meaning." (1394-5).

"Verbal meaning is . . . that aspect of a speaker's 'intention' which, under linguistic intentions, may be shared by others Anything not sharable in this sense does not belong to the verbal intention or verbal meaning." (1397).

" . . . students of literature may unwittingly associate [Husserl's 'intention'] with the intentional fallacy. . . . As used by literary critics the term refers to a purpose which may or may not be realized by a writer.  As used by Husserl the term refers to a process of consciousness.  Thus in the literary usage, which involves problems of rhetoric, it is possible to speak of an unfulfilled intention, while in Husserl's usage such a locution would be meaningless" (n. 12 1397).

" . . . the interpreter has to distinguish what a text implies from what it does not imply; he must give the text its full due, but he must also preserve norms and limits.  For hermeneutic theory [of rules for determining hidden meanings], the problem is to find a principle for judging whether various possible implications should or should not be admitted" (1397).  [That principle is Hirsch's Husserlian "horizon"--see below.]

"Most, if not all meaning experiences or intentions are occasions in which the whole meaning is not explicitly present to consciousness.  But how are we to define the manner in which these unconscious meanings are implicitly present?  In Husserl's analysis, they are present in the form of a 'horizon,' which may be defined as a system of typical expectations and probabilities.  [ . . . ]  The interpreter's aim, then, is to posit the author's horizon and carefully exclude his own accidental associations.  A word like 'vegetable,' for example, had a meaning somewhat different from the horizon it has in contemporary English.  This is the linguistic horizon of the word, and it strictly bounds its possible implications." (1398-9).

"the genre concept is . . . important in textual study.  By classifying the text as belonging to a particular genre, the interpreter automatically posits a general horizon for its meaning.  The genre provides a sense of the whole, a notion of typical meaning components.  Thus, before we interpret a text, we often classify it as casual conversation, lyric poem, military command, scientific prose, occasional verse, novel, epic  . . . " (1399).

"The interpreter's job is to specify the text's horizon as far as he is able, and this means, ultimately, that he must familiarize himself with the typical meanings of the author's mental and experiential world" (1399).

"The horizon which grounds and sanctions inferences about textual meaning is the 'inner horizon' of the text.  It is permanent and self-identical.  Beyond this inner horizon any meaning has an 'outer horizon': that is to say, any meaning has relationships to other meanings; it is always a component in larger realms.  This outer horizon is the domain of criticism"  (1400).

"The critic must first accurately interpret the text.  He need not perform a detailed explication, but he needs to achieve (and validate) that clear and specific sense of the whole meaning which makes detailed explication possible.  [ . . . ]  textual meaning [is] the verbal intention of the author, and this argues implicitly that hermeneutics must stress the reconstruction of the author's aims and attitudes in order to evolve guides and norms for construing the meaning of the text" (1400).

"verbal meaning arises from the 'reciprocal determination' of public linguistic possibilities and subjective [authorial] specifications of those possibilities" (1401, quoting Ernst Cassirer).

"Since verbal (or any other) meaning is a structure of component meanings, interpretation has not done its job when it simply enumerates what the component meanings are.  The interpreter must also determine their probable structure and particularly their structure of emphases.  Relative emphasis is not only crucial to meaning . . . it is also highly restrictive; it excludes alternatives.  [ . . . ]  Ambiguity or, for that matter, vagueness is not the same as indeterminateness.  This is the crux of the issue.  To say that verbal meaning is determinate is not to exclude complexities of meaning but only to insist that a text's meaning is what it is and not a hundred other things.  Taken in this sense, a vague or ambiguous text is just as determinate as a logical proposition; it means what it means and nothing else" (1403).

Hirsch's Tests of Interpretations' Validity:  "To establish a reading as probable it is first necessary to show . . . that it is possible.  This is the criterion of legitimacy: the reading must be permissible within the public norms of the langue [Saussure's term for the language as a historically situated system] in which the text was composed.  The second criterion is that of correspondence: the reading must account for each linguistic component in the text.  Whenever a reading arbitrarily ignores linguistic components or inadequately accounts for them, the reading may be presumed improbable.  The third criterion is that of generic appropriateness: if the text follows the conventions of the scientific essay, for example, it is inappropriate to construe the kind of allusive meaning found in casual conversation.  When these three preliminary criteria have been satisfied, there remains a fourth criterion which gives significance to all the rest, the criterion of plausibility or coherence.  The three preliminary norms usually permit several readings, and this is by definition the case when a text is problematical.  Faced with alternatives, the interpreter chooses the reading which best meets the criterion of coherence" (1406).

"The interpreter's primary task is to reproduce in himself the author's 'logic,' his attitudes, his cultural givens, in short, his world.  . . . the imaginative reconstruction of the speaking subject.  The speaking subject is not, however, identical with the subjectivity to the author as an actual historical person; it corresponds, rather, to a very limited and special aspect of the author's total subjectivity; it is, so to speak, that 'part' of the author which specifies or determines verbal meaning" (1410).

        To establish the author's "horizon," scholars seek specific evidence of how key words were used in the era in which the poem was written, and (in some special cases) by the authors, themselves.  The sources of that evidence are the OED and concordances. Tests.

NC method demo on the Shakespeare sonnet.