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We naturally try to make sense of what other people write, say, and think. But what are the principles governing this activity of interpretation? Is the correct interpretation of an article from the New York Times, of a fictional text like Madame Bovary, or of Shakespeare’s sonnets determined by their respective author’s intentions? Does the reader play an active role in constituting the meaning of these texts? Can conflicting interpretations of the same text be equally valid? Can interpretation ever be gender neutral or free of power dynamics?
We’ll explore answers to these questions proposed by influential theories of meaning and interpretation developed for the most part in 20th century Europe. Our starting point will be Schleiermacher’s suggestion that interpretation is a form of “mental tourism” aimed at the simulation of the author’s original mental states. All the approaches we’ll then consider will be increasingly radical departures from this simple idea. We’ll first look at German Hermeneutics (Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas) and its emphasis on the key role of individual consciousness for questions of meaning and interpretation. We’ll then examine the French deconstructivist tradition (Saussure, Barthes, Derrida, Butler) and its rejection of the idea that we are the masters of the meaning of our words. Finally, we’ll take a look at seminal contributions to the understanding of interpretation in the Anglo-American analytic tradition. We’ll consider whether radical interpretation – the interpretation of the language of a totally foreign culture – is possible, and if so by which methods (Quine, Davidson), and whether there is a robust distinction between fiction and non-fiction (Walton).
Intended learning outcomes
Students who successfully complete this subject will:
- have a broad grasp of a variety of competing theories and understand what would be involved in applying them to a critical reading of texts;
- have a greater awareness of the assumptions that are reinforced or challenged by different reading practices;
- engage critically with existing philosophical conversations and develop the capacity for critical and creative interventions in those discussions;
- demonstrate a high-level of fluency in communication and collaboration skills, including oral and written presentation of arguments and effective work in small and large groups;
- be prepared to engage with the possibility of radical critique of their own presuppostions and commitments.
Last updated: 5 June 2022