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We read all the time: graffiti, text messages, articles in The New York Times, fiction like Harry Potter or Shakespeare’s sonnets, scientific reports, or even philosophy articles. But what exactly is involved in understanding these texts?
“The goal of interpretation is to reconstruct the author’s intentions.” “The reader plays an essential role in determining the meaning of a text.” “The author, literature, the human subject are all dead.” “Texts should be deconstructed, not interpreted.” “Binaries like male/female also need to be deconstructed.” “Everything is a text.”
In this subject we’ll explore the theories of meaning and interpretation which ground these influential and conflicting slogans. 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 concepts of the hermeneutical circle and a fusion of horizons. We’ll examine the French postmodernist tradition (Saussure, Barthes, Derrida, Butler) and the ideas of structuralism, post-structuralism and deconstruction. 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). We’ll also examine whether there is a robust distinction between fiction and non-fiction (Walton). We’ll ask whether fiction helps explain the mechanisms behind propaganda, whether photography is fictional (or whether it affords transparent access to the world), and whether imaginative engagement in fictional games, rather than beauty, is what’s central to art.
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: 22 November 2023