How to Read and Interpret a Text Properly?

By Zhang Longxi

When a text is considered important for a culture and a tradition, e.g., the Bible, the Confucian classics, the Daoist canon or a Buddhist sutra, it becomes a critical issue how to read the text properly and understand it appropriately. In both China and the West, commentators and exegetes have tackled that question for centuries and, not surprisingly, they have come up with some basic and methodologically similar ideas about reading and interpretation. In eighteenth-century China of the Qing dynasty, the so-called “evidential scholarship” developed a philological principle of textual criticism that recognized the simple fact that one must first understand the sense of each word before one may know the meaning of a sentence, and from the accumulation of sentences one may come to understand the import of the entire text. But meaning is always contextual, so one must understand the import of the text as a whole so as to determine the meaning of a sentence, and one must understand the meaning of a sentence so as to determine the sense of a particular word. Reading thus moves forwards from words to sentences and from sentences to the whole text, but simultaneously it also moves backwards from the entire text to sentences and from sentences to individual words.

This to-and-fro movement from parts to the whole and from whole to the parts was called a “philological circle” in the West and developed into a “hermeneutic circle” in the early nineteenth century by the German theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher, who proposed a general hermeneutics on the basis of the long traditions of biblical exegesis and the study of Greek-Roman classics. Just as in the Chinese case, understanding is a hermeneutic circle moving back and forth not only between parts and the whole, but also between text as expression of an author’s intention and the author as a living being at a given place and time. Understanding thus moves in a circle not unlike the ancient symbol of ouroboros or a snake biting its own tail.

If that is the case, then, might not the hermeneutic circle run the risk of being a vicious circle in which reading and understanding work only to confirm one’s prior notions about a text and to legitimize one’s subjectivity? The question becomes more importunate as twentieth-century hermeneutics puts emphasis on the role of the reader and conceives of the reading process as one in which the reader participates in the creation of meaning. Martin Heidegger argues that before one understands, one already has a prior notion or anticipation of what it is to be understood, which he calls the “fore-structure” of understanding. Hans-Georg Gadamer deliberately calls it prejudice (Vorurteil) with which the hermeneutic act begins. The point of the hermeneutic circle, however, is not circularity as such, but precisely the working out of the full meaning of the text by testing one’s prior notions and correcting one’s prejudices against the text and, as Heidegger puts it, “the things themselves” outside the interpreter’s subjectivity. In reading a text, particularly a scriptural or a canonical one, the primary assumption is that the text is coherent and self-consistent, with different parts falling into place to form the whole with no internal contradictions. Textual integrity is thus a necessary condition for proper reading and valid interpretation.

In biblical exegesis, there is a long tradition that puts reading and interpretation on the basis of the literal sense of the Holy Scripture. In his small but essential book, On Christian Doctrine, St. Augustine argues that the Bible contains literal signs and figurative signs; a literal sign is a word used to refer to its designated meaning, like the Latin bos referring to the animal we call “ox,” while a figurative sign is a word used to refer to a metaphorical or symbolic meaning beyond its literal sense, like the word “ox” used to mean “an evangelist, as is signified in the Scripture, according to the interpretation of the Apostle, when it says, ‘Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn.’” Augustine warns the reader not to confuse the literal with the figurative, and he stipulates the following method to determine whether a locution is literal or figurative: “that whatever appears in the divine Word that does not literally pertain to virtuous behavior or to the truth of faith you must take to be figurative.” In other words, figurative signs in the Holy Scripture must be interpreted within the whole context of Christian theology as clearly expressed in the literal sense of the divine Word.

Just as there are literal and figurative signs, the Holy Scripture also contains plain passages with clear meanings and obscure passages that hide their meaning from the vulgar eye, only to be discovered with great pleasure by those who like to seek deeper meaning beyond the plain text. However, Augustine states clearly: “Hardly anything may be found in these obscure places which is not found plainly said elsewhere.” This statement ascertains the preeminence of the plain or literal sense of the scriptural text and maintains textual integrity, thereby setting up the exegetical principle that any interpretation of the Scripture must be based on the literal sense and take into consideration different parts of the scriptural text as a coherent whole.

This exegetical principle was reconfirmed by Thomas Aquinas in his major work, Summa theologica, in which he maintains that all the senses of the Holy Scripture “are founded on one—the literal—from which alone can any argument be drawn, and not from those intended allegorically, as Augustine says,” because “nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward clearly by the Scripture in its literal sense.” This principle was again consolidated at another important moment in the history of Christian theology when Martin Luther claims that the words of the Holy Spirit “can have no more than the one simplest meaning which we call the written one, or the literal meaning of the tongue”; and that “the Holy Scripture,” in Luther’s classic formulation, “is its own interpreter (scriptura sui ipsius interpres).”

Articulated by Augustine and reaffirmed by Aquinas and Luther, the exegetical principle that acknowledges the preeminence of the literal sense and upholds textual integrity proves remarkably relevant and important in the debate about meaning and interpretation in contemporary literary theory. From hermeneutics to reception theory and reader-response criticism, different schools of contemporary literary theory all tend to emphasize the creative role of the reader, while discounting the function of the author. Much of this may be seen as a corrective of the nineteenth-century positivistic bias towards the author as a God-like creator, but radical and often politicized postmodern theories tend to err by going to the other extreme, e. g., when Roland Barthes sensationally proclaimed “the death of the Author,” or when Stanley Fish argued that “the objectivity of the text is an illusion.” Confronted with such solipsistic overstatements, it makes perfect sense to revisit the exegetical principle from Augustine to Aquinas and Luther to defend textual integrity against untenable misreading and misinterpretations.

That is exactly what we find in Umberto Eco’s novel concept of the “intention of the text,” which he proposed to reinstate the preeminence of the literal sense and textual integrity, and to find a balance between the old deterministic concept of the author and the untenable postmodern extremes of an egotistic reader. The idea of the intentio operis, says Eco, is “an old one and comes from Augustine (De doctrina christiana): any interpretation given of a certain portion of a text can be accepted if it is confirmed by, and must be rejected if it is challenged by, another portion of the same text.” That brings us back to the hermeneutic circle and the idea of text as a coherent whole with no internal contradictions, which is an important idea shared by philological and interpretive traditions East and West. In modern hermeneutics and literary theory, while we acknowledge the active role of the reader and the plurality of interpretations, we should also realize that a valid interpretation must be based on adequate understanding of the literal sense of the text, and must consider all relevant factors—the author, the text, and the reader—without privileging one at the expense of the other. Interpretation is an art of persuasion that works best when it achieves a perfect balance of competing claims to hermeneutic significance without partiality or distortion.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “The Hermeneutic Circle, Textual Integrity, and the Validity of Interpretation,” published in Christianity & Literature 68.1 (December 2018), a special issue on Christianity and Chinese literary studies. Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.