03 – The Meaning of Meaning

Meaning of Meaning.pptThe Meaning of Meaning

According to Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Wonderland had a conversation about meaning.   “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose for it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master, that’s all.”[i]

What is the meaning of meaning?  As Humpty Dumpty said, “The question is which is to be master, that’s all.”  There are widely differing views of the meaning of meaning.  Some say that there are as many meanings as there are interpreters.  Other relativists see meaning as a matter of the interpreter’s preference.  But absolutists contend that there is only one meaning for a statement: the meaning intended by its author.

All communication is designed to convey meaning.  The person receiving communication (receptor) is placed in the role of interpreter.  Interpreters should ask three questions: 1) What did the author say?  2) What did the author mean?  3) What is the significance of what the author said?  You cannot know what a statement means until you know what it says.  And you cannot know how a statement applies until you know what it means.

What is the meaning of “meaning”?  It seems evident that at least most every communication act is an attempt to convey a message with meaning.  Also, when we attempt to understand a communication, we are seeking meaning.  The problem this unit is designed to probe concerns the question of who should have the greatest influence in our determination of what a communication means.  The big question is, ” Should the meaning of a biblical passage be determined by the text, the author of the text, or the reader of the text?

There are three participants in a communication act: the sender, the text, and the recipient.  The sender attempts to make a thought or concept known.  She/he selects words and arranges them into a particular literary form that conveys the message to people in a particular context.  The text is a vehicle for communicating the meaning intended by the author.  The role of the recipient is to seek to understand the meaning intended by the author.  The interpreter of the text should view it in the light of the occasion and purpose of the author.  It is not the receptor’s role to put meaning into the text, but to draw the meaning of the sender out of the text—discover the meaning the author intended to put into the text.  It is not always easy to keep these roles separated and to discover the author’s intended meaning.

There are three main views of the meaning of meaning: 1) text-centered meaning, 2) author-centered meaning, and 3) reader-centered meaning.  Text-centered meaning is simply the dictionary meaning (denotation) of the words put together according to a particular grammatical form without reference to background.  Author-centered meaning is what the author intended to communicate.  This includes the dictionary meaning when she/he wrote and connotations acquired from culture and situation of the writer.  What the author intended is also embedded in the literary context of a statement.  Reader-centered meaning is whatever it means to readers in their various contexts rather than in the contexts of the author and first readers.  This approach includes dictionary meaning at the time of reading and connotations acquired in the culture and situation of the reader.

As Lewis Carroll astutely observed, the issue is really about who is master of the meaning of a statement. If our interpretation is author-centered, the author is master.  If our interpretation is text-centered, the text is master.  If our interpretation is reader-centered, interpreters are master.  If the Bible is the Word of God, then the issue of meaning in biblical interpretation is a question of who is Lord, God or us.  Think about the following.  Is the Bible an object that is to be manipulated by the interpreter as subject?  Or, is the interpreter the object that should be controlled by the Bible as the subject?

According to Kaiser and Silva[ii] the meaning of meaning became more muddled in 1946, when Wimsatt and Beardsley[iii] published an article on “The Intentional Fallacy.”  The following are some observations shared by Walter Kaiser. These views represent the three possible approaches to meaning.  Ricoeur represents the view that text is more dominant in determining the meaning, with input from the reader and his situation, but no input from the author and his situation.  Gadamer represents a theory that the reader primarily controls meaning, not by the intent of the author and not by the text.  E. D. Hirsch represents the view that the writer determines the meaning of the text.  He believed that the meaning of the text could only be discovered by viewing it from the context and intent of the author.

Paul Ricoeur[iv] set forth the view that writing fundamentally alters the nature of communication.  He claimed that a written text is semantically independent of the intention of its author.  This means that the text now means whatever it says, not necessarily what its author meant.  Also, once texts have been written the understanding the original audience had does not determine their meanings.  From now on, each subsequent reader may now read his own situation into the text.  Once a text is written, the sense of what it says is no longer directly related to its referent, what it is about.  The new meaning is freed from its situational limits.  It is not limited by original context.  It is open to a whole new world of meaning.

In 1960, Hans-Georg Gadamer[v] published a book that leads to the conclusion that truth in interpretation is creation of the interpreter. Gadamer represented the view that the ideal of getting back to the author’s intended meaning cannot be realized.  Thus, he felt that the text is indeterminate in meaning because prejudice cannot be avoided. He claimed that the meaning of a text always goes beyond its author and that understanding is not a reproductive activity, but a productive activity.  Interpretation is not a reproductive act, but a productive act.  Interpreters should not seek to reproduce the meaning of the author, but to produce a new meaning.  To him the meaning of a text is neither wholly the result of the interpreter’s perspective nor wholly that of the original historical situation of the text.

It is a fusion of these horizons.  These two meanings are merged into a third alternative meaning.  He held that the past is not fixed and texts change as they are continually being interpreted. Thus, he claimed that meaning couldn’t be simply identified with the author’s intended meaning. Gadamer’s thinking led to changes in science that now agrees that even science must involve interpretation and is necessarily subject to tradition and prejudices.  Thus, even scientific truth is viewed as subjective and relative.

E. D. Hirsch[vi] counters Wimsatt and Beardsley, Ricoeur, and Gadamer.  He argues that the meaning of a literary work is determined by the author’ intention.  He asserts that verbal meaning is whatever the author willed to convey by a particular sequence of words and which he shared by means of linguistic signs.  Firmly he states that the author’s truth intention provides the only genuine discriminating norm for ascertaining valid or true interpretation.  To explain, he distinguished between meaning and significance.  Meaning is that which is represented by the text and what an author meant to say by the linguistic signs represented.  Significance names a relationship between that meaning and a person, concept, situation, etc.—its application.  Meaning cannot change, but significance can and does change.  There is one meaning, but many applications.  The meaning is absolute, but the significance is relative—varies from person to person and situation to situation.

The author of a text and the interpreter are separated by some gaps that are difficult to cross.  The first major gap is a historical gap.  Because of the historical gap, the situations of the author and reader are vastly different.  The problems and questions that evoked the writing of a biblical document may differ greatly from those causing the reader to search the Bible for answers and solutions.  The second major gap is a cultural gap.  Due to the time and geographical distances between the writer and the reader, they will differ greatly in their paradigms or how they think things ought to be.  These cultural differences will involve religious, political, ethical, moral, and family traditions.

These cultural matters cause great differences in mindset between the writer and reader.  The mindset is the interpretive construct or framework that informs our understanding of a communication.  The differences in these mindsets cause the reader’s immediate response or view of meaning to be quite different from that of the writer.  The third major gap is a language gap.  The original language of the writer was very different from that of the modern reader.  Besides this, word meanings in any language vary considerably from period to period, person-to-person, and context-to-context.

We cannot deny that we each have our own history—with its biases and prejudices.  We do interpret what is said or done within our own unique and personal interpretive constructs (mindsets). Because of the personal nature of our interpretive frameworks, meaning tends to be personal and unique.  Many reason that because of gaps between sender (the originator of a communication act) and receptor (the one receiving a communication, the interpreter) authorial intent is beyond the reach of the interpreter.

It is also true that we have varying needs and situations.  Because of these individual needs, the significance of what we hear or read (what it “means” to us) will be personal and unique.  In the light of these facts, many think that meaning must be relative and personal.  If we mingle meaning and significance (or what a text means and how it applies) into one or fuse the two horizons together, relevance to a plurality of situations and needs demands a plurality of meaning (relativity).  However, when we view meaning and significance separately, we realize that one meaning might have many applications and application in varying degrees.  Meaning is what the text meant to them, then, and there.  Significance is what it “means” to us, here, and now—application.

The gaps between writer and reader have caused some to conclude that authorial intent is beyond the reach of interpreters.  The differences in situations and needs of interpreters have caused many to conclude that, to be practical, biblical truth must be relative—vary from individual to individual.  If our immediate understanding when we read a text had to be our final understanding, then the gap problem could not be overcome.  Likewise, if the author’s intended meaning could not exist independent of its significance to us (i.e., application) in our various situations, and the mixture of both horizons were all the meaning there were, then truth would be relative and would vary from person to person.  However, there are other alternatives.

Our problem in understanding is a problem of wrongly informed and uninformed preunderstanding.  Our first impression of meaning when we read is based on our preunderstandings (our preconceptions about word meaning, purpose, etc) that are poorly informed because of communication gaps.  The gaps between the mindsets (interpretive constructs) of interpreter and writer can be bridged through a good method of Bible study.  We can put biblical statements through screens that filter or strain out biases caused by cultural, historical, language, and situational differences.

These screens can correct faulty and uninformed preunderstandings that lead interpreters away from authorial intent.  The interpretive construct of the interpreter can be changed to conform to the interpretive construct of the writer.  Then the interpreter can see the author’s intended meaning.  These screens that remove biases and better inform our interpretive constructs are as follows:  1) Historical Analysis (discovering occasion and purpose of writing); 2) Structural Analysis (discovering the function of a text in the book); 3) textual analysis (discovering what a text actually says); 4) Semantic Analysis (discovering what the writer meant by his words); and 5) grammatical analysis (the ways grammar affects meaning).

Suppose I handed each of you a sheet of white paper and asked you to tell me what color it is.  Further, imagine that you each look at it through tinted glasses.  The paper would appear to be the color with which the glasses through which you are looking is tinted: red, blue, green, yellow, purple, etc.  Your answers would be different because of the difference in your perceptions.  The truth is that the paper would still be white.  The color you each suggested would be your perception, but would not be truth.  If someone’s glasses were not tinted and he/she said the paper was white, this would be truth, but not her/his truth.  We tend to look at the Bible through glasses colored by our twentieth-century culture and situation.  To discover true meaning, we need to take off our twentieth-century glasses and put on first-century glasses.  This we do by laying aside our normal interpretive constructs and getting into the mind of the writer and interpreting from his interpretive construct.  When we view the Bible through our twentieth-century glasses, what we see is our perception, but not necessarily the true meaning.

To overcome the problem created by differences in interpreters and their situations, we must distinguish between meaning and significance.  Meaning is historical, and significance is current.  Meaning is singular (the principle intended by the writer) and significance is the personal application that varies from person to person.  So meaning (truth) is absolute, and significance (application) is relative.  There is one meaning, but there are many applications.  Truth can, therefore, be absolute and universal with applications that are personal, particular, and private.  Meaning is historical.  Meaning is what the author intended to communicate.  Meaning is what it meant to them, then, and there.  Meaning is seeing things from the point of view of the writer and first readers, not from our point of view.  Application to our situation is not meaning; it is significance.

It is the role of the text to serve as a vehicle for conveying meaning from the mind of the author to the mind of the interpreter (i.e., reader).  Ethics in interpretation demands that the interpreters seek to understand the author’s intent rather than to force upon him a meaning he would not own.  It is the role of the interpreter to investigate the occasion and purpose of the writer.  It is also the interpreter’s duty to seek to understand the function of a text within its literary unit—how it relates to other parts and to the whole.  It is also the duty of the interpreter to seek to discover what the words used in a message meant in the context of the author and first readers and what they mean in the literary context of the document.  In all communications, meaning is what the sender intends by what she/he says.  Indeed, meaning in biblical study is what the author of the biblical document under consideration intended by what he wrote.

The problem is that words do not have inherent meaning separate from their context; they mean whatever they have come to symbolize in a particular culture and implications provided by given situations or circumstances.  “Tea Party” has different meanings for preschool girls playing games in an American home and British aristocracy engaging in their social activities.  Words and phrases have meaning relative to what they denote in a specific culture, and what they connote in particular circumstances.  Consequently, statements do not have inherent meaning.  Authoritative meaning is not inherent in words, but meaning is given to words.  The problem is “Who gives words meaning in communication events?”

Words and phrases are used as symbols of various concepts or ideas.  They symbolize people, places, things, actions, processes, being, qualities, etc.  Cultures, situations, and intent contribute what words symbolize.  The problem stated in yet another way, is “Whose culture, situation, and intent gives symbols their meanings?”  This problem is complicated by the fact that words have denotation (dictionary meaning) and connotation (contextual and situational nuances of meaning).  Denotation is usually standardized general or umbrella meanings—semantic field.  Connotation is not standard, but varies as used in particular situations and contexts—semantic context.  So, word meaning varies from one situation to another, from one occasional to another, and from one literary or grammatical connection to another.

In any communication, the speaker or writer makes an effort to convey a concept or message.  Since meaning has its origin with the sender (speaker or writer), it seems obvious speakers and writers give meaning to what they say.  At least, they give the meaning dictated by their own context and situation.  Yes, it is true that the meaning that words symbolize is determined by the society in which we live.  Denotation is standardized, but connotation is not.  Denotation becomes constant within groups, but connotation varies from person to person, situation-to-situation, and literary connection to literary connection.  Although common usage imposes denotation upon words, the speaker (or writer) contributes connotation

Suppose you have a sick friend.  A pharmacist sends you a chemical that he intends to be a cure.  It is medicinal if taken with water.  The label on the bottle says to mix it with water.  However, taken with alcohol, the chemical could also be a poisonous.  You know that taken with water the medicine is very bitter.  So, knowing that wine will make the medicine less bitter, you decide to give the medicine with some mild tasting concord wine.  Could you say that the pharmacist intended the chemical to be used to poison your friend?  Would the meaning of the prescription not be determined by the intent of the pharmacist?

Although the poisonous use of the chemical was possible, so was the medicinal use.  The chemical was intended as medicine.  The wine that was introduced by you changed it.  Taken as intended, the chemical was medicine.  The wine that you introduced changed it to poison.  The poison was your product, not the pharmacist’s.  Likewise, the meaning that results from words or statements depends on whether or not they are taken as the author intended.  If a reader injects them with ideas not intended by the author, that resulting outcome will be the product of the reader, not the true meaning.  When we inject a biblical statement with our own paradigms, situations, questions, and purposes, we produce a new meaning, not the meaning of the author.

Ethics dictates that we treat others fairly, even as we would have others treat us.  I don’t want anyone to make it look like I said something I did not intend.  I don’t want you “putting words into my mouth.”  If I write you a letter, ethics demand that you invest the time and energy to check resources that will reveal my intent.  You should consider the statement in my context, not yours.  First, you should seek to establish the occasion for the statement—the problem or question that caused me to say what I said.  Second, you should see to find out my purpose for saying it.  You then should look at how the statement relates to other parts of my communication and to the main argument—its function in the communication event.  Third, you ought to consider internal clues concerning my usage of the words involved.  If you do not have the time, energy, resources, or inclination to consider these matters, then you should admit that you do not know what I meant.  Ethics demands that we let writers and speakers inject their intended meaning into their words and statements.

Problems with the meaning of meaning go far back in the stream of human thought.  Contributions to this confusion have come from philosophy, theology, and literary criticism.

Philosophy’s contribution goes at least back to Plato.  Although Plato believed in absolute ideas and universals, he claimed that man could not have knowledge.  He can have only opinions that are only a crude representation of the great ideas.  Some of the present confusion is a reaction against Plato’s elitism and lack of interest in individuals.  He held a low opinion of the common people, women, and the individual.  Because of his neglect of the individual and the common people, many have reacted with the focus on the right of the individual and individual freedom.  This includes the right of the individual to have his own private truth.  So, many (e.g., A. N. Whitehead and Witgenstein) decided that exactness is fake; all formulae is dangerous, and all words are vague.  In their reaction to Plato people have opted to turn to the ideas of relativism, that truth is individual, feminism, and that in our search for truth all we can have is biased personal perception.

Rene Descartes (AD 1596-1650) resolved to doubt everything.  However, he concluded that the one thing he could not doubt was his own existence, “I think; therefore, I am.”  This led to a new premise for human thought–man became the fixed  point around which everything else revolved. Jean Jacques Rousseau (AD 1712 – 1778) thought man should follow “the voice of nature.”  He also believed that human passion superseded God and reason in determining truth and conduct. He had a taste for self-expression and liberation from traditional restraints.

David Hume (AD 1711-1776) was committed to epistemological skepticism.  He rejected certain knowledge and claimed that all we know are our perceptions. Immanuel Kant (AD 1724-1804) agreed with Hume’s cautions about human ability to know truth.  He said that as the custard cup gives pudding its shape, so man gives truth its shape.  Thus, the observer (interpreter) gives shape to meaning.  He declared that knowledge is given the shape we have in our interpretive constructs (conceptual categories)—or is shaped by our own experiences.  He held that knowledge begins with our experience, and the shaping and forming of meaning takes place in our minds.

John Stuart Mill (AD 1806 – 1873) advocated self-expression. He believed that only selfexpression and personal interests were important. He advocated exercising the freedom to pursue “our own good in our own way.” Martin Heidegger (AD 1889 – 1976), an existential philosopher, accepted certain continental views that applied philosophy of freedom and individual choice to language and thought. Like Humpty Dumpty, he believed that the individual controlled meaning.

As stated before, these relativistic views of meaning have roots in a reaction against Plato.  As Plato focused on absolutes and universals, he did so at the expense of particulars and individuals.  Platonist philosophy divorced absolutes and universal ideas from the individual.  The individual, especially the common people and women did not count.  The reaction against Plato focuses on the individual and rejects absolutes and universals.  This fosters a feeling that absolutes and relevance to the individual cannot exist together. So people tend to choose relevance and the individual and believe that truth (or meaning) is relative and individual.

Theologians also made a significant contribution to a relativistic and pluralistic view of meaning.  Karl Barth (AD 1886–1968) broke with his theological past and focused on the relevance of the text while ignoring its historical meaning.  His predecessors had become so caught up with the history of the text, its historical setting, and its historical meaning that they had neglected its relevance to their day.  Barth focused on relevance at the expense of authorial intent or historical meaning. His commentary on Romans set a new trend in theology that ignored the historical meaning of the text and focused on relevance.  He jumped context and interpreted the message within the context of the present-day reader rather than the context of the writer and first readers—he ignored historical meaning or authorial intent. This set in motion a dramatic change in the way theologians viewed biblical interpretation.

Rudolph Bultmann (AD 1884 – 1976) was a New Testament scholar with a focus on the history of religion.  He agreed with Barth’s emphasis on the relevance of the text.  Bultmann held that exegesis could not be performed free from presuppositions, noting that everyone comes to the text with a worldview.  Bultmann’s view of history is very significant in this matter.  He held that history is a unity, a closed continuum of causes and effects that cannot be interrupted by supernatural or transcendent powers; therefore, there is no miracle. The problem with Bultmann’s view is that the supernatural events in the Bible are only myths used by the early church to express their faith.  His view was that the Bible is a mere human production that expressed the faith of the time in myths.  Since his existentialism would lead him to focus on the individual and feeling in biblical interpretation.  The logical consequence of this view is that the individual can give this human production whatever meaning he/she wishes.

Literary criticism also made a significant contribution to the present confusion about the meaning of meaning.  The new critics hold that the author and his intended meaning is not important. They view written documents as autonomous in relation to the author.  They rely on the response of the reader for meaning rather than on the author’s intention.  They treat the text as an artifact independent of the author. The “new criticism” claims that the text is autonomous–free from the author. They emphasize that there are three elements to consider in interpretation:  author, text, and reader.

The author’s (and the first reader’s) previous knowledge (preknowledge) becomes involved in interpretation.  It is often difficult to put ourselves in the place of the author, so we tend to place the text in our own situation.  Sometimes the cultural and linguistic distance between the author and the reader makes it difficult to move into the situation of the author.  However, we should always seek to bridge the gap and come to an understanding of what the first readers understood before we make application to our present situation–find the historical meaning before we make application–and not be dogmatic in difficult cases where evidence is skimpy or unclear.

It is true that when we respond to what we read or observe only on the basis of our own pre-knowledge, we draw conclusions based on incomplete or false concepts.  Reader-response interpretations are hampered by the history, biases, and false concepts of the interpreters.  However, a method of Bible study that leads to information that better informs our interpretation can lead to the author’s intended meaning.

The problem is that many new critics see these gaps not as a problem, but as an opportunity for creativity and consider the text as autonomous from the author and his intent.  They use this as an opportunity to assert their personal preferences or grant personal choice as the proper consideration or assert their right to personal choice and claim relativity of truth–make truth a matter of personal choice rather than a matter of authorial intent.

Postmodern thinkers subscribe to an epistemology that supports the “New Criticism” and places the meaning of the text under the control of the interpreter rather than the author.  To the postmodern thinker, truth is not absolute and universal; it is relative and individual.  Truth is not a public (universal) matter, but private–it focuses on the individual and is relative to the individual (subjective).  Truth is not objective, but subjective–not absolute, but relative.  Postmodern thought does not look to the author or the text for meaning, but to the interpreter and the meaning contributed by the interpreter.  Following are some characteristics of their theory of how we come to knowledge and their view of limits to knowing truth.  (1) Truth is not inherent in the text.  (2) Truth emerges from the encounter of text and interpreter.  (3) The meaning of a text depends on the perception of the interpreter.  (4) A text has as many meanings as it has interpreters.  (5) We should give up the search for truth and be content with interpretation.  (6) Truth is not limited to its rational dimensions.  (7) Postmodernism dethrones the intellect as the arbiter of truth –there are other valid paths to truth besides reason:  emotion and intuition.[vii]

© Dr. William T. (Bill) Lambert (1/8/2004)

Professor Emeritus – N. T. Literature and Interpretation

College of Bible and Religion

Harding University

Searcy, AR 72149


[i] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (Philadelphia: Winston, 1923; reprint 1973) p. 213; quoted by Walter Kaiser & Moisés Silva.  An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), p. 27

[ii] Walter Kaiser & Moisés Silva.  An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), pp. 28-31.

[iii] W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy,” Sewanee Review 54 (1946): reprinted in William K. Wimsatt, Jr., The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (New York, Farrar, Straus, 1958), pp. 3-18.

[iv] Paul Ricour, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning, English trans. (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1976).

[v] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method: Elements of Philosophical hermeneutics, English trans. (New York: Seabury, 1975, reprint, Crossroad, 1982).

[vi] E. D. Hirsch, Jr.,  Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967)

[vii] Grenz, Stanley J.  A Primer on Postmodernism. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman Publishing Co. 1996), pp. 1-10.

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