The second engagement with Merold Westphal's Whose Community? Which Interpretation?: Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church comes from Jim Chapman (see part 1 by Carl Raschke here). Jim Chapman is currently a Th.M. student in historical studies at Duke University, where his thesis will focus upon Augustine’s Confessions. His research interests lie in the application of literary theory to early Christian texts. He hold a Master of Arts in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and a BA in Philosophy from James Madison University. Along with his wife Aaron, they are expecting their first child, Jude Augustine Chapman, in late January of 2010.
I must begin with a brief “thank you” to Eric Lee for the opportunity to contribute to this blog, as well as to Baker Academic for their generosity in furnishing a copy of the book. I first had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Westphal during a two-week course on philosophical hermeneutics in the summer of 2007. Reading this book has recalled many memories, both positive (Westphal’s characteristic wit) and negative (sloshing through Gadamer’s Truth and Method over five summer days in Southern California without the benefit of air conditioning). As Dr. Westphal would point out, books suffer a limitation in their ability to carry the fullness of their author. I can only gesture here to the wonderful personality who now holds the relation of “author” to this particular book.
As a brief recap, chapters one and two of Whose Community? Which Interpretation focus mainly upon the development of hermeneutics from its use in law, theology, and philology to its appropriation as a general theory of interpretation in the romantic hermeneutics of Schleiermacher and Dilthey. The romantic hermeneutical project is set apart by its psychologism (whereby the goal of interpretation is to relive the inner life of the author) and its objectivism (the belief that an interpretation can hold as universally valid).
Understanding the narrative reconstruction, succinctly captured by Westphal, is essential to understanding the framework for modern discussions on hermeneutics. In terms of historical development, subscription to psychologism goes hand-in-hand with a subscription to objectivism. Yet many conservative biblical interpreters and theologians today stake their interpretive claims precisely on their ability to deny the former while holding to the latter. [see Carl Raschke's engagement with chapters 1 & 2 here]
In chapters 3 and 4 of Whose Community? Which Interpretation?, Westphal turns to two recent attempts strike such a balance: Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Divine Discourse and E. D. Hirsch’s Validity of Interpretation. The feature common to both writers is their desire to ground the validity of interpretation in authorial intention. Wolterstorff, through an appropriation of speech-act theory, thinks that objectivity is gained by focusing upon the fact that in scripture God gives commands, assertions, and promises. Hirsch finds objectivism through making the author the sole determiner of meaning. For each writer, the author is seen as the only viable option for grounding objectivity because the realm of the reader is feared as the realm of subjectivity; the purposive author is contrasted with the capriciously interpreting reader.
Westphal alludes that a major problem with each position is its ambiguity precisely with regards to either the crucial concept of author or intention, which I would like to draw out briefly. In speech-act, it seems as though you must invariably know quite a lot about an author/speaker before you can know the stance that author/speaker takes with regards to a speech-act. In other words, knowing the subjective or psychological state that a speaker/author is in seems crucial to knowing the quality of command/assertion/promise that they are making. When my father was angry, I took his commands/assertions/promises to have an entirely different urgency than when I thought him to be joking. Similar problems plague Hirsch’s attempt to allow the author privilege in determining meaning. If only an author can determine the meaning of a text, how can we possibly understand the meaning of the text without recourse to the author’s inner life?
To be fair, Westphal is far kinder to Wolterstorff and Hirsch in this book, remaining quite attentive to what each author is trying to avoid saying (more or less successfully) and often stopping just short of drawing a necessary conclusion from Wolterstorff or Hirsch simply because it is left unstated. The generosity Westphal affords in his reading of others is, indeed, laudable in academic discourse.
My only real criticism of Westphal’s book concerns the correspondence between the way he frames issues (primarily philosophical) and his intended audience (academic, pastoral, and lay theologians). Certainly Westphal cannot be faulted for focusing on philosophy in a book that concerns philosophical hermeneutics, but this is not to say that he could have provided more points of contact between philosophical and theological presuppositions. This seems, to me at least, to be vital given the books general claim that hermeneutical presuppositions often remain naively unexamined in the church.
As a brief example of this criticism, I would like to gesture to a theological problem inherent to claiming objectivity in the interpretive process. In order for objectivity to exist, some part of the interpretive process (someone saying something about something to someone) must be determinate. A theory of authorial intention can only make such a claim through one of two moves. First, it could conceive of either God or the presence of God in scripture as static or bounded. Such a claim would be out of touch with the majority of confessional Christianity. In my own reading of history, the Nicene Creed was born from the theological tradition of Alexandria that was staunch in its refusal to allow the divine being to be circumscribed. Second, a theory of authorial intention could conceive of human intellect as of equal capacity to the divine. If humans could know something as universally valid, such as an objective meaning, they would know it in the same way that God knows it. Yet this seems far from the case: we only know in part, and we only see in part.
I know from personal experience that Dr. Westphal is capable of making these connections and I feel Whose Community? Which Interpretation? might have been a better resource for theologians if it had more self-consciously pointed beyond itself as the argument unfolded. I can only be grateful though for the resource that Dr. Westphal has provided.