Reading Scripture: No Easy Task.2

We in PHIL 2200-Survey of Philosophy, have finally arrived at the module concerning Epistemology–or the study of knowledge. As one of the most bed rock parts of philosophy, this has lead directly to discussions about authority. Though it hasn’t come up in class, my personal correspondence in email with Dr. Ben Grazzini has been especially concerned with how this relates to theology–and further specified, Christian theology. I had Ben for PHIL 3180-Environmental Ethics last semester in which I wrote my term paper “Concerning Christianity and Environmental Ethics.” So given my paper and his feedback, we definitely know where we’re at with respect to each others philosophical/theological background.

Most recently he and I were discussing how the Bible might be authoritative. In the first post I wrote with this title “Reading Scripture,” I brought together the thoughts of Stanley Hauerwas and N.T. Wright. I shared that with Ben, and also these questions:

1.) Does the mere idea that translation of a text like the Bible is possible suggest there is no strong distinction between interpretation and meaning?

2.) Have you done any work pertaining to this quandary in particular? In which ways does your expertise in ancient philosophy speak to this question.(Ben’s expertise and doctoral thesis is in Aristotelian philosophy.)

Ben responded:

“I think the relationships among text, meaning, interpretation and translation are complicated. Especially when we’re separated by significant historical/cultural distance—but probably in any case—I’m inclined to say that there is no uncomplicated or unproblematic original (whether I’m thinking about that as the text = words on a page, or the meaning) that we can clearly and firmly hold apart from various interpretations. 
 
One way in which I have to confront this in ancient philosophy is the fact that with a couple of relatively minor exceptions, the oldest extant texts are medieval manuscripts. For Aristotle, the oldest ones anyone has date to the 9th and 10th centuries. For Plato, they’re a little later than that. So, already I’ve got copies of copies with almost 1500 years between the “original” and the texts we have access to. 
 
Add to that the fact that even if I’m working on the manuscripts, I’m still making decisions about which ones are more authoritative than others, which variants or readings to accept, and where, as an editor, I think emendations/corrections are warranted. If I’m not working with manuscripts myself, the text I read as “the original Greek” is a critical edition produced by someone in the late 19th or early 20th century (in most cases)–and so it seems even more the case that what I’m reading, and what I’m using as evidence for my claims about the meaning of the text, is this historical artifact—something that only exists within a tradition. 
 
Given that, though, it’s just as important to me to hold onto the text as one measure of interpretations. Even though it is not a fully free-standing original, the text still offers something like a common standard against which I can compare and evaluate what people say about it. I think that thought also needs the claim that meaning and interpretation are always underdetermined by words on the page—that is, that it’s never simply the case that we can look to the book and settle some question. 
 
From there, I need to try to hold onto a variety of issues: 
What we can know about historical context, and so what a text might have meant/how it was taken up in a particular period or setting; 
To what extent those contexts overlap enough with our own for them to be relevant; 
How far we can go in translating a set of concepts that may not fit with our own conditions into terms that we can recognize/deal with. 
 
And it’s somewhere around here that I run into a really thorny issue, namely, in what ways or to what extent consciousness/understanding is shaped by the material conditions of our lives. Just as one example, I can at least to a certain extent understand the ancient Greek cosmos: what they recognized as planets and stars; how they understood the relationships and mechanisms; and so on. But I’m not sure I can really understand what it’s like to live in that cosmos—to look at the sky and see the sphere of the fixed stars as the furthest limit of the cosmos. 
 
Similarly, I’m not sure that I know what a concept like “nature” or “virtue” meant for Aristotle. I can understand a lot about how he uses it, where it seems to come from, what sense we can make of it—but I don’t know that it has the same sort of connection to experience for us that it had for him. If concepts don’t depend on that sort of rootedness-in-experience, then this isn’t really an issue.”
Ben seems to be suggesting that the text only exists as a thing within an ongoing web of interpretive practices, and this is almost exactly the way that Hauerwas understands it.(See my previous post “Reading Scripture”) In this way, the text itself has no “original meaning” because that assumes that meaning exists prior to interpretive practices. This is by no means the end of the conversation, but I was fascinated to see the perspective of a philosopher that doesn’t devote much time to Christian considerations weigh in on the matter.