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Volume 11, Issue 2: Poetics

Hirsch's Subjectivism

Douglas Jones

A strong doctrine of creation used to keep evangelicals away from such postmodern thoughts as "reality is a human construct," but no longer. We continue to ape trendiness well, such as in the following from some current evangelicals: "We can never get outside our knowledge to check its accuracy against `objective' reality. Our access is always mediated by our own linguistic and conceptual constructions. . . . But not only is reality a human construct, it is more particularly a social construct."1 From this angle, subjectivism has to reign.

Yet how are Christian defenders of the objectivity of meaning supposed to answer such claims? Over the past three decades, as more orthodox evangelicals have searched for a defense of objectivity in hermeneutics, they have often embraced conservative non-Christians such as E.D. Hirsch, famous lately for his Cultural Literacy digest and other defenses of solid, Western values in opposition to postmodern relativism.
But Hirsch presents us with some irony. Though he has many good things to offer, and evangelicals often embrace him as one of "our men" in the fight for objectivity, he also has a darker side which harbors some very subjectivists views. In Validity and Interpretation, we find the good Hirsch, the devout conservative, literary theorist, arguing that if various forms of meaning-relativism were correct, "there could be no objective knowledge about texts. Any statement about textual meaning could be valid only for the moment."2 Hirsch is famous for his unashamed defense of authorial intent, which he summarizes as: "Verbal meaning is whatever someone has willed to convey by a particular sequence of linguistic signs and which can be conveyed (shared) by means of those linguistic signs."3
But how can an author's individual meaning be shared by others? This is the key question, and Hirsch claims to follow Husserl's answer which he summarizes as follows: "Verbal meaning is the sharable content of the speaker's intentional object [i.e., a directed, aimed concept]. Since this meaning is both unchanging and interpersonal, it may be reproduced by the mental acts of different persons."4 An author's meaning can show up identically in other minds, and we can trace our ways to an author's intent by means of language symbols.
His claim becomes clearer if we consider a typical subjectivist's retort. Terry Eagleton argues that Hirsch's position "that literary meaning is absolute and immutable, wholly resistant to historical change" can stand only "because his theory of meaning, like Husserl's, is prelinguistic. Meaning is something which the author wills: it is a ghostly, wordless mental act which is then `fixed' for all time in a particular set of material signs. It is an affair of consciousness rather than words."5
Notice the identification that Eagleton makes between language and thought. Consciousness is always linguistic for him. This is probably the most fundamental assertion that has driven subjectivist hermeneutics over the past century, from Marxists to deconstructionists. And from this powerful assumption, they make the same basic argument: Since thought/meaning is identical to language, and language is historicized and conventional, then meaning is always relative to a person or culture.
At this point, Hirsch is very correct in separating language and thought; he stands within a cogent tradition, a tradition long exposited by many medieval Christian philosophers. One response to such an identification of thoughts and language is first to ask for positive arguments for their universal claim (which they are always shy to give). Second, one can produce counterexamples. For example, reflect on your knowledge of where you sat in your first-grade classroom. You may have an image or not, but where do linguistic symbols, the squiggles that make up-chair-inescapably enter into that knowledge? And if you can think of that example without language, then tens of thousands of other examples can also pop to mind. Language may be common to some people's thought, but it's not essential. It doesn't bar the door to reality.
Though Hirsch stands on good ground with this sort of distinction, he doesn't follow through. His own subjectivism arises when we ask him to explain how it is that prelinguistic "sharable meanings" are actually shared. Husserl, whom he claims to follow, was a refined Platonist (something which Hirsch oddly denies), and so he could easily account for shared meanings via the universals of meaning instantiated in multiple minds. Hirsch wants no part of that. Instead he takes refuge in Kant. It turns out, simplifying greatly, that our minds construct the types or general concepts which make up meaning: "To point out the constitutive character of types is merely to extend a Kantian insight into the realm of ordinary experience. The ultimate categories by which we structure and constitute experience may be reducible to ten or twelve, but in their unreduced variety they are as numerous as the countless types of ideas through which we come to know the particulars of experience. The noumenal world beyond the categories is to us inaccessible."6 In other words, all humans share the same basic mental machine which plies and molds reality for us, as if on an interior screen. Thus we never connect to the real world, but we can supposedly share meanings because our minds all follow the same structure. This Kantian response just takes us back into another prison. Eagleton and the postmodernists leave us trapped inside language, and modernists, like Hirsch, leave us trapped inside concepts. And so, Hirsch ends up using the same language of "constuctivism" that we find in the postmodernists. We need to do better than Hirsch. Go medieval, young man.

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