Reader-Response Hermeneutics

In The Responsibility of Hermeneutics[i], Anthony C. Thiselton, in considering the work of J. Arthur Baird on audience criticism in biblical studies, describes the audience as a “hermeneutical factor of first importance” (Thiselton, 91). Thiselton further explains that “meaning is always potential in terms of the text, but actual in relation to the reader. No meaning is already ‘there’ in some objectivist sense, apart from a horizon of expectations brought to a text by the reader (…) the reader’s response is not to the meaning; it is the meaning” (Thiselton, 94). The use of the term “horizon” here recalls Gadamer’s “fusion of horizons” whereby the interpreter’s perspective mergers with that of the author to elevate understanding to another level. But according to reader-response hermeneutics, the text does not have its own objective meaning; rather, it is the individual reader who assigns meaning to the text based on the questions and expectations prompted by that reader’s particular social and institutional circumstances.  Here we are reminded of Gadamer’s “historically effected consciousness” whereby our history “determines in advance both what seems to us worth inquiring about and what will appear as an object of investigation” (Gadamer, 350).  Similarly, according to reader-response hermeneutics the reader brings to a given text not a completely open mind but rather a certain set of assumptions and interpretive principles which in a sense delimit the realm of possible meanings that the text can have for that reader. That is to say, there are potentially quite a few interpretive possibilities of a given text that are not entertained by a given reader because those possibilities simply don’t qualify as meaning for that particular interpreter. Hence, interpretation involves not the discovery of new interpretive possibilities but the validation of pre-established notions through the rediscovery of these notions within the text.

The interpretive limitations dictated by the interpreter’s intellectual community in reader-response hermeneutics contrast sharply with Ricoeur’s hermeneutic phenomenology whereby “to understand is to understand oneself in front of the text. It is not a question of imposing upon the text our finite capacity for understanding, but of exposing ourselves to the text and receiving from it an enlarged self” (Ricoeur, 84). Whereas the text in Ricoeur’s hermeneutic phenomenology is a point of departure for further intellectual expansion, in the reader-response view interpretation is limited to the mere validation of preconceived notions.

The use of facts or “units of sense” is instrumental to the production of meaning according to reader-response hermeneutics. As Thiselton explains, “units of sense generated by the text ‘do not lie innocently in the world; rather, they are themselves constituted by an interpretive act. The facts are still there but only as a consequence of the interpretive (man-made) model that has called them into being’” (Thiselton, 94). Hayden White quite effectively puts forth a similar idea in Tropics of Discourse:

It is not the case that a fact is one thing and its interpretation another. The fact is presented where and how it is in the discourse in order to sanction the interpretation to which it is meant to contribute. And the interpretation derives its force of plausibility from the order and manner in which the facts are presented in the discourse (White, 107).

Both Thiselton and White seem to be suggesting that objective knowledge is always suspect. However, White exposes a certain complicity between fact and interpretation while maintaining a real distinction between them, whereas Thiselton seems to deny this distinction, suggesting that facts themselves are merely disguised interpretations. For White, facts are more or less objective units that can be strategically included or excluded from discourse to send the reader down a specific interpretive path. For Thiselton, facts are “themselves constituted by an interpretive act;” that is to say, what constitutes a fact is itself a matter of interpretation.

Regarding the interpretation of the Parables of Jesus, Thiselton argues that an action-theory model is needed to

bring into focus the multilevel functions of speech-acts without committing us to the anarchy of radically polyvalent meaning. A speech-act, or series of speech-acts, may be able simultaneously to project narrative-worlds and assert states of affairs and transform the perceptions of readers (Thiselton, 100).

But if we are going to consider the Parables as speech acts, then perhaps we should evaluate to what extent the Parables meet the conditions of validity stipulated in Habermas’ universal pragmatics, the criteria according to which we may assess the communicative competence of the speaker and the communicative successfulness of a speech action. For Habernas,

a successful utterance must satisfy three additional validity claims: it must count as true for the participants insofar as it represents something in the world; it must count as truthful insofar as it expresses something intended by the speaker; and it must count as right insofar as it conforms to socially recognized expectations (Habernas, 28).

Hence, we should evaluate the extent to which the Parables actually represent something in the world, the extent to which Jesus and his disciples are deemed truthful speakers and whether the Parables conform to recognized ethical norms. We must conclude that the religious nature of the Parables is such that the validity conditions of truth, truthfulness, and rightness might be met for Christian audiences but not necessarily for other types of audiences.

Works Cited:

Gadamer, H., & Weinsheimer, J. (2004). Truth and method (2nd, rev. ed.). London: Continuum.

Habermas, J. (1979). Communication and the evolution of society. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lundin, R., & Thiselton, A. (1985). The responsibility of hermeneutics. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans.

Ricoeur, P., & Blamey, K. (2008). From text to action essays in hermeneutics, II. London: Continuum.

White, H. (1978). Tropics of discourse: Essays in cultural criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.


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