More Valuable than You Think: How to Interpret a Text

Over on, I was asked to respond to a question . . .

Why Do Conservatives Dislike the Constitution?

Conservatives don’t dislike the constitution. Most love it. They simply want it to be interpreted properly. This is not a Republican vs. Democrat issue, it is a theory of interpretation issue.

Conservative interpreters believe that the particular words of the constitution need to be understood in terms of authorial intent.

Liberal interpreters believe that the words of the constitution are living and flexible and can be reinterpreted to fit new pragmatic outcomes that are deemed popular at a particular moment in time.

This dialogue from 2016 is very helpful in understanding the difference. It also happens to feature the headliner of the moment Amy Barrett (Hesburg Lecture 2016)

Words have meanings, particular meanings. And it is the “meaners”, i.e. the speakers or writers of those particular words that we need to listen to if we are to have a common basis for understanding language and the content of a conversation. If I use the word pumpkin and I mean the pumpkin, it is unfair of another interpreter to come along and say I meant “apple.”

That was the end of my, but here is an illustration I used to give to my students based on a hypothetical situation.

“Suppose you go for a walk in the woods and you come across a beautiful stream. While crossing the stream you look down and see a mostly flat rock with the following markings on the surface. (I would draw something like the image below on the white board in the classroom.)
“You determine pretty quickly that no person has made the markings. They were made by natural processes of water and rocks flowing over one another and through the centuries, the marks on the rocks look like the tokens used in the English language for particular letters in a particular sequence. (Is everybody with me?) Okay. Here’s my question: what does it mean?”

The students would ponder and wait for one of them to give the first answer, and then others would follow. I would give it a minute or two and eventually one student would say, 

‘I suppose it means that the stream loves its mother.’ (usually said as if it was a question and always with a lot of trepidation.)

Then I would make my point:

“It can’t possibly mean that, not in the world as we know it.
The stream is not sentient. It doesn’t have a mother. Natural forces of wind and erosion are not sentient. They have no ‘will’ or volition. No, the meaning of the markings is precisely nothing. It happened. It exists. It is there. It can be examined. But it has no meaning because to have meaning you have to have a meaner. You have to have someone who creates the markings to intentionally deliver a particular meaning/message. Without meaners (authors) no text can have meaning and the only meaning a text can have is the one that the meaner originally intended. A meaner’s text might have thousands of implications or applications but it can only have one meaning, the meaning of the original author.”

And that men and women is an important principle to remember whether you are “INTERPRETING” an ancient text, a modern text, the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution or any of the 66 books of the Bible.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.