The primary sense of what a story means

I teach theology, philosophy, and the classical liberal arts and so run into a lot of questions about what stories or texts mean. The question usually comes with the powerful unthought that we get one meaning per story, and so if we find more than one meaning we either have to decide which one is wrong or which one is derivative. Fo example, we could distinguish meaning for the original author from meaning for us; literal meaning from spiritual meaning, etc.

Like most spontaneous unthought, if you have a problem with it it’s better not to attack it but to refocus it. So if we get one meaning per story with everything else being derivative, then I say the primary sense of “meaning” is whatever the story explains. On this account, stories are more meaningful to the extent that they explain more things, whether intended by the author or not; and the primary goal of explaining great texts is not to decide on one meaning to the exclusion of others but to multiply meanings ad infinitum and even to come to recognize that there are more meanings than any one reading or analysis can uncover. This gets closer to what students tend to be looking for when they ask what texts mean, and to what those who gave rise to the canon had in mind when they composed it of the texts with the richest meaning. Authorial meaning is in some contexts the central or sole concern, but meaning taken simpliciter is whatever the story explains, and in this sense authorial intent is a derivative or partial aspect of what the story means, not the fundamental one.

So, yeah, I’m criticizing a lot of biblical exegesis – certainly any claim that the fundamental meaning of a text is the one the author consciously intended while writing the text. Fundamental meaning is the totality of the story as explanans, and this is only partially known by anyone limited to his own history. More importantly, the historical author might be mistaken in what he tried to explain while still writing a timeless story. Plato’s observation that storytellers often have no idea why their stories work is salient here, and my principled criticism of the idea that meaning is primarily historical is a consequence of just this platonic insight. The meaning of the art coincides with what the art was generated to be, and an indefinitely large part of any great artwork  arises not from conscious but from unconscious principles.

Meaning and authorial intent only coincide in an author whose motives are entirely transparent and in no way subconscious to him, i.e. God. For one who believes that God is the author of scripture, it is entirely correct to say that the text primarily means what the author intended, but we distort this teaching beyond recognition when we think that the same can be said of historically limited authors. So the strong critique of identifying meaning and authorial intent is that, like many of the ideas of modern thought, it tends to impute divine properties to human beings.

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