Ricoeur, Paul. “What Is a Text? Explanation and Understanding” In Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Langauge, Action, and Interpretation. Ed. John B. Thompson. Paris: Cambridge University Press, 1981. 145-164.
Ricoeur’s essay investigates the debate between the two prevailing theories about the reading of texts: one, the scientific and positivist approach, where understanding the text means explanation, and two, the humanistic understanding and interpreation of a text. He starts by first questioning what a text is – the fundamental starting point for the two different attitudes, explanation and interpretation – and what the relationship is between writing and speaking. Ricoeur believes that writing can be discourse directly inscribed, not just a translation of speech into words and symbols. His central argument is that the binary between the camps of explanation and interpretation does not take into account the complex nature of the text itself, and that reading calls for a complementary and reciprocal relationship between explanation and interpretation. Strutural analysis (explanation) is, according to Ricouer, a stage in the process of understanding – it is the bridge between elementary and sophisticated analysis and interpretation. Ricoeur’s new understanding of a text can be depicted as a triangle where all legs are dependent on each other – the text (the object), the sign (the semantic, structural understanding of the text), and the interpretant (the series of interpretations of the text over time.)
“A text is any discourse fixed by writing” (145).
“Whence the conviction that writing is fixed speech, that inscription, whether it be graphics or recording, is inscription of speech – an inscription which, thanks to the subsisting character of the engraving, guarantees the persistence of speech” (146).
“When the text takes the place of speech, something important occurs. In speech, the interlocutors are present not only to one another, but also to the situation, the surroundings and the circumstantial milieu of discourse. It is in relation to this circumstantial milieu that discourse is fully meaningful” (148). This is why langauge is full of signifiers of time and place (adverbs, tenses, pronouns, etc.) With the text, the words become everything. “When the text takes the place of speech, there is no longer a speaker, at least in the sense of an immediate and direct self-designation of the one who speaks in the instance of discourse. This proximity of the speaking subject to his own speech is replaced by a complex relation of the author to the text, a relation which enables us to say that the author is instituted by the text, that he stands in the space of meaning traced and inscribed by writing. The text is the very place where the author appears” (149).
“We can, as readers, remain in the suspense of the text, treating it as a worldless and authorless object; in this case, we explain the text in terms of its internal relations, its structure. On the other hand, we can lift the suspense and fulfil the text in speech, restoring it to living communication; in this case, we interpret the text. These two possibilities both belong to reading, and reading is the dialectic of these two attitudes” (152).
“To read is, on any hypothesis, to conjoin a new discourse to the discourse of the text. THis conjunction of discourses reveals, in the very constitution of the text, an original capactiy for renewal which is its open character. Interpretation is the concrete outcome of conjunction and renewal” (158).
If “we regard strutural analysis as a stage – and a necessary one – between a naive and a critical interpretation, between a surface and a depth interpretation along a unique hermeneutical arc and to integrate the opposed attitudes of explanation and understanding within an overall conception of reading as the recovery of meaning” (159).
“To explain is to bring out the structure, that is, the internal relations of dependence which constitute the statics of the text; to interpret is to follow the path of thought opened up by the text, to place oneself enroute toward the orient of the text” (160).
Ricoeur, Paul. “Metaphor and the Central Problem of Hermeneutics.” In Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Langauge, Action, and Interpretation. Ed. John B. Thompson. Paris: Cambridge University Press, 1981. 165-181.
This essay’s aim is to compare the problem of interpretation to the problem of the metaphor, which is investigated by rhetoric, semantics, and stylistics. In the introduction, the author tackles the question about why there is a problem with the interpretation of texts; he notes two problems are that written texts stand alone without a physical author or speaker and can be taken up in a variety of situations by different readers and that written texts seem to “be opposed to the concept of explanation” because the interpretation is necessarily subjective, which is why hermeneutics is declared to be the opposite of scientific explanation (165). He explains the fundamental difference between the text and the metaphor – the work (boiled down to the sentence) and the word (166) – yet both are locations for discourse. He points out that the metaphor relies on the situation to make meaning, just as the text does. To interpret a text or a metaphor, the reader must make a guess (through a method) to what the author’s meaning is; that guess is influenced by the reader’s situation. Some guesses are more probable than others, as they utilize more textual “clues,” but no interpretation is more truthful than another. Interpreation of both a text and a metaphor opens up a new world of understanding and meaning – it requires the imagination.
“Discourse has not merely one sort of reference but two: it is related to an extralinguistic reality, to the world or a world; and it refers equally to its own speaker, by means of specific procedures which function only in the sentence and hence in discourse – personal pronouns, verbal tenses, demonstratives, etc. In this way, language has both a reference to reality and a self-reference” (168).
“Such is the fundamental feature of explanation which makes metaphor a paradigm for the explanation of a literary work. We construct the meaning of a text in a manner similar to the way in which we make sense of all the terms of a metaphorical statement.
“Why must we ‘construct’ the meaning of a text? First, because it is written: in the asymmetrical relation betwen the text and the reader, one of the partners speaks for both. Bringing a text to language is always something other than hearing someone and listening to his speech. Reading resembles instead the performance of a musical piece regulated by the written notations of the score. For the text is an autonomous space of meaning which is no longer animated by the intention of its author; the autononmy of the text, deprived of this essential support, hands writing over to the sole intepretation of the reader.
“A second reason is that the text is not only something written but is a work, that is, a singlular totlaity. As a totality, the literary work cannot be reduced to a sequence of sentences which are individually intelligible; rather it is an architecture of themes and purposees which can be constructed in several ways. The relation of part to whole is ineluctably circular” (174-175).
Both interpretation of a text and a metaphor are questions of “‘making sense,’ of producing the best overall intelligibility from an apparently discordant diversity” (175).
The purpose of the metaphor – “The function of poetry as the creative imitation of reality…If it is true that the poem creates a world, then it requires a language which preserves and expresses its creative power in specific contexts” (180).
“Why should we draw new meanings from our langauge is we have nothing new to say, no new world to project? The creations of language would be devoid of sense unless they served the general project of letting new worlds emerge by means of poetry” (181).