Some of the most enduring kinds of cultural traditions have been interpretive in nature. My research has focused on the interaction of cognition and culture surrounding the Christian Bible, but in this series I am explore a broader general model of interpretive traditions. This is the fourth post in the series: interested readers may find the rest of the posts in "Brian's blog."
Recently I have been reading about Shaolin traditions of kungfu, chigung, and meditation, and I have repeatedly encountered the claim that Buddhist meditators centuries ago intuited the structure of the universe as it has been revealed by modern cosmology and quantum mechanics. These sorts of claims are not uncommon in scriptural traditions, and it is easy to find similar Muslim or Christian claims that their scriptures anticipated modern scientific discoveries and technological achievements. Of course, such claims are plausible principally to people who already subscribe to tradition, and outsiders looking at the same text are seldom impressed.
There are a couple of different processes involved in this phenomenon, but the critical one for my present purpose is the attribution of a representation to an interpretand, in this case, a religious text.
As I define it, an interpretation is a mental representation of the form [interpretand] says/means/teaches [interpretive representation]. This relationship says/means/teaches I call attribution, because it involves the attribution of a concept or statement or impression to the interpretand. (My use of interpretation is unusual in that it includes the attribution as part of an interpretation along with the interpretive representation.) In this post I will attempt to circumscribe and, to some degree, characterize the relationship of attribution, and to point out what I think is significant about it.
Once again, my analysis will fall short of a proper definition.
The relationship of attribution is generally semantic in nature. It is bounded on one side by quotation. If I say, “The Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not kill’,” the Bible is the interpretand, says is the attribution, and “Thou shalt not kill” is the interpretive representation. It is surely a bit awkward to classify a direct quotation as an interpretation, but I think there are two reasons to do so. First, the interpretive representation is determined semantically. If the Bible says “Thou shalt not kill” then it is certainly true that the Bible says “Thou shalt not,” but we do not find people quoting semantically empty phrases. This is even true in discussions where semantically empty changes in wording are supposed to be theologically relevant, such as when deviations from the King James Version of the Bible are supposed to be wrong, regardless of whether they are accompanied by changes in meaning (Malley, 2004). Second, and more generally, quotations are guided by considerations of relevance (Sperber & Wilson, 1995). Not only are they selected based on their relevance to a context, but they are a strong way of entextualizing a situation or topic (Silverstein & Urban, 1996). In other words, quotations function in social interactions much the same way as do other interpretive representations. For these reasons I think it is best to consider quotation a form of interpretation, though admittedly a limiting case.
The other extreme—that point where a representation ceases to be interpretive and just stands on its own, without attribution—is more contextually variable. Some factors that play into it are the plausibility of the representation without attribution, the expertise or authority of the attributor, the familiarity of the audience with the interpretand, and the affinity of the audience for the attributor. I would suggest that this point is determined, in most cases, by the attributor’s rhetorical judgment whether the attribution will help his case, by strengthening the interpretive representation, or weaken it, by tying it to an implausible attribution.
In between these extremes the plausibility of the attribution varies. In the case of a quotation, speaker and audience can usually agree whether the quotation is in fact present in the interpretand. One might dispute whether a quotation was taken out of context, but seldom whether it is really a quotation at all. Beyond that the attribution of an interpretive representation to an interpretand becomes less and less plausible, and the responsibility of the speaker for the representation correspondingly greater, until that point is reached where both the interpretive representation and its supposed attribution are both considered opinions of the speaker.
Beyond saying that the relation says/means/teaches is semantic in nature, I am not sure how to define it. I have used the clumsy hash-marked expression to try to suggest a field of meaning that goes beyond any of the individual words alone, but I could have included suggests, implies, presupposes, and other terms without changing the relationship I have in mind. I do not know whether these are all form a unified relationship, or how situationally or socially variable it might be if they do.
One property it has is what I have called transitivity. Transitivity refers to the ability of interpretive representations to be transferred across attributions. For instance, one maintains both of the following interpretations,
(1) The Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill,” and
(2) “Thou shalt not kill” means you should not kill anyone or anything,
then one can also say,
(3) The Bible says you should not kill anyone or anything.
In general, if A says/means/teaches B and B says/means/teaches C then A says/means/teaches C.
Transitivity is the linchpin that makes interpretive traditions work, because it enables the interpretand to be extended far beyond its literal contents. It enables interpretands to be relevant in situations quite different from those for which they were originally intended, and is, I think, the feature that has made possible the historical proliferation of interpretive traditions. Transitivity is also important because it sets the stage for the establishment of authority and expertise in interpretive traditions, the topic we will examine in the next installment.
Malley, Brian E. (2004). How the Bible works: An anthropological study of Evangelical Biblicism. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
Silverstein, Michael, & Urban, Greg (1996). Natural histories of discourse. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sperber, Dan, & Wilson, Deirdre (1995). Relevance: Communication and cognition. Oxford: Blackwell.