The interpretand

This is the second installment of a series of posts on a cognitive approach to interpretive traditions. The aim of this series is a general framework for the analysis of interpretive traditions.

When I began to study the use of the Bible at Creekside Baptist Church, I tried to proceed systematically, beginning with very basic questions. The most basic question, I thought, was surely, “What do they mean by the Bible?” After all, one can stroll into any bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan and find a dozen different Bibles on the shelves. Most are just different editions of a few different translations. At Creekside Baptist there were 23 different translations in use, and it was not uncommon that several different translations would be consulted when a difficult passage was under discussion. So people at Creekside Baptist were well aware that translations differed, but had no difficulty calling all of the mainstream Bibles and referring to any of them as the Bible or the word of the Lord. I will not recount here the trail of evidence that I followed, but in the end I concluded that the people of Creekside Baptist thought of the Bible as a text, but as no particular text. (By text I mean an ordered series of words rather than any of the bizarre and frequently incoherent notions sometimes invoked by philosophical and literary theories.) In short, there was no definition of the Bible, but rather a characterization that obviated the need for a definition in almost all contexts. In the case of evangelicalism in an American context, this absence of a definition actually facilitated interpretive discourse by making the Bible or whole sets of alternate readings that could be invoked as relevant.

For the purpose of the present discussion, however, the major point is that the interpretand of this tradition, the Bible, was not a simple object or a particular text, but should be understood as a concept. By this I do not mean merely that Bibles are conceptualized, which of course they are. What I mean is that the interpretand—the thing that interpretations point to by virtue of being interpretations of something—is a concept, with more and less direct connections to material things in the world.

In fact, the interpretand need not actually have the content attributed to it.

Patrizia Burdi (1993) reports on the extensive lore that surrounds the Almanacco Perpetuo by Ruilion Benincasa, believed by many peasants to contain instruction in witchcraft, but which in fact contains nothing of the kind. Similarly, C. J. Fuller (1984) reports that priests in a Hindu temple provide laity with ritual instruction based on memorized texts—but as the priests learn Sanskrit they discover that the texts do not in fact contain the ritual instruction they thought. So the relationship between the interpretand and actual texts can go so far as to be outright contradictory. In my own research on the Bible in British folklore, I found instances where interpretations and even quotations were ascribed to the Bible, despite the complete absence of anything like them in any actual Bible (Malley, 2006).

The conceptual rather than material nature of the interpretand becomes especially clear in cases where the interpretand refers to something other than a text. In the Okinawan style of karate I studied as a teenager, much was made of a simple prearranged sequence of moves (kata, form) called sanchin. The style of karate I studied was brought from the Fujien province in China to Okinawa and ultimately Japan by Uechi Kanbun. The same form was also brought by Chojun Miyagi, who adapted it so that it bears little surface resemblance to the Uechi sanchin. Miyagi’s sanchin was taken up (and adapted) by many forms of Japanese karate. The forms of sanchin currently practiced in many styles of Chinese kung fu look quite different from either Uechi’s or Miyagi’s sanchin—so much so that there is question whether anything other than the name sanchin and lore about its importance has been conserved.

Sanchin is the interpretand of a modest, but continuing, tradition of exposition. But if we ask what is this thing that is the object of exposition, we must regard it as a concept, specifically a script. It will not do to regard sanchin as a performance because it cannot be identified with any particular performance, and if it is identified as a kind of performance, then we are talking about a script in other terms. Although the enactment of the form provides fodder/constraints on interpretation, the object of interpretation itself is not any particular enactment. The interpretand of the sanchin tradition is a concept. Other cases, such as the interpretation of historical events or individual’s lives, also require that the interpretand be analyzed as a concept.

In identifying the interpretand as a concept I do not mean to break all connection between it and the material world. Such complete breaks are possible, but I do not think they are common. In some cases, such as interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, the referent of the interpretand is so perfectly identifiable that it almost makes sense to speak of interpreting the original document. Almost, but not quite, because the way in which it is treated involves a process of textual abstraction from the original text-artifact, and this abstraction is itself a cognitive operation. But there are many cases where the relationship between the interpretand and the material world is not this direct, and I suggest that we will never understand interpretive traditions until we face this fact squarely.

Next month we will examine the hermeneutic process, the process of forming interpretations through interaction with and around the interpretand.



Burdi, Patrizia (1993). The Powerful and Perilous Text: The Symbolism of the 'Book' in a Southern Italian Village. In Jon Davies & Isabel Wollaston (Eds.), Sociology of Sacred Texts (pp. 63-71). Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press.

Fuller, C. J. (1984). Servants of the Goddess: The Priests of a South Indian Temple. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Malley, Brian (2006). The Bible in British folklore. Postscripts, 2(2–3), 241–272.


  • Brian Malley
    Brian Malley 6 April 2009 (17:50)

    Thanks for your comments, Oran. The project I am outlining here is a model of interpretive traditions. The model takes as its focus the cognitive and social structures involved in thinking about and interacting around texts. It is not focused on the text at all: there is no discussion in my post of any of the characteristics of any intepretand, save to show the kinds of conceptual work that must be done for people to interact with these things as they really exist in the material world. I’m not sure why you think the text is central to the model I am developing, save that the model is a model of traditions that focus on texts and other interpretands. Nothing I have said equates the concept with the material object. I said only that they are connected, as manifestly they are, through recognition, classification, and concrete behaviors on material objects. There is a point to metaphors about a text being “dead” or “alive,” but the model I have been working with is so much more specific than these vague metaphors that I do not usually find them productive. It’s a bit like talking about personality in terms of humors: they are okay as quick metaphors, but cannot be used in any kind of serious analysis.

  • Olivier Morin
    Olivier Morin 7 May 2009 (13:32)

    A book I recently read made me appreciate the usefulness of your theory – J.W. Gough’s Fundamental Law in English Constitutional History. As I read it, it is a description of how generations of jurists have argued between themselves over an object that had no real content – the fundamental law of England. I think one might say that the fundamental law of England was an imaginary, or fictive, interpretand – and not only because it did not rest upon any written document. Depending on the judges, the fundamental law of England referred to extremely different, and often incompatible, concepts. For some, it was the spirit of the Magna Carta, if not the Magna Carta itself, for others it was the (putative) ways of the Kingdom before the Norman Conquest, for the more radical it was something very similar to what we today call the rights of man, etc. In spite of these striking disagreement, people went on arguing about the Fundamental Law and trying to interpret it in a sense that suited them (which the undeterminate anture of the fundamental law greatly facilitated, of coure). I think the Fundmamental Law was a genuine interpretand, in that it really constrained many interpretations that could be made of it. Not any interpretation was defensible. For example, one’s point of view typically had to be justified by some form of tradition, biblical or historical, and/or by moral considerations. What do you think ? Would you accept the fundamental law of England as a borderline case of fictive interpretand – an interpretand that did not exist as a coherent, shared concept, but did constrain rich interpretations in the context of a traditional culture ?