The interpretive process

This is the third installment of a series of posts on a cognitive approach to interpretive traditions (Part OnePart Two).

One of the things people do with texts is read them. This is certainly not the only thing people do with texts, nor, I would argue, is it the primary thing people do with texts, but it is one of the more fundamental things, and even when texts are used for other purposes-such as when one saves a cash register receipt in case one might need to return a purchased item-these other actions are carried out with an eye to the possibility, at least, of someone reading the text.

Scholarly approaches to the reading and interpretation of texts tend to fall into one of two broad tendencies. The first is the classic model of literary interpretation wherein the reader uses clues from the text to form ideas about what the text says. This model of reading tends to envision the single reader in isolation with the text and to focus on the features of the text that guide-well, should guide-the reader to the author's intended interpretation. This model tends to be highly normative, and I do not think was ever really intended to be a description of how people actually read.

The reaction to the classical model was a whole variety of reader-response theories that emphasize the active role of the reader in creating meaning. In some of these theories the text is almost entirely incidental. The anthropological versions of these theories have tended to emphasize discourse around texts, and to see reading as just a variety of social interaction. In these theories the text does nothing more than provide an occasion for interpretation, and the structure of the text is seldom discussed at all.

I've never been comfortable with either approach.

I think that much about the reader-response approach is correct, provided that we understand reader-response theory as a psychosocial theory, not a literary theory: it is not a theory of meaning, but an outline of the formation of mental representations and their attributions, at least those involving texts. Anthropological studies examining the discourse around texts can be very helpful. James Bielo's recent Words upon the Word (Bielo, 2009) is an excellent example of an anthropological study that examines the formation of interpretations in small group Bible studies, where the formation of interpretations is partly collaborative and tied to the communities' self-definition.

But there is still something to be said for the classic, formalist model. People do read by themselves. People do use the text to reconstruct an intended meaning. People do not merely read into texts what they have been told it says. The structure of the text does matter for what people think about it. If one observes instances of interpretive discourse, one commonly-though not always-sees reference to the structure of the text.

There are three major problems with historical and literary studies of interpretation, as I see them:

• They assume that every interpretation is the result of interpretive activity. This is not so (Malley, 2004). Some ideas are attributed to a interpretand without ever having been derived from the interpretand. It requires historical investigation to determine how an interpretation was actually formed.

• They assume that the presence of a hermeneutic tradition, a normative tradition about the hermeneutic process that should be applied to the interpretation of a text is a description of what people actually do when they read the text. This is usually a tacit assumption, but it dominates studies of the history of interpretation. It is patently false, as most readers of texts are unschooled in the hermeneutic tradition and pay only selective attention to it when they do know it (Malley, 2004).

• They assume-and thus take for granted-the fact that we cannot predict interpretations on the basis of knowledge of the interpretand. We ought to find this a remarkable fact.

Any empirical approach to the study of interpretation must begin by discarding these assumptions.
We might begin to frame the problem of interpretation by asking whether it is in fact possible to predict interpretations. It seems like there must be some process such that, given the text, we can predict how people will understand it. After all, people do produce interpretations of texts without any input from sources other than the text, and as I write this I feel reasonably confident that I can anticipate how you, the reader, will understand what I am saying. If comments are posted, I will doubtless discover that some of this confidence is misplaced, but not that all of it is.

Stripped to its bare essentials, the problem of interpretive activity is just this: What, given a text, do people do to arrive at an interpretation? We can even express this symbolically, thus:

f (text) → interpretation

Our problem is to figure out f.

The basic conclusions I came to in my ethnography of evangelical Christian Biblicism were the following:

f is a search process rather than an algorithm applied to the text. This conclusion has fared well in the face of more recent work, which shows that many conversations around the text amount to a collaborative search for an interpretive consensus. f has as its goal the establishment of a highly relevant connection. It is not true that Christian readers find in the Bible only what they want it to say, or use it only to reinforce pre-existing beliefs. Their reading is shaped by the expectation that the Biblical text will be highly relevant to them as individuals, but not by any particular notion of what that highly relevant connection will be. f permits the relation f(a) → -a. I observed an interpretive event where a small discussion group started with the text "All things are possible for God" and concluded that "not all things are possible for God." Although the explicitness of this contradiction is striking, the interpretive process that led to it was not different than the interpretive processes that led to other, less remarkable conclusions. I believe that this sort of contradiction in fact happens very often, but is seldom explicitly articulated. In any case, the fact that f permits this relation means that f is probably not itself an explanation of the set of interpretations present in a community, even those that were formed out of interpretive processes.

I hasten to add that these conclusions were formed from a sample of data drawn from a single interpretive community. There is no reason to assume that f is identical from one individual to another, much less from one community to another, and still less from one tradition to another. I regard f as almost completely unspecified despite my best efforts, though I believe that I have circumscribed it in an interesting and productive way.

Whether the interpretive process in other traditions may be similarly circumscribed is an open question. If I may speculate freely, I think we will find, when traditions are examined systematically and empirically, that these conclusions are true of nearly all interpretive traditions. It is possible for these things not to be true of an interpretive tradition, but I believe that any such tradition would incur enormous costs in terms of energy and the restriction of interpretations, and would end up having to be quite elitist in order to maintain itself. The popular tradition, I conjecture, would revert to something analogous to the Biblicist tradition.

What about non-textual interpretands? With non-textual interpretands, there is no possibility of finding f(a) → -a, just because a is not propositional in nature. The other conclusions, however, could still be true of a non-textual interpretand. To return to the example of a martial arts form, typically interpretations take the form of ascribed health benefits or combat applications of the forms. Many of these are more a process of attribution than interpretation, so we will look at them more closely next month, when we consider the role of attributions in interpretive traditions.


Bielo, James S. (2009). Words upon the Word: An ethnography of evangelical group Bible study. New York: New York University Press.

Malley, Brian E. (2004). How the Bible works: An anthropological study of Evangelical Biblicism. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.


  • comment-avatar
    José-Luis Guijarro 8 May 2009 (19:53)

    It is a nuisance when somebody tells us that our expression of ideas which, for us, is totally clear, have not been accurately understood. I have been following your monthly serial with interest, but I am not sure I fully understand this last one –especially the [b]f[/b] of your little formula, although I appreciate the effort you have made to describe its [i]nature[/i] (a search process, rather than an algorithm), its [i]goal[/i] (establish highly relevant connections), and its power to integrate positive/negative propositions. I am totally lost. Could you be so kind to imagine that I am an interested child not over 15, to try and explain to me what you really mean by this and how the formula is supposed to represent interpretation processes? Thanks!

  • comment-avatar
    Carmen Becker 19 May 2009 (18:42)

    Hi Brian, I have read your book and got quite a lot of inspiration from it for my own research on Salafism (a movement/school of thought within islam, usually equated with fundamentalism, literalism and extremism) and internet practices in Germany and the Netherlands. Many Muslims who are inspired by Salafism read, discuss, interpret, “do” something with the sources (Quran and Sunnah) within computer-mediated environments. I am investigating the process of this engagement with the texts in these specific environments (chat rooms, online forums). I have come across some interpretive traditions within these environments and I am further investigating them. I am still thinking about the influence of the medium (forum, chat rooms) on the text and the interpretive process. For example, the texts are digitalized and do not appear as one entity as they do when they appear as books in offline environments. I wonder whether the question of the medium has come up in your research? Thanks a lot for your posts! I am really enjoying them and looking forward to the following posts. Carmen

  • comment-avatar
    Dan Sperber 26 May 2009 (19:01)

    First, a question of clarification. Brian, when you write “It seems like there must be some process such that, given the text, we can predict how people will understand it. After all, people do produce interpretations of texts without any input from sources other than the text” you do not mean to deny – or do you? – that any text is interpreted in the context of background knowledge, and this has many sources. I take you to mean rather – but I would be grateful for confirmation – that people produce interpretations of texts without exegetical comments, hermeneutic theories and so on. Second, a general comment. Scholarly discussions of interpretation, be it that of a religious, a legal or a literary text, and the various approaches that you evoke don’t discuss the lowest but crucial level of interpretation that takes the interpreter from the linguistic input to the author’s meaning, again, in the most basic sense. What is done at this level is resolve linguistic ambiguities, referential indeterminations (and other processes that we discuss in pragmatics). These processes take place at the speed or listening or reading and are typically spontaneous and unconscious. For instance when, in a real verbal exchange, you hear “[i]John greeted Bill. He smiled[/i],” most of the time, the context is such that you spontaneously assign as a referent to the pronoun “he”: John, Bill, or a third person. (When you have doubts and have to reflect about it, communication has not worked satisfactorily.) If you infer from your spontaneous interpretation that the speaker intends you to change your judgment about the character of Bill, you are going now beyond speaker’s meaning and what you are interpreting are her further intentions in conveying her meaning. If in reading a poem, and having spontaneously done the work of disambiguation, reference assignment and so forth you now interpret it in a reflective manner as expressing a deep insight about nature, you are interpreting a ‘meaning’ of the text that is neither its linguistic meaning nor its pragmatic meaning, but a further property that you attribute to it (whether or not you believe it was the poet’s intention that her poem should carry that higher order ‘meaning’). When literary scholars and others say that the author’s intentions do not matter to interpretation, they have higher order interpretation in mind and they are oblivious of or indeeferrent to the fact that the author’s intentions are exactly what matters when, say, you understand “he” as referring to Bill rather than to John, and until you have done this kind of work, there isn’t a text to interpret at a higher level. They are just blind to their own spontaneous interpretive processes. The same is true in anthropology, religious studies and so on. Of course, things become a bit more complex when we talk about texts, religious texts in particular, that get read and discussed again and again. For instance a naïve reader of King James Bible, reading (1 Corinthians 7:36) : “[i]But if any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin, if she pass the flower of her age, and need so require, let him do what he will, he sinneth not: let them marry[/i]” is likely to spontaneously understand “them” to refer to the man and his virgin. Of course “his virgin” is a bit mysterious but ordinary readers often accept a certain dose of obscurity without being bothered by it. Not so, of course, Bible translators. Some understand the virgin to refer to the man’s fiancée, for instance the New Living Translation “[i]But if a man thinks he ought to marry his fiancé because he has trouble controlling his passions and time is passing, it is all right; it is not a sin. Let them marry[/i].” No problem here with the referent of “them”. Other translators have understood the virgin to be the man’s own daughter. For instance, in the American Standard Version, the reader finds: “[i]But if any man thinketh that he behaveth himself unseemly toward his virgin daughter , if she be past the flower of her age, and if need so requireth, let him do what he will; he sinneth not; let them marry[/i].” At that point interpreting “them” to refer to the man and his daughter seem to condone incest, and that is hardly compatible with background knowledge of a believer. The New American Standard Bible resolves the ambiguity in another way: “[i]But if any man thinks that he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin daughter, if she is past her youth, and if it must be so, let him do what he wishes, he does not sin; let her marry[/i].” “Them” becomes “her”. The point of this example (fresh web pseudo-expertise on my part, I hasten to say) is that in the case of texts that are read, re-read, discussed, translated, commented upon, and so on, the normally spontaneous processes of basic interpretation may become collectively revisited in a reflective manner, which is both interesting in itself, but should be seen as a new wrinkle in the overall process rather than as a slow-motion, otherwise normal interpretation.