“ECOS” Of Meaning: Umberto Eco’s Semiotic Theory For Theological Hermeneutics -- By: Andrew Hollingsworth
“ECOS” Of Meaning: Umberto Eco’s Semiotic Theory For Theological Hermeneutics
B.A., M.A., Th.M.
PhD Senior Resident in Theology
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
New Orleans, Louisiana, United States of America
Abstract: This essay seeks to address the question of “meaning” in theological hermeneutics. Theologians and philosophers from across the spectrum disagree on how the term “meaning” ought to be understood. Some have suggested that “meaning” should be identified solely as the intention(s) of the original author of a text. Others have suggested that “meaning” is solely what the reading community imports into the text. While there is some truth in both sides of this argument, neither side seems to offer adequate understandings of “meaning.” This essay will seek to locate an understanding of “meaning” between the aforementioned theories that will take seriously the intentions of the author as well as the role of the reading community by drawing from the semiotic theory of Umberto Eco. I will provide a case study showing that Paul read Scripture in a way that would not conform to either a strict authorial-intent focused hermeneutic or to a radical reader-response hermeneutic. I show how Eco’s understanding of meaning provides a better explanation of Paul’s hermeneutic approach to Scripture than the aforementioned theories, and that Eco’s theory can provide the Church with a satisfactory way forward in how it reads Scripture theologically.
What is meaning? How does one define “meaning”? Is it identical to the intent of an author? Is it what the reader constructs? Do words have meaning? Do signs have meaning in the same way texts do? What is the relationship of signs to texts? These are some of the questions this essay will seek to address. More specifically, it will seek a clearer definition of “meaning” and how this might prove useful to a theological interpretation of Scripture.
One of the academic fields that shares some overlap with hermeneutics is that of semiotics. Broadly defined, semiotics is the study of signs. One of the major semioticians of the twentieth century is the late Umberto Eco.1 His works have covered multiple topics in the field of semiotics. In these works, Eco provides his own theory of semiotics as well as his understanding of how semiotics relates to literary theory, philosophy of language, and hermeneutics. He is the choice interlocutor of this essay due to his significant contributions to the field of semiotics and their implications for hermeneutics and the question of meaning.
This essay is divided into three sections. The first section provides a brief introduction to the p...
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