A Change Of Meaning, Not A Change Of Mind: The Clarification Of A Suspected Defection In The Hermeneutical Theory Of E. D. Hirsch, Jr. -- By: Dale Leschert

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 35:2 (Jun 1992)
Article: A Change Of Meaning, Not A Change Of Mind: The Clarification Of A Suspected Defection In The Hermeneutical Theory Of E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
Author: Dale Leschert


A Change Of Meaning, Not A Change Of Mind:
The Clarification Of A Suspected Defection
In The Hermeneutical Theory Of E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

Dale Leschert*

Two men of varied backgrounds—E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.—have stood out in recent years as champions of the hermeneutical belief that “a text means what its author meant.”1 An author’s most effective defense against the rising tide of subjective interpretation has often proven to be the clear distinction between “meaning” and “significance” that Hirsch enunciated in his first major work:

Meaning is that which is represented by a text; it is what the author meant by his use of a particular sign sequence; it is what the signs represent. Significance, on the other hand, names a relationship between that meaning and a person, or a conception, or a situation, or indeed anything imaginable.2

Kaiser applauds this theoretical distinction between “meaning” and “significance” as the means of saving “us from interpretive anarchy and subjectivistic relativism” which subvert the goal of attaining objective knowledge in interpretation and threaten to destroy the very arena of scholarship itself.3 But he laments what he perceives to be a defection from this crucial distinction in Hirsch’s later book:

Unfortunately, even Hirsch has undermined his own fine analysis of the normative power of the author’s intention as found in the text by allowing the interpreter to frequently usurp the right of the author to say first what he meant to say. Instead of arguing that the “meaning” is always a return to the text as it was meant to be understood by the author, he has most recently enlarged “meaning” to “simply meaning-for-an-interpreter” and comprising “constructions where authorial will is partly or totally disregarded.”4

Hirsch freely acknowledges that he has enlarged his definition of “meaning” to “that which a text is taken to represent.”5 And he has correspondingly adjusted his distinction between “meaning” and “significance” so that

*Dale Leschert, who recently earned a doctoral degree in hermeneutics at Fuller Theological Seminary, lives at 4459 James St., Vancouver, BC, Canada V5V 3H9.

“meaning” becomes “the determinate representation of a text for an interpreter” whereas “ ‘significance’ is meaning-as-related-to-something-else...

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