So I have been hammering on the point about texts and their objective referents and how they prima facie exist anterior and prior to the author’s intentions. While I would qualify this later, I would like to press this point by discussing an interesting case study of interpreting the first Nicene Creed of 325.
As we know, the 325 Nicene Creed was the first major pronouncement of the Church against the Arians. However what is of greater interest is that some of its drafters and signers were Arians themselves. This can be seen by a letter by Eusebius of Caesarea to his church, explaining his actions at the council and what he intended and meant by the terms of the creed, and showing how it is compatible with an Arian meaning.
Does the fact that some of the signers and drafters of the Nicene Creed intended an Arian meaning of the terms entail that the Nicene Creed teaches Arianism? Obviously not for two reasons: first and most evidently, Eusebius is not the only party or person at the council, there are other signers and drafters who intended something else by the creed. Second and my key point, the words themselves have an objective referent independently of subjective intentions of the signers and drafters themselves. This is why we pass judgements like Eusebius’s own Arian reading of the creed is implausible because the words objectively are saying something else, no matter what he may have intended by the words when he signed the document. We are allowed to say and judge that what the authors intended by a text isn’t supported by the objective meanings and referents of the text itself.
This case study highlights very strongly I think the point that original intentions behind the text are usually orthogonal to the meaning of the text, especially a collective document like creeds and constitutions which are drafted and signed by a cacophony of contradictory interests, mindsets, and ergo, different intentions concerning what they meant by the documents they signed.
Words already have objective referents and meanings independently of what the author’s intended. If anything, since we are not capable of telepathy, usually the only way we can determine what the authors intended is by looking at the words they use, but in this case then the words must already have an objective referent and meaning *anterior* to their intentions, we determine what the words means then infer what they intended. Thus, it is not intentions which determines the meaning of words, it is objective referents and meaning of words which provide the evidence of what’s on the author’s mind.
While there are many different theories as to how words acquire their referents, and I personally favour some sort of semantic externalism, however by and large most people will accept that words are “public property”, they belong to the public and are social creations which are used by the public at large. As such it has already acquired an objective referent and significance anterior to the subjective intentions of individuals. When we learn a language we don’t just get to project whatever meaning we want unto a text, we learn how other people in that society uses the word and what the word already means out there.
However, since the intuition or conviction that words are correlated with intentions are so strong, I think it would be useful to sketch a theory which would connect the two.
David Lewis in his paper Language and Languages sketches a theory of how words acquire their meaning by social convention. While this seems pretty trivial, the interesting part is his rather sophisticated theory of what a convention is, which appeals to game theoretic considerations. However, we shall skip the maths and focus on the key points, especially that which connects intentions to the objective referent of the words.
People desire, intent, and want to communicate a point, to create a beliefs in another, or get them to do something. In order to accomplish their desires, among many other things, they obviously must communicate. If I want you to close the door, I cannot just by sheer force of mind wish you to close it or use telepathy, since I have no telepathic powers. To get what I want I must use words, I must say, “Close the door!”
However, how do I know which words to use to get what I want, to be able to create beliefs in another or to get them to do what I want? Lewis here explains that here we observe regularities, “observe” here used in both senses of seeing the regularities and following it ourselves. We notice that the production of certain marks and sounds tend to, or “regularly”, create certain beliefs or actions in other people, so if we use the same marks and sounds, we can also create those same beliefs or actions in other people. Some of these regularities obtain by virtue of convention. But what is a convention? To quote Lewis:
Conventions are regularities in action, or in action and belief, which are arbitrary but perpetuate themselves because they serve some sort of common interest. Past conformity breeds future conformity because it gives one a reason to go on conforming.
Thus, people generally have a common interest in achieving communication and achieving their intention to create beliefs in other people, or get them to do what they want. Thus, since we are neither beasts nor gods, we would normally be born into a society which already has prevailing regularities where certain words and marks tend to create certain beliefs and actions in others. We also observe that these regularities are arbitrary, different marks and sounds can be used to create the same beliefs, or the same marks and sounds can be used to refer to different objects. However, because we have an interest to *both* communicate our point, and to maintain these regularities for future communication, we also conform to these regularities and use the prevailing regularities to communicate our point.
Thus from this account we can see how intention features into the meaning of words. By social convention, there are already regularities out there which people conform to, whereby certain marks and sounds are used to create certain specific beliefs or actions or to refer to specific objects. This convention exists anterior to my subjective intentions or desires. However, my desire or intention to refer to something or create belief in another in the same society means that I will have to select words and frame sentences according to the regularities which exist “out there” already in order for me to achieve my objectives or fulfill my intentions.
In this sense, it is easy to see why the conviction that words are “determined by their intentions” is so intuitively held and with such conviction. Obviously people use words and speak in order to get what they want, the words are instruments for them to achieve their intended effect, for them to create beliefs in another person or get the other people to focus on the desired object. However, because conventions and social conformity is so “natural” and we are so thoroughly socialised in language use, like water to a fish, we just don’t notice that we have to use words which already inherently have objective referents and meaning fixed by social convention. We are so thoroughly socialised already, at least by our age, that we simply don’t notice the hidden mechanisms whereby words acquire their meaning in public and the unconscious processes which goes behind our selection and framing of words and sentences. We are normally focused on what *we* want or intend to communicate, we don’t notice that in order for us to achieve what *we want*, we have to use tools and instruments out there in society.
Unless we are writing a book or crafting an argument, a lot of our selection of words is an unconscious process, it just comes to mind, we don’t normally consider how the word might appear to others, how others might react to our words, and what causal effect a word may have out there. We just speak and write, and the process of word selection is completely frictionless.
(I think there might be something to be said for there might be a difference in culture here. The Western individualism may be more focus on their subjective intentions, while East Asians may be more conscious of social significance and how it appears or affects others in society. I remember teaching an English class where we had to analyse a comprehension passage. There was a question which asked something like, “Why did the lion and lioness run into the bushes?” Virtually all my pupils answered something along the lines of, “The bushes were thick and large.” Or something about the bushes ability to hide the lions. But curiously *nobody* answered, “The lion and lioness were frightened and wanted to hide from the hunters.” Everyone in my class was focused on the objective features of the object of the lion’s destination, nobody even thought of the lion’s subjective state. I thought that was rather curious.)
Thus with this in mind, I hope I have done justice to our conviction as to why intentions are so strongly correlated to the meaning of words, and also show, at the same time, why words cannot be prima facie determined by the author’s intentions. It is only because words already have a meaning which is why authors can use them to accomplish their intentions, but the meaning of words has to be determined already anterior to the author’s intentions by social convention. We can construct and design cars, but we can only do so on the basis of the laws of physics which exists anterior to our car designs, we do not recreate or determine everything from scratch.
From here, I can now introduce qualifications to my claims that words are independent of the author’s intentions. First, authors can alter the meaning of words by stipulation. Obviously people can say, “When I use the word “work” here, I am referring to force multiplied by distance moved, not to effort.” However, it is still the case that the word here is determined and redefined by other words, by express stipulation, it is not determined by telepathy. Second, even without express stipulation, if an author habitually uses certain words to refer to certain things, e.g. St Paul uses the “body of Christ” to refer to the Church, we can infer that in other contexts, letters or writing, he is also using the same phrase to refer to the same thing. Obviously the immediate context has priority over regular usage, but if St Paul has used the same marks to communicate the same point successfully in other words, it is likely that he will use the same instrument to make the same point in the instant text. In this sense, “intention” does have a role to play in determining the referent of words, but only in the very extended sense of continuous public use of the words by that one person which everyone else grasps and already knows, it does not mean telepathy once more.
There is a lot more about how analysing words in terms of convention and social regularities can help us understand referent change across time and space, the role of historical studies to determine the referent of terms used in the past, etc. But I think enough has been said to dispel the hold “author’s intentions” have over our hermeneutics.
To end off, I would like to quote a portion from William Witt concerning Newman’s error in thinking that the meaning of the Bible is to engage in necromancy:
Part of Newman’s problem is that he makes the mistake of thinking that the job of interpretation is to discover authorial intent in the sense of getting inside the author’s mind. (This seems to be the point of appealing to a living voice, and reflects the Cartesian turn to the subject. The matter of texts concerns what the author was thinking, not objects referred to in the texts.) But, as noted above, once an author is dead, we have no immediate access to his or her mind.
What we do have are texts. Unless we are going to concede that once an author is dead, his or her meaning is lost forever, we have to affirm that texts, as texts, have an inherent intelligibility, and can be understood in themselves. Moreover, the purpose of texts is not normally to point to the intentions of authors, unless the texts are confessional. Rather, texts are referential. They point beyond themselves to external realities, and it is these external realities to which the text bears witness. So one assesses the intelligibility of a text not by trying to get inside the intentions of its author (whether dead or alive), but by referring to the subject matter to which it bears witness. In the case of Scripture, these referential realities are such things as God’s triune revelation in the history of Israel, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, the presence of the Spirit in the church.Newman’s Incoherence