Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Where is meaning?

In a speech or text, what’s the carrier of meaning? Given Perry Robinson’s simpleminded grasp of meaning, we need to explicate the concept.

1.Authorial meaning

i) Intentional meaning

To some extent, meaning is embedded in the intent of the speaker or writer. Why did he intend to convey by his choice of words?

ii) Implicative meaning

A statement may carry implications which go beyond what the speaker consciously intended or considered. Indeed, an uninspired statement may carry implications which contradict the intentions of the speaker.

iii) In the case of an uninspired speech or text, I don’t think we should include implicative meaning in our definition of what it means.

2.Social meaning

i) A document may be the product of composite authorship. This raises the possibility that it means different things to different contributors. Even contradictory things. In that event, it has a social meaning rather than a singular meaning.

This can occur in creeds. For example, a document like Vatican II tries to finesse a compromise between rival factions in the Catholic church. As such, Vatican II may have conflicting senses which reflect conflicting intentions on the part of its competing contributors.

ii) In the case of an inspired speech or text, the intention of the instrumental speaker or writer instantiates the intention of the divine agent who inspired him.

2.Audiencial meaning

To some extent, meaning is also embedded the intent of the audience. This operates in at least three different ways:

i) An author normally expresses himself through a preexisting language. His choice of words (and syntax) is drawn from a pool of words which the linguistic community supplies.

Words have assigned meanings. Meanings formally or informally assigned by the linguistic community.

It’s possible for a writer to redefine a preexisting word, or coin a new word, but in general he accepts the conventional meaning of the words he uses.

ii) Authorial intention includes an intended audience. Unless he’s deceptive, an author writes to be understood. To that extent, what he means to say is bound up with what his words would or should mean to his audience. He writes with an expectation of what his word will be taken to mean, or should be taken to mean.

So authorial meaning is bound up with audiencial meaning. What he meant his words to mean to his target audience or implied reader.

iii) In addition, a text may be produced by and for a community. Take a law code. It serves a social function.

And the same community which produces the text also reserves the right to redefine its terms. If the sense of a word or phrase is culturally assigned, then it can be culturally reassigned.

Likewise, the same text can be deployed to serve a variety of different social functions. It exists by and for the community.

iv) On a related note, a speaker or writer may appropriate and adapt a statement by a previous speaker or writer to a new and different situation. For example, in Acts 17, Paul quotes two Greek philosophers. And Paul is putting them to a different use than they intended. He isn’t attempting to reproduce their viewpoint or make the same point they were trying to make.

v) In the case of inspiration, the inspired speech or text has autonomous authority. God gave it to and for the community of faith. In that situation, the community doesn’t have the authority to revise it or redefine it. For it is not, ultimately, a product of the community–although some individuals may be instrumental in its production (e.g. prophets).

vi) Apropos (v), in Protestant hermeneutics the relevant audiencial meaning is the intended audience. The historical audience to whom the scripture was originally directed. And that’s the reference point for subsequent Christian generations.

3.Contextual meaning

The context of a statement can affect the meaning of a statement. Suppose a church revises a creed. It may preserve some or most of the original wording, but it may also incorporate new wording which changes the meaning of the original statements in relation to the new wording. It creates a new context for an old statement, and thereby affects the meaning of the old statement.

4.Intertextual meaning

The meaning of a text by one author may be affected by its relation to the text of another author. For example, NT authors frequently interact with OT authors. How an OT text functions in the argument of Romans is not necessarily identical with how it functions in the argument of Isaiah. In that respect it takes on a new meaning in relation to Romans, not in the sense that Paul violates or replaces the original meaning, but only that it has a different role to play in Paul’s rhetorical strategy than it had in Isaiah’s rhetorical strategy.

5.Functional meaning

i) There can be a distinction between what a speaker understands and what he intends. Specifically, there’s a potential difference between what a speaker understands by his statement, and what he intends for his audience to understand by his statement.

For example, a father may tell his son to do something. The father may have an ulterior motive which he doesn’t disclose. He understands that his directive will benefit his son in ways his young son may not yet understand. In some cases, the son may be too young to understand. Or, in other cases, the son might resent the directive if he knew its ultimate purpose–even though it’s for his own good.

God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is a case in point.

In this respect, the meaning of the statement shades into the function of the statement. The purpose to which the speaker put it.

ii) This is also tied to authorial meaning inasmuch as speech or writing frequently has a performative as well as propositional aspect. Commands and warnings are both propositional and performative. They mean something. But they are also designed to motivate a certain type of behavior.


  1. Much, much thanks for this post Steve. It's a good quickie overview course in literary theory.

  2. "Where is meaning?"

    This is a very helpful post and I see applications of it in both the reviews of the movie "Avatar" and in the Manhattan Declaration.

    For example:

    Patrick Chan here: "The movie is meant to be symbolic, allegorical."

    Steve Hays here: "That’s because the film is a set-up. Like any adept propagandist, Cameron is attempting–quite successfully, in Billy’s case–to sway the attitudes and emotions of the audience. ... It’s not a godly attribute to root for a thinly-veiled political allegory which slanders the very men who put their lives on the line to protect us from our mortal enemies. ... The only reason that Cameron has to specify an American force is because the film is a political allegory, ostensibly set in the future, but really about the “war on terror” and other alleged atrocities of US domestic and foreign policy."

    Daniel J. Phillips here: "I had read that Avatar was about pantheism, Gaia-worship, and evil America. I disagree... sort of.


    Is the film anti-military? Well, the soldiers there are ex-military; they are hirelings to the evil corporation. They are not the American Army, nor Navy, nor Air Force, nor Marines. So on the face of it, no. ...

    Therefore, I don't receive Avatar as a sermon about pantheism, Gaia-worship, Hinduism, America, the war on terror, nor eco-fascism.

    Now, I think that may be in the authorial intent. But if so, it failed to reach the screen.


    Briefly, then: Cameron may well have intended a heavy-handed parable preaching the joys of pantheistic Gaia-worship, and the evils of America, George Bush, the war on terror, the military, and capitalism.

    If so, Cameron failed miserably, pathetically, and laughably, because there is no actual connection."

    So by the above we see that there is a spectrum of opinion about the interplay between political allegory, authorial intent, and what Steve calls "audiencial meaning" from the movie "Avatar".

    Now let's do the same thing with the Manhattan Declaration as we just did with the "Avatar" review:

    Daniel J. Phillips here: "BTW, MD mastermind Chuck Colson wrote this:

    "This document [The Manhattan Declaration] is, in fact, a form of catechism for the foundational truths of the faith."

    Which very nicely (if tragically) underscores the point of my post.

    Yeah, Stan; and authorial intent is supposed to matter to us, no?"

    Dr. Niel Nielson here: "Some have pointed to statements from Chuck Colson which reflect his views about the purpose and hoped-for outcome of the Declaration as evidence of how misguided Evangelicals have been in signing. Let me be clear: With as much respect and appreciation for Chuck as I have, I did not – and do not – sign on to his commentaries about the Declaration, nor do I expect him, or anyone else, to sign on to mine. Together we signed the Declaration because of what it states so clearly and well, and I, for one, did so with unswerving conviction about the biblical gospel and the biblical doctrines articulated in the Protestant Reformation."


  3. [cont.]

    Dr. Niel Nielson: "I must add, even given what I have just said, that I dearly wish the gospel references had not been included in the Declaration. They introduce unnecessary ambiguity and provide unnecessary ground for the refusal of many Evangelicals to sign. With a more precisely disciplined focus on the main issues it addresses, the Declaration would have, I believe, garnered far wider support among Evangelicals and enabled this enterprise to have a vastly more far-reaching impact.
    So that’s why I almost didn’t sign The Manhattan Declaration – and why I did."


    So I recently read a very nice post by Rhoblogy titled "The Special Pleading of Sola Ecclesia-ists Claims to Unity" and I got to ponder Rhoblogy's argument that the RCC's are committing the fallacy of special pleading in their objection to Sola Scriptura. Well, it seems to me that Daniel J. Phillips may also be committing the fallacy of special pleading as well when comparing his reviews of Avatar and the Manhattan Declaration vis-a-vis authorial intent and "audiencial meaning."

    So if Dr. Nielson (and other conservative Protestant signers of the Manhattan Declaration) took the same evaluative approach towards the MD as Daniel J. Phillips himself did towards his review of the movie "Avatar" with regards to (failed) authorial intent and "audiencial meaning," then why is Daniel J. Phillips (and other conservative anti-MD Protestants) so bitter and angry towards the conservative Protestants who sign and support the Manhattan Declaration?