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Posted by on Apr 28, 2014 | 4 comments

Beyond Authorial Intention: What Does a Text “Really” Mean?

This post explores how the philosopher Paul Ricoeur influenced the way we think of interpretation. What follows is a purely philosophical journey: I do not draw any theological implications, but it should hopefully become clear that there are important ones to be drawn.

The 19th Century was when the rise of historical consciousness occurred

Our journey begins in the 19th century with the event called the “rise of historical consciousness.” Previously, when people used to read ancient writings, their attention was on the writing’s content; they assumed that the reader and author of a text were similar enough that communication could happen without too much difficulty.

However, with historical consciousness, people started to notice more and more how differently people thought and spoke in other times and cultures. Because of this difference, they realised it was possible to misunderstand what someone meant while imagining you had understood. For example, the Bible tells us to love God. Our modern definition of “love” usually means how you feel, but in Bible times the word “love” was more of a decision about how to act. If we want to understand the Biblical command properly, we need historical consciousness of the changing definition of the word.

As usually happens when a new idea is born, historical consciousness was initially taken too far. People started to say that a text only “means” what its original author intended it to mean, and the art of interpretation was to get inside the mind of the author as much as possible, to see the world with his or her eyes. In other words, they were no longer taking an interest in the content of what was said.

In the 20th century Paul Ricoeur wrote an important criticism of the authorial intention way of interpreting texts. It wasn’t entirely a criticism – he agreed that authorial intention is an essential part of interpretation and we can’t do without it. But we have missed the point of interpretation if we think that’s all there is to understanding a text. The text talks about something: that is why we’re interpreting it, and it is the ‘something’ we want to learn about, not only the author’s mind. Ricoeur wrote, “discourse has not just one sort of reference but two: it refers to … the world or a world; and it refers equally to its own speaker.”[1] There is both an objective and a subjective side to every sentence: “To mean is what the speaker does. But it is also what the sentence does.”[2] These two aspects of meaning can’t be separated but they can be distinguished.

Also, the text talks about things out there in the real world – e.g. trees, love, meat, family – and the reader’s understanding of them arises from their own life experience, not the author’s. For example, my understanding of a text which talks about meat will be different if I had never eaten meat, or if I eat it every day but have never killed an animal, or if I regularly kill animals for meat. Or, in my previous example, my understanding of love depends on how (and whether) I have experienced love in my life. If I have not experienced love, then no matter how accurately love is described in a text I cannot be said to understand the word. The meaning of the text changes depending on my situation as the reader. Now, it doesn’t totally change because the author’s intention and the external reality (of e.g. meat) also contribute to the meaning of the text. But the reader’s context and experience also play an essential part in what a text means.

Because of all this, Ricoeur suggests that we should no longer put all our effort into discovering the “world behind the text” by which he means all of the author’s influences and life history that form the background to why the text was written. Instead, we should focus on the “world in front of the text” – which is the world produced by the reader paying attention to what the text says. Ricoeur writes:

Not the intention of the author, which is supposed to be hidden behind the text; not the historical situation common to the author and his original readers; not the expectations or feelings of these original readers; not even their understanding of themselves as historical and cultural phenomena. What has to be appropriated is the meaning of the text itself, conceived in a dynamic way as the direction of thought opened up by the text.[3]

The insights of historical consciousness were genuinely helpful. But we should listen to Paul Ricoeur’s encouragement to go beyond just that. We should recover something of the previous way of doing interpretation, where what matters is how the subject matter of the text can transform the way we see the world, enlarging our understanding.


[1] Paul Ricoeur, “Metaphor and the Central Problem of Hermeneutics,” in Hermeneutics: Writings and Lectures (Polity Press, 2013), 49.

[2] Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Texas Christian University Press, 1976), 19.

[3] Ibid., 92.

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Just your average grad student, trying to conquer the world through theological debate, like so many before me. I believe theology can be both profound & easy to understand, academically rigorous & accessible. I contribute to a less academic blog at Everyday Theology.
  • Barney, I appreciate your insights here, but I think that you leave out a major component of Ricœur’s project—that is his respect for the “masters of suspicion.” With their critical tools at hand, the modern mind is all too aware of “false consciousness” as well as “historical consciousness.” In light of this paradigm, I am not sure Ricœur would every suggest—as you claim—that we are able to “recover something of the previous way of doing interpretation.” Once Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud (and Feuerbach) have opened the Pandora’s box of criticism, as it were, one cannot simply shove their critiques back in the crate. This would be naïve in its pejorative sense; rather, what one can do is to be critical of criticism. This, to Ricœur’s eye, is the only way that anyone can let the text truly speak across the centuries, but it will always speak to the reader out of the realm of new possibilities, not simply a rehearsing of the tired verities of yesteryear.

    Without addressing the twin realities of “false consciousness” and “historical consciousness,” your vignette of Ricœur’s thought comes off as traditionalist when, in reality, it is much more concerned with the hope of new possibilities. For Ricœur, one must endeavor a robust critique of religion before one can take up the language of faith afresh.

    • You’re absolutely right, Ryan, and thanks for raising this lacuna in my account.

      There are actually two separate issues here. In regard to the disclosure of new possibilities in the text such that it can never be a “return” to past interpretations, I go on to deal with this extensively in my recent academic essay on Ricoeur, which I’ve made available on here: or on scribd here:

      In short, Ricoeur posits a “hermeneutical arc” of three stages. In the initial stage, one reads naively. The second stage is “distanciation” where one is estranged from the text because of cultural difference. The third stage is one of appropriation, where the text is successfully interpreted into a new cultural situation and its meaning enlarges as a result. No two interpretations are ever identical, because every interpretation contains that second stage and comes into a new cultural context, even if that only comprises the life-experience of an individual. Therefore there can never be any return to the past, but the past can nonetheless be resourced by ever fresh interpretations.

      In regard to the hermeneutic of suspicion and the critique of false consciousness, I’m afraid my paper doesn’t deal with that, although you’re quite right that this is a key aspect of Ricoeur’s hermeneutic philosophy. He is, however, cautious of letting suspicion get out of hand, as he thinks the masters of suspicion did. After coining the term “hermeneutic of suspicion” early in his career, he later abandons it. A book I read by Alison Scott-Baumann called ‘Ricoeur and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion’ quotes him as considering the phrase to be too epistemologically corrosive. He ultimately comes to a belief in a “second naivete” (I imagine you’re referring to this in your comment and aren’t coincidentally using the word ‘naive’) wherein one can return, enlarged in wisdom, to read the text afresh for positive possibilities.

      In my paper I do offer a critique of Ricoeur’s overly open-ended hermeneutic which emphasises the multiplicity of possibilities, and while acknowledging that there are “conflicts of interpretations” doesn’t offer enough help explaining how such conflicts might be resolved so as to keep a community of interpretation intact. In fact, he ends up saying that we “cannot hope” for a full communion of all interpretations of a text.

      • I just finished reading your paper, Barney, and I found it very interesting. I completely agree that what’s missing from Ricœur’s thought is a substantial treatment of ecclesiology. Perhaps his staunchly Protestant upbringing had something to do with it.

        I also share your hope for a single community that would endeavor scriptural interpretation together. Even so, I don’t know how you envision this “closure” occurring. Do all Christians reconstitute themselves as loyal subjects under the bishop of Rome?

        Lastly, thank you for alerting to me the development in Ricœur’s thought regarding suspicion. In my previous comment, I was mainly drawing on two essays that he published in the Union Seminary Quarterly Review in 1973. While I am glad to have my understanding of his thought expanded, I am saddened to learn that he later retrenched on what I deem to be his helpful radicality in the aforementioned essays. It seems to me that in order to interpret scriptural texts in the modern world, you have to take on the corrosive element of criticism without shying away from it. That’s why I have never really warmed to his (apparently later) use of the idea of “second naïveté.”

      • James Holmlund


        You may enjoy Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book on “closure.”

        “Paul Ricoeur has wonderful counsel for people like us. Go ahead, he says, maintain and practice your hermeneutics of suspicion. It is important to do this. Not only important, it is necessary… But then reenter the book, the world, with what he calls ‘a second naivete.’ Look at the world with childlike wonder, ready to be startled into surprised delight by the profuse abundance of truth and beauty and goodness that is spilling out of the skies at every moment. Cultivate a hermeneutics of adoration — see how large, how splendid, how magnificent life is.”