Why I Can’t Be a Liberal: Words Have Meaning
Here’s a short story for those who are tired of how the left abuses language and those who think the Constitution died the day liberals first called it a “living” document:
When he was still a young man, my old friend the late Maurice Kelley, then of the English department at Princeton, traveled to London to examine some of John Milton’s manuscripts in person.
Maurice rented a flat near the British museum. But he was so eager to get his hands on Milton’s texts that he went to the museum even before he went to his flat. He found a table, sat down with his things, and requested the documents. When they arrived, one of Maurice’s chief professional goals had been met. Right there in own hands, he had them.
Late in the afternoon, when the museum was about to close, its workers came through the reading room to gently shuffle the patrons outdoors. When Maurice got outside, it was raining. But he could not find his umbrella.
Nor could he find his rented flat. He struggled manfully through his predicament, winding his way disorientedly along several rain-washed and unknown London back streets. He was soaked to the bone and hopelessly lost. He turned a fog-shrouded corner and on an overhead shop sign read these words: “Umbrellas Recovered.”
“Good,” he said to himself, “perhaps this man will help me recover mine.”
A moment’s reflection, however, revealed the error: “Recovered” meant “repaired” or “refurbished,” not “retrieved.” No matter how much he wanted it to mean something else, it just did not. The meaning of the word was up to the shop owner who put it there, not the drenched American pedestrian who read it. The author’s intention, not the reader’s preference or interpretation, ruled all.
“At that moment,” he told me sixty years later, “I stopped being a liberal because I figured out how words work.” The liberals just wouldn’t adjust themselves to verbal reality. They didn’t want to be under anyone else’s interpretive authority. They didn’t want the author dictating the meaning of his or her text to them, even if the word “authority” derives from the word “author.” They rejected the notion that authorial intention was the measure of meaning, even when reality would not let them. So Maurice handed in his liberal reader’s card.
No matter what transpired in the faculty lounge, in reality meaning is the author’s prerogative; accurate interpretation is the reader’s responsibility. The accuracy of the reader’s interpretation is judged by how closely that interpretation approximates the author’s intention. If you aren’t sure about what the author meant, then (in Maurice’s case) all one had to do was look inside the shop window. Was it full of Sherlock Holmes sorts trying to track down lost rain gear or was it full of folks fixing broken ones? That’s the beauty and utility of context.
In cases where we remain unsure of the author’s intention, even after looking carefully at the textual, historical, and linguistic context, then our best option is humbly to admit that we do not know. In that case, we might say, “For reasons 1, 2, and 3, I think the author meant Y,” and then be content for our readers to decide for themselves how compelling our argument really is. But simply because an author’s intention is sometimes not clear, it does not follow that something other than the author’s intention is the meaning. It implies only that we ought to be humble in our conclusions, not that we get to make up the meaning for ourselves.
This is true whether what we read is Scripture, the Constitution, or a love letter from a spouse. The difference between good verbal scholarship and bad is the difference between discovery and invention: Good scholars discover what’s already there; bad scholars just make it up as they go. Paradise Lost, the Constitution, and the Bible all had a meaning long before any modern literary critic was even born. The scholar’s task is to find meaning, not invent it.
Another story about Princeton and interpretation: I was in a debate over meaning there with a feminist professor. She spoke first, explaining why she thought that meaning was the reader’s prerogative, about why a text means what the reader says it means. After about five or ten minutes she sat down. I went to the podium, turned to her and said, “Thank you, Professor So-and-So, for agreeing with me that meaning is the author’s intention.”
“That’s not what I meant!” she exclaimed.
I paused for a moment to let the point sink in.
Then I said it again, “Thank you, Professor So-and-So, for agreeing with me that meaning is the author’s intention.”
She couldn’t defend herself without agreeing with me that indeed meaning was the author’s intention. And if she agreed with me, the debate was over.
I simply did to her words what she wanted to do to the words of Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, Coleridge, and the Founding Fathers — cut them free from their authors and inject them with my own meaning. Toward that professor’s words, I acted the way she acted toward the words of dead, white, European males: I acted as if I did not want to master words but to be the master of others’ words.
She didn’t like it.
By the way, that London shop sign still stands. I’ve seen it.
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