“Si l’existence est le mouvement permanent par lequel l’homme reprend à son compte et assume une certaine situation de fait, aucune de ses pensées ne pourra être tout à fait détachée du contexte historique où il vit et en particulier de sa situation économique.” — Maurice Merleau-Ponty, La phénoménologie de la perception
Recently I heard a phrase about the Bible, said almost in passing, that sounds eminently reasonable stated on its own. To understand the Bible we have to take it “as it is.” This possibly supercilious saying gives me pause. For I think it expresses a deeply-seated human urge to shore up the sensibility of one’s position by means of a partially concealed rhetorical manoeuvre: i.e. that my approach to the topic in question is grounded in reality, whereas my opponent clearly has distorting blinkers on. It is understandable, and I would argue unavoidable, that we frequently characterize something as X so that we can conclusively affirm Y, where Y is some belief or practice that fundamentally informs the way we construe the world, Z. But there are better and worse ways of going about this. In this particular case a historical approach to understanding the Bible was being championed as more realistic than a confessional approach. This is an argument to which I am very sympathetic. The general gist of the point being made was this: if they take a sensitive historical approach to the Bible evangelicals will ideally find new and better ways of reading it, deepening their faith in ways that may also challenge it. And the reason we need historical accuracy, so the logic runs, is because any statement about what the Bible is, as a question of fact, will determine what we think the Bible says, as a question of intent. The antithesis of this kind of reading, at least in the anti-Catholic Protestant imagination of my upbringing, is that the Bible is properly understood only within an authoritative confessional tradition.
For many evangelicals the Bible is straightforwardly the word of God. And given what we know about God, the evangelical continues, certain things must follow—such as the text’s inerrancy, say—if we’re to properly read and understand the Bible. By contrast, for many scholars in the secular academy—whether in ancient history, religious studies, or even theology—the Bible is regarded as a community’s edited collection of ancient writings, formed over centuries. And given what we know about human nature and history, this secular-critical reading continues, certain things must follow—such as skepticism about miracles, say—for how we read and understand the biblical text. With pardonable simplification, in both cases to take the Bible “as it is” means making a descriptive statement about the Bible as an object. An underlying assumption of both approaches is that the truth of the matter can be determined solely by an objective assessment of the relevant facts. But is this right? Does it give us the full picture of what really goes on when we make deliberative judgments of importance?
First, let’s consider again the question of what the Bible is. To take the Bible “as it is,” in the sense I’ve been assuming so far, is to take the Bible as a historical-literary object. And so the Bible is a textual document of some particular kind. In terms of my basic division, evangelicals think this textual document discloses a divine revelation, while secular academics think it discloses a history. How could we adjudicate between these potentially competing views? (It should be stated that these two perspectives don’t necessarily rule each other out.) By calling these two approaches to the Bible “objective” I’m trying to indicate, albeit quite simplistically, the general stance taken by two communities of reader-practitioners. One reads by faith, the other by suspicion, and both assume a subject-object relationship.
Any text, including the Bible, can be studied instrumentally, in quasi-scientific terms. By considering the objective characteristics of a text, such as its grammar, many insights can be obtained. The science of linguistics, and even of statistics, has been applied to texts, and we have learned much that is of value in so doing. (Cheers, de Saussure!) Greater descriptions enable better interpretations, they expand and enrich the possible articulations that can be attempted in efforts to explain and enjoy a text. But an objective set of descriptive statements about the structure of a text, including the architecture of its language, does not fully disclose what a text is. (Santé, Greimas!) Understanding based on reading is not the same thing as explanation based on description. The act of reading bridges the dynamic lifeworld of the text and that of the reader together. And that’s because any text, including the Bible, exists for human beings not only as an object in space obeying certain laws and norms, but as a possible source of motivation. Reading a text brings it into the frame of our evaluative, qualitative, contrastive world. As I see it, what it means to take the Bible “as it is” will depend on the world in which you “dwell.” (Prost, Heidegger!)
At this point, having invoked the names of several very prominent thinkers, I should probably introduce the relevant philosophical divide I’m setting up, abridged drastically for the sake of the point I’m hoping to make. There are those among us (including such luminaries as Steven Pinker, for instance) who think that our best account of what it means to be human derives from science. That is, in order to understand and explain human experience, both individually and socially, we should study human beings as objects obeying the laws of nature which govern the complex mechanistic motion of matter. (I will leave the is-ought of this argument to one side.) On this view the natural universe is evacuated of all meaning, in the sense that nature has no telos or end. Of course it goes without saying that much has been achieved by approaching human beings scientifically. No one could rightly deny the important advances in medicine made over the past century, for example. But there remains an important difference between those who think that something approaching a full explanation of humanity could be attained through the lens of science (such as the philosopher Daniel Dennett), and those who think that this lens will only ever give us a partial, typically reductionist picture (such as the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer). Indeed, partisans of the latter view would go much further. They would argue that the scientific view of human nature, if taken as absolute, distorts our real existential situation because it is not, as it purports to be, ontologically neutral. Far from it.
The philosophical question at stake here is simply put but has enormous consequences: is it possible to make sense of human behavior without reference to the qualitative, evaluative, contrastive dimension of human existence? A related question, relevant to what it means to take the Bible “as it is,” would be whether or not it is possible to understand a text fully without grasping the role of the ethical frame in constituting our humanity? (And no, I’m not going to get into the fascinating, important, and often labyrinthine debates among literary scholars here.) My way of stating this question may make it seem as if there is a large group of people out there hoping to translate texts like the Bible into the computational binary of ones and zeros. That’s not what I’m getting at. I have in mind those who think objectivity is not simply possible, but an exhaustive and sufficient imperative, on the understanding of objectivity as the correct apprehension of an external reality whose true nature simply requires us to disentangle it from our mental representations.
What’s wrong with this picture? First, I’d say that the objective picture isn’t wrong so much as misguided when applied in certain ways, though the extension of its methodology to new domains, such as the economy, has frequently been mendacious. Second, the contrary view, for which I’m arguing here, entails the assertion that to be human is to be a kind of creature that necessarily employs evaluative terms such as good and bad, a creature that organizes and recognizes emotions, actions, and lives according to some sort of purposive moral order. Which of the two views makes better sense of human experience? And which view therefore accounts for the place of texts in our lives?
Let’s call the view that holds that a qualitative, evaluative, contrastive dimension is essential to human existence the “interpretive” view. Let’s call the rival, scientific view “objective.” If the interpretive perspective is superior to the objective account then the question of taking the Bible “as it is” cannot be answered in neutral, descriptive, explanatory terms alone. Inevitably, it will be a matter of interpretation. And interpretations, because they are evaluative and qualitative, are measured according to how they “fit.” By using the term “fit” here I’m also underlining the fact that interpretations are inescapably contested. While it’s possible to aim at an interpretation that “fits” best, it is very unlikely that, over time, any one interpretation will hold unaltered sway forever. Changing circumstances, experiences, and so on—new situations—change the way interpretations “fit.” Indeed the very appropriateness of a given interpretation may lead us to see a particular situation in a new way, in the process altering that very situation. A better interpretation can change the world, but it will never be the last word.
Consider one of the important contrasts between the interpretive and objective views. What the objective perspective attempts to provide is an account that will be free from interpretation, or whose interpretation will be neutral and dispassionate, offering concision and clarity by banishing murky metaphysics to the dustbin of linguistic and logical nonsense. As soon as we notice that the objective perspective actually appeals to us based on an implicit moral framework—i.e. an instrumental concision and clarity that offers us disengaged power over nature and society—we grasp that it is not as neutral as it purports to be. Which, I hasten to repeat, is not to say that the objective perspective is simply wrong. The place and purpose of the natural sciences in our lives is now beyond question. The better question to ask is whether or not scientific objectivity should be “ontologized.” In other words, can the scientific method yield full and exhaustive explanations when applied to all domains of human existence? Obviously this is a broad question of immense importance. Sophisticated thinkers have spent their lifetimes on such questions, dedicating lengthy monographs to their investigation, and I’m not proposing that this very short essay will solve any of the outstanding problems. My take here is merely the first strokes of an outline sketch, drawn in the attempt to clarify what’s at issue in the attempt understand a complex text such as the Bible. Though, as I hope will be clear, I think my sketch applies to how we should understand novels, films, and photographs too.
Let’s assume that the scientific method is one which, by taking an objective view of the world in causal, mechanical, materialist terms, breaks the subject of its experimental investigation down into its component, atomistic parts, in order that, having determined the way the parts of the whole cohere and relate, it can explain the working of the whole in order to have greater power over it.1 Put otherwise, the scientific method aims to provide better causal explanations and descriptions of the world by reducing natural objects to the functioning of their component parts in a larger, rule-governed, mechanical-materialist system. Correlatively, in so aiming scientists adopt an impersonal stance to the world, which enables them to realize an instrumental power over it, in the process of serving concrete and particular social, cultural, and political ends. Understood in this way, the truth of science has a moral history.2
In the day and age of climate change and the possible end of the Anthropocene we are—or should be—acutely aware of the scientific method’s Manichean power. Its strictures have been extended to virtually every domain of existence, from nature to art, frequently yielding tremendous if tendentious results. But the question remains: have we reached a point where we can explain human activity in objective terms and in so doing exhaustively understand what that activity is about? Again, to state the glaringly obvious, it is possible to study human beings scientifically. Modern medicine is based on the scientific method as applied to human physiology. Important advances have indeed been made in neurobiology, though the debate about whether or not brain states equal mental states has not been decisively resolved.3 If science has explained the natural world by revising Aristotle and rejecting teleological causation—i.e. rejecting the argument that natural objects have natural ends—is it then possible to understand human life without reference to such ends? This question has animated philosophical debate for centuries now and that debate shows no sign of ending any time soon.
If we take a teleological account of a given human situation, it is possible to see the power at work in the scenario not as a causal antecedent that sets things in motion in chronological terms, but as a property of the whole. If power is a property of the situation as a whole then the power in question would be a matter for empirical investigation, a question of the normal direction of events accounted for by relevant generalizations, and not some metaphysically dubious confusion (as the logical positivists used to assert). On the interpretive view, teleological explanations discover a direction to the events of a human situation. Hence this view regards human actions as depending on desires and intentions which have an essential role in bringing the given action into being. On the objective view, non-teleological explanation rules out the concept of intention because it is irrelevant to the description of cause and effect operating on mechanical motion in matter. However, the person advocating an interpretive view will simply respond by claiming that the objective view smuggles in its alternatives illegitimately. Where the objective explanation speaks of pleasure-seeking, pain-avoidance, or stimulus-response, the interpretive thinker will assert that the advocate of objectivity is trying to translate desire and intention into non-metaphysical terms. The difference between the two views lies in whether or not human activity can be exhaustively explained with or without reference to the power of qualitative vocabulary to disclose a situation for what it is.
Consider the concept of responsibility. In order to hold someone accountable for an action we need to account for his or her behaviour in terms of desires and purposes and goals. The concept of responsibility entails a teleological view of human behaviour. And it’s a concept we employ all the time in ordinary, everyday speech. But are we right to speak in this way? Is it better to explain human behaviour according to the laws of matter in motion or does it in fact make more sense to appeal to generalizations about human action as the most basic relevant facts? According to the philosopher Charles Taylor, who clearly falls in the interpretive camp as I’ve characterized it, to explain human behaviour we need to be able to appeal to law-like generalizations that account for why an agent with a particular desire has a specific intention that produces a result with an observable regularity. To explain an action involves setting out the goal for which an action was taken, determined by whether or not that action met the characteristic criteria for an action of that type with the relevant goal. To describe an action as directed in some specific way “is to ascribe a certain nature to this piece of behaviour and not just to subsume it under certain laws.” Hence actions are irreducible to movements because they “constitute a type or category of event.”4 When Thomas Hobbes metaphorically describes all the activity of human beings as like the physical motion of a spinning top (i.e. the children’s toy), which he does at the start of Leviathan (1651), he inaugurates a massively influential category mistake. On the contrary view, because actions are categorically distinct from motions, they must be explained by means other than that of objective science.
The interpretive view holds that the domain in which desire and intention and ends are at play is fundamentally contrastive, for it is through an evaluative articulation about any given situation that we recognize our situation for what it is and make choices about it. This is not simply a question of preferential desiring, or stimulus-response, since our desires themselves can be judged good or bad. Rather, we engage a situation and make judgments about our desires through and with an evaluative backdrop. If we lacked a contrastive backdrop against which to exercise our will we would not have any means of making a choice. But there are no human situations lacking contrastive criteria. Over time, as we mature into adults, forming and shaping the qualitative cultural horizon into which we were born and raised into a horizon that is distinctively our own, we realize our personal identity. As Charles Taylor puts it, our experience of the world is constituted by a networked backdrop of “strong evaluations.”5
On the interpretive view, then, when I pick up a text such as the Bible, a novel by Jane Austen, or a portrait photograph by William Eggleston, I do so through a framework knit together by “strong evaluations.” A textual work presents a fictional or historical world that exists for me as a reader. It is because the world of the work is necessarily contrastive that I can appropriate it through the act of reading, and that it can intervene in the moral framework of my world. Moreover, because a text is removed from its immediate intentional setting, i.e. because a text does not remain in the context in which its author created it, its meaning is not and cannot be restricted to that setting alone when read. This is perhaps more obviously the case with a text such as the Bible (an ancient document translated into our present-day vernaculars) than with the novels of Jane Austen, the latter of which still seem to speak to us directly. But the principle applies in both cases.
As the philosopher Paul Ricœur argued, we can only appropriate the world of a text proposed to us as readers because the immediate context of that text has been abolished through its composition. “What the text signifies no longer coincides with what the author meant; henceforth, textual meaning and psychological meaning have different destinies.”6 In this regard the text exercises autonomy from its author and its social, cultural, and historical context. I do not have to live in the world of John Bunyan to read and understand The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), one of the most popular books ever published and never out of print. But Ricœur follows this point by noting that textual autonomy is not gained in spite of the distance between authorial intention and receptive appropriation; it is in fact constituted by that distance. And so it’s not as if the structure of a text or its historical context do not matter. They very much do. Yet even after the intention, structure, and historical context of a book have been explained, it does not thereby follow that a reader understands the world of the text as reconstructed behind it, as it were; understanding is achieved when the reader stands in front of the text and the work discloses its world across the distance.7 Ricœur puts the upshot of his argument in the following way:
If appropriation is the counterpart of disclosure, then the role of subjectivity must not be described in terms of projection. I should prefer to say that the reader understands himself in front of the text, in front of the world of the work. To understand oneself in front of a text is quite the contrary of projecting oneself and one’s own beliefs and prejudices; it is to let the work and its world enlarge the horizon of the understanding which I have of myself.8
To sum up, a text such as the Bible can be a possible source of motivation for readers because the lifeworld of a reader and the world of a text are constituted through a qualitative, evaluative, contrastive framework. Neither human behaviour nor texts can be exhausted by objective explanation; understanding them is a matter of enlarging one’s existential horizons.
If we’re to take the Bible “as it is” we cannot rest content with a description of it as a literary-historical object alone. Indeed, when I heard this phrase most recently it was motivated by an attempt to show evangelicals how a historical reading of the Bible could be edifying to their faith and help them avoid unnecessary confessional pitfalls. Thus what separates an academic scholar from a confessional believer is not simply a matter of taking the Bible “as it is,” but of coming to terms with the rival ways in which the world is construed.
- Those looking for a scholarly citation for my claim can turn to Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution, Chicago University Press, 1996, p. 13.
- Yes, I am intentionally echoing Shapin again. See: A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth Century England, Chicago University Press, 1994.
- An example of a somewhat constructive dialogue between the interpretive and objective view can be found in Paul Ricœur and Jean-Pierre Changeux, What Makes us Think? A Neuroscientist and a Philosopher Argue about Ethics, Human Nature, and the Brain, trans. M. B. DeBevoise, Princeton University Press, 2000. Though I think this book illustrates an impasse between these two approaches as much as any possible convergence.
- Charles Taylor, The Explanation of Behaviour, Routledge, 1964, p. 55.
- Charles Taylor, Philosophical Papers, vol 1., Cambridge University Press, 1985, p. 35.
- Paul Ricœur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, trans. and ed. John B. Thompson, Cambridge University Press, 1981, p. 139.
- Ricœur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, p. 143.
- Ricœur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, p. 178.