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Greek and Latin. Expressions of Meaning

Andreas T. Zanker

Chapter 9: Expressions of Meaning and Modern Literary Criticism

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  • 1 de Cervantes (1998), 9 (prólogo).

“Desocupado lector: sin juramento me podrás creer que quisiera que este libro, como hijo del entendimiento, fuera el más hermoso, el más gallardo y más discreto que pudiera imaginarse. Pero no he podido yo contravenir al orden de naturaleza, que en ella cada cosa engendra su semejante. Y, así, ¿qué podía engendrar el estéril y mal cultivado ingenio mío, sino la historia de un hijo seco, avellanado...?”.1

“Idle reader: you can believe me to swear, without any oath, that I wanted this book, as a child of my own intellect, to be the most handsome, the most elegant, and the most ingenious one that could be imagined. Yet I was not able to contravene the laws of nature, which state that each one begets his like. So, what could a sterile and poorly cultivated intellect such as mine create but the story of a dry, shriveled-up child…?”.

1How then do Servius’ descendants, modern literary critics, use expressions of meaning in their own writing? The personification of the text in the classical world poses an interesting philological question in its own right, but the phenomenon has ramifications for modern literary criticism as well. In brief, I would now like to argue that the metaphorical possibilities of the expressions of meaning that we have been considering, together with the explicit metaphors and metonymies attested in ancient as well as modern literature, allow us to obscure some of the differences between texts and authors. While it is impossible to avoid metaphorical language when speaking of what texts do (and I repeat that I use it throughout this book), I would argue that it is nevertheless important to be aware of it, as it has a bearing on how we do criticism.

I. The Metaphor TEXT = PERSON in Modern Criticism

  • 2 For a classic article on the book metaphors, see Curtius (1942); cf. Curtius (1953), 128-144. See (...)

2One may object that what I have been documenting is merely a dead metaphor – a pattern of speech that holds a certain antiquarian interest for the etymologist and historian but which is completely irrelevant to twenty-first century criticism and philosophy. We should not, so the detractor might continue, obsess over where our expressions of meaning come from so long as we take care over our modern usage. Furthermore, the more elaborate set of metaphors surveyed in Chapter 6 might simply be regarded as one species of “Buchmetaphorik” among many – it is possible that I have concentrated excessively on one aspect of our language for talking about literary works to the exclusion of others.2 I would reply, however, that dead metaphors come back to life under the right circumstances: when our ways of talking about an entity change, so do the dynamics of the metaphors that had previously been used in order to describe it. One such change occurred in literary criticism in the twentieth century when critics, for a variety of reasons, became more cautious about describing what the author meant when he or she wrote and started to use expressions that took the form “the text means” with greater frequency. Under these conditions the old polysemy embedded in our vocabulary of meaning, together with the tradition of explicitly describing texts as animate agents, came to be used in fresh ways.

  • 3 Wimsatt & Beardsley (1946); reprinted as Wimsatt & Beardsley (1954), 3-18.
  • 4 Wimsatt & Beardsley (1954), 18.

3The idea that authorial intention is irrelevant to the discussion of a work of literature is, at least in the Anglophone world, perhaps first associated with T. S. Eliot (and specifically his “Tradition and the Individual Talent” of1919), but the most lastingly influential figures from the early stages of the debate are Wimsatt and Beardsley, the authors of the 1946 Sewanee Review article “The Intentional Fallacy”.3 Wimsatt and Beardsley argued that the intention of the author was unnecessary for the judgment of poetry; the biography of the poet was helpful insofar as it aided the critic’s knowledge of the vocabulary used within the poem, but that was where its usefulness ceased: the mental life of the author was itself of minor interest. A poem, once it had been published, became public property, and could be studied scientifically just like any other object of inquiry – as Wimsatt and Beardsley stated in their conclusion, “[c]ritical inquiries are not settled by consulting the oracle” (that is, the author).4 What is especially interesting for a classicist about this pivotal discussion is how ancient literary criticism, and especially Plato, looms large within it; most important for our purposes is the following statement:

  • 5 Wimsatt & Beardsley (1954), 5.

1. “Our view is yet different. The poem is not the critic’s own and not the author’s (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it). The poem belongs to the public”.5

4This statement is remarkably similar to the excerpt from Plato’s Phaedrus that we noted in Chapter 6 (275d-e), where Socrates described λόγοι as being abused by those who read them; they always required the help of their father (“πατήρ”), the author, who was, however, unable to aid them when they went out into the world. Wimsatt and Beardsley, however, view the separation as emancipation from paternal control – each text becomes detached from its father soon after its creation (“birth”) and becomes a possession of the public at large (in a fashion perhaps reminiscent of Horace’s book in Epistulae 1.20).

5It may strike us as far-fetched to think that Plato is in the background of excerpt 1: the metaphor was a common one, and Wimsatt and Beardsley might have derived its outline from a source other than Plato. The case for the influence of the ancient philosopher finds support, however, in Wimsatt and Beardsley’s direct quotation from the Apology soon afterwards.

  • 6 Wimsatt & Beardsley (1954), 7. The Greek: “ᾖα ἐπὶ τοὺς ποιητὰς τούς τε τῶν τραγῳδιῶν καὶ τοὺς τῶν (...)

2. “I went to the poets; tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts... I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them... Will you believe me?... there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. Then I knew that not by wisdom do the poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration”.6

  • 7 It is important to note that the phrase “what was the meaning of them” as printed by Wimsatt & Bea (...)

6The authors praise Socrates’ insight; twentieth-century literary criticism needed to be more suspicious of poets’ declarations concerning the meaning of their works, and to recognize the fact that in many ways the author is the person least able to describe what his or her work means.7 Plato’s criticisms of writing were therefore influential on “The Intentional Fallacy”; not only was the text detached from the author’s protection upon its being made public (an idea that Wimsatt and Beardsley adopted from the Phaedrus), but authors themselves should not be the ones to pronounce the final word on it (a thought derived from the Apology). The reception of Plato in the twentieth century provided modern critics with a fitting metaphor by which to describe the separation of the author from the text – that of text = person.

  • 8 The key passage is Protagoras 347c-348b: one cannot always question poets about what they mean (“π (...)
  • 9 Citations are given in the Ιntroduction. On this theme in general, see Burke (1992).
  • 10 For a key early exposition, see Derrida (1972b), 1-29 (“La Différance”).

7It was in the sixties and seventies of the previous century that the metaphor text = person reached an unusual degree of prevalence, precisely through the influence of new theory. While Wimsatt and Beardsley had argued that the author does not need to be consulted when it comes to the interpretation of his or her poetry, there were other motivations for moving away from looking to the empirical author to provide a “norm of reading”. One of the most important was the idea that we cannot be certain as to what the author meant. In the case of ancient texts in particular, it is impossible to question the author directly in order to corroborate or disprove an interpretation: as Plato put it, texts can only say the same thing, and the issue of the unknowability of the author’s intent is the whole point of the Protagoras.8 In the post-structuralist scholarly literature of the late 1960’s, however, a further question rose to prominence: can meaning ever be truly determined? Critics such as Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, all well-versed in classical literature and influenced by Plato, questioned the possibility of conscious subjectivity, and particularly the traditional functions of authorship.9 Derrida, in a series of articles, argued for the infinite deferment of meaning-resolution: signs simply refer to other signs, with the result that there is no way to definitively ground our statements about them.10

  • 11 Elsewhere Barthes shows a keen interest in supporting his views with evidence from the ancient wor (...)

8We have seen how Wimsatt and Beardsley adopted a fully-fledged metaphor from Plato in order to articulate their own conception of how criticism should function; in the writing of Roland Barthes the metaphor becomes far more pronounced, although here there is no specifically classical model: the inertia of the tradition as a whole would seem to have been decisive.11 Here are some examples from Barthes’ Le plaisir du texte (1973):

3. “Le texte que vous écrivez doit me donner la preuve qu’il me désire”.

  • 12 Barthes (1973), 13.

“The text you write must give me proof that it desires me”.12

4. “Le texte a une forme humaine, c’est une figure, un anagramme du corps? Oui, mais de notre corps érotique…”.

  • 13 Barthes (1973), 30.

“Does the text have human form, is it a figure, an anagram of the body? Yes, but of our erotic body”.13

5. “Le texte est (devrait être) cette personne désinvolte qui montre son derrière au Père Politique”.

  • 14 Barthes (1973), 53.

The text is (ought to be) that uninhibited person who shows his behind to the Political Father”.14

  • 15 For an example from within Classics, cf. Martindale (1993), 31-32: “The text can be read, in the a (...)

9Countless instances might be offered from the pages of other influential critics of the late twentieth century.15 The text is here turned into a conscious animal in its own right, at times even directly compared to a human being. There is play and humor in Barthes’ writing, and few critics today would employ the metaphor to the extent that he did, but his prose has proved influential: such locutions have since become relatively common and nowadays nobody is particularly surprised to read of the text taking on the attributes and emotions of a human individual. In describing the function of the text in this fashion, Anglophone critics can fall back on the old metaphorical terminology and exploit the fact that each and every active English verb that can be used of a piece of text can also be employed of people; but it is also important to note that the metaphor is international and goes across linguistic borders.

  • 16 See especially Gadamer (2000), e.g. 203: “Der Text hat seine einheitliche Intention, auch wenn die (...)
  • 17 Cf. Gadamer (1960), 106, 135, and passim.

10Besides the situation with the New Critics and post-structuralists, the metaphor can also be observed in the German hermeneutic tradition. In his monumental Wahrheit und Methode (1960), but also in his other writings on interpretation,16 Hans-Georg Gadamer distanced literary works of art from their authors and the act of creation: the work of art came to exist in its own right, taking on a “mode of being” (“Seinsweise”) of its own:17

6. “Daraus folgt auch – was die Hermeneutik nie vergessen sollte –, daß der Künstler, der ein Gebilde schafft, nicht der berufene Interpret desselben ist. Als Interpret hat er vor dem bloß Aufnehmenden keinen prinzipiellen Vorrang an Autorität. Er ist, sofern er selbst reflektiert, sein eigener Leser. Die Meinung, die er als Reflektierender hat, ist nicht maßgebend. Maßstab der Auslegung ist allein, was der Sinngehalt seiner Schöpfung ist, was diese ‘meint’”.

  • 18 Gadamer (1960), 181. Cf. Gadamer (1960), 354-355: “Denn das ist gewiß richtig, daß gegenüber der w (...)

“From this it follows (as hermeneutics should never forget) that the artist who creates something is not the appointed interpreter of it. As an interpreter he has no automatic authority over the individual simply receiving his creation. He is, as far as he himself reflects upon it, his own reader. The opinion that he has when reflecting upon it is not the standard: the standard of interpretation is simply the sense of his creation – that is, what it ‘means’”.18

  • 19 Cf. Gadamer (1960), 251, 282, and passim.

11In Gadamer’s formulation, literary texts have meanings in their own right that go beyond those of their authors; these are generated by historical context. Whereas Plato saw the lack of authorial control over written texts as a problem, Gadamer found in it an opportunity. For Gadamer, interpretation consists of a dialectic wherein texts ask questions of their interpreters and interpreters ask questions of texts in response: the point of interpretation is the fusion of the “horizon” of the text with that of the interpreter in a process of continuous re-evaluation of the interpreter’s prejudices (the hermeneutic circle).19 Through this exchange, primarily between interpreter and text rather than between interpreter and author, texts can often “speak” (“sagen”) as well as “mean” (“besagen”) – a phenomenon also on display in Gadamer’s use of the term “meinen” in the excerpt 6 above. While Gadamer places this verb in scare quotes, the attribution of agency to an artistic “Schöpfung” is frequent throughout his discussions.

12To summarize: in the twentieth century, critics frequently transferred verbs and expressions of intentionality and volition from the author to his or her text, and, in the course of this procedure, the figure of the author became grammatically, as well as conceptually, redundant.

13Texts are of course not human beings with mental/intentional states but rather modes of communication. Literally speaking, they cannot mean things in the way that human beings can, and, if pushed, nobody would claim that they could; texts do not have lives except in a metaphorical sense. It is nevertheless useful to be aware of the polysemy of the verb “to mean” in modern criticism, since when we say that a text means something we are effectively making “the text” the subject of a sentence for which a statement is the object. This can contribute to the impression that the text is an agent of sorts, especially if the word is used in conjunction with other verbs that imply intentionality. The fact that other western languages (both ancient and modern) contain verbs of meaning that exhibit precisely the same polysemy exacerbates matters: if we look to what critics have done throughout the history of western literary criticism, we will find nothing radically anomalous in the ambiguity of “to mean” in our own language. Nevertheless, while the metaphor has its roots in the ancient world, it only became areal force in criticism when critics began (be it consciously or unconsciously) to suppress reference to authors.

14It is probably unnecessary to provide further examples of the personification of the text where the author slips by the wayside, since it occurs quite frequently in literary criticism, but it may be useful to point out an instance in classical scholarship where the metaphor of text = person involves the vocabulary of meaning that we have been considering:

7. “L’intenzione per me non è mai l’intenzione compositiva del soggetto empirico; è l’intenzione comunicativa del testo, vale adire l’effetto, la relazione di senso che il testo stabilisce con il suo lettore”.

  • 20 Conte (1992), 44; the English translation is that of Glenn Most, published as Conte (1994), 133. A (...)

“Intention for me is never the compositional intention of the empirical subject; it is the communicative intention of the text, that is, the effect, the relation of meaning which the text establishes with its reader”.20

15Here, Conte states that the text establishes a meaning (“senso”) with its reader, where the agency of the text is clearly apparent. But he goes beyond this to use a more controversial term of the written word: the text here has an intention differentiated from that of its author. This excerpt is an unusual case, of course, and it is impossible to avoid applying verbs and expressions to the text that may be interpreted as implying intentionality, but the issue is an important one. The fact that we can apply words like the verb “to mean” to the text often has the effect of relieving the critic of any pressing need to discuss what the author means, in part because the verb “to mean” has already been used.

  • 21 Searle (1992), 180-186. He also gives the example of the grammatically similar phrases “I have had (...)

16Wittgenstein, in his Philosophical Investigations, already pointed out that we must be careful that we do not make errors when manipulating the metaphors and polysemies inherent to our language. Different usages of a single word or phrase are appropriate to different contexts, but the fact that the same word may be employed in each can cause mistaken analogies between them. John Searle provides an unproblematic example of such ambiguity: the commands “cut the cake!” and “cut the grass!” take the same grammatical form but they denote very different actions by means of the verb “to cut”.21 In the one case, the action of cutting involves using a knife to slice through a substance, whereas in the other one is using a machine to shear back foliage. Nobody would try to cut grass by stabbing one’s backyard, nor would one try to run a machine across a birthday cake in order to cut it. This is because the differences between the uses of the one verb are very clear – the contexts for cutting a cake and cutting the grass are unmistakable, and learning about these contexts is part of learning language. In the case of sentences opening with phrases such as “the text means…”, however, it is often less clear what sort of activity is being implied, since the context is less apparent. When the verb “to mean” is combined with other verbs that impute intentionality to their subject, the obscurity can be compounded.

17Of course, there are texts about whose historical context we are too poorly informed to make positive statements about the author, and this issue is particularly acute in early Greek and Biblical studies. The difficulty of speaking of what an author intends, or even of what the author is, in such situations can leave clear marks on the critic’s prose (compare my own evasive use of the phrase “the Homeric narrator” in Chapters 4and 5). The following is taken from an essay on Hesiod’s Works and Days:

  • 22 Most (1997), 120. My reasons for singling out Glenn Most are the same as in the case of Conte.

8. “For evidently Hesiod’s text is not trying, with only partial success, to represent that myth, which seems to have been foisted upon him without adequate regard for his ownspecific intention, but is instead conveying, with remarkable success, a different meaning, one which is fully appropriate to the programme of the Works and Days as a whole. In short, Hesiod’s text is not struggling in vain to present a coherent myth of the decline of man; it is succeeding in saying something quite different about the conditions and chances for human success in the world in which we live”.22

18In this short excerpt, we can see how the polysemy of expressions of meaning can make it possible for a scholar to equivocate between utterer’s meaning and sentence meaning. Here it is the text itself that tries, struggles, and succeeds in saying, that conveys a meaning: the verbs appropriate to the author are applied to his text, and there is some vagueness about to what the pronouns “him” and “his” are referring. Clearly, there is no way around this crux, and we are all in the same boat as Most is: in explaining the relationship between the text and its author(s) in such situations our language provides us with few resources. On the one hand we might want to describe the creative vision behind the text of the Works and Days and ascribe the work to an agent, but on the other we are skeptical about the possibility of saying anything solid on this score. Text and author become fused, the former taking on the agency of the latter, with the result that it is difficult to determine to what the terms “text” and “Hesiod” refer.

II. The “Intentional Fallacy” in the Ancient World?

  • 23 My own stance contrasts with that of Silk (1974), 59-63, 233-235, who argues that a concern for th (...)
  • 24 This phenomenon is clearly on display, for example, in the translations of Greek scholia found in (...)

19The change in critical perspective that occurred in the twentieth century can be most clearly noted when one compares contemporary procedure with literary criticism in the ancient world; although the metaphor of text = person was supported by the vocabulary of Greek and Latin and was readily available as an image (as we have seen), ancient literary critics themselves were writing before the “Death of the Author” and therefore had fewer qualms about alluding to what authors meant.23 We saw in Chapter 1 how Servius appears to be using the phrase “hoc uult dicere” in order to introduce an explanation based on a statement about the author’s intention. While we might expect an expression such as “this means” to follow a lemma in a commentary, Servius used the phrase in the sense “he means this”; such appeals to the poet were standard in the Greek scholia to Homer.24 Plato gives an earlier example in the Protagoras, where the verb of meaning is attributed to the author rather than to his text:

9. ἀλλ᾽ ἅ µοι δοκεῖ διανοεῖσθαι Σιµωνίδης ἐν τούτῳ τῷ ᾄσµατι…

  • 25 Cf., for example, “ταῦτά µοι δοκεῖ… Σιµωνίδης διανοούµενος πεποιηκέναι τοῦτο τὸ ᾆσµα” (“such is my (...)

“[But I should like to tell you] what Simonides seems to me to have intended in this ode…” (Plato, Protagoras 341e).25

20It is not the poem itself that is intending, but rather its author Simonides. The critic registers a certain degree of uncertainty by means of the verb “δοκεῖ” (and this uncertainty is one of the main points of the dialogue), but he does not instinctively shrink from using the verb “διανοεῖσθαι” of the author. Elsewhere in this section of the Protagoras the debate similarly focuses around what Simonides means (where the verb “λέγειν” is generally employed). Although Plato indeed touches on the idea in the Apology, the principle that the author should not serve as the grammatical subject of verbs of meaning when it comes to interpretation is, at least in its strongest formulation, a modern one – one inspired by ancient thought (and particularly by Plato) but crucially different from it in terms of sensibility. Indeed, in our ancient texts the unknowability of the author’s intention is generally seen as a problem in communication rather than as a reason to ignore it.

  • 26 Augustine, in his writing on biblical hermeneutics, also sounds extraordinarily modern in his dist (...)

21Ancient writers (as well as modern ones) could keep the two types of meaning that we have been exploring separate by using different terminology for each in a clear fashion. Here is Cicero:26

10. ex ambiguo autem nascitur controuersia cum quid senserit scriptor obscurum est, quo scriptum duas pluresue res significat...

“A controversy arises from ambiguity when there is doubt as to what the author meant, because the written statement means two or more things” (Cicero, De Inuentione 2.116).

22The person who writes (“scriptor”) is first of all kept separate from that which is written (“scriptum”): the first has an active role, the second is the product. Perhaps more importantly, Cicero also uses the verb “sentire” when it comes to the intention of the author, but employs the word “significare” of what the text (“scriptum”) means. Each of these items of vocabulary is (at least potentially) ambiguous when taken separately; as we have seen in previous chapters, “significare” could be used of human beings as well as things such as scripta, and we have seen an instance in the writing of Gellius where the verb “sentire” is used of words (“uocabula”) themselves. In combination, however, they could effectively be employed to clarify the communicative relationship between writer, text, and reader. The lexical, metaphorical, and conceptual backdrop for the “Death of the Author” was already in place, but ancient critics never actually genuinely departed from the principle that Servius makes explicit – that the elucidation of the author’s intentio was one of the key tasks of the commentator.

  • 27 See Ahl (1984), 174-208; (Richard) Thomas (2000). On ambiguity in Greek literature and philosophy, (...)

23Classical authors themselves were of course conscious of the fact that their texts could mean different things to their readership and they frequently exploited this for effect: in essence, they meant their texts to mean different things. This point should need little in the way of supporting argument when it comes to the ancient poets, who undoubtedly designed their works to be read in different ways. Demetrius (On Style 287) and Quintilian moreover describe how ἔµφασις/significatio (“implication”) featured in ancient rhetoric; it was common practice to make use of “figured speech” in order to present different possible meanings (overt and covert) to a readership:27

11. eius triplex usus est: unus si dicere palam parum tutum est, alter si non decet, tertius qui uenustatis modo gratia adhibetur et ipsa nouitate acuarietate magis quam si relatio sit recta delectat.

“Its [i.e. figured speech] employment is threefold: one of its uses is if it is unsafe to speak forthrightly; another is if it is not fitting to do so; and the third is when it is adopted for the sake of charm, and is more pleasing than direct expression on account of its novelty and variation” (Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria 9.2.66).

  • 28 On what follows, see Gibson (1999), 19-37; Ingleheart (2010), 230-233, and especially 232 on the v (...)

24Nor were ancient authors unaware of the importance of the reader when it came to interpretation; Ovid, for example, understood all too well that “a writer can never control the reception of his or her work”, even though he strongly argues for the empirical author. In Tristia 2, a plea to Augustus for recall to Rome from relegation at Tomi, he dramatizes this fact, teasing out many of the difficulties in making one’s intentions clear to a readership.28 Ovid is here ostensibly attempting to establish that he had not meant to corrupt the morals of Rome’s matronae when he composed his earlier poem, the Ars Amatoria. As he contends, he had provided the women with an explicit warning tostay away:

12. este procul, uittae tenues, insigne pudoris,
quaeque tegis medios instita longa pedes!
Nil nisi legitimum concessaque furta canemus,
inque meo nullum carmine crimen erit.

“Stay far away, narrow fillets (you mark of chastity!), and you, long gown that covers half of the feet! Is hall sing only of lawful things and of permitted love-affairs, and in my song there will be no guilt” (Ovid, Tristia 2.247-250).

25But this proviso, it turns out, was not enough: the poet was unable to confine his readership to “courtesans alone” (“solis meretricibus Tristia 2.303). Ovid goes on to imply that the author is in fact entirely at the mercy of his readership, since any text can be twisted by the reader to yield a desired meaning (Tristia 2.255-256) – even the works of Ennius and Lucretius. He protests strongly against this, although towards the end of the poem Ovid himself demonstrates the power of the reader by arriving at a willful interpretation of Vergil’s Aeneid, reducing the epic to the love story of Dido and Aeneas (Tristia 2.533-536). Thus, even as he apparently seeks to limit the possible interpretations of the Ars Amatoria, Ovid reveals himself as perfectly aware of the futility of the gesture: he cannot force his readership to interpret his earlier poem as he would wish.

  • 29 The other example is Catullus, Carmina 16.

26Horace, too, was aware of the problem of publication, developing the metaphor of text = person in a novel way; as we saw in the case of Epistulae 1.20, Horace’s book of poetry actively wants to leave his private bookcase and be circulated among the Roman public. Here, we see the potential of the metaphor exploited by an author rather than a critic – Horace cannot stop his book from leaving the protection of his bookshelf and moving out to “talk” to the world at large, but he can at least “censure” this move. No blame for whatever damage the book may cause is to be attached to the author, Horace wryly handing over responsibility to the (personified) book itself in a kind of authorial suicide. Nevertheless, even in this act of self-abnegation Horace reveals how interested he is in having his name attached to the book and in having the reader know about its author. At the end of the poem, Horace asks that the book “speak of him” while instructing schoolboys how to read on the edge of the empire. In this poem, we come close to a full endorsement of the separation of author from text in the ancient world;29 but in a characteristically Horatian gesture, the author nevertheless unmistakeably plugs himself back into the text at the poem’s close.

III. The Meanings of “Meaning”

  • 30 On what follows, see Skinner (1972), 393-408; Tully (1988); Bach (1994), 3-20; Searle (1992); Sear (...)

27What, then, is “the meaning of the text”? As should be manifestly clear by this point, much depends on the way we are using the noun “meaning”.30 On the one hand, the meaning of a text can consist in what its author intended when he or she wrote it, and this is generally known as “speaker meaning” or “utterer’s meaning”. When someone misunderstands the note I wrote this morning, I can tell him or her that the note means such and such. On the other hand, a sentence can mean something to the reader regardless of what the author meant: the meaning that I derive from a text can be very different from what its author intended. When we argue about the nature of meaning in literary criticism, we are often arguing about different things to which we happen to refer by means of the same label. It is always a good idea to keep in mind that “meaning” and its verb “to mean” do not cover a single concept (as we have seen throughout this book), and that disputes over “the meaning of the text” may either involve attempts at restricting the ways in which the term can be used or simply be instances of two parties “arguing past” each other.

28Two examples present themselves, the second of which is of particular interest to those working in the field of Classics. First, E. D. Hirsch, in his book Validity in Interpretation (1967), sought to distinguish between the author’s “meaning” and the “significance” this has for the reader, and thus to place the meaning of the text solely in the sphere of authorial production. According to Hirsch, the meaning of the text is fixed for all time when the author writes the text; this meaning is inalienable and a feature of the text for as long as it exists, even if it cannot be accessed by us. What changes over time and varies from reader to reader is the text’s significance – what the text “says” to us. Even for the author himself, whose understanding of his or her text changes, it is a matter of a change in the work’s significance rather than of a change in its meaning:

  • 31 Hirsch (1967), 6-7.

13. “It is not the meaning of the text which changes, but its significance to the author. Meaning is that which is represented by a text; it is what the author meant by his use of a particular sign sequence; it is what the signs represent. Significance, on the other hand, names a relationship between that meaning and a person”.31

29By distinguishing between “meaning” and “significance”, Hirsch was responding to critics who were uninterested in the author’s intention when it came to criticism. According to Hirsch, authorial meaning (speaker meaning) was the only legitimate meaning associated with the text, and the role of the critic was either to work back to it or to establish the significance of the text, which was not necessarily the same as its meaning, to his or her own age.

  • 32 Eagleton, T. (1983), 59-60: “The aim of all this policing is the protection of private property. F (...)
  • 33 For a discussion of this phrase, see Zanker & Thorarinsson (2011), 9-20.

30Hirsch was of course rowing against the current.32 One might contrast his view with a very different refrain that has been repeated a number of times over the past twenty-five years in classical literary criticism and reception studies:33

  • 34 Martindale (1993), 3. My emphasis, but Martindale’s italics. For other instances of this phrase, s (...)

14. “Meaning, can we say, is always realized at the point of reception; if so, we cannot assume that an ‘intention’ is effectively communicated within any text. And also, it appears, a writer can never control the reception of his or her work, with respect either to the character of the readership or to any use which is made of that work”.34

  • 35 Cf. Zanker & Thorarinsson (2011).

31The main point here – that the author cannot determine the meaning of his text for its reader – is clearly correct; this is an important type of meaning, and it is unadvisable to limit the text’s meaning to what the author means as Hirsch does. But the underlined phrase is also provocative: the word “always” jars against our notions about what the word “meaning” can do. The statement “meaning is always realized at the point of reception” does not take account of the fact that “speaker meaning” – what Ovid meant – certainly does not come into being at the point of reception, since it was present at the point of production. Martindale uses the noun “intention” of what the author means, thus completing half of the disjunction referred to at the end of the previous section (“to intend” and “to signify”); but he uses the ambiguous noun “meaning” for what the text signifies to a reader. What is required in excerpt 14 is an explicit distinction between types of meaning; one might offer a less provocative alternative such as “the meaning of a text for a reader is always realized at the point of reception” or, more simply, “interpretation always occurs at the point of reception”.35

  • 36 See, for instance, Kripke (1982).

32Finally, Martindale points out that we cannot be certain of the author’s intention (“we cannot assume that an ‘intention’ is effectively communicated within any text”), and this epistemological insight drives many arguments against making statements concerning the author’s meaning; how can I be certain that Calvus and Terence are actually punning? Does this lack of certainty not undermine any attempt to make statements about what the author meant? This is indeed an important and legitimate issue; one reasonable response, albeit a trivial and unhelpful one (and I am certainly not the first to point it out), is that certainty is not something to which we should be aspiring when it comes to literary criticism, for the simple fact that it is hard to be certain about many things in human experience. Skeptical arguments concerning knowledge and our relationship to the world have a long history and continue to proliferate.36 The most that we can hope for inmost walks of life is proof beyond reasonable doubt – to establish a strong case for a judgment based on the evidence that is to hand – and this is certainly the case when it comes to literary interpretation. While this of course does not solve the problem of uncertainty in criticism, it puts it in some perspective.

IV. Conclusion

33To sum up: we have seen in this chapter how the metaphor of text = person has had a bearing on literary criticism of the past century, both in terms of fully formed metaphors adopted from antiquity (Wimsatt and Beardsley) and lexical turns of phrase that allowed the critic, among other things, to bypass discussion of what the author actually meant: the text became an independent agent in its own right. We then considered how different this critical emphasis was from that which prevailed in the ancient world, before entering into a discussion of (a) where “meaning” actually resides and (b) how critics often debate “across” each other when it comes to this extremely important yet under-investigated word. I am not advocating any radical revamping of our language for talking about literary objects, nor do I call for restrictions on our usage of this vocabulary: ultimately, prescriptivism will not solve the issues that surround the term “meaning”. Understanding, on the other hand, might; it is in this spirit that I began this project, and it is in this spirit that I close it.


1 de Cervantes (1998), 9 (prólogo).

2 For a classic article on the book metaphors, see Curtius (1942); cf. Curtius (1953), 128-144. See Feeney (2011) and Butler (2011) on the materiality of the classical book, Price (2012) on that of the Victorian one.

3 Wimsatt & Beardsley (1946); reprinted as Wimsatt & Beardsley (1954), 3-18.

4 Wimsatt & Beardsley (1954), 18.

5 Wimsatt & Beardsley (1954), 5.

6 Wimsatt & Beardsley (1954), 7. The Greek: “ᾖα ἐπὶ τοὺς ποιητὰς τούς τε τῶν τραγῳδιῶν καὶ τοὺς τῶν διθυράµβων καὶ τοὺς ἄλλους... ἀναλαµβάνων οὖν αὐτῶν τὰ ποιήµατα ἅ µοι ἐδόκει µάλιστα πεπραγµατεῦσθαι αὐτοῖς, διηρώτων ἂν αὐτοὺς τί λέγοιεν... αἰσχύνοµαι οὖν ὑµῖν εἰπεῖν, ὦ ἄνδρες, τἀληθῆ... ὡς ἔπος γὰρ εἰπεῖν ὀλίγου αὐτῶν ἅπαντες οἱ παρόντες ἂν βέλτιον ἔλεγον περὶ ὧν αὐτοὶ ἐπεποιήκεσαν. ἔγνων οὖν αὖκαὶ περὶ τῶν ποιητῶν ἐν ὀλίγῳ τοῦτο, ὅτι οὐσοφίᾳ ποιοῖεν ἃποιοῖεν, ἀλλὰ φύσει τινὶ καὶ ἐνθουσιάζοντες...” (Plato, Apology 22a-22c).

7 It is important to note that the phrase “what was the meaning of them” as printed by Wimsatt & Beardsley is loose: in fact, the plural form “λέγοιεν” takes the poets as its subject. A better translation might be “what they [i.e. the poets] meant”, which brings the question back into the realm of utterers’ meaning.

8 The key passage is Protagoras 347c-348b: one cannot always question poets about what they mean (“περὶ ὧν λέγουσιν”). Cf. Lesser Hippias 365c-d. For a study of hermeneutics in the Protagoras, see Most (1994).

9 Citations are given in the Ιntroduction. On this theme in general, see Burke (1992).

10 For a key early exposition, see Derrida (1972b), 1-29 (“La Différance”).

11 Elsewhere Barthes shows a keen interest in supporting his views with evidence from the ancient world. The following is from “The Death of the Author”: “Another – very precise – example will help to make this clear: recent research (J.-P. Vernant) has demonstrated the constitutively ambiguous nature of Greek tragedy, its texts being woven from words with double meanings that each character understands unilaterally (this perpetual misunderstanding is exactly the ‘tragic’); there is, however, someone who understands each word in its duplicity and who, in addition, hears the very deafness of the characters speaking in front of him – this someone being precisely the reader (or here, the listener)”; Barthes (1977), 148.

12 Barthes (1973), 13.

13 Barthes (1973), 30.

14 Barthes (1973), 53.

15 For an example from within Classics, cf. Martindale (1993), 31-32: “The text can be read, in the author’s ‘absence’, ‘non-presence’, because meaning is constituted, not within consciousness, but within textuality... Like people, books would have their reticences, their partial disclosures, their resistances to complete appropriation; they would invite us to respect their otherness”.

16 See especially Gadamer (2000), e.g. 203: “Der Text hat seine einheitliche Intention, auch wenn diese nicht notwendig eine bewußte Intention des Schreibenden sein muß. Jedenfalls ist der Empfänger, der Entzifferer, auf das gerichtet, was der Text meint” (“the text has its unified intention, even though this does not necessarily need tobea conscious intention of the author. In any case, the receiver, the decoder, concentrates on what the text means”).

17 Cf. Gadamer (1960), 106, 135, and passim.

18 Gadamer (1960), 181. Cf. Gadamer (1960), 354-355: “Denn das ist gewiß richtig, daß gegenüber der wirklichen hermeneutischen Erfahrung, die den Sinn des Textes versteht, die Rekonstruktion dessen, was der Verfasser tatsächlich im Sinne hatte, eine reduzierte Aufgabe ist. Es ist die Veführung des Historismus, in solcher Reduktion die Tugend der Wissenschaftlichkeit zusehen…” (“for it is certainly true that, compared with the actual hermeneutical experience that understands the meaning of the text, the reconstruction of what the author really had in mind is a minor undertaking. It is the seduction of historicism to see the virtue of scientific precision in such reductiveness”).

19 Cf. Gadamer (1960), 251, 282, and passim.

20 Conte (1992), 44; the English translation is that of Glenn Most, published as Conte (1994), 133. As with all of the scholars who appear in this chapter (Martindale, Most, and so on), I only use this phrase as an example because I highly respect Conte’s work; it is moreover important to look at the theoretical context. Cf. Eco (1992), 64: “Since the intention of the text is basically to produce a model reader able to make conjectures about it, the initiative of the model reader consists in figuring out a model author that is not the empirical one and that, in the end, coincides with the intention of the text”; Eco’s conception of the “intentio operis” is discussed at length in this work (see in particular Chapters 1-3).

21 Searle (1992), 180-186. He also gives the example of the grammatically similar phrases “I have had twins” and “I have had breakfast”; nobody would entertain the idea that the second of these could be equivalent to the phrase “I have just given birth to a western omelette”.

22 Most (1997), 120. My reasons for singling out Glenn Most are the same as in the case of Conte.

23 My own stance contrasts with that of Silk (1974), 59-63, 233-235, who argues that a concern for the author’s intention was of lesser importance in ancient criticism. Given what we have seen in this book, I must disagree with this view.

24 This phenomenon is clearly on display, for example, in the translations of Greek scholia found in Nünlist (2009).

25 Cf., for example, “ταῦτά µοι δοκεῖ… Σιµωνίδης διανοούµενος πεποιηκέναι τοῦτο τὸ ᾆσµα” (“such is my view… of Simonides’ intention in composing this ode” Plato, Protagoras 347a); Protagoras 339e (“... what the poet means”); Lesser Hippias 365b; Cratylus 392b.

26 Augustine, in his writing on biblical hermeneutics, also sounds extraordinarily modern in his distinction between different types of sign; see in particular De Doctrina Christiana 2.1-3.

27 See Ahl (1984), 174-208; (Richard) Thomas (2000). On ambiguity in Greek literature and philosophy, see Stanford (1972).

28 On what follows, see Gibson (1999), 19-37; Ingleheart (2010), 230-233, and especially 232 on the variation of line 249.

29 The other example is Catullus, Carmina 16.

30 On what follows, see Skinner (1972), 393-408; Tully (1988); Bach (1994), 3-20; Searle (1992); Searle (1994). For an application of related ideas in classical studies, see Arweiler (2010).

31 Hirsch (1967), 6-7.

32 Eagleton, T. (1983), 59-60: “The aim of all this policing is the protection of private property. For Hirsch, an author’s meaning is his own, and should not be stolen or trespassed upon by the reader. The meaning of the text is not to be socialized, made the public property of its various readers; it belongs solely to the author, who should have the exclusive rights over its disposal long after he or she is dead… Hirsch’s defense of authorial meaning resembles those defenses of landed titles which begin by tracing their process of legal inheritance through the centuries, and end up by admitting that if you push that process back far enough the titles were gained by fighting someone else for them”; in Eagleton’s turn of phrase, “authorial meaning” is likened to private property, whose ultimate foundation is purely arbitrary and without merit; Hirsch is a defender of unjustly acquired titles.

33 For a discussion of this phrase, see Zanker & Thorarinsson (2011), 9-20.

34 Martindale (1993), 3. My emphasis, but Martindale’s italics. For other instances of this phrase, see Zanker & Thorarinsson (2011).

35 Cf. Zanker & Thorarinsson (2011).

36 See, for instance, Kripke (1982).

© C.H.Beck, 2016

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