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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Friday, 3 April 2009

Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and Possible Worlds

So I was walking around our local pond, looking at the ducks and thinking about Paul Ricoeur (as you do) when a little puzzle struck me. I was pondering Ricoeur's phrase, 'A text means all that it can mean' when I was 'arrested by the present tense of the word 'means' (OK, I'm thinking of the English translation - I have not read Ricoeur in French) - a text currently means all that it can mean.

Ricoeur is trying to navigate between the idea that a text means only one thing (e.g., what the author intended) and the idea that a text can mean anything at all. Texts, says brother R, constrain meaning - they cannot mean just anything. But textual meaning is not tied to authorial intentions. Texts mean all that they can mean. Meaning exists not in texts, nor in readers, but in the interplay of reader and text.

So - back to the quote: 'texts mean all that they can mean'.

Imagine a text, say the book of Lamentations.
Now imagine all the logically possible worlds which are identical up until the completion of the book of Lamentations but, after which, diverge in an infinite number of ways, little and large. Call the set of such worlds L. Our world is part of set L but so are an infinite number of other possible worlds. Many of these worlds contain people who will never exist in the actual world and other contain people who have existed (or do exist) in the actual world but in circumstances different from those in the actual world.

Now the book of Lamentations is read (and its meanings are 'generated' in such reading-encounters) by perhaps an infinite number of people in perhaps an infinite number of ways. I myself, in other possible worlds, have read Lamentations in many different contexts.

So is Ricoeur saying that the book of Lamentations not only means now, in this possible world, whatever it has meant so far in this possible world when people have read it, but rather; it means now, in this possible world, everything that it could ever mean, in every possible world? WOW! Talk about a 'surplus of meaning'! We could hardly even begin to scratch the surface of its meanings.

And is this almost infinite number of meanings not merely potential meanings but actual, though unrealized, meanings? Or is it that a text can (rather than does) mean all that it can mean?

I guess my question concerns the status of meanings that will never be realized in the possible world that God has chosen to actualize (i.e., this one).

Do I care a lot about this? Not really but it gave me something to think about at the pond.

7 comments:

Terry said...

I'm not sure if what I'm about to say will help, Robin, but I've got two questions:

1. Is it meaningful to talk about 'possible worlds'? (I've a book on my 'to read' list called Ontology and Providence in Creation, and I think the author is going to argue that if we truly believe in creatio ex nihilo, it's redudant to talk about 'possible worlds' on the grounds that there is only one.)

2. Where's your pneumatology? It seems to me that while a text carries its authorial intention, and while a text carries within it certain restraints (so that I didn't read your post as a review of Thursday's EastEnders, though this may have been your intention!!), it's the Spirit who needs, within the context of the Church to take the text and ensure its legitimate interpretation for the immediate situation, whatever it may be.

There you go; nothing too taxing, I'm sure, but I hope it helps in some way.

Robin Parry said...

Terry

Well now it is quite a few years since I read up on the philosophy of possible worlds (and quite a few since I last read Ricoeur actually). It has always perfect sense to me to speak of logically possible worlds (though only one such possible world has been realized).

Though you raise an interesting issue. If
(a) one is a determinist, and
(b) if one also thinks that God's choices HAVE to be as they are (i.e., that God could not choose anything other than what he does choose) then there only is one possible world.

Of course, those are two big ifs.

But I cannot see how creation out of nothing is in any way relevant to the issue of the coherence of possible worlds talk.

I agree with what you say about the Spirit but that does not make the issue that I raise go away (if I refine it a little) because there are never-realized possible worlds in which the church included different people and existed in different situations than it does in this possible world. Do the Spirit-guided interpretations in those worlds belong to the meaning of the text in this world?

Robin

Terry said...

The idea about possible worlds was put into my head by the blurb for the book I mentioned. Once I've read it, I'll have a better idea of how all these things fit together!

I'm not sure that your (a) and (b) are necessarily related. I can affirm that there is only one world, the world that God created ex nihilo and decided to create ex nihilo, without having any thought for any other world, without being a determinist.

Concerning the Spirit: if you're holding to possible worlds, I see no reason to suppose that Spirit-guided interpretations can't transcend possible worlds. I think if there's a limitation imposed at all on this, there's a danger that you would then have to, or possibly have to, posit a unique Spirit for each possible world. Don't ask to explain why I think this!!

Gavin said...

Possible worlds make a very interesting source of speculation for understanding God, theology, reality, etc and as such in themselves are worth thinking of.

Then again, if some interpretations of quantum mechanics or large scale cosmology hold true thinking about possible worlds might become a necessity for an accurate theological understanding.

Either way, it can be a lot of fun and can't do a lot of harm! :-)

Mike Higton said...

Isn't Ricoeur trying to trip people out of one mindset and into another - out of the mindset that sees a text as containing meaning, and into a mindset that sees a text as making possible meaning?

I wonder whether your duckpond pondering doesn't involve taking his point, but then running back to the container metaphor: Blimey, is he really saying that this text contains all these possibilities?

Well, no: but if meaning is something that happens, when you have a text read in a context - if it is something the text makes possible in that context - then, yes, it is potentially as varied as all the imaginable contexts in which this text could in principle be read.

And once we've said that, there's nothing to stop us making your pond even more imponderable: we can try imagining what this text might make possible in worlds that aren't themselves strictly possible, or what it might have made possible had it (impossibly) been around before it was in fact written, or...

Robin Parry said...

Terry

My thinking with (a) and (b) was this:

Starting with (b):
If God HAS to make the choices that he does make (i.e., God could not choose other than he has/does/will choose) then God would choose to create the world that he does. No other creative choice is possible. (I am not very tempted by this view but it is one that some theologians past and present have held)

Moving to (a): This was simply to cover the base that someone might say that whilst God has to choose to create the world that he does there is freedom within any world that God creates to go one way or t'other and so there is still room for possible worlds talk. God does not have total control over the world that he actualizes - to some extent the future of any world will depend on non-determined events in that world (including creaturely free choices). So even if God has to make the creative choice he makes the world that he actualizes could still be one of any number of possible worlds depending on the non-determined events within that world. If one is a determinist then one gets around that.

So my point was that possible worlds talk can be avoided if you embrace the two claims in (a) and (b).

However, I think that it would be correct to say that unless a theologian embraces (a) and (b) then possible worlds talk remains a viable 'game'.

The Spirit in all possible worlds would be the same Spirit (although I must confess that I do think that murky issues seem to lie in the area of fixed identity across possible worlds).

Robin Parry said...

Mike

Thanks. That is helpful. And I guess that to say that a text has meaning X in possible world W is simply another way of saying that the text makes that meaning possible in a certain context, read by a certain reader(-in-community). So textual meaning is always indexed to very particular possible readers (whether actual or not) in very particular possible contexts (whether actual or not).

And to say that the text currently has (in each possible world) these meanings, as Ricoeur does, is perhaps another way of making the simple point that the text in any possible world has the potential to evoke such meanings. But you are quite right that he is not wanting to see these meanings as in the text (I was pushing his language a bit far).

Thx