Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

Two Theologians Fight over Geneva

August 5, 2008

(Written January, 1987)

In 1539, Geneva, Switzerland was under the control of Protestant reformers. John Calvin and Guillaume Farel, two men who had led the Genevan reforms, had been banished from the city because they refused to submit to certain decisions of the municipal government. In March, Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto wrote a letter to the Genevans pleading with them to rejoin the Catholic Church. This action was one of the first moves in the Counter-Reformation. Finally, in August, friends persuaded Calvin, who was living in Strasbourg, to reply with a letter of his own, defending the Protestant reforms. The debate between the two men centered on their differing concepts of true, pure worship of God, which they both agreed was the most important concern in life. In between their discussions of this problem they inserted many less important comments.

For the most part, the major themes in Sadoleto’s letter and Calvin’s letter coincide closely, since Calvin wrote in direct response to Sadoleto. Sadoleto does, however, preface his main arguments with a long section on the importance of uncorrupted worship of God, and Calvin discusses in his letter several issues, like the mention of the cult of the saints, which Sadoleto’s letter does not mention. They key points on which Sadoleto and Calvin disagree are the nature of faith, the nature of the true Church, and whether the Church or the Bible should be the final authority.

Sadoleto claims that faith

not only includes in it credulity and confidence, but also the hope and desire of obeying God, together with love…. When we say, then, that we can be saved by faith alone in God and Jesus Christ, we hold that in this very faith love is essentially comprehended as the chief and primary cause of our salvation.<l>

Calvin, however, holds that

man is reconciled in Christ to God the Father, by no merit of his own, by no value of works, but by gratuitous mercy.<2>

The difference is perhaps hard to detect at first, but Sadoleto claims that people must first desire to obey God and to love before they can be saved, while Calvin considers that such things are possible only as a result of salvation.

Sadoleto and Calvin also disagree on what constitutes the true body, or Church, of Christ. Sadoleto considers it to be synonymous with the Catholic Church, which “has been always everywhere directed by the one Spirit of Christ.”<3> Calvin, however, believes that the Church is defined not by an institution or organization, but by belief in the Word of God, regardless of which church organization its members belong to. That is,

the society of all the saints…spread over the whole world, and existing in all ages…bound together by the one doctrine and the one Spirit of Christ <4>

Due to these differing definitions of the Church, Sadoleto sees the reformers as tearing the Church apart, and Calvin sees their work as rescuing the Church from destruction wreaked by teaching contrary to the Word of God.

At the center of the dispute between Sadoleto and Calvin is their disagreement about what should be the final authority for Christian doctrine and practice. Only if this point could be agreed upon could their other disputes be solved, because their views on the other subjects spring from their respective authorities. Sadoleto believes that the authority should be the leaders and teachings of the Church. He bases this belief on his understanding that

the Church errs not, and even cannot err, since the Holy Spirit constantly guides her public and universal decrees and Councils.<5>

Thus, how could anyone dare not to submit to the Catholic Church’s official doctrine, since it was unerringly inspired by the Spirit of Christ? Calvin, on the other hand, holds that the Church leaders and doctrine must be guided by the Word of God. After quoting from letters of the apostles, Calvin also notes that “whenever the Prophets foretell the renewal of the Church, or its extension over the whole globe, they always assign the first place to the Word.”<6> Thus, to Calvin, if the current Church’s practices do not agree with the gospel as presented in the Bible, they are leading people astray and must be reformed. Are the Church’s pronouncements inerrant? Agreement on that question would have put a quick end to the conflict which these two letters evidence.

Sadoleto’s arguments to the Genevans are in many ways unfounded; he asks the readers to simply accept what he says without providing grounds. Among the positions he takes without further explanation are that God desires fidelity to the Church, more than to himself, and that the Church’s decisions are inerrant. From these he argues by the fallacy of invincible ignorance: the Church by its very nature can’t be wrong, no matter what the evidence may indicate. He also attacks his opponents’ persons, rather than their doctrines and systems, in the speech before the “dread tribunal of the sovereign Judge”<7> which he invents for them. Although he does take reasonable care to at least define his terms, such as faith and Church, Sadoleto’s case for returning to the Catholic Church is suspicious at best due to his fallacious reasoning.

Although Calvin is more convincing in his arguments, he begins his letter with a lengthy appeal to his conscience and the sincerity of his belief in his call as proof that he is in the right. He also argues to the person rather than to the issue when he busies himself explaining how Sadoleto’s personal accusations about the reformers are actually true about the Catholic Church instead. However, he doesn’t stop there. As with Sadoleto, he defines some disputed terms, and he directly addresses the root problem of their argument, namely the contest between Church and Word to be the final authority. Calvin also argues well using the writings of the early Church to prove that it is the Catholics, and not the reformers, who have been innovating and inventing new doctrines. Calvin does fail to justify his opinions in several places, however, notably his choice of the “things on which the safety of the Church is founded”<8> and his doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. One would expect some backing from Calvin’s authority, the Word of God, in these cases, but he provides none. Nonetheless, overall his reasoning seems sound, and is appropriately backed up by Bible quotes.

Sadoleto’s letter had a negligible effect on its intended audience. The leaders of Geneva simply weren’t convinced. Perhaps its largest effect was in prompting Calvin’s response. Calvin’s letter, while more a refutation than a direct appeal, was a good defense of his teachings, and probably helped bring him back to power in Geneva eventually. But both documents are valuable today: the two men’s descriptions of the current state of the Church, and their language and methods of argument, give valuable insight into the mindsets of their respective groups in the mid-1500’s. Analysis of the two letters helps clarify why the Reformation started in the first place.


<1> Ed. John C. Olin, John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto, A Reformation Debate (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1966), p. 36. 
<2> Ibid., p. 67.
<3> Ibid., p. 41.
<4> Ibid., p. 62.
<5> Ibid., p. 45.
<6> Ibid., p. 60.
<7> Ibid., p. 42.
<8> Ibid., p. 63.


Why College Can Be a Lonely Place

August 5, 2008

(Written August, 1986)

Why do many people get depressed in college? We’re surrounded by people we should be able to relate to best. They have similar academic abilities to ours; they are often from a similar economic background to us. And, of course, they are within four years of us in age. Most college students are not only surrounded by people their own age, but have several real friends nearby.

We have many opportunities to meet with these people, too. There is class, although that often offers little opportunity for interpersonal interactions (you can see the problem starting already). Mostly the class hours are spent facing just a professor and some paper. Besides class, there is homework which can sometimes be done together. This offers time to get together with people informally and share ideas and insights with them. We are somewhat involved in this activity; part of it is impersonal things that don’t touch our hearts.

Many assignments cannot be done with others, though, and sometimes we’re just scared of or not attracted to the others in the class and never make an effort to study with them. And there are social interactions. Dances, movies, parties, speakers, snack bars, bowling, intramural sports. While these activities don’t occur every day, they do offer us a chance to see our peers in a context apart from the main part of college life, the schoolwork. We can be very active during some of these interactions, like bowling, and very passive during others, like movies. Either way, they often provide only marginally less superficial personal contact than studying or classes do.

Take away the people in the social activities and we are left very alone. All we have in common sometimes is the common adversary we face: our homework. We often have to stand alone against that challenge, which is supposed to consume many hours of each day. Physically it is much the same for hours on end: sitting down, reading, writing or typing. Regardless of the fact that the content may be changing, the experience is largely devoid of interesting interactions with other people. Interactions with paper and keyboards are a poor substitute. Friends can’t always be available when we want to take study breaks with them. The pressure is great to conquer the schoolwork and master it, to succeed constantly for weeks on end. Frustration can build up easily under these circumstances.

We are trying to grow up, too, during the college years. We are trying to master not just intellectual problems, but personal problems. Our friendships are especially important as supports for all of the changes as we try to figure out what we will organize our life around – which major, which activities, which lifestyle (including clothes, language use, mannerisms, and eating habits, among other things). Yet college friendships can be hard to maintain, due to the interference of summers, different classes and activities, semesters abroad, and changing interests and personalities. Particularly when our friendships wane and change, college students can get lonely.

And where does help come from? Counseling centers? Academic advisors? It takes much desperation and humility to go to a professional counselor; it’s hard to admit that our problems are serious enough to warrant that step. And perhaps they are of an inappropriate nature for those sorts of people. College students’ problems can be elusive and hard to pin down, the results of an array of factors in the environment and the personality. Maybe school staff could help, since they likely had similar experiences when they were in college. But they are not trusted friends, and intimacy is hard to build. Though their distance could help bring objectivity, it could also bring alienation.

College isn’t always a lonely place. Maybe it never is, for a few people. But many factors seem to collide at college to cause a greater amount of loneliness than at other times in life, at least more than at younger ages. Even though at no time are we more surrounded by peers.

How Well Can We Know What an Author Meant?

August 5, 2008

(Written April, 1993)

In interpreting a text, is there a limited range of valid “variant” readings, outside of which are only invalid “misreadings”? If so, how can a reader determine which meanings are allowable variants and which are impermissible misreadings?

The answer to that question hinges on the answer to some more general questions. Is a text’s meaning determined by its author? If so, how sure can a reader be of correctly determining what the author meant? Or is the meaning of a text determined only by the language used to construct it, the author being irrelevant?

The stakes are high for answering these questions. As M.H. Abrams writes, “without that confidence that we can use language to say what we mean and can interpret language so as to determine what was meant, there is no rationale for the dialogue in which we are now engaged” (p. 438).

Some theorists hold that readers can determine the meaning of a text without reference to the author of the text. I.A. Richards writes, “The meaning of a line of Shakespeare is, for linguistics, to be conceived… in terms of its relations to other utterances, actual or possible, in English…. an appeal to some hypothetical event in Shakespeare’s mind… is not… propitious procedure” (Sebok p. 245). According to Richards, a reader can determine the difference between an acceptable variant reading and a misreading-”which of the various meanings was present” (p. 247) in a text-by seeking “what most fully takes into account the situation the utterance is meeting and the integrity of the language” (p. 251). In other words, look at the extratextual context of the text as a whole and at the relationships between the individual words. What each word can mean is constrained by the other words and by what that word has meant in the past and in other texts. The relationships within the language and knowledge of the context of the writing are our only resource for interpretation since we can not know with certainty what was on the author’s mind.

While a procedure such as Richards advocates can narrow down the range of possible meanings of the text to some extent, is it sufficient to identify a misreading? Or are additional restrictions on meaning required? Can a text even be language-have meaning-apart from the intent of its author? Those who answer “yes” must believe “that marks and noises can be language ‘even though nobody ever meant anything’ by them” (p. 469), point out Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels. That view must even allow the possibility of texts that have no author, but nevertheless have meaning. When the wind howling through a house sounds like the word “who,” is language (with meaning that can be interpreted by a listener) being produced?

Knapp and Michaels, as summarized by Richard Rorty, say otherwise. “Marks which are shaped like a sentence of English do not count as language unless the marks are backed up by an intention-unless they are inscribed by somebody who meant something by them” (p. 460). They propose as an illustration a hypothetical set of markings, produced by random wave motion, that happen to have the form of an English poem. There is no author, and thus no intent; is there still meaning, and is misreading possible?

Those who pursue meaning apart from intent end up in the camp with deconstructionists such as Jacques Derrida and Hillis Miller. Derrida begins with only the physical marks on the page-ignoring the author-and concludes by proposing (as described by Abrams) “that we deliver ourselves over to a free participation in the infinite free-play of signification opened out by the signs in a text” (p. 431). There is not just one meaning to each text; there are an infinite number. While others may agree with that statement, Derrida goes a step further by claiming that only the marks on the page constrain the meaning of the text. Not even the syntax of the sentences can narrow down the range of possible meanings for their constituent words.

So how should the reader choose among the infinite number of meanings? Richard Rorty suggests that interpreters “treat everything as a matter of a choice of context and nothing as a matter of intrinsic properties” (p. 461). If there is no intrinsic meaning to a text (given to it by its author), then “why not just put in a context, describe the advantages of having done so, and forget the question of whether one has got at either its ‘meaning’ or ‘the author’s intention’?” (p. 461) Rorty seems unconcerned about which particular meaning the reader arrives at, a curiously cavalier attitude to take toward textual interpretation. Can we do no better in choosing between the possible meanings allowed by Richards’ textual analysis?

Hillis Miller, a follower of Derrida, describes the implication of Derrida’s approach: in the absence of the author’s intention, it is impossible for the reader to choose between the meanings. They are all equally likely. M.H. Abrams writes of Miller’s view, “Any word within a given text… can thus be claimed to signify any and all of the diverse things it has signified in the varied forms that the signifier has assumed through its recorded history…. [It is] stripped of any norms for selecting some of these and rejecting others” (p. 433). He quotes Miller: “Any reading can be shown to be a misreading on evidence drawn from the text itself” (p. 433). Every reading is a misreading because every meaning is possible for every word and many of those meanings are incompatible with each other. 

But if every reading is a misreading, language loses its primary function-communication. It becomes a pointless, useless game in the reader’s mind. Miller, again quoted by Abrams, writes, “reading is never the objective identifying of a sense but the importation of meaning into a text which has no meaning “in itself'” (pp. 427-428). It is true that a text has no meaning “in itself,” in that the meaning is not physically present in the text. If it were, people would not be debating how to interpret texts, for the meaning of a text would be unambiguous. If, as Miller claims, the meaning is only created in the reader’s mind, discarding the possibility of discovering the author’s intent, the reader must allow all possible meanings. The result, as summarized by Abrams, is that “no text, in part or whole, can mean anything in particular, and that we can never say just what anyone means by anything he writes” (p. 434). 

This is a grim prospect for those who had hoped to communicate something through writing. Abrams writes in an opposing view: “Language, unlike the physical world, is a cultural institution that developed expressly in order to mean something and to convey what is meant to members of a community who have learned how to use and interpret language” (p. 432). Of Miller’s claims, he adds, “Such criticism has nothing whatever to do with our common experience of the uniqueness, the rich variety and the passionate human concerns in works of literature, philosophy, or criticism” (p. 435). In fact, as Abrams points out, Miller is not true to the consequences of his proposals when he writes, for in expressing his views, he appears to be assuming that he is clearly communicating a message that his audience will understand. Knapp and Michaels argue that regardless of the theories people may put forth, in practice they “all think language is intentional, and they all think their beliefs are true” (p. 472).

If some determination of the author’s intent is necessary for a text to have meaning and thus to communicate, how can a reader determine that intent? How accurately must he do so in order to avoid a misreading? How accurately is it possible to determine the intent? 

An author does have a definite meaning in mind when composing a text. Therefore, there is an objective reference for our interpretations. As Knapp and Michaels write, “A text means what its author intended it to mean whether or not other authors on other occasions use the same marks (or noises) to say the same thing” (p. 469). The problem for the reader is to determine, as closely as needed for the occasion, what the author’s intention is. To use an illustration from Knapp and Michaels, of two people yelling, “Fire!”, one might be commanding a firing squad and the other calling the fire department (p. 469). Another example is the use of irony. If one is to respond appropriately to a message, one must be able to know what the author of the message means.

Stanley Fish takes issue with claims that it is possible to know objectively what an author meant in a text. He rejects the notion of objective truth because “there are no unmediated facts nor any neutral perception” (p. 443). That is the case because everything we learn is filtered through our beliefs, which” are not what you think about but what you think with” (p. 443). Fish extends this probably uncontroversial claim into a claim that objective truth (about anything) does not exist, or does not exist for any practical purpose: “This does not mean that a notion like ‘truth’ ceases to be operative, only that it will always have reference to a moment in the history of inquiry rather than to some God or material objectivity or invariant calculus that underwrites all our inquiries” (p. 439). We must be content with whatever perception of truth our beliefs and surroundings allow us to have. In Fish’s view, a reader can not know what an author meant, only what the reader’s beliefs allow. All knowledge is performance; competence, as theorized by Noam Chomsky, does not exist. 

But Fish errs in making the knowledge of objective truth an all-or-nothing proposition. His purpose is to show that the creation of theories of competence, such as Chomsky has attempted for linguistics, is “impossible” because all knowledge is derived from context-our beliefs. A perfect understanding of a person’s competence at interpreting language or literature may well be impossible to arrive at. But can not one interpretation of a text be nearer to, or farther from, what the author meant than another? If we can not have a perfect and complete theory, can we learn nothing from an incomplete one that explains many empirical observations? 

Perfect and exhaustive understanding of the meaning intended by the author is not necessary. In practice, it appears that (in Abrams’ words) “competent readers” can understand “closely enough for the purpose at hand, what the author meant” (p. 426). There is some latitude in interpretation. While the author might have had additional shades of meaning in mind, knowing an approximation is good enough for most purposes. Most people would agree that this claim holds true for everyday conversation. Why not also for literary texts? 

Fish states that his opponents have “the hope that our claims to knowledge can be ‘justified on the basis of some objective method of assessing such claims’ [quoting Keith Lehrer] rather than on the basis of the individual beliefs that have been derived from the accidents of education and experience” (p. 439). Although we filter all of our knowledge through our education and experience, and thus our beliefs, it is possible for our beliefs to be proven wrong (inconsistent with observation) and to change. We learn how to interpret literature as part of a social process. As Abrams puts it, “By interaction with more competent users and by our own developing experience with language, we come to recognize and correct our mistakes in speaking or understanding” (p. 429). This view is similar to Richards’ textual and contextual analyses. Readers can correct misreadings by examining other texts and by interacting with other readers.

Not being the text’s author, we can never be completely sure what his objective intention is. But if we are to have true communication, and the marks that represent language are to signify anything definite, we must concern ourselves with determining it. As Knapp and Michaels write, “Controversy arises only when there is a disagreement about what some particular author meant on some particular occasion” (p. 467).

Although perfect communication is impossible, it is possible and necessary for a reader to come reasonably close to understanding what a text’s author meant. Without reference to the author’s intent, meaningful communication is impossible and we are forced into Derrida’s bleak and pointless void of indecision. Any reading that competent readers consider likely to be one intended by the text’s author is an acceptable variant. Any reading that they can not plausibly consider an intended meaning of the author must be a misreading.


Abrams, M.H. “The Deconstructive Angel” Critical Inquiry, Spring 1977, 425-438.
Fish, Stanley. “Consequences.” Critical Inquiry, March 1985,433-458. 
Hirsch, Jr., E.D. “Against Theory?” Critical Inquiry, June 1983,743-747. 
Knapp, Steven, and Walter Benn Michaels. “A Reply to Richard Rorty: What Is Pragmatism?” Critical Inquiry, March 1985,467-473. 
Rorty, Richard. “Philosophy without Principles.” Critical Inquiry, March 1985, 459-465.
Thomas A. Sebok, ed. Style in Language. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1960.