Does Interpretation Change a Work’s Meaning?
Another way of putting this question is to ask whether an artwork changes its meaning over time due to the accretion of differing interpretations. No one denies that with each interpretation works of art have a trivial new property of now having this new interpretation. But does the interpretation actually have an affect on the work? Do interpretations of Hamlet change Hamlet? The theory that interpretations change meaning is called constructivism. The interpretation, on this view, contributes to the creative process. The creative process does not stop with the artist or author’s completion of the work. Those who oppose constructivism usually try to distinguish between significance and meaning: meaning, on this view, remains the same, but significance changes. As Stephen Davies puts it “Its significance is what we make of its meaning when we consider the relation between its meaning and matters of interest or value to us.” The trouble is, when one looks at one’s interpretation of a work, it is not clear how one is to distinguish the experience of meaning from that of significance. Davies and a number of other philosophers reject constructivism. There does seem to be a problem with the notion that the meaning of the work changes. You can’t have a metaphysical theory in which things change in two completely different ways at the same time because the same thing is interpreted differently at that time. The problem however is based on entrenched ways of speaking and thinking. We can make a strong case for constructivism by describing the matter in a different way. On this view, there is no thing strictly called “the meaning” but rather there is actualization of a potential, and each interpretation actualizes the potential in a different way. (Joseph Margolis has similarly said that there is no determinate meaning, but that meaning is determinable.) The “meaning” in the traditional sense is still an object of thought, but it is simply an unrealizable ideal: a fiction. The meaning in this sense does not change, but then it has no content. There is nothing wrong of course with holding (as a kind of useful myth) that the work has one true unchanging interpretation or meaning. The real-world meaning is the potential a thing has for interpretation: the potential that is actualized in the interpretation. This potential (the meaning of the work in the only sense that there is a real meaning rather than just an ideal one) does change over time, which is to say that the possible actualizations of the meaning of the work change. You can interpret the work in way a, b or c at time t, but some possibilities fall out and others arise later, so that you can interpret it in way c, d or e at time t2. Actually, with the arrival of a new interpretation other possibilities for other interpretations emerge. The interpretation constructs the work anew, but it also opens up a field of possibility. What opponents of constructivism fail to account for is what Margolis has called the flux of history. Meanings do not exist eternal and unchanging, there for us to find...not any more than Platonic Forms do. There is not evidence for such things. Finally, there is no problem, on this account, with multiple interpretations interpreting different objects, for example, of there being a different Hamlet for each interpretation. Hamlet remains the same as does its ideal but content-less “meaning.” The notion that what changes is how we look at the work and not the work itself depends on a strict mind/world dualism that I cannot accept. Works of art as living things: they gain their life by being part of a creative process that continues in the understandings and interpretations of their audiences.
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