Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Subdividing Meaning

With thanks to Iyov for the stimulus.

Harry Caplan in "The Four Senses of Scriptural Interpretation and the Mediaeval Theory of Preaching", Speculum, Vol. 4, No. 3. (Jul., 1929), pp. 282-290 lists nine methods of expanding a sermon from a late Dominican tractate professing the influence of St Thomas Aquinas:

  1. through concordance of authorities,

  2. through discussion of words,

  3. through explanation of the properties of things,

  4. through a multiplication of senses,

  5. through analogies and natural truths,

  6. through marking of an opposite,

  7. through comparisons,

  8. through interpretation of a name,

  9. through multiplication of synonyms.

He then subdivides number 4: "Senses are multiplied in four ways:

  1. according to the sensus historicus or literalis, by a simple explanation of the words;

  2. according to the sensus tropologicus, which looks to instruction or to the correction of morals.

  3. according to the sensus allegoricus... a sense other than the literal.

  4. the sensus anagogicus, used mystically or openly, 'the minds of the listeners are to be stirred and exhorted to the contemplation of heavenly things.'"

A nine by four subdivision of concept is a broad table supported by one leg and is inherently unstable. Of the making of many taxonomies, there is no end - but hierarchy and subdivision is a key method of visualization and understanding.

The saying - on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets - distinctly organizes for us, the hearers, a challenge to interpret the instruction and the prophetic corpus in terms that are subordinate to love of God and love of neighbour. At the same time, we are told that love of God is to be with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (with variations) and that the two great commandments are similar. So here we have a laminated table supported by three or four legs, an inherently stable structure. One can not only sit under it but one can stand on it with some degree of safety. One can also liken the saying to the identification of a pair of handles with which we can lift the canon and watch the hanging pieces as one can watch a mobile in a child's bedroom.

Point 3 above, the sense of allegory, is apophatically defined in such a way as to allow us to make "anything out of anything" as J. M. Neale puts it in his Dissertation on the Mystical and Literal Interpretation of the Psalms. (p 429 Commentary on the Psalms, Neale and Littledale 1860/1874.)

The problem of subdivision is one I have spent my life with as a student and teacher of data analysis. The content of theology and Biblical Studies is different but the principle of differentiation of difference is the same. Data is notoriously difficult to pin down - when are two classes of thing different, when will they subdivide into three, how does one balance a useful subdivision? The emphasis, for the limited time we have, must be first of all, useful. Our birth and death make usefulness a necessity. To be useful, a taxonomy needs to be understood and retained by our limited memory. So we frequently find subdivisions into 4. These are common in teaching - for example the medicine wheel of North American native tribes where many concepts are subdivided into the four directions, and animals, colours, and so on are used as imagery for pedagogy in themselves encouraging a metaphorical view of life and its many problems and mysteries.

We can see by the title of Neale's dissertation that he is dividing the Interpretations into the Mystical and Literal. His twofold division would not be understood the same way today, for his Mystical is largely Christological and Typological or as he later notes 'spiritual' and his Literal encompasses today's historical critics rather than those who might be named literalists today.

What an enormous problem - 9 items are too many for one leg, but everything with only two legs is equally problematical. Where will we find a 'useful' decomposition?

Neale lists the same fourfold decomposition cited by Caplan which was, he writes, "well known from very early times: Litera scripta docet: qui credes, Allegoria: quid speres, Anagoge: quid agas, Tropologia." So he says "S. Gregory the Great composed his Morals on Job, keeping his skeins of meaning separate."

Let's wonder how we can put new whatevers into the skeins without their breaking and spilling whatever skeins might spill.

  • Docet - teaching - from the written letter. This summarizes the whole.
  • Allegory - similarity, metaphor, image, applicability. These invite consideration - of bread to teaching, of yeast to power, of escape, of promise, of making present an ancient event, of participation, of love. I would seriously question, however, the necessity of allegory for belief. But certainly, such creative work can express the engagement of faith.
  • Anagogy - hope
  • Tropology - this too is figurative but is used of action and moral edification.

It will be seen immediately that this is not a fourfold subdivision but is governed as a whole by the issue of teaching. It is really a threefold division. But surely it is too simplistic to identify the allegorical with the spiritual! Words are so slippery, and so creative. How will the word slip into us creatively? How will we learn? Our own 7 x 3 matrix reacts pleasantly to a fourfold subdivision. But we demand clarity! It will not do to make "anything out of anything".

Caplan has another fourfold division:

  1. Peshat -- plain meaning
  2. Remez -- allegorical meaning
  3. Derash -- homiletic (or midrashic) meaning
  4. Sod -- mystical meaning

Can we put 8 legs on our table? If I attempt a quick translation: Peshat and Derash are closely related - one is a seeking out of the other. What is plain is not obvious - this is clear from the last 200 years of division among the literalists alone! That means that the allegory related to the plain is hidden and must be sought out. Horrors! The legs are not divisible - the touching skeins have refused to separate their leathery surfaces and become separate legs to truth.

Caplan points out that Augustine had a different four: historia, aetiologia, which considers causes, analogia which studies the text from the point of view of congruence of the Old and New Testament and allegoria. Aquinas subsumed these first three under the 'literal' or plain meaning. Apparently (you must find and read Caplan - not in the public domain even after all these years) Aquinas escaped into the concept of 'subtype'. This is a common escape from normalization in database design also.

What is an effective subdivision of meaning? Caplan moves onto a seven fold subdivision from Angelon of Luxeuil:

  1. historical,
  2. allegorical,
  3. a combination of the historical and allegorical,
  4. the intimation proper of tropical (sic) of Deity,
  5. parabolic - where one thing is written in Scripture but something else is meant,
  6. with respect to the two comings of the Saviour
  7. moral and figurative

Regrettably, these animals are not well named. Adam - really!

Here's a better one

  1. litteralis, historicus
  2. allegoricus, parabolicus,
  3. tropologicus, etymologicus,
  4. anagogicus, analogicus,
  5. typicus, exemplaris,
  6. anaphoricus, proportionalis,
  7. mysticus, apocolypticus, diuinis atque ineffabilis
  8. boarcademicus, primordialis

I would be hard-pressed to follow these as a means of organizing a treatise - even if I could translate them! There are too many to remember. We almost got to the original nine from Aquinas (though on inspection, some of those merge into or become subordinate to others.)

I wrote about The mystical interpretation of the Psalms a few days ago. In that note, I combined mystical and incarnate. What do I mean by mystical? Is there a subdivision of meaning that I can apply to the Scripture?

When I am involved in data analysis, there are a few questions that help: what are the object classes? how are they distinct? how are they related? what are the elements? does an element describe or identify an instance of an object? does an element run the risk of morphing into an object? What happens that creates an instance? Once created, can I find it again? If I update it, will that change affect other instances? Will it affect other objects? Can it be deleted? If an event does not happen, what then?

Events: birth, death, initiation into covenant, failure. Teach me. There must be a better way! Hope, engagement with the presence, time, forgetfulness, hurt, recovery, sin, judgment, a reliable record, love.

I have seen birth and death but had thought they were different.

  1. I think I must retain the historical. There was a Birth, certainly. So there is a plain meaning, a surface which divides the waters from the waters.
  2. I think I must retain the figurative. I am no longer at ease with the merely historical.
  3. I must retain the hidden. It encompasses the moral but is not itself moral in the sense that we can define separately. I will put it down to encounter and presence. I should be glad of another death.
I would hope to give some regulation to the figurative so that we do not make "anything from anything". But above all, I would decline to say that the hidden is without respect to our historical and literal, material life. [And, as afterthought, I think all three - the plain, the figurative, and the hidden meaning require seeking out (derash)]

1 comment:

joel said...

I'll just keep on cursing and grumbling, then.