At least until recently, when the political encounter with the Other has overwhelmed the earlier concern for the internal operations of Western culture, and by extension, of culture in general, the central professional activity of the Humanities has been hermeneutics, the interpretation of cultural texts. In this operation, the prior givenness of the text is taken for granted and the outside world is bracketed, to be understood via the text alone.

Hermeneutics is an inherently “late” practice, premised on the prior “naïve” or “immediate” relationship between a given cultural work and its audience. Even as we recognize the mediated nature of the “presence” of the work to the spectator, whether in keeping with neurological studies of perception or in homage to Derrida’s notion of différance, we must still distinguish between one’s experience of a play in the theater and one’s critical reflection on it, even on the level of a conversation between spouses on the way home. Because the artwork is not consecrated in advance as a sacred object, its operation on the spectator is open to potentially unending interpretative discourse and discussion. The attention granted to an artwork anticipates a deferral analogous to that produced by the first sign; was this work worthy of this honor? The resentment one feels at the failure of an artwork reinforces the resentment the artwork had been supposed to defer. The point at issue is not so much that one has “wasted one’s time” as that one has worshiped at a false shrine.

Hermeneutics has the attraction of reducing our experience of the universe to a cultural one; it is, in other words, a form of originary analysis. But it does not know itself as such; its self-consciousness is not linked to any hypothesis of origin. On the contrary, it is a phenomenological self-consciousness that seeks the source of experience in the self rather than the originary community. Hermeneutics discovers the world in the text as a set of mental contents that substitute themselves for the elements of worldly experience. In this context, to reflect on hermeneutics itself, to engage in meta-hermeneutics, is to examine the process within the interpreter’s mind as he attempts to give meaning to the text by assimilating these contents.

We cannot reflect on hermeneutics without at some point taking up the question of the interaction of the historical and transhistorical elements of interpretative self-consciousness, but the “hermeneutic circle” that mediates between a contemporary mind and its construction of a past one will not provide us with the originary connection of hermeneutics to human representation. The great scandal of modern thought is its enslavement to phenomenology, its turning away from hypotheses of collective origin to the interior of the individual mind on the pretext that there alone can evidence of human experience be found. If anthropology is indeed the fundamental human science, then any originary hypothesis, not excluding its religious forms, is preferable to starting from so-called empirical experience. We should applaud the Enlightenment’s liberation of thought from religious dogma, but understanding the human without dogma requires a non-dogmatic originary hypothesis, not a starting point in the self-revealed human mind. Kant’s antinomies express the problem of the appropriate starting point in the most lucid fashion available to the Enlightenment, but Kant, for whom we are creatures of reason whose contingent animal status is of no particular interest, could not see that an anthropological hypothesis is the only path between the horns of the dilemma. He might have thought differently had he reflected on the problematic nature of the origin of language.


The originary moment of interpretation takes place around the central object as the sign is reciprocally repeated. The sign affirms the triangular relationship between the individuals on the periphery and the central object to which each draws the others’ attention. Each repetition of the aborted gesture is itself a form of “interpretation,” mimetically conveying to the other participants that the sign should be of a certain form, and that the object that occasioned it, otherwise inaccessible, is being re-presented by it. Human history begins with this “interpretation” that defers mimetic conflict through the shared decision to understand the originary sign as meaning the object-as-sacred/significant. But the unanimous conferral of meaning on a sign is not what we mean by hermeneutics, which is posterior to the sign’s originary function to defer violence.

In the originary scene, the referent of the unique sign is selected from the entire universe as the sole bearer of sacred significance. The sign represents only this; the rest of the universe is not worthy of representation, since at this specific moment it plays no significant role in the deferral of violence. Yet the rest of the universe remains potentially desirable, and the new human community cannot remain indifferent to it.

Hence although the first sign represents only the central object, it can be “interpreted” to comprehend the entire universe, all of which can be understood as potentially significant in terms of its relation to the unique sign. Indeed, the proof that this happened is simply the fact that language did expand to include every possibly representable object; anything we find of interest can receive a name in any language and become subject to predication. Thus what we call hermeneutics originates as the explanation of the rest of the world in terms of the originary sign that designates the sacred. Durkheim’s ur-categories of sacred and profane characterize a stage of this extension where the various objects in the world are understood as divided between those to which the sacred sign, which may proliferate into forms as varied as our modern vocabulary, has or has not been extended.

According to this model, the operation of hermeneutics on a sacred text consists in making the meanings found in the text by “naïve” interpretation extensible to the remainder of the universe. This is most simply observed in the derivation from the sacred text of laws to be applied to human behavior in various circumstances. The interpretation of the US Constitution by Supreme Court justices and others follows a similar pattern. Hermeneutics in this sense is a process of finding in the text answers to questions that the text itself does not explicitly ask. The Talmud is a compendium of discussions concerning the laws to be derived from the text of the Torah, both from those parts that are explicitly legislative (“thou shalt not kill”) and from those that narrate a history whose models of exemplary and forbidden behavior must be elucidated in order to be converted into legal form.


The emergence of “secular” art that operates on the individual scene of representation rather than the collective one of ritual extends the hermeneutical derivation of ethical laws to the elucidation of the “lesson” in the deferral of violence provided by the artwork. The Greeks read Homer as both a sacred and a “literary” text, taking from it lessons that we would reserve for our holy books while nevertheless appreciating purely formal factors that are not normally part of biblical interpretation. All esthetic interpretation may be seen as an extension of this ethical, legislative function. We seek in the most trivial artwork a “lesson” about life, and formal criteria from the trois unités to the Entfremdungseffekt are designed as means of insuring that the work meets an internal standard of quality that will permit it to most effectively convey its ethical lesson to the public.

The archetype of modern hermeneutics is the New-Critical analysis of a poem or other literary text. The critic strives by means of a potentially interminable interpretive process to comprehend the work as a self-contained whole, comprising elements whose interrelations are all of potential significance, but the explication of which requires no explicit reference to the historical context outside the work. This concentration on internal coherence need not exclude “intertextual” reference to other works referred or alluded to in the primary work, or offering useful parallels to it.

From the standpoint of originary hermeneutics, the internal structures of the work are significant because the work is a microcosm of the human universe as a whole. Significance is one, however fragmented its vehicles. The New Critics’ working postulate that every poem is structured by a paradox—a more profound version of what classical criticism called “unity in diversity”—reflects the fact that every cultural work bears the mark of the originary paradox of signification. That is, the sign designates as already significant what it at the same time makes significant; it designates a worldly manifold as already one and by that very gesture creates its unity.

The opening chapter of Cleanth Brooks’ canonical The Well Wrought Urn (Harcourt, 1947) cites Shakespeare’s lines (referring to the love union of the Phoenix and the Turtle in their eponymous poem) “Single natures [sic] double name / Neither two nor one was called.” Brooks pursues: “Precisely! The nature is single, one, unified. But the name is double . . . If the poet is to be true to his poetry, he must call it neither two nor one: the paradox is his only solution” (20).

As Shakespeare’s poem reformulates the originary paradox, the single center to which the artist reduces the world can be conceived in the imagination only as a plurality, so that a multiplicity of words, images, or sounds are necessary to express this unity. (The Christian Trinity is an analogous construct of the multiplicity contained within the unity of the sacred subject.) In the originary event, the sacred center is one, and the sign is one. But the object that occupies the center must be potentially “multiple” in order to permit the satisfaction of the multiple appetites of the group in the sparagmos, which is precisely a “multiplication.” As for the sign itself, its role as a vehicle of meaning depends on its physical existence in the manifold. The aborted gesture of appropriation becomes a sign when it takes form, turns back upon itself as a self-contained gesture that, even as a single phoneme, exists as a physical quantity. The semiotic world of meaning is a transcendent one; in the real world, both signs and their referents are spatio-temporally extended.

The “well wrought” poem manifests the paradoxical tension between the unity of its intention and the plurality of the imaginary “objective correlative” that it evokes as a model of our desiring experience of the world. The single will that presides over the artwork can reveal itself only through the work’s plurality of signs. The reader’s oscillatory movement between sign and referent is guaranteed by the search for the unity that can be supplied only by the work’s subject. Even the least openly self-reflective work manifests this structure, which is that of cultural life itself.

Yet the New Critical understanding of paradox is insufficient. It is limited to an amateur philosopher’s notion of the logical paradox of self-reference, whereas the paradox that is fundamental to language itself is not logical but pragmatic—a term we owe to Gregory Bateson and his school. The classical example of pragmatic paradox is the mother telling her son to “be spontaneous,” but in the originary event, what is paradoxical in the signifying act is not that it gives an order that cannot be obeyed, but that it designates as (already) significant an object that perforce preexisted significance itself. Societies before recent times foreclosed this paradox by dogmatically imposing a preexisting sacred; modern rationalism denies the paradox by arbitrarily presuming the prior existence of signification. Only the originary hypothesis provides a model of the paradoxical situation itself.

The extension of the originary paradox to the external world that constitutes hermeneutics should be understood in terms not of logical inclusion but of desire, the supplement to appetite provided by representation. To take the example of tragedy, the most highly structured of classical literary forms, the esthetic representation leads the spectator to construct an imaginary world in which he “identifies” with or espouses the desires of the protagonist. But he identifies at the same time with the “tragic” intention of the esthetic subject to sacrifice these desires. This paradoxical doubleness of intention holds as well when the outcome is positive (“comic”), since the desire we espouse in the imaginary world of the work is not the samedesire as the esthetic intentionality that presides over the work. The latter may provide a favorable outcome for desireswithin the work, but not in the terms in which these desires present themselves to us as subjective attributes of the individual characters.

It is in this sense that the unified intention of the esthetic sign is paradoxically related to the manifold world that the sign constructs. In the language of the Shakespearian lines cited above, the “double name” of the desiring couple as the bearers of imaginary desire can only be reconciled by the “single nature” of the poem’s esthetic intention. The double name, like the names of “Phoenix” and “Turtle” joined in the title (not in fact given by Shakespeare), is neither two nor one, since its unity as an effect of esthetic intention exists prior to its created doubleness.

Thus we may follow the New Critics in defining hermeneutics as the search for each work’s central paradox, but only provided we understand this paradox pragmatically, as the necessarily self-contradictory tension between worldly-imaginary desire and transcendent intentionality. The ethical “lesson” the work holds for us can only be elucidated by examining what in the desires themselves makes them incapable of either fulfillment or tragic unfulfillment independently of the transcendent intentionality of the esthetic subject. Not all desires are tragic, but all are paradoxical, because all—those in the real world as well—depend on the transcendental subjectivity of representation. But the world of the artwork, unlike the real world, has a knowable subject whose intention we can attempt to induce from its products. The task of literary hermeneutics is to make explicit such intentions and their pragmatic consequences. In sacred texts, on the contrary, God, having preempted the origin of signification, is presumed to transmit his lessons untrammeled by the paradoxes of desire–unless one chooses to read “the Bible as literature.”