A Shared, Yet Strangely Comforting Delusion: Cognizing Minds, Theorizing Exegesis, and Scholarship as Readerly Constructed Intentionality

By Philip L. Tite

I have recently been working through Hugo Lundhaug’s wonderful book, Images of Rebirth: Cognitive Poetics and Transformational Soteriology in the Gospel of Philip and the Exegesis on the Soul (NHMS, 73; Leiden: Brill, 2010). In this book, Lundhaug applies cognitive science of religion (CSR) to the study of ancient texts. Rarely are modern theoretical models applied to the Nag Hammadi tractates, as the field remains very philologically driven within historical-critical approaches to religious texts. Lundhaug uses theories of intertextual “blending” (especially the work of Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner) and George Lakoff’s Idealized Cognitive Models (ICMs) to analyze the potential form and function of metaphors within these two texts from Late Antiquity.

Cognitive HeadIn a section on intertextuality, we find an insightful discussion of “authorial intention and the role of the reader” (which are clearly contentious topics among religious studies theorists). At one point, Lundhaug offers a few thought-provoking quotations from Margaret Freeman and, subsequently, Raymond Gibbs on where meaning in a text lies – or is generated – within the very activation of a text. According to Freeman, “literary texts are the products of cognizing minds and their interpretations the product of other cognizing minds in the context of physical and sociocultural worlds in which they have been created and read” (Freeman, “Poetry and the Scope of Metaphor: Toward a Cognitive Theory of Literature,” in Metaphor and Metonymy at the Crossroads: A Cognitive Perspective, edited by Antonio Barcelona [Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2000], 253; cited by Lundhaug, 51). Similarly, Gibbs states:

the meaning of a text is generated by hypothesizing intentions authors might have had, given the context of creation, rather than relying on or trying to seek out the author’s subjective intentions. Readers’ interpretations of texts depend on their inferences about a hypothetical author founded in the linguistic conventions and artistic practices at the time the author wrote the work, as well as in publicly available knowledge of how the text was created. A work might display a multiplicity of meanings given the large set of intentions readers can hypothesize about an author and the conditions under which a work was written. This multiplicity of meanings is perfectly appropriate to propose, even if the actual author intended only a single interpretation for a text. (Gibbs, Intentions in the Experience of Meaning [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999], 262; cited by Lundhaug, 52, emphasis mine)

The basic idea is that in the act of reading – or reception – the intention or meaning of a text is not self-evident or absolute (as if it were possible to access authorial intention or if such intention is primary for the “meaning” of a text), but rather the “intention” is the product or products of reading or activation. Yet, such reception is not a free for all (so often when I talk to people about such ideas, I am accused of evoking relativism, with relativism being a “dirty word” where all analytical analysis collapses within self-indulgent subjectivity). Rather, the exegetical product “meaning” (along with the assumption that such a product is the real or true meaning of the author or the original meaning of the first reader/audience/recipient) only arises when the reader adopts “inferences about a hypothetical author”; thus, all such exegetical products are dependent upon the reader’s hypothetical reconstruction of the moment of authorship, occasion, and initial reception. As there are multiple sociocultural or semantic worlds, there are inevitably multiple “authentic” or “real” meanings potentially attached to a given text. The “authenticity” of such a reading or interpretation is valid for those embedded within such interpretative worlds and, consequently, invalid within other, contending interpretative worlds where other “authentic” meanings have arisen.

Such a view of text reception is nothing new for those who have read Paul Ricoeur (on the nature of “texts”), Michel Foucault (especially his concept of author-function), Julia Kristeva (especially her concept of transposition), or J. Z. Smith (especially his 2008 presidential address “Religion and Bible” published in the Journal of Biblical Literature). Indeed, Smith’s call for us to shift away from exegetical analysis to the reception and construction of canons (= sacred texts as “sets” of trajectories or traditions as it were) attempts to move scholars – such as Lundhaug or myself – to stop looking for the meaning of a text (after all, are we not imposing our own hypothetical reconstruction of the author onto the text?) lest we simply become practitioners of (insider?) exegesis rather than being critical theorists of “religion” who are exploring the continually shifting construction of “sacred texts” within a plurality of semantic contexts. For those who still find value in the interpretation or exegesis of religious texts – even within explanatory frameworks, such as those drawn from the social sciences – Gibbs and Freeman’s comments are not surprising. Indeed, the shift toward literary models in the 1970s and ‘80s and the rise of reader-response or reception criticism in the 1990s are heavily indebted to such theoretical problematizing of authorial intention, exegesis, and hermeneutics. Thus, within a range of scholarly circles, we are becoming more comfortable with the concept of “readerly constructed intentionality” (Lundhaug, 53). At least that has been my experience over the past twenty-five years working with early Christian materials.

However, there is another implication that is often overlooked in method & theory discussions contrasting interpretation and explanation (and let me be clear that I appreciate and embrace such a distinction). Specifically, in the reading of each other’s scholarship are we not also engaged in “exegesis,” if, by exegesis, we mean discovering the originary or authentic meaning of a text? When I read an academic article, monograph, thesis, or even blog post, I also try to “get at” the meaning, agenda, or argument of the author. For example, I just started reading the most recent issue of the Journal of Early Christian Studies, and at the end of each article (or abstract, depending on the article and my interest level), I have a “view” of “what the author is arguing”; i.e., I have interpreted what, for example, Brian Sowers or Todd Berzon are trying to accomplish in their research.

As a reader, I hypothesize the conditions and intentions/agenda of the author even when that author is another scholar. My “author” is not Aristotle, Paul (Pauline corpus of letters), Irenaeus (Against Heresy), Snorri Sturluson (the Edda), Muhammad (or whoever wrote/recited the Qur’an), Anton LaVey (The Satanic Bible), or Bahá u’lláh (the Tablets), but rather Hugo Lundhaug, Catherine Caufield, Craig Martin, Margo Kitts, Bart Ehrman, J. Z. Smith, Maureen Korp, Amina Wadud, or Randi Warne. I’m reading other scholars and I’m constructing what I believe is a plausible “what do they mean” interpretation or reading of those scholarly “texts”. Even within a genealogical approach, such as Aaron Hughes’ recent (and excellent) look at “Abrahamic religions” in the pages of the Bulletin, our very meta-critical conclusions are the product of our cognizing minds as we attempt to reconstruct (or construct!) narratives of shifting cognizing minds within historical processes (and, of course, historical reconstructions are always narrative mappings, i.e., hypothesized developments over time; thus, there is a sociology of knowledge driving even a sociology of knowledge). As we read scholarship, we still face the same problems of “interpretation” that we face when reading our data (i.e., religious texts). Indeed, in the very process of theorizing we render scholarship as data. Thus, when we say “According to Warne, gender relations in the academy are …” or “Caufield challenges us to explore disruptive narratives in popular culture …” or even when we engage our own work (“My critics have misread my work” or “In my earlier work, I argued that …”) we play the same role as a reader. We hypothesize a possible context within which we understand scholarly positions, critical viewpoints, and trends in the study of a given topic. When we do research, we inevitably engage in exegesis.

Lundhaug goes on to indicate (see, I’m exegeting Lundhaug!) that such cognitive products are not simply dependent on the reader. Quoting Fauconnier (see, Lundhaug is exegeting Fauconnier!), he states that a “linguistic expression … does not have a meaning in itself; rather, it has a meaning potential” (55; emphasis original). Central to such an insight is the role of the interpretative community (evoking Stanley Fish). Thus, the expression carries meaning because we transpose a set of possible contextual factors onto the reading, often infused with our own cultural location(s), assumptions, and (explicit or implicit) agendas (i.e., our own contextual factors). We as readers create contexts of meaning potential and thus, to apply such insights to our reading of scholarship, we impose social (and cognitive) constraints onto the scholarship we engage, including no less our own scholarship.

Such reflexivity as applied to scholarly interaction raises serious questions about whether we can ever really know anything. Can we actually critique, correct, develop, challenge, or affirm academic positions if all such positions are simply the result of meaning potential(s) arising from our own interpretative communities? To be honest, I have no answer to this question. Just as Bertrand Russell (in Our Knowledge of the External World [London: Routledge, 1993; original 1914]) pushed the epistemological limits of our knowledge construction beyond commonsense or everyday experiences while recognizing that such disruption does not necessarily negate the functional role of daily experience of an external reality, so also perhaps with scholarship; i.e., in order to exist within the academy (and to interact effectively with each other in general), we assume authorial intentions or meanings when we read and debate scholarship – just as we do in daily life even though there is no certainty that we can know what we know about the world beyond ourselves (and perhaps even our knowledge of ourselves is questionable). But before we simply reject the insights of those scholars who are challenging exegesis (be that exegesis of ancient texts, modern scholars, or even ourselves), as if a return to simple naiveté is the only theoretical default (at least for those who want to have careers in academia!), or throw out the entire academic enterprise (and perhaps enter a state of utter madness) let me make a simple suggestion.

Just as we are enriched by those challenging us to move beyond the exegetical or interpretative “meaning” of a given text and to recognize the interpretative communities underlying the very production-through-reception of a given interpretation (including the interpretation of an interpretation), perhaps we should do the same when we read each other’s scholarship. All scholarship is the product of a given contextual or situational framework, be that cultural, historical, ideological, or theoretical. We live in interpretative communities as scholars, including those of us who study the study of religion. Our reflexivity is a corrective, a caution, and a challenge to not settle into a comfort zone of absolute understanding or “meaning” even within academic discourse. It means, in part, that we can never fully understand each other. Rather, we should more effectively appreciate the role of our own assumptions as cognizing minds producing cognizing products. That we do such cognizing within social networks, however, gives us hope (if hope can be valued in this process at all!) of “understanding” or engaging each other. Our private worlds and our public worlds seem to overlap, if not in actuality (if there is such a thing) then certainly practically (for those producing scholarship, associations, and conversations). Indeed, the very criteria of academic “plausibility” (and thus correction, affirmation, and denouncement) are only valid within such shared webs of meaning. Yet, we must always recall that such “meanings” and overlapping webs are nothing more than (individually and socially) internalized – and thus normalized – potential meanings now rendered into plausible or obvious meanings. We can critically engage such processes by elucidating the ICMs and data input processes that allow cognitive blending to arise within the very production of scholarship. The key, I suppose, is to extend such analysis to ourselves and our own “interpretative communities” in acts of self-reflexivity.

But then again, perhaps academic interaction – much like the exegesis of “religious texts” – is nothing more than a shared, yet strangely comforting delusion.


Philip L. Tite (Ph.D. McGill University, 2005) is the editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion and (with James Crossley) of Postscripts, is a specialist in early Christian studies with strong interests in method & theory in the academic study of religion, and is an affiliate lecturer in the Comparative Religion Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the author of several books, most recently The Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans: An Epistolary and Rhetorical Analysis (TENT, 7; Leiden: Brill, 2012).


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