Modern hermeneutics begins with F. D. E. Schleiermacher who systematized hermeneutics, developing it from a group of disparate disciplines meant to apply to different fields of discourse to a set of procedures applicable to all. Schleiermacher also insists on a methodical practice of interpretation including grammatical interpretation, which attends to an author’s language, and psychological or technical interpretation, which attends to an author’s intentions. In moving to philosophical hermeneutics, Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer refocus away from the procedures conducive to understanding and towards the conditions under which understanding occurs: namely, in the context of our ongoing projects and purposes and the interrelations they involve. For Gadamer, these conditions lead to a rethinking of the Enlightenment’s criticism of tradition and prejudice. The context of understanding is a historically developed one. Indeed, Heidegger and Gadamer conceive of the so-called hermeneutic circle of whole and part not as a method for coming to a definitive understanding of a text, as Schleiermacher does, but rather as a reflection of our historical circumstances. We are the result of the effective histories of the very texts and discourses we seek to understand. To the extent that we are, however, we participate in their traditions and are oriented or prejudiced by the assumptions they hand down to us. The problem with a Schleiermachian reliance on interpretive method, then, is that it pretends to an objectivity that it cannot attain and thereby gives up on the possibility of acknowledging and interrogating prejudice. Schleiermacher’s focus on intentions is equally problematic. To the extent that we concentrate only or primarily on the intentions or thoughts behind an author’s or speaker’s expression, we fail to take their expressions up as possible insights or valid claims. In contrast, philosophical hermeneutics asks us to take works of literature seriously with regard to their subject matter, or Sache, and to engage dialogically in a process of clarifying an issue or subject matter for ourselves. In short, we miss much of what we can learn about a subject matter if we look to intentions over content. Likewise, we miss much of what we can learn about ourselves if we look to method and forgo dialogue.
The term poetics designates both a field of study and the practice of a particular author or group of authors. Aristotle’s Poetics, the most important work of literary theory in the Western tradition, undertakes to describe in systematic fashion the major forms of literature, the components of each, and how these elements contribute to the effects desired. Aristotle proceeds on the assumption that there is a comprehensive structure of knowledge attainable about poetry, which is not the experience of poetry, but poetics. Such a poetics treats literature as an autonomous object of knowledge, whose major genres or forms it seeks to analyze. This is an explicit poetics; but we also speak of the poetics implicit in the work of an individual writer, or of a group of writers, or of the literature of an era, as in The Poetics of Dante’s Paradiso, or even The Poetics of Postmodernism, which focus on the characteristic techniques, compositional habits, and ways of treating subjects in the literary practice under consideration. As the latter title indicates, the term poetics is used even when the literature treated does not include much poetry. Poetics can be distinguished from literary history, in that it focuses on literature as a system of possibilities rather than as a historical sequence or a practice in history, although categories from poetics will be important for any study of the evolution of literature. In literary theory, poetics is set apart for concentrating on intrinsic characteristics of literature as a system, as opposed to treating it as a phenomenon to be explained in social, historical, economic, or psychological terms. Poetics is particularly distinguished from hermeneutics or interpretation, in that it does not attempt to determine the meaning of literary works but asks how they function: What are characteristics of different literary genres and their constituents? How do their various elements work together to produce the effects they do for readers? Many contributions to the theory of literature can be seen as contributions to poetics, insofar as they try to explain the nature of literature and describe some of its major forms, even if they are presented as arguments about the literary practice of a particular period or literary mode. Western poetics begins with Aristotle, whose poetics is based on drama: literature is defined an imitation of action, in which plot is central. In Chinese and Japanese cultures, by contrast, foundational poetics have been drawn from lyric poetry and have focused on affect and expression rather than on representation. In the history of Western poetics mimesis has remained fundamental, despite changes that, from time to time, treat literature as the expression of the experience of the author or the attempt to create certain experiences for the reader.
In modern parlance, midrash (Hebrew root drš, “to investigate, seek, search out, examine”) refers to any act of interpretation, but in its strictest and most precise sense it refers to ancient rabbinic biblical interpretation. Midrash is both the process and product of interpretation contained in vast compilations of midrashim (plural) as well as in other rabbinic works such as the Talmud. Compendia of midrashim not only preserve interpretations and teachings but also reveal a curiously postmodern, polysemic approach to scriptural exegesis. These compilations are often categorized according to three (problematic) descriptive binaries: halakhic or aggadic; tannaitic (70–200 ce) or amoraic (200–500 ce); and exegetical or homiletical. Through the midrashic process, the Jewish sages of antiquity made the Bible relevant to their contemporaries, taught moral lessons, told fanciful stories, and developed as well as maintained theological beliefs and ethical codes of behavior. The study of midrash provides a portal into the cultural world of the rabbis of late antiquity; it also serves to highlight their approach to and assumptions about scripture, and their guiding hermeneutical practices and principles. Midrashic interpretation employs a variety of exegetical techniques that are often tightly connected to the language of scripture. In addition to wordplay, the rabbis occasionally use gematria, whereby the arithmetical value of Hebrew letters is used to interpret a word or verse. Intertextuality and the atomicization of scriptural words, phrases, and verses are fundamental characteristics of the midrashic method. Although the term midrash applies specifically to rabbinic biblical interpretation, it is sometimes used more broadly as a synonym for aggadah, which includes rabbinic stories, maxims, and parables. Critical editions of midrashic compilations as well as digital advancements and translations give scholars in cognate fields the necessary tools to understand rabbinic literature and undertake comparative studies.
What allegory is and how it functions varies hugely throughout its history in the European tradition. One version of allegory sees it as a rhetorical strategy by which a speaker or writer can say one thing but mean another, by means of an extended figuration. A different, theological understanding of it is that allegory consists of events, described in the Bible, which themselves represent other events or spiritual realities, so that the world in a certain sense signifies. Both understandings draw inspiration from Platonist or Neoplatonist philosophical traditions and textual practices. Whatever the justification for such an understanding of hermeneutics, taking a text to have a concealed meaning poses problems. Can such meaning be identified? Who is responsible for that meaning? Consideration of allegory necessitates consideration of texts’ readers, who are variously understood to gain pleasure and understanding through the experience of interpretation or to be faced with a cognitive conundrum according to which the meaning that allegory promises is impossible to find or even to articulate. The work of interpretation is also foregrounded in the commitment in classical, medieval, and modern approaches to allegoresis, the identification of concealed meanings in earlier texts. Such readings find, for example, philosophical truths concealed in the fables of Greek and Roman mythography. While allegorical approaches dominate European 12th-century Scholastic philosophy and literature, as the Middle Ages progress, an Aristotelian literalism overshadows a more Platonist commitment to figuration. Allegory continues in playful narrative poetry, written in the vernacular, in which allegory’s paradoxes and ironies can be enjoyed and indulged, all the while holding out the promise of hidden meanings to committed interpreters. Rejected as stilted and backward by Romantic thinkers, allegory nonetheless persists, both as reclaimed by 20th-century theorists from Walter Benjamin to Northrop Frye and more generally as a way of understanding aesthetic productions whose meaning is not immediately available. Thinking allegorically and thinking about allegory have been at the heart of literary theory and practice in the Western tradition for over two millennia, so that to think about allegory is necessarily to think about what literature means.
Rossana De Angelis
The concept of “text” is ambiguous: it can identify at the same time a concrete reality and an abstract one. Indeed, text presents itself both as an empirical object subject to analysis and an abstract object constructed by the analysis itself. This duplicity characterizes the development of the concept in the 20th century. According to different theories of language, there are also different understandings of “text”: a restricted use as written text, an extensive use as written and spoken text, and an expanded use as any written, verbal, gestural, or visual manifestation. The concept of “text” also presupposes two other concepts: from a generative point of view, it involves a proceeding by which something becomes a text (textualization); from an interpretative point of view, it involves a proceeding by which something can be interpreted as a text (textuality). In textual linguistics, “text” is considered at the same time as an abstract object, issued from a specific theoretical approach, and a concrete object, a linguistic phenomenon starting the process of analysis. In textual linguistics, textuality presents as a global quality of text issued from the interlacing of the sentences composing it. In linguistics, the definition of textuality depends on the definition of text. For instance, M. A. K. Halliday and Ruqaiya Hasan define textuality through the concepts of “cohesion” and “coherence.” Cohesion is a necessary condition of textuality, because it enables text to be perceived as a whole, but it’s not sufficient to explain it. In fact, to be interpreted as a whole, the elements composing the text need to be coherent to each other. But according to Robert-Alain De Beaugrande and Wolfgang Ulrich Dressler, cohesion and coherence are only two of the seven principles of textuality (the other five being intentionality, acceptability, informativity, situationality, and intertextuality). Textual pragmatics deals with a more complex problem: that of the text conceived as an empirical object. Here the text is presented as a unit captured in a communication process, “a communicative unit.” Considered from a pragmatic point of view, every single unit composing a text constitutes an instruction for meaning. Since the 1970s, analyzing connections between texts and contexts, textual pragmatics, has been an important source of inspiration for textual semiotics. In semiotics, the theory of language proposed by Louis T. Hjelmslev, the concept of “text” is conceived above all as a process and a “relational hierarchy.” Furthermore, according to Hjelmslev, textuality consists in the idea of “mutual dependencies,” composing a whole which makes the text an “absolute totality” to be interpreted by readers and analyzed by linguists. Since texts are composed of a network of connections at both local and global levels, their analyses depend on the possibility to reconstruct the relation between global and local dimensions. For this reason, François Rastier suggests that in order to capture the meaning of a text, the semantic analysis must identify semantic forms at different semantic levels. So textuality comes from the articulation between the semantic and phemic forms (content and expression), and from the semantic and phemic roots from which the forms emerge. Textuality allows the reader to identify the interpretative paths through which to understand the text. This complex dynamic is at the foundation of this idea of textuality. Now that digital texts are available, researchers have developed several methods and tools to exploit such digital texts and discourse, representing at the same time different approaches to meaning. Text Mining is based on a simple principle: the identification and processing of textual contents to extract knowledge. By using digital tools, the intra-textual and inter-textual links can be visualized on the screen, as lists or tables of results, which permits the analysis of the occurrences and frequency of certain textual elements composing the digital texts. So, another idea of text is visible to the linguist: not the classical one according to the culture of printed texts, but a new one typical of the culture of digital texts, and their textuality.
Description is generally associated with the novel in its modern form, a perception captured in one of the dictums from Gustave Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas: “Descriptions: There are always too many of them in novels.” But description has a much longer history and abounds in other genres, from the epic to lyric and didactic poetry to tragedy and beyond. In the 18th century, it was even considered a genre unto itself, in the newly conceived genre of descriptive poetry popularized by the Scottish poet James Thomson. Description also features prominently in genres of writing often considered nonliterary, such as encyclopedias, scientific writing, how-to manuals, and travel guides. Indeed, critical suspicion surrounding description in Western rhetorical and poetic tradition stems in part from the perception that it can too easily become a site for the incursion of the nonliterary (i.e., things rather than people, scientific or technical knowledge, abstruse vocabulary) into the literary domain. Description resists easy definition and has been characterized as one of the blind spots of Western literary discourse. In antiquity, rhetorical and poetic treatises gave scant attention to description, and neoclassical poetic doctrine was more concerned with policing description’s boundaries than defining it. It was not until the 18th century that description emerged as a theoretical problem worthy of debate and as a prominent literary practice. Since antiquity, description has been associated with visualization and the visual arts, through the rhetorical figures of enargeia and ekphrasis and the Renaissance doctrine of ut pictura poesis. Through this association, description has close ties to mimesis and has proved especially vulnerable to Platonic attacks on poetry, and on literature more broadly, as a mere copy of reality. In the 19th century, description featured prominently in the realist novel, but in the mid-20th century it was used, notably by the French New Novelists, as a means of contesting realism. Formalist and structuralist criticism sparked renewed interest in theorizing description in the 1970s and 1980s. At the beginning of the 21st century, in an age of interdisciplinarity when the boundaries between the literary and the nonliterary have become increasingly porous, description has once again emerged as a key theoretical problem for thinking across disciplines and has even been proposed as a new mode of reading that avoids the pitfalls of humanist hermeneutics.
Close reading describes a set of procedures and methods that distinguishes the scholarly apprehension of textual material from the more prosaic reading practices of everyday life. Its origins and ancestry are rooted in the exegetical traditions of sacred texts (principally from the Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Zoroastrian, and Islamic traditions) as well as the philological strategies applied to classical works such as the Homeric epics in the Greco-Roman tradition, or the Chinese 詩經 (Shijing) or Classic of Poetry. Cognate traditions of exegesis and commentary formed around Roman law and the canon law of the Christian Church, and they also find expression in the long tradition of Chinese historical commentaries and exegeses on the Five Classics and Four Books. As these practices developed in the West, they were adapted to medieval and early modern literary texts from which the early manifestations of modern secular literary analysis came into being in European and American universities. Close reading comprises the methodologies at the center of literary scholarship as it developed in the modern academy over the past one hundred years or so, and has come to define a central set of practices that dominated scholarly work in English departments until the turn to literary and critical theory in the late 1960s. This article provides an overview of these dominant forms of close reading in the modern Western academy. The focus rests upon close reading practices and their codification in English departments, although reference is made to non-Western reading practices and philological traditions, as well as to significant nonanglophone alternatives to the common understanding of literary close reading.