Sunday, November 21, 2010

Internal Criticism: A Brief Reflection



Copyright   2002 José Cossa

Internal criticism, aka positive criticism, is the attempt of the researcher to restore the meaning of the text. This is the phase of hermeneutics in which the researcher engages with the meaning of the text rather than the external elements of the document. Here, more than before, domain specific knowledge of context is essential.

In this stage of investigation the researcher and exegete engage in positive criticism, which attempts to restore the meaning of statements, and negative criticism, which places doubt on what external and positive criticism have established as reasonable findings. Here the researcher and exegete combat both aesogesis and untrustworthiness.

In positive criticism the historian and exegete assess the literal meaning of the text and the real meaning of statements. Literal meanings are the immediate meanings of a document and often fool the immature reader. Often poetry is written in a way that the meaning is hidden behind a style of language, i.e., literary devices, which necessitate an understanding of such language and what rules are applied to identify and interpret them. For example, Psalm 1 is full of metaphors and simile and unless the reader understands such devices there is no way one can understand the meaning of the passage; however, before venturing into the discovery of a meaning behind the literal text, the reader must deal with the text as is by asking “what does the statement say?” and then ask “what’s the point the author is making in the statement?” In the case of Psalm 1, the reader will soon discover that there is more to the text than a simple aim of beautifying ones relationship with God by using literary devices – there is power of meaning in the metaphors and similes used by the author and a reason for the author to select such metaphors. I am talking here of authorial intent, which in itself raises controversy as to whether such can really be known in the absence of the original author (Ryken). The verdict pronounced by some theologians such as the Biblical theology of missions’ advocates is that the theme of missio Dei is the standard against which to judge the truthfulness of meaning and legitimacy of purpose of a scriptural text.

There is another problem of language that pertains to the fact that some texts, i.e., Shakespeare, the KJV Bible, were not written in today’s language. This also requires a contextual understanding of the style in which the text was written before the attribution of meaning. For example, in the archaic English of the KJV the word gay means happy while in today’s society such is a reference to sexual orientation.

While positive criticism simply attempts to ascertain what the text means by analyzing its statements within a context, i.e., literary, historical, geographical, etc.; in negative criticism, the historian conducts (a) tests of competence; (b) gossip, humor and slander; (b) myths, legends and traditions; (c) tests of truthfulness; and, (d) discredit statements. According to Hockett, in the latter, the critic engages in ascertaining what opportunity the maker of the statement had to know the facts, i.e., eyewitness versus the conditions under which the witness observed the event and how the witness relates to other witness accounts, the position of observation, etc.. Essentially, this is the starting point of ascertaining the meaning of the text. Other sources that must equally be checked against their background are newspaper claims which may be tinted with issues of affiliation and patronage. The claims within the newspapers articles of slavery times should be scrutinized against the times and the civilization in vogue. For example, I would doubt any news article written by the mainstream newspapers during slavery times reporting on an issue of rape of a white woman by a black male, but if the Chicago Times in 2002 reported the same I would be more inclined to believe although not without suspicion since racism and stereotypes are still evident in today’s society.

The other elements to be doubted are oral testimony in the form of gossip, rumor, slander, myth, legends, and traditions, because they often result from various motives that might be questionable. The integrity of the source is of utmost importance. However, Hockett stands firmly on positivistic grounds and diminishes the value of orate traditions. Glick supports the opposite of what Hockett propagates, and today there is more evidence that even within orate traditions there are experts and novices and such experts merit greater reliance (Goldman).

Hockett discusses tests of truthfulness that might aid the researcher to deal with the question of whether the integrity of the source always goes hand-in-hand with the statements being true. The advice is to inquire whether the source had any personal interest, and the affiliation of the source to race, party, sect, society, etc. In the example of the rape during slavery, one is more likely to doubt a statement made in those days by the newspaper because the journalists were likely to be Caucasians and a part of the elite. The intentions of the source are coupled with bias, which is an enemy of impartial truth, if such [impartial truth] ever exists. To deal with bias one has to be aware of the different perspectives of the writers as they have been, or are, influenced by factors of various kinds. For instance, Hockett’s bias is evident as he rests on one methodology, i.e., positivism, to ascertain facts. His advice to refrain from investigating miracles when such are against the laws of nature is clear evidence that historians have strong biases too.
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