Text interpretation

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Under textual interpretation is meant to go beyond the mere text description attempt the meaning of a text , connected to it intended effects and to open another. It is usually applied to literary texts ( epic , drama , poetry ), but also useful texts (e.g. commercial advertisements) can be made accessible in terms of their meaning and other aspects through a text interpretation.

In sociology , too, there are methods of analyzing and interpreting texts, some of which are related to literary methods, see text analysis.

Text interpretation in school

Usually, the written text interpretation that is taught in school follows a fixed scheme in six steps (argumentative interpretation):

  1. Introduction: The content , author of the text, the year of publication and the intended effects of the text are given in a single sentence , sometimes two. The reader is also guided to the topic of the text.
  2. Summary: The content of the text is given in abbreviated form. Less attention is paid to details; more important is the course of the narrative, the most important characters and the essential events.
  3. Interpretation hypothesis : It should explain your own understanding of the text and briefly outline the aim of the interpretation.
  4. Formal analysis: The text is analyzed primarily for particularities of the choice of words, the types of sentence structure and the linkages, and for linguistic images.
  5. Interpretation: The text is interpreted according to the interpretation hypothesis. It is important to quote key passages in the text that support the hypothesis. Linguistic stylistic devices can also be referred to.
  6. Conclusion: The conclusion usually consists of a comprehensive assessment of your own hypothesis.

There is also the form of paraphrasing interpretation. This is understood to mean an interpretation that adheres closely to the text and explains it step by step. The structure of the interpretation corresponds to the structure of the text to be interpreted itself. Example: When interpreting a poem , the first, then the second, then the third stanza etc. is interpreted. The results of the analysis are summarized at the end.

A three-level structure is common for the interpretation of a narrative text:

  1. The introduction describes the most important facts about the author and the plot of the narrative.
  2. The main part deals with the content, form, biographical and historical aspects of the text. These are named, described, explained and interpreted. Regarding the content-related aspects: The plot is briefly presented in chronological order. Characters and their relationships are explained. The most important formal features of the text are the narrative perspective , the structure of the narrative and the linguistic design. The content and form can be compared with other works by the same author or related texts by other authors. In terms of content, reference can be made to the author's biography. Furthermore, the time and place of the action as well as the history of the creation of the text are placed in the historical background. All information should be substantiated with quotations from the text including the number of pages, lines or verses.
  3. The final part takes on the function of a conclusion , i.e. an evaluative summary.

Text interpretation in literary studies

Text interpretation is an important area of ​​work in literary studies . The methodology of interpretation is called hermeneutics . In addition to hermeneutics, there are numerous other methods and theories for interpreting texts. These methods try in different ways to methodically guide the step from text to interpretation. A methodically guided interpretation has the advantage that it delivers comprehensible and verifiable results, i.e. it can increase knowledge about a text and not only reflect the subjective opinion of the interpreter. However, there are also literary scholars and philosophers who deny that texts can be interpreted methodically guided.

The text interpretation can prove to be text-immanent interpretation limited to an analysis on the basis of content and linguistic presentation of the text itself. It can also include psychological , sociological and historical knowledge. The author's biography can also be the background for the interpretation.

In the case of a text interpretation that is carried out in a scientific framework (e.g. in literary studies), the assertions made must be substantiated in the text, e.g. B. by quotations or by reference to relevant properties of the text, its linguistic design, etc. If a text is assumed to have meanings or certain effects that cannot be proven, this is called Eisegesis .

A goal of text interpretation can be to break down the different levels of meaning of a text. A novel can e.g. B. On the one hand, it can be a description of an exemplary human life, but at the same time it can also have other levels of meaning: a critical opinion on the political conditions of the time in which it is set and / or the time in which it was written or published; In addition, he can use symbols and allegories to address numerous issues that are not otherwise expressly addressed in the text. A text can react to other works, quote, parody or distance itself from them, etc. ( intertextuality )


Theological text interpretation

Like the text understood the practice of text interpretation comes from the theology . The biblical exegesis was responsible for interpreting difficult passages. Her everyday practice found and finds her primarily in the interpretation of Scripture in worship. The interpretation of the text became more decisive in the development of the theological culture of debate and the diversification of the religions based on texts into sects and denominations. Text passages tend to contradict one another - at the same time, God's Word by definition cannot be contradictory in itself. The interpretation of the text is necessary to harmonize contradictions, to determine what is to be taken literally and what is to be taken in a “figurative sense”. Everyday religious practice is fundamentally based on text interpretation: How literal is the Incarnation of Christ in the Eucharist ? Ultimately, the denominations differ on the daring interpretations of the text.

The spread of theological textual interpretation on the novel in the 1670s

In the 1670s, text interpretation was extended to the field of fictional texts for the first time , from novels to parables and fables to novels . When the novel became part of the poetological genre spectrum in the second half of the 18th century, the interpretation of the text extended from here to the discussion of poetic texts - those texts that would become “literary” over the next few decades.

Fictional texts were generally not interpreted until around 1670. The first attempt to extend the practice of text interpretation to the terrain of fictional texts came logically from a theologian: Pierre Daniel Huet suggested classifying novels and poetry as fictional writings and interpreting them (see his Traitté de l'origine des romans wie his writing De interpretatione ). According to the startling theory, they should provide information about the times and cultures that produced these works. However, Huet's advance remained without consequences for a good 100 years. Fictional texts were still considered to be too low and offensive to be seriously interpreted.

Text interpretation conquers the literary debate

The original poetry criticism was poetologically oriented: It looked for linguistic masterpieces that were based on poetic rules. The rule poetics, as formulated by Johann Christoph Gottsched , for example , should guide everyone to correct and "beautiful" poetry. The rules were hotly debated. Around 1730, “ taste ” appeared as a further guideline for judging texts .

The situation changed when, in the second half of the 18th century, poetry - divided into national text corpora - became the subject of a new practice of interpretation. Around 1750 the novel was included in the corpus of national poetry. This also imported Huet's impetus for their interpretation.

The interpretation of the text played a decisive role in de-scandalizing the novel market that developed under it. Roman clefs previously dominated the terrain, but now the question is about deeper, truer meanings. Texts that wanted to be discussed had to show “truth” and, conversely, gained a depth and interpretability that was hardly sought before the 1760s.

With the interpretation of the text, the author's intention also became a relevant question. Until then, novels were rarely read with a question about the authors. The question of authorship was only interesting when there was suspicion of character assassination . From around 1760, however, novels began to be questioned about the feelings and intentions of their authors. Thus the position of the author in literary discourse was becoming increasingly important and rose up to the genius cult by a Goethe or Schiller .

Institutionalization and differentiation of text interpretation

Text interpretation was soon understood as a methodical procedure with the help of which one could "understand the author better than he understood himself" ( Schleiermacher ). Text interpretation now became an important area of ​​a specialized science , philology . It became the subject of its own methodology, hermeneutics . Through publications and the training of teachers, the philological text interpretation was now able to influence the reading and reading methods of the rest of the population. From then on, text interpretation was an academic subject that was institutionally anchored in universities and taught in schools.

Nineteenth-century philology and its hermeneutics are deeply embedded in historicism . Meanings of texts were read based on the consciousness of the authors at a specific historical moment. Wilhelm Dilthey's hermeneutical methodology is an example of this historicist interpretation of the text, which he also called the “Critique of Historical Reason”. Its tradition continues to have an impact today, particularly in Germany with Hans Georg Gadamer .

However, as early as Romanticism discovered further potentials for text interpretation: a text could contain meanings that the author had not intentionally incorporated or tried to suppress. A text carried its meaning with and without an author, so the new reference. The interpretation of the text in psychoanalysis was only interested in the “latent” meaning of the text , which originated in the author's unconscious . Sigmund Freud is considered to be their pioneer; as a literary process, however, it did not experience its heyday until the 1960s and 70s.

In the 1930s, the practice of text-immanent interpretation prevailed, especially in the USA. It deliberately dispenses with external references such as the author's intention or the historical context. Texts are only read in terms of their internal structures and meanings. In the 1930s and 1940s, a very precise, “micrological” reading practice called Close Reading developed. Their tradition continues especially at the US universities. In recent times it has found a kind of “general overhaul” , especially in post-structuralism and deconstruction .

Since around the 1920s there has also been a Marxist interpretation of the text, the pioneers of which - in different ways - Georg Lukács and Walter Benjamin can be considered. She insisted that literary studies interpreted texts in terms of the development of society - especially the economy . Society and literature should relate to one another like the base and the superstructure . Especially in the 1960s and 1970s, in the course of the university reforms and the left-wing student movement, Marxist reading was preferred in literary studies.

The feminist text interpretation emerged in the course of the 1970s from the Marxist context. It is now institutionally anchored as a subject of gender studies .

In the USA, the Marxist way of reading found its way into literary studies via cultural studies . In New Historicism , which began its triumphal march in the early 1980s, a new direction of inquiry was taken, which asked both in the Marxist tradition about economic conditions and in the tradition of Michel Foucault about power structures in literature. For the American context, the new interest in the historical context of texts was a radical reorientation, while this tradition was never broken at German universities.

Interpretation and politics

The fundamental characteristic of text interpretation is that it gives the secondary discourse ( comment ) power over its primary subject of discussion (text). The comment unfolds the text, creates opportunities for discussion and dares openly open interpretations. Any topics can be debated with it on the basis of the selected fictional text. This does not necessarily make them politically explosive: One only discusses the meaning of fictional texts. The interpreter can at any time distance himself from the debate he finds in the text and which he stages with his interpretation - he is ultimately only an investigator, puzzler, questioner, researcher.

This is an important reason why the interpretation of fictional works became so interesting with the second half of the 18th century: It allowed debates that could hardly be conducted so freely on other subjects. The measures taken by the various political systems in the 19th and 20th centuries to control the interpretation of fictional literature through the creation of curricula and the appointment of chairs were correspondingly rigid. Here, the history of text interpretation reflects both the secularization tendencies of the late 18th and early 19th centuries as well as the societal disputes that conquered the literary debate since the beginning of the 19th century.

See also


  • Axel Spree: Article Interpretation . In: Reallexikon der Deutschen Literaturwissenschaft. Revision of the real dictionary of German literary history . Together with Georg Braungart, Klaus Grubmüller, Jan-Dirk Müller, Friedrich Vollhardt and Klaus Weimar ed. v. Harald Fricke. Volume 2. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2000, pp. 168–172.
  • Simone Winko: Article text analysis . In: Reallexikon der Deutschen Literaturwissenschaft. Revision of the real dictionary of German literary history . Together with Georg Braungart, Klaus Grubmüller, Jan-Dirk Müller, Friedrich Vollhardt and Klaus Weimar ed. v. Harald Fricke. Volume 2. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2000, pp. 597-601.
  • Hans Lösener: Between word and word. Interpretation and text analysis . Wilhelm Fink Verlag, Paderborn 2006.
  • Tom Kindt, Tilmann Köppe (Hrsg.): Modern interpretation theories. A reader . Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2008, ISBN 978-3-8252-3101-9 .