Friday, July 08, 2005

On second thought ...

I realize that, in the luncheon talk I gave at the Franklin Inn Club recently, I overstated my case at one point and I want to clear things up before I take off on vacation. I said it was silly for people talk about reading the Bible literally. "No text, least of all one as rich as the Bible, deserves to be read that way, because it reduces words to mere signs." Allow me to rephrase that: No text as rich as the Bible deserves to be read that way.
But not all texts are rich and not all texts are meant to be. This occurred to me as I thought over some remarks that were made after my talk by Gresham Riley, the former president of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Gresham thought that what I had to say had some bearing on the debate over constitutional interpretation -- the "original intent" people versus the "living document" crowd. At first I was inclined to agree somewhat, but then I thought to myself that one thing I didn't want to suggest was that we can read a text any way we like.
There are necessary limits on our intrepretive freedom. One should, for instance, make sure that one undertsand the words in the sense that the author understood them. Words do accrue meanings over the years and a later sense will not apply to a text written before that sense developed.
Also, there are texts that we want to be unambiguously clear: for instance, the instructions for assembling the toy you bought one of your kids for Christmas.
I do not think the Constitution is a rich text, nor do I think it was meant to be. The problems that arise over interpreting it tend to derive from one or another party wanting it to address what it in fact does not. There is nothing in the Constitution about abortion because no one in 1789 would have thought to put it there.
I think that what we need to do with regard to the text of the Constitution is not align ourselves with any school of interpretation, but rather devote some more of our time to simply reading it for ourselves. After all, before you can determine what a document means, you must first determine as accurately as you can what it says. If more people were better acquainted with the text of the Constitution fewer people would be able to get away with bloviating on it.

No comments:

Post a Comment