Synopsis: I had a thought this morning, and pretty quickly realized that someone has likely written on just this idea. So in keeping with my axiom that I want to behave such that people who know more about things than I do don’t think I’m a jackass, I’m looking here for pointers to people who’ve written about this.
So the idea was that, when you’re looking at something like the Bible or the U.S. Constitution, the literal meaning of the text is basically entirely beside the point (assuming we know what “literal meaning” means blah blah blah). The meaning of the Constitution is the meaning that people have ascribed to it over the years. If people behave as though the equal-protection clause applies to gay people, then that’s the meaning of the text for those people. If people behave as though the Bible says that gays have committed an offense against god, then that’s the meaning of the text for those people.
Different communities might then have different meanings for the same text. Some meanings might be enforced at gunpoint (e.g., Court decisions affirming the right of gay people to marry). Others might be dominant through historical accident. But the point is that you can’t escape power relations: the meaning of a text is a sociological/political fact, not a syntactic one.
I could probably argue the other side if you asked me to. I could, for instance, argue that all of the above does violence to what ordinary people mean by the word “meaning”. But then this “ordinary meaning of the word ‘meaning'” is, itself, a sociological fact blah blah blah. You see how this could very quickly start to involve crawling up your own butt. But anyway, this is just what came to mind, and I’m sure that a bazillion people have written on it. Can anyone recommend any good reading on the subject?
If instead of using the word “meaning” you used “interpretation”, what you say would not seem at all controversial: “The interpretation of the Constitution is the meaning that people have ascribed to it over the years. If people behave as though the equal-protection clause applies to gay people, then thats the interpretation of the text for [by] those people. (…) Different communities might then have different interpretations for the same text. (…) the interpretation of a text is a sociological/political fact, not a syntactic one”.
On reflection, the controversial idea is probably that a text has no meaning beyond its interpretations. This reminds me ofcritical theory, with which I am only familiar through its detractors.
It’s called hermeneutics. You might find Paul Ricoeur worth your time.