Friday, February 22, 2013

Lee Jae-min on Textual Interpretation

Professor Lee Jae-min, of Hanyang University's School of Law, writes regularly for the Korea Herald, and his recent article, "Evolutionary text interpretation" (February 20, 2013), proved very interesting for me, though he was mainly referring to legal texts, which is not my expertise:
Once codified, texts are set in stone, but the world we live in continues to change. A critical question then is, should words in these texts be understood as they were agreed upon at the time of the signing or as they are accepted at present?
He offers a contemporary example:
Suppose legislation, enacted in 1990, contains the term "cellphone." Does it mean a cellphone that we knew as of 1990, a brick-sized portable phone, and its future extensions? Or should the term also cover the new electronic products, sporting "all-in-one" digital capabilities, that we carry in our pockets and bags in 2013? This question relates to what is called "evolutionary interpretation" or "dynamic interpretation" of texts, and poses a new challenge.
I was familiar with the concept, of course, but Professor Lee expresses himself exceptionally clearly, as below, where he considers one solution:
This phenomenon is almost inevitable. Even after the words are inscribed on pages and in texts, the world where they apply continues to change. So, a gap is always there. The trouble is, the pace of change continues to quicken -- sometimes to an astonishing degree in a very short time, which means the gap becomes wider and deeper. An amendment is always a possibility, but frequent amendment is neither easy nor feasible, particularly so when the text is a grand document such as a constitution or an important treaty.
Imagine how this applies to religious texts in our rapidly changing world. One can't generally even amend them. One is left with reinterpretation. But even that takes time and seriousness of mind. Meanwhile, the world moves on. I've noticed that the recent polls in America show a decline in religion. Are Americans headed down the European path? Is the reason a fast pace of change that makes religious texts seem ever less relevant?

And are Islamism's suicide bombers the death of Islam writ small as Muslims fail to reconcile Islam with a rapidly changing world?

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At 1:07 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

A most meta-hermeneutical post.

I do wonder, though, what Dr. Lee means by "its future extensions" in reference to cell phones. Surely not "future versions" or "future variations," yes?

Ah, the question of interpretation. How it Ricoeurs and Ricoeurs...

At 2:57 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I think he meant cell phones that have new functions, such that the cell phone is doing things that a phone never did -- it has been extended into new areas.

Jeffery Hodges

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