You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

In a word: exegesis

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word:


You will have come across exegesis (pronounced ek-suh-JEE-sis), if at all, in the context of interpretation of Scripture.

The word derives from the Greek exgeisthai, “to interpret.” The broader sense is the critical explanation or analysis for a text. The person performing such an analysis is an exegete.

Such interpretation or analysis can be performed on any text: Scripture, the poetry of John Donne, the tweets of Donald Trump. As I have remarked before, once you own a grinder, you can make sausage out of anything.

That remark about grinders and sausages may have been misunderstood in previous posts, so let me explain. When I was an undergraduate in the English department at Michigan State, there was a faculty member who became a follower of Karen Horney, and lo! Every text he touched was subject to Horneyan analysis. Another applied a Freudian analysis to Shakespeare. “Now I don’t want to give you a strict Freau-Jones analysis Hamlet,” he said one day, to which the student sitting next to me said, “No, you just want to dance around it for an hour.” The point is that once you have a particular method of interpretation, however interesting your conclusions may be, they are going to tend to be reductionist.

All explanations are partial.

Example: Leon Wieseltier, “Cromes Against Humanities” in The New Republic, September 16, 2013: “Most of the belief systems of all the world's traditional religions and cultures have evolved in their factual understandings by means of intellectually responsible exegesis that takes the progress of science into account; and most of the belief systems of all the world's traditional religions and cultures are not primarily traditions of fact but traditions of value; and the relationship of fact to value in those traditions is complicated enough to enable the values often to survive the facts, as they do also in Aeschylus and Plato and Ovid and Dante and Montaigne and Shakespeare.”

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