Not All Great Books Colleges Are Alike

by Charley Dewberry

One of the distinctive features of Gutenberg College’s Great Books curriculum is that we are committed to the notion of “authorial intent”—that is, a work “means” what its author intended to communicate. Writers have a purpose in mind when they write; they are trying to tell us something specific. This commitment to authorial intent is particularly important when it comes to the Bible. What a particular passage means is what the biblical author intended to communicate to his audience. Our view of authorial intent is grounded in a “common sense” understanding of how communication, in general, works. 1 Common human experience makes it possible to understand what an author was trying to communicate, even though he may have written in another language and more than three millennia ago. Furthermore, understanding the culture of an author and as much as we can about his particular beliefs is important, especially when an author is separated from us by language and culture.

At the other end of the spectrum philosophically from Gutenberg is a view I will call “postmodern,” which explicitly rejects the authorial intent view. The postmodern view is grounded in a philosophical perspective that is not so confident about the possibility of knowing what an author of a different time and culture was trying to communicate, especially an author who wrote in a different language and up to three thousand years in the past. Adherents of this view understand a “Great Book” to be a work that contains ideas that have intrigued Western civilization up to the present, and it is enough that the work impact modern readers. They often point to the number of books and authors whose impact on modern culture is far removed from what the authors intended—even though the postmodernists question the possibility of knowing that intent. Because the impact on the reader—and not the author’s intent—is the “meaning” of a text, any information about the author, including his cultural context, is seen as irrelevant; for the postmodernist’s purposes, such information would only prejudice the reading of the text. 2 And so additional information pertinent to the author but brought to the text from outside is explicitly prohibited in the postmodernist view.

Between the authorial intent and postmodern approaches to the Great Books are programs called Shared Inquiry™:

[T]he participants search answers to fundamental questions raised by the text. This search is inherently active: it involves taking what the author has given us and trying to grasp its full meaning, to interpret or reach an understanding of the text in light of our experience and using sound reason. [The Great Books Foundation. An Introduction to Shared Inquiry. Third Edition. 1992.]

The Shared Inquiry view does not rule out bringing to the text both cultural context and information about the author, but such practice is discouraged. Those who use this approach also disagree about how important authorial intent is to the process; some view authorial intent as very important, others less so.

I will not discuss Shared Inquiry further. I refer to it to make the point that even among Great Books colleges, approaches to texts cover a wide spectrum. Some aim at understanding the author’s intent; others aim at determining a work’s impact on modern culture; while the approach of still others is somewhere in the middle. Why the differences? One explanation is that the colleges’ philosophical assumptions with regard to communication differ. Assuming, then, that each program’s approach to the Great Books is consistent with its underlying philosophical assumptions about language and communication, let’s examine a few philosophical questions regarding language and communication.

We all use language, and we all attempt to communicate with others. Furthermore, we all observe that communication works best when we share a language with our audience. Anyone who has ever traveled to a foreign country without knowing the native language observes that it is possible to communicate some rudimentary ideas, but for the most part sharing a spoken or written language is necessary for communicating anything more than a basic idea. Just knowing the same language, however, is not enough when it comes to communicating. Communication often fails even between people who speak the same language. Sometimes it fails between people who know each other very well. So speaking the same language is necessary but not sufficient for successful communication. Something else is important.

When communicating, a speaker does not tell his audience everything they need to know to unambiguously understand what he intends. I am not sure it is even possible for him to do so. Rather, a speaker or writer assumes a body of information and beliefs, a “pre-understanding,” that he believes his audience already has. 3 The speaker can then economize his words, dwelling on the main things he wants to communicate. A skilled speaker assumes just the right amount of background in his audience. When communication fails, either the speaker has not used his language skillfully or he has not provided enough background information to be understood. In the latter case, then, a gap exists between the speaker’s and the audience’s pre-understanding.

Communication gets even more complicated when its medium is writing. The writer is writing for an audience, and he makes assumptions about his audience’s pre-understanding. The reader is reading a document that often was not written for him. Therefore, the potential for a pre-understanding gap to develop is greater than would be case if the writer and reader were speaking to each other. The potential for a gap in pre-understanding is even greater if the writing is a book written a long time ago in another language. For example, when the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the Romans, he took into consideration what he knew about his audience. I do not share much with either Paul or his audience, and so there exists the potential for a serious gap between my pre-understanding and theirs when I read Paul’s letter.

This serious possibility for a pre-understanding gap is the main philosophical issue with regard to communication. From the “authorial intent” perspective, this gap can be bridged with sufficient work. The “postmodern” response argues that our pre-understanding acts as a lens through which we understand the world, including each other; and it argues rightly that some individuals who hold the authorial intent model overestimate their ability to bridge the gap between a writer and his future reader. However, many holding the postmodern perspective go on to argue (from what I will refer to as the “entrenched” postmodern perspective) that our pre-understanding is a lens from which we cannot escape—that is, we cannot bridge the gap between writer and reader. Furthermore, they argue, those individuals who hold the authorial intent perspective are wrong to claim that the gap can be bridged because language and pre-understanding locks us into a perspective that we cannot escape. If this entrenched postmodern view is true, then we cannot communicate at all with individuals who are outside of our culture and time; and claiming that we can bridge the gap between us and a writer in the past is nonsense—no amount of information about the author and his pre-understanding can help us bridge the gap. This entrenched postmodern perspective dominates our culture, and it is represented in some Great Books colleges and programs.

At Gutenberg, we believe that pre-understanding is extremely important to communication and that the entrenched postmodernist’s claim of an unbridgeable gap between us and a writer from another age is wrong. Let me explain why.

Firstly, at Gutenberg we believe that all human beings share common experiences that help bridge the gap. We are born, experience daily life, and face death. We all must obtain food and shelter. We all interact with other people. And so forth.

Secondly, at Gutenberg we believe that all human beings share a set of “built in” beliefs that are necessary for obtaining any knowledge and being able to communicate at all. These beliefs are the “principles of commonsense” that philosopher Thomas Reid, in his Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (1765), observed were necessary to obtain any knowledge and to make communication possible. For example, Reid proposed that all individuals share a “native” language of bodily signs by which they can assess another person’s orientation towards themselves, orientations like love, anger, threat, etc. In other words, human beings can communicate some things without using words at all. Reid argues that without this “native” language, no “artificial” languages (like English, Greek, etc.) are possible. The entrenched postmodern perspective denies that these basic beliefs and this “native” language exist.

Thirdly, at Gutenberg we believe that through imagination human beings can put themselves “in other people’s heads”—that is, people have the ability to reconstruct another person’s pre-understanding and view the world through it. For example, when I read Plato’s Dialogues, it is evident that he views a number of fundamental philosophical issues differently than I do, but I can take on Plato’s pre-understanding and use it to look at the world through his eyes. Admittedly I can never do this perfectly, but there is no unbridgeable gap between his pre-understanding and mine that precludes the possibility of communication.

Gutenberg’s curriculum is based on our philosophy of language and communication. We are committed to the perspective of authorial intent. Therefore we emphasize learning two languages (classical Greek and German) to help students understand the structure of language but also to show them the liberties a person can take with language in order to communicate his ideas. And secondly, we focus on the critical role that pre-understanding plays in successful communication. We have students work on the difficult skill of knowing how much pre-understanding they must make explicit in order to communicate their ideas clearly. And we have students practice putting themselves “in the heads” of other writers and speakers. These skills are essential for good communication. Many other Great Books programs do not emphasize the languages and pre-understanding in the same way that we do. Let me provide an example to illustrate the different approaches.

One of my favorite twentieth century political writers is George Orwell. His book Nineteen Eighty-Four has long been a weapon in the ideological war between the Left and the Right. The Left sees Orwell critiquing totalitarianism in general; the Right sees Orwell criticizing a socialist totalitarianism. From a postmodern perspective, it is enough that Nineteen Eighty-Four has had an impact on the modern political debate. It does not matter if we have understood what Orwell intended; the book has done its work by having an effect. By contrast, my goal as one who believes in authorial intent is to understand what George Orwell was trying to communicate. What was he trying to tell us? To be honest, until recently I was not sure. Orwell, an Englishman, was reputed to have been a socialist his whole life. Nineteen Eighty-Four is set in England, and the governmental/economic structure of the novel is hardly capitalistic, so the book must be a critique of socialistic totalitarianism. But that conclusion never seemed right to me. Recently, I read an article by British author David Aaronovitch that helped me make sense of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the middle of his article, Aaronovitch wrote the following:

[Orwell’s] many book reviews also reveal much about his political influences, but one name, James Burnham, stands out.

An ex-communist, Burnham’s 1941 book, The Managerial Revolution, filled Orwell with both horror and fascination.

In the [the Managerial Revolution], [Orwell] found two of the crucial elements of his novel: a world ruled by three super-states, and the idea that the overlords of the future would not be demagogues or democrats, but managers and bureaucrats. []

I had never heard of James Burnham nor his book. But after reading The Managerial Revolution, I am convinced that this book is crucial to understanding both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Orwell’s worry. As I now understand Orwell, his concerns were not those of either the Left or the Right but rather something altogether new. Orwell’s term for it was the “Cold War” (a term he did not originate but did help bring into our lexicon in its modern sense). This conclusion makes Nineteen Eighty-Four profoundly more interesting. I am now convinced that George Orwell was trying to communicate the implications of a new world order and a new political/economic system.

This example makes clear the role of pre-understanding. Prior to reading Aaronovitch’s article, I did not share enough of Orwell’s background or beliefs to properly understand Nineteen Eighty-Four. Maybe with more work I could have figured it out, but this article provided some critical information that helped me understand what Orwell was trying to communicate. If I am right, it means that the Left and the Right have both misunderstood Orwell’s intent in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Neither side can claim the moral high ground; both sides have just been using the book to further their own cause.

At Gutenberg College, one of the emphases of our curriculum is to improve the student’s communication skills—be it writing, reading, or conversing. In all three modes of communication, both the skill of using language and the skill of determining how much pre-understanding should be communicated are important. At Gutenberg, the role of pre-understanding receives a great deal of attention because (1) pre-understanding allows us to bridge gaps of culture and time, especially when reading ancient literature like the Bible, and (2) it takes a great deal of practice to become proficient at the skill of understanding our own and others’ pre-understanding. Not all Great Books colleges emphasize pre-understanding, especially those grounded in the postmodern or Shared Inquiry perspectives. Not all Great Books colleges are alike.

One final note: I cannot help but wonder how much the entrenched version of the postmodern perspective in Great Books and other colleges has contributed to the polarization within our current culture. If the perspective is right about an unbridgeable gap over which no communication between our sub-cultures is possible, then it makes no sense to pay any attention to pre-understanding. In fact, there is no reason to think that communication is even possible between the two views; all that is left is to annihilate the opposing view. From the authorial intent perspective, the gap can be at least partially bridged by focusing on the pre-understanding of both sides, thus making dialogue possible. However, if no one develops the skill of understanding pre-understanding, then the outcome is assured: no communication is possible. This has serious implications for our future.



  1. The philosopher that best analyzed the process of communication is Thomas Reid. I will subsequently talk more about his perspective.
  2. The information would be irrelevant because no amount of information could bridge the gap between us and them, and to claim that additional information can help to bridge the gap is counterproductive if for no other reason than that it gives us false hope.
  3. For a much fuller articulation of the nature of communication and authorial intent, see The Language of God (2001) by Gutenberg College tutors David Crabtree, Jack Crabtree, and Ron Julian.

Copyright May 2013 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Charley Dewberry