What relationship, between the quantitative literary history of the past twenty years, and the older hermeneutic tradition? Answers have typically been of two kinds: for many in the interpretive camp, the two approaches are incompatible, and the newer one has little or no critical value; for most quantitative researchers, they are instead perfectly compatible, and in fact complementary. Here, I will propose a third possibility, that will emerge step by step from a comparison of how the two strategies work. How they work, literally; in the conviction that, as Oleg Sobchuk and I have recently written, ‘practices—what we learn to do by doing, by professional habit, and often without being fully aware of what we are doing—have frequently larger theoretical implications than theoretical statements themselves.’footnote1 In that article, ‘practice’ referred to the different ways of visualizing data; here, to the chain of interconnected decisions that shape an explanatory strategy. But the aim is the same: understanding what a research paradigm does, rather than what it declares it wants to do.

With a complication, however: since both the quantitative and—even more so—the hermeneutic approach are actually many approaches, often sharply at odds with each other (a Lacanian interpretation having nothing in common with a new historicist or an ecocritical one, and so on), in order to reduce the variables in play I will restrict myself to work I have personally taken part in. This is of course a questionable decision (and the exact opposite of ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’, which examined sixty-odd articles by over a hundred authors), which I am taking for two distinct reasons: first, because much of what follows will be quite critical, and I find it easier to criticize myself than others; second, because I’ve been repeatedly taken aback, in the past twenty years, by how different my work ended up being in the two registers. To some extent it had to be different of course (that’s the whole point of using more than one method), but there was something slightly uncanny, in my drifting away from my own work. Maybe it’s just a case of personal inconsistency; maybe, the sign of something larger, with an objective significance for the entire field.

Hermeneutics first. Nick Adams, the protagonist of Hemingway’s short story ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ (1925), is about to go fishing:

Nick took it from his hook book, sitting with the rod across his lap. He tested the knot and the spring of the rod by pulling the line taut. It was a good feeling. He was careful not to let the hook bite into his finger.

He started down to the stream, holding his rod; the bottle of grasshoppers hung from his neck by a thong tied in half hitches around the neck of the bottle. His landing net hung by a hook from his belt. Over his shoulder was a long flour sack tied at each corner into an ear. The cord went over his shoulder. The sack flapped against his legs.

Nick felt awkward and professionally happy with all his equipment hanging from him. The grasshopper bottle swung against his chest. In his shirt the breast pockets bulged against him with his lunch and his fly book.footnote2

First of all—does this passage even need an interpretation? Not really, if interpreting means dispelling the ‘obscurity’ of a text: here, everything seems perfectly clear. Is it, though? The idea ‘that understanding occurs as a matter of course’, wrote the founder of modern hermeneutics, is typical of the ‘less rigorous practice’ of interpretation; for its ‘more rigorous’ version it is however ‘misunderstanding [that] occurs as a matter of course, and understanding must therefore be willed and sought at every point’.footnote3