Thursday, September 13, 2012

On Hermeneutics: An Introduction

I dig hermeneutics. It looks like I'm going to study hermeneutics professionally, at least for a while. This is a problem, as I often have to explain what it is. So I've developed three preemptive things to say about it, and for your sake, gentle readers, here they are.

First, hermeneutics is the study of interpretation. That's it, that's all it is. Interpretation merits study because it describes a complex, pervasive area of human experience about which there has been astoundingly little consent, especially recently. We interpret constantly, in everything from reading the looks your mother gives you to understanding scripture to deciphering that nice letter you got from your superiors, and then that other one from human resources. The noteworthy thing about interpretation is that, as far as I can tell, in practice it works out astoundingly well pretty often, for reasons that no one seems to be able to precisely say.

Second, is that there are two incredibly wrong answers to hermeneutics. The first is that my interpretation is right and your interpretation is wrong because there is only one valid interpretation for anything and because I've figured it out. In an age where we are constantly bombarded with information and its interpretation from so very many plausible and implausible sources, I do believe we have gotten somewhat better at this. I don't know very many actual people who fully believe this anymore. In some ways, getting this part right doesn't take more than basic sense and a little bit of humility.

The second wrong answer to hermeneutics, and here I'm afraid we might have actually gotten quite a bit worse, is that my interpretation is right because your interpretation is right for you and all interpretations are valid for the people who hold them. This may seem right for many passive consumers of information, but for anyone whose tried to produce actual communication, especially in written form, it should be pretty clear that this can't be the case. We can be misunderstood. And, more, we can be misunderstood in ways that make us wonder if the other person was even paying attention in the first place, that clearly contradict anything any sane person could have meant. When this happens, interpretation has failed. It has gone massively awry. Not just anything will go.

So, what is hermeneutics, the study of interpretation, to do, set between these two extremes? The best answer seems to be that some interpretations are valid, and some are not. But what could the rules for this possibly be? How are we to know which is which? One helpful hermeneutic has added that truth runs in families, that plausible interpretations, while multiple, tend to be fairly well-related kin. From my adventures in creative writing classes, this seems to be the case: though their interpretations were different in every events, a fair number of my fellow writers seemed to get the gist of what I and my stories were trying to do, a lesser number of people understood what my stories were about much better than myself, and a precious, special few seemed out to lunch entirely, probably having been drunk the night before.

So, that's one place, as an example, where hermeneutics might begin.

Last, there is one confounding problem that has plagued the discipline of hermeneutics ever since Kant, and that is the split between words and worlds. Do words necessarily mean exactly what they say? Is a rose a rose by any other name? Given that the various words for "tree" among any number of language show no real relationship to each other, the most plausible answer seems to be: well, no. Words mean by common consent.

But establishing this consent then becomes a problem, because without this linguistic property that people called realists call referentiality, there's little reason for language to work in the first place. There must be some underlying system of signification from whence all language comes, some way that language actually does connect to things, or it would never work in the first place. Their opponents, those called nominalists, contend that if such a system or super-language exists, surely we would have found or at least theoretically understood it by now, so where is it?

To this the realists rejoin that if it doesn't exist, how did you just say what you said?

Stalemate. Can hermeneutics find a mediating position to this dilemma, as I suggested that it might be beginning to do with the first? I honestly don't know. But I believe that these are the central questions of the discipline. Or, if they are not that, then at least they are the ones I'm interested in. 

So that's part of what I'll be writing about, sometimes heroically, sometimes inanely, but always as clearly and lucidly and helpfully as I can, for reasons that will probably come up in time.

the Curious Monk

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