Wednesday, April 23, 2008

How far does interpretation go?

So, I have just finished up one seminar paper on Gadamer, and an entire semester doing Truth and Method. In philosophical hermeneutics, one phenomenologically describes the conditions of our historically finite understanding. All understanding is interpretation. In Gadamer, there is no outside independent conditions under which rules for understanding are extra-linguistic, or transcendentally a priori. Interpretation cuts through us through and through. My question I put out to the void is simply is this accurate? Should we phenomenologically take our finite seriously and move away from transcendental standpoints or analytically move away from doing versions of epistemology that try to find out the necessary and sufficient conditions for human understanding?

Part of me is compelled, if only a product of a recent fascination with Gadamer, to take on board the fact that everything is interpretation. How far does this cut into human knowing all over the board? What motivates Gadamer is a level of phenomenological description of truth in the human sciences differs from the natural sciences. Here, you can read human sciences as we conceive of the humanities. In German, wissenshaft is simply a rationally constructed system of knowledge, and this word for science doesn't evoke simply the natural sciences. However, I do not know if this is any longer the case, at least it used to be at the time in which Gadamer published TM in 1960.

For Gadamer, the natural sciences doesn't explain everything worth knowing. There is a type of self-knowledge produced by one's engagement with a tradition that is actively and alive in one's experience of the world. For the root of tradition in Latin is to hand down that which must be understood. Literature, art, history and philosophy are disciplines that engage us actively in how we understand the world. In this way, Gadamer is very antithetical to those who practice philosophy as co-extensive with the natural sciences.

I find this view compelling since not all my fields of inquiry operate in straightforward naturalistic assumptions. In ethics, I invoke concepts I employ for normative understanding on a daily basis, especially since I TA Intro to Ethics. When I teach Kant's Formula of Humanity, I don't refer to it in non-moral terms. I partake in a tradition that I inherit. Kant's concepts, and many concepts in philosophy operate outside of naturalism--this is the impetus that pushes people to insist on an irreducible status for their field of philosophy usually.

I haven't really gone anywhere in this post. I've just circled back to why my intuitions are pointing towards accepting in whole or in part Gadamer's insistence that the humanities operate differently than the natural sciences, and to insist otherwise is to misconstrue the humanities, including philosophy. Gadamer thinks that the humanities are directed towards a type of self-knowledge that is productive and brings to light how one can be transformed by engaging with tradition (vice versa as well). Gadamer's insistence that the hermeneutical project is a universal one threatens/challenges the idea that philosophy has access to original grounds outside of our historicity. I wonder if this is even true? Should I remain committed to a transcendental viewpoint in which the world is given, and all phenomena once traced through a genetic phenomenology in Husserl deliver over to me an original and primordial understanding of the world in a way that transcends history? For Husserl, even the lifeworld is filled with invariant structures!


Roman Altshuler said...

I'm curious: do you really think the universality of the hermeneutic situation necessarily excludes transcendental argument or the postulate of invariable entities or anything a priori? I'm not sure it does (at least, I hope it doesn't, because I am pretty partial to both). Here's what I'm thinking of:

Some people think we can access truths by tapping into some realm entirely separate from experience or language. This sort of view is ruled out by hermeneutics. But that view is pretty weird anyway.

If you look for the invariant or a priori structures of experience, you must after all start by looking at the experience (you can only look for conditions of possibility of X by working backwards from X). And you then try to figure out what structures seem to be involved in any and all experience as we know it. The structures you turn up by this means are invariant, and they are a priori, in the sense that no particular experience we might have is going to fall outside these structures--because any particular experience we have, no matter how weird, will have to share the forms of experience as such if it is to be recognizable as experience at all.

But there is another sense in which these structures are not invariant: if our overall experience were completely different, it would have different structures. On this picture, you might say that the structures of our experience are not metaphysically invariant--in some possible world, they might be different. But they are invariant given what we are actually like, and we cannot clearly conceive them being different because that would involve our conceiving ourselves as having experience of an entirely different nature.

Does this go some way toward addressing your concerns, or am I missing something?

Vancouver Philosopher said...

Well, I'm thinking that Gadamer is a type of anti-foundationalist. If all is interpretation of a historically finite existing self thrown into this world, then Gadamer, like Heidegger (as far as I know) will have no ground to move to.

These thoughts will be a little unorganized and unrefined since this is my attempt to put it all together. I feel that if the being that which is understood only occurs in language and Gadamer considers the subject matter as always presentational in language, then there is no language/meta-language distinction. This gives me reason to think that there is no a priori invariant structure to discern meaning in terms of typical philosophy of Gricean like projects are out. Russell is out for sure etc.

I think we can draw a distinction between phenomenologies that allow for invariant apriori structures like Husserl a la description, and those that emphasize intepretation and hermeneutics a la post-Heidegger. I think this is where Gadamer falls. As I said, a bit unrefined.

Roman Altshuler said...

Ok, I'm just wondering whether you can lump all foundationalist projects together. We can reject the project of starting with (say) self-evident truths, but still retain the project of seeking invariants from within historical experience or interpretation. Heidegger, after all, does posit existentiales, which are meant specifically to be the structures that allow us to interpret the world.

Vancouver Philosopher said...

I guess sorta. But, if we call looking within interpretation and hermeneutics invariant structures, then couldn't it just be lip service to privileging one type of interpretation over others. There's no discrimination possible. At least, that's how it seemed from the outset. Of course, what you are saying is very much compatible with the fact that Gadamer sees hermeneutics as a universal problem, and likewise wanted to extend his project to universality.

Roman Altshuler said...

Exactly. We have to privilege some interpretations over others. Gadamer does not, like certain post-structuralists, consider all interpretations equal: there are bad interpretations, ones that fail to take the horizon of the investigated object, or of the investigator into account. Interpretation is not a free-floating activity: it has its own structures, which we discover by looking at the nature of interpretation itself. It is telling that this is where Derrida disagrees with Gadamer, by insisting that Gadamer's hermeneutic account presupposes a good will on the part of the interpreter. And the response here has to be that, if we discard the good will along with any structures an activity must have in order to count as interpretation at all, we've lost what it is we were trying to talk about.

Any account of interpretation will still be an interpretation, of course. So we have to rely on the structures of interpretation in order to discover those structures. But I don't think the hermeneutic circle commits us to a complete relativism; only to fallibilism.

Ashley said...
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