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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Hermeneutics, Naivete, and the Politics of Truth

My post on Ricoeur has inspired an exchange between myself and an old friend, Damon Linker. It's an exchange which arises from both a disagreemen over certain elements of the history of philosophy, and a disagreement over what it means to make an affirmation, particularly a religious affirmation. In other words, it's about truth and how we moderns--as opposed to those who came before us--recognize and affirm it, and whether Ricoeurian hermeneutics provides (or at least points toward) an answer to this problem or merely distracts us from the heart of the puzzle. I'm going to excerpt one small part of Damon's valuable criticisms, and try to build from that a response that I hope will elaborate a little more clearly some of which I posted on yesterday.

Damon wrote:

What I detect in your hermeneutical tradition is the longing to recapture that "naive" (Riceour's phrase, remember) experience of pre-reflective/pre-critical experience on the far side of Enlightenment skepticism, which it holds to be purely "negative" in the sense that it negates this pre-critical experience by showing its inevitable dependence upon active subjectivity, which produces epistemological relativism and psychological despair or melancholy. Only the "negation of the negation" can lead self-conscious men and women to overcome this impasse and achieve a reconciliation -- i.e., allow someone . . . to be both intensely skeptical and critical while ALSO affirming something analogous to the pre-reflective experience of pure faith.

In replying to Damon, I find myself trying to get clear on what hermeneutic thinkers like Ricoeur (and myself) are actually claiming when we talk about "naivete." Many of the usual histories of hermeneutics talk about it as a product of romanticism or the Counter-Enlightenment; of thinkers like Dilthey, Schleiermacher and others who were working through what Kantian Idealism, and its proposed resolution to the problems of modernity, meant for the study of the social or "human" sciences (Geisteswissenshaften). Short history of modern thought made even shorter: Descartes, Locke and others gave us a model of knowing which rejected the presumptions of medieval Christendom, insisting that naming a thing was a matter of mentally picturing it, not relating to it in reference to a divine, encompassing world or telos; subsequent modern thinkers--like Hume--pointed out that this kind of empirical picturing, methodologically powerful as it may be, implies that the subject and the object are not just profoundly but categorically separated, leaving us without any basis for "knowledge" except our own sentimental habits and preferences; Kant responded to this critique by taking up the idea of categories and positing the subject as an entity wholly and solely concerned with the phenomenal one, or the world of appearances in other words, with morality and all other normative claims being a function of a practical reflection upon the categorical limits of knowability itself: this is the Idealist or "critical" turn in philosophy. Hermeneutics supposedly comes to the fore at this point; with Kant definitively separating dogmatic metaphysical claims from critical claims of knowledge, all that remains is to work out how we interpret the phenomena which appear before us. So far, so good. In a world where the subject is understood to be distinct from the objects it seeks to know, then all that is left for the subject to do is to try to figure out the best way to clarify and interpret its own (limited and inward) pictures of those objects, and that makes the work of descriptive clarification and interpretation--of texts, in particular--paramount.

But after Nietzsche, it became very difficult for all these interpreters (working as they were in the wake of both Kant and Descartes) to explain how matters of power and perspective weren't structured into their every description of a given text or appearancee from the get-go. Early phenomenologists like Husserl hoped to get around this problem by rethinking the emphasis of the critical tradition entirely: knowability (and hence the "moral law within" which Kant held could be constructed on the basis of his response to the subject/object dichotomy) ought to be understood, they argued, as a function of "the things themselves," meaning that the focus of philosophical study ought not to be our consciousness of appearances, but how that thing which appears impacts upon our consciousness. Then came Heidegger, who exploded this whole approach by pointing out that things only "appear" against a field of some kind--and what followed, of course, was the whole revival of ontology, the questioning of the "metaphysics of knowledge" which had been (unconsciously?) buried beneath the Kantian enterprise from the start, the "call of Being," and all the rest. Which resulted in an interesting transformation of hermeneutics, one carried out by such people as Ricoeur (who had spent his years in a WWII German POW camp reading German philosophy, believe it or not): hermeneutics, which was presumed to be a kind of romantic method, was turned against method itself (insofar as "method" meant addressing the subject/object distinction, or the fact/value distinction if you prefer, in an essentially empirical way). This "new" philosophical hermeneutics presented itself as actually dependent upon a much older understanding of subjectivity, one which has deep roots in Christian and Western thought, one which (arguably) certain early Romantics (like J.G. Herder) turned to not because it provided a theory of understanding which accommodated the importance of subjective interpretation in making knowledge and truth claims, but because it echoed older understandings of truth, wherein knowledge was held to be something uncovered or illuminated by and through the subject matter itself. (This is plain when you look into the pneumatological roots of Geisteswissenshaften itself.) In other words, it involved (or at least should have been understood to involve) "believing in order to understand"--a concept which goes back to St. Paul, if not earlier.

What does this have to do with naivete? What it means is that, from Ricoeur's point of view, what is being sought through his kind of philosophical or "anthropological" hermeneutics, through a "wagering" of belief upon the actual (historical, natural, linguistic) conditions or "field" or "horizon" of our interpretive work in the world, is not a return to wholly precritical, prereflective belief. According to this argument, Augustine and all the rest were fully aware of their own subjectivity; the fact that you can find evidence of this awareness all through the medieval period, in the context of debates over the status of knowledge (nominalism, negative theology, etc.), is just additional support for the argument. Hence, the "naivete" which Ricoeur spoke of wasn't a belief that existed without interpretation--after all, the symbols which ancient and medieval believers took up as meaningfully related to the world nonetheless had to be connected to that world through an act of evaluation, though an evaluation which included the person as well as the symbol itself. So Ricoeur is not imagining that there is some way to overcome the subject entirely; the notion that anyone ever did hold to such nonreflective beliefs is a straw man. Thus I think that when Damon doubts the ability of Ricoeurian hermeneutics to get one "back to" the "experience of pure faith," he's imaging faith in terms of Cartesian presumptions, one in which subjective reflection is of course complete different from cognitive correspondence, and that's a faith that I sincerely doubt any serious person has ever entertained.

Some have argued that hermeneutic thinkers like Ricoeur, Gadamer, Taylor and others reject the correspondence theory of truth; I think this is incorrect. What their hermeneutical/philosophical anthropology does do is reject those modern presumptions about the mode of correspondence which drove Kant to conclude that knowledge and morality couldn't draw any force or support from the noumenal, "actual" world. That is, what I see them as doing is rejecting a strictly scientific, "mediational" or representational epistemology, in all of its forms. Under this hermeneutic model, "truth" does not follow from the correspondence of a mental picture (or formula, or methodologically obtained data point) to the appearance of a thing, since it is necessary to also concomitantly evaluate one's relationship to the space of the thing's appearance. But that evaluative relationship is a matter of correspondence--to tradition, to intuition, to prior beliefs which themselves were constructed in the context of a received space or horizon of recognition, and so forth. How this evaluation works, and whether or not it issues in defensible truth claims, is at the heart of the matter. But whatever else it may be, it is not a claim that somehow we can dismiss with a subject-that-corresponds entirely, since there is no believing which isn't at least partly a function of an understanding which assumes some sort of interpretive correspondence.

(Perhaps the misunderstanding here is the fault of Hegel. From within Hegel's philosophy, earlier notions of subjectivity and interpretation--that is, the kind of notions which philosophical hermeneutics emphasizes--truly were marginal, but that is because they (again, from Hegel's point of view) put the cart before the horse: they assumed the priority and presence of the world over and through one's perspective of it. Whereas Hegel insisted that the only solution to the dilemma of modernity and the division of the subjective self from the objective world it gave birth to was (in contrast to Kant's solution of delineating and attaching great importance to the specifics of those resulting divisions) to discover (or impose) a grand unitary spiritual logic within the subjective perspective itself. Whatever historically turned out to be rational would be real, the real data, itself. A brilliant philosophical creation, maybe the greatest in history, but still one which confronts the terms which Descartes set. And the hermeneutic tradition (which Hegel liberally borrowed from, but otherwise had little interest in) makes the claim that it is the Cartesian analysis of subjectivity is what's flawed, not the responses to it. So hermeneutics isn't, I think, trying to get away from a "common sense" understanding of truth, since supposedly for moderns the only way to rescue such sensibility today is to go the route of Hegelian absolutism; rather, they're trying to think again through what modernity defined as the requirements of common sense knowledge in the first place.)

If all this is true, why does Ricoeur talk about a "second naivete," one which is only possible through a kind of "hermeneutics of faith" (as opposed to a "hermeneutics of suspicion")? Well, because while the subject has always been with us, modernity has changed our accounting of subjectivity; whereas in premodern times the "subject" which participated in the interpretation of truth was broader (both spatially and temporally) than a single person, modernity has made possible a thinking about ourselves as apart from the field of evaluation, as independently capable evaluators. And so the old naivete--which Isaiah Berlin, borrowing from Friedrich Schiller, once called a lack of consciousness about the "rifts in one's milieu"--won't do any longer. It's the difference between someone who has only ever been immersed in a single musical tradition--because their identity is concurrent to that tradition--making distinctions between good and bad musical expressions of one's tradition, and someone who has been introduced to a plurality of musical traditions, and now must make such distinctions with an understanding that the evaluative criteria provided by their own believed tradition itself can also be evaluated. This is why identity and recognition have come to play such a huge role in the thinking of these philosophers; figuring out how to account and defend the existence of the interpretive self in the context of what they hold to be manifest demands for belief is no easy task. So now we have to "wager" on interpretation; we have to use it self-consciously and therefore critically, whereas before the presence of the individual subject wasn't crucial to how subjective evaluations were performed.

Clearly, this doesn't satisfy a lot of people. On the one hand, who have people like Rorty and others who simply think that the efforts of hermeneutical thinkers to preserve any difference whatsoever between the content of a thing and our evaluation of it is pointless; there's just the subjective will, they say, and that's all. On the other hand, there are people like my friend Damon (unless I am profoundly misunderstanding him, which is always possible--that's the burden of interpretation, after all), who continue to suspect that all this talk about intuition and illumination and tradition in the context of religious belief is a dodge; that it's a way to play at "meaningfulness" when one can no longer really ascribe normative force to claims that can be contested by the fact of pluralism. And this is where you can see a political point to this highly philosophical debate. The most common "political" accusation lobbed at hermeneutic thinkers like Ricoeur (as Scott McLemee humorously implied yesterday) is that they are "conservative" in denial: that their philosophy amounts to a reactive attachment to religion, tradition, and the status quo, but without any open or straightforward endorsement of such, thereby undermining the possibility of critical thought and progress by default. The most common accusation lobbed against communitarian thinkers (by both liberals and conservatives) is that they are engaged in a kind of cheap nostalgia: that they want to invest society with the sort of meaningfulness that religion and tradition can provide, but without actually embracing the (presumably reactionary) truth claims which would meaningfulness possible. There is no necessary connection between these two sets of thinkers, except this: both want to affirm the possibility of finding in our present, supposedly "self-interpreted" moment, a continuation of collective meanings that have a hold on our claims and our actions. Such a possibility would imply both that 1) the ethical horizon of any politics is a function of a polity's "meaning-full" historical identity; and 2) the meaning of that historical identity of a polity is not static, but is instead constituted by a continuum of interpretive links in an always-manifest chain. So, yes, as the democratic theorist Sheldon Wolin once put it, modern politics is characterized by "the presence of the past" (and, as Richard Bernstein once suggested, there's much which Wolin and other radical thinkers share with supposedly conservative hermeneutic philosophers: specifically, a rejection of an epistemologically mandated restriction in what counts as meaningful political action). The point is to vivify and draw from that past; not set it aside as something which cannot provide conclusions which fit modernity's peculiarly "demonstrable" criteria for what works, for what is true.

Happily nihilistic pragmatists/liberals like Rorty say not to worry about contingency. More admirably, modern-day Kantian liberals like Rawls and Habermas try to justify a politics of strict criteria and method in the face of post-Heideggerian doubts. Other liberals reject both options, but continue to contend that the modern fact of pluralism constitutes a crucial obstacle to the individual affirmation of collective religious truth--and obstacle which I think they also hope can be taken up as a bulwark against religious conservatives who are often themselves simple-mindedly Cartesian about their own political aims. Philosophical hermeneutics, with its hopeful politics of intuition and affirmation, does risk becoming entryway for such conservatives into the liberal order; that is certainly true. But I don't think such avoiding such "naive" wager is worth it if it means not looking to see if, beneath all the method, there isn't a history to our polity and our selves that we can believe in.

1 comment:

XO said...

I can't leave my comment because it's too long but you can come see it if you like at


Hope it's at least somewhat interesting, I still have a very long way to go in terms of academic expression