Hermeneutics: An Introduction to Interpretive Theory

Written: January 25, 2015

This part is so important I had to put it in the beginning in case you don’t read the entirety of this lengthy review. “By accepting the prevailing ideals of modernity with its claims to truth through technique and method, Gadamer believes that many industrialized societies have unintentionally invited disastrous forms of moral and intellectual impoverishment. Whether it is in philosophy, theology, literary theory, or any other field, the ideals of modern objectivism, most prevalent in the natural sciences, have permeated cultural life and created forms of alienation and estrangement, closing off our access to important experiences of truth.” “…Gadamer argues that we are always more than just observers in the world. We are participants with something at stake whenever we risk asking a question or seeking truth. How we encounter things in the world will always be entangled with and inseparable from our interests, ambitions, concerns, and beliefs.” “This kind of openness (in conversation) is meant to overcome the belief that we must control and isolate parts of the world in order to accurately and objectively know them.”

“Do you understand the words coming out of my mouth?” asks Chris Tucker’s character of Jackie Chan’s character in Rush Hour. “”Hermeneutics”” comes from the Greek verb hermeneuein, which means “to interpret” or “to translate.” Today it refers to the science, theory, and practice of human interpretation.” “In short, hermeneutics asks three important questions. What is understanding? How might we describe it best? And how might we understand better?” While it focuses on text and comes mainly from interpreting the bible, I think hermeneutics can be applied more broadly to include conversation and body language. Essentially, I think like many hermeneuts that we can never fully understand one another no matter what medium of expression is used. While we can develop a better understanding, we would need more information than we are capable of acquiring and retaining in our heads simultaneously. Think about this. When two people are talking, most of the important message is conveyed in body language. We immediately judge each other based on attire, age, race, gender, appearance, weight, height, etc. Based on these superficial judgments, we bias whatever we hear from them. If someone in their twenties dressed like a bum is talking to us about fine dining and wine, we might simply dismiss everything he is saying as fanciful lies. Compare that to someone in their 60’s dressed in a suit and tie. There are also heavy cultural influences. When I traveled to Japan, I was told never to express a negative opinion and the Japanese don’t even like to say ‘no’ but ‘chotto’ which means something between maybe and no. Only when you get drunk can you freely express your opinion, but what if someone if being a fake drunk? You have to interpret the relative state of drunkenness in the person to determine their honesty. Think about many biblical texts and what they really mean. If they are parables, things get even more complicated. What about the 2nd Amendment and the right to bear arms for militia. What does that mean? In order to understand true intent and meaning, you need knowledge of historical context. Did they create the 2nd Amendment to keep the masses armed for a possible insurrection? If so, does that mean the people can own tanks and back then canons? Did the founding fathers imagine the 2nd Amendment as a right to own canons and form militias as a possible counterforce to a federal government that turns into a tyranny?

I came upon this book via a conversation with a German professor at a bar. I asked him to suggest a book, and he said “Truth and Method” by Hans-Georg Gadamer. Ironically, Gadamer believes you should be as opened minded as possible in dialogue in order to understand another person’s point of view and not rush to judgment. This professor was highly judgmental of my libertarianism, not exactly practicing what he was preaching, but I’ll forgive him for being a little intoxicated. I started reading it, but I realized it would be way too time-consuming. It is not designed for the casual reader but a specialist in the field. As a connoisseur of a broad range of subject-matters, I don’t like to waste my time reading overly specialized books but layperson books written with sufficient depth and breadth without too much original text and material.

Fact is, our style of writing and even language has changed. Some argue it has been dumbed down, but at the same time, I honestly believe it has improved. Consider an old sentence, “it is not entirely untrue that the cabin in which the boy lived had been visited upon by disaster imbuing it with the somber providence of apparitions.” Now a modern sentence, “the boy lived in a haunted cabin.” Even George Orwell criticized unnecessary words and the “is not unlike” double-negative trend popular now in British language. However, language is a reflection of our culture, and in the past, language was not only used to convey literal meaning but also to establish class and fashionable linguistic constructs such as the double-negative. Just like kids coming up with their own slang, rich people came up with their own way of speaking to distance themselves from the rest. But as far as getting across ideas concisely and quickly, I believe modern non-fiction writers are better than at any other point in history especially top notch journalists. In a more egalitarian and technologically directed society, the importance now is placed upon making information flow smoothly, hence, language is now designed to be read quickly and understood quickly. And that is why I read this book instead of Truth and Method. Of course, there is something to be said for flourish and poetry, and that is why I would rather reserve that style to fiction which investigates more our unconscious world of feelings, passions, fears, and desires.

Finally, even an author cannot correctly interpret what she has just written. I often find myself rereading my old books and discovering new things I never realized when writing it, the connections and analogies that I never made before. When I write, my unconscious mind is communicating to me, and at that moment, however, I’m constantly filtering and often missing what the unconscious mind is saying until sometimes later. Likewise, to truly understand what an author means, not only do you need to know his life and interview him, but you also have to somehow have access to his buried unconscious mind and thoughts. Pretty much impossible with existing technology and completely impossible with a dead person.

Understanding and the motivation for understanding, I believe can be both intentional and unintentional. For the most part, we only desire sufficient understanding to determine whether something is a threat or not or beneficial to us or not. A racist, for instance, quickly defines a certain race as a threat or benefit, and once established, looks no further into that race for more information to contradict the initial judgment. Likewise, I don’t really care much for snakes. I want a sufficient understanding of them to know how to avoid pissing them off and also how to avoid them in general. However, we also have unintentional desire for understanding. Something grasps our attention and we don’t know why, but we are drawn to it or repelled by it. This is our unconscious motivation for understanding.

One of the best ways of understanding others it to become like them, to live as they live. We are after all the amalgam of all our influences especially our social influences since we are social beings. We mimic those around us. To understand us, you need to have as much exposure to the people we surround ourselves with as we do. I tend to agree with poststructuralists like Jacques Derrida who “accepts that there is meaning we may know and agree upon, yet he insists that there may never be final and decidable meaning because meaning is always contextual, deferred, incomplete, and full of internal tensions and contradictions.” One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. In other words, we ascribe meaning to things based upon our conscious and also unconscious desires and fears. At the same time, what we think is meaningful, say a beautiful woman, may be misleading if at the same time, she is cruel and demented. Since we will never know anyone unless we become them, we will never know their true meaning to us, and likewise we will never know the true meaning of anything in this world. In fact, the faster growth of ignorance accompanied by the growth of knowledge means that we can never possibly ever know the meaning and value of anything, although, we may better discover the nuances of things and therefore determine meaning and value we did not understand existed before. But just like relativity, something out there we do not know will disprove everything we assumed to be true, i.e., Newtonian physics, although, Newtonian physics still applies at a certain scale.

So why haven’t most people heard about Hermeneutics or its greatest contributor, Hans-Georg Gadamer? In fact, if it were not for running across a German philosophy professor at a bar, I would have just known hermeneutics as an obscure theological-philosophical ideology which it isn’t. It has evolved past theology and interpreting the bible. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy just as much as I don’t think the selection of gospels and heavy editing of the bible was one single concerted conspiracy. History is an imperfect process. We often learn things as given without understanding why. There are many huge gaps in history. Great libraries have been destroyed. Great books have been irreparably destroyed. What happens is a shaky process by which those in power try to rewrite history and impose their views and values, even if it means misinterpreting or reinterpreting everything and everyone. Christianity today has little to do with what Jesus taught, and Jesus himself, if he were alive today, would probably not be a Christian. But unless you’re North Korea, you can’t rewrite everything, and especially in a relatively open society as America, you have extraordinary access to the world’s books and thoughts. In a society that values truth and the scientific method, it is difficult to completely suppress a great idea or thought, and this is why Hermeneutics thrives at least in the obscurity of philosophical academia.

Hermeneutics, at least, as redefined by Gadamer wants to offer a description of understanding that “deflates the superiority and almost absolute authority of the natural sciences.” It wants to provide an alternative to the popular Western model that rational examination and the scientific method can explain everything including all social sciences and human experience. It sounds a lot like Newtonian Physics. The human experience is a closed system whereby accounting for every atom and its direction, you could totally explain and predict all future human and social activity. There are two problems with this. First, Quantum Mechanics. You can’t account for both a particle’s location and momentum. There is no proof that we exist in a closed system. The second problem is that the scientific method cannot account for everything. We are still riddled with countless basic questions about nature. Where is a thought, memory, or hallucination stored? How much do they weigh? Is there life after death? What is 97% of the universe comprised of? What is consciousness? How can we make a machine think creatively? What is the mind? Where is the mind? Why is there a placebo effect? Do thoughts have causal efficacy? Do we have freewill? One of the problems with answering these questions is that we simply don’t have the technology to understand them. But we also lack the language, the proper way of thinking, and the intellectual capacity to understand the answer. In fact, our language, our way of thinking, and our limited intellect, undermine our ability to properly understand the true nature of reality. As smart apes, our brains were designed to navigate the complexities of social life among increasingly smart apes. They were not designed to understand the nature of things smaller than particle or larger than our own planet. The natural sciences and the scientific method fail to help us here. Even if it does find the technology to help us better understand nature, we also need to change our language and way of thinking. The scientific method itself is also limited. It is all about probability within a defined experiment. The scientific method did not discover relativity. Every Newtonian physics experiment proved Newtonian physics and not relativity. It took the creative mind of Einstein to propose new ideas to realize that Newtonian physics was wrong despite all the scientific evidence supporting it.

So you might ask at this point, is Hermeneutics some kind of theological conspiracy, a kind of counterrevolution of theologians to the natural sciences basically trying to disparage religion and God as unsupported, unscientific, illogical mythological hogwash? While some Hermeneuts may have this in mind, Gadamer was an atheist. I don’t think he had that in mind. I think what he had in mind was that the natural sciences and the scientific method were simply inadequate for explaining all our human experience. In fact, when you start reading Quantum Mechanics, you start to wonder if the material universe is all an illusion, that the only thing that is real is what we always thought was not real, the intangibles, the thoughts, feelings, emotions, moods, memories, dreams, and imaginations. Fundamentally, we are mostly irrational beings. The social sciences have this conceit that if only we all become more rational, we would be better off. Even when I took Economics, it assumed perfect markets with perfect information. The conceit that we could simply dispossess ourselves of our irrational prejudices and tendencies is utterly naïve. Most of our thoughts and experiences in life are irrational. Psychology proves this. We can certainly be more rational and apply more rational analysis to examine our lives and improve ourselves, but ultimately, we must reconcile the fact that we will always be driven and misguided by our irrational tendencies. The irrational traditions of our past were not all useless hogwash that hurt us. They in fact helped humanity thrive much longer than our recent rationalist tradition of placing all our faith in science and materialism. In fact, by placing all our faith in science and materialism, it seems, we have simply become a rather destructive, superficial, anxious, depressed society of misguided fools ever more slave to our irrational tendencies. I am not proposing the return to traditional mythologies and values, but a reexamination of how a system of irrational beliefs helped us in the past and could help us in the future. When I trained for a marathon, first hand, I experienced the power of faith. Whenever I irrationally believed I could overcome injury and finish the marathon, my body felt better, I recovered faster from injury. Whenever I rationally believed that there was a good chance my injury could linger and I would never finish the marathon, my body felt worse, it tightened up, and I recovered slower. When athletes think about failure during a clutch moment, they fail. It’s called choking. Heidegger, a great contributor to Hermeneutics believed “artists and poets to have a privileged access or relation to the attunement of being.” They understood the human condition better than scientists and professionals. Why? How? They use language differently, and they use other medium to express thoughts and feelings. Zen Buddhists offer nonsensical koans for enlightenment, because perhaps the true nature of reality exceeds our limited logic and language. Only by confronting the impossible and nonsensical can you get closer to the truth than burying yourself only in what is possible and logical in your mind. This is what Hermeneutics offers, and this is why I believe it is one of the most important philosophies as well as ways of thinking about reality and nature we have today.

The academic community also has a tendency of reinforcing established thinking and turning non-conformists into outcasts. With peer review and more prestige going to older established academic thinkers, chances are, reinforcing their views will pay off greater than contradicting them.

I am now writing this part after finishing the book. The book succeeded in covering a lot of ground, but I think it got bogged down in the details of what everyone published. While the writing was somewhat easy to read, there were a plethora of new and difficult terms and I don’t think the author did as good a job as he could have explaining things and using examples. I found myself skimming over some of the details and theological stuff. Two chapters are dedicated to biblical interpretation. Besides Gadamer, I found Jacques Derrida second most fascinating. Derrida and his deconstructionism questions whether there is anything such as truth and meaning and dismantles the idea that you can truly understand what the author is saying even with historical context and the author’s biography. I think it’s a matter of whether you want to be outside the play or in the play. In the play, you read the script and conform to the script, the rules whereby everyone knows how to interact. But Derrida is taking a step outside the play and saying there is no script outside the play, there are no rules to follow, and when characters talk about the truth and meaning in the play, it only applies to them in the play. Outside the play, divorcing ourselves from our highly biased human angle on nearly everything, there is no meaning or truth. Some may argue that there is something out there, maybe the truth of mathematical formulas or atoms, but even then quantum mechanics makes us question that too. One physicists wondered whether there were things at all and beings, that all there really is are relationships, that I do not think therefore I am but that I think therefore I find myself in relation to others.


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