Medium 9780253002143

The Life of Understanding: A Contemporary Hermeneutics

Views: 742
Ratings: (0)

In Gadamer’s hermeneutics, interpretation is inseparable from the broader concern of making one’s way in life. In this book, James Risser builds on this insight about the juxtaposition of human living and the act of understanding by tracing hermeneutics back to the basic experience of philosophy as defined by Plato. For Risser, Plato provides resources for new directions in hermeneutics and new possibilities for "the life of understanding" and "the understanding of life." Risser places Gadamer in dialogue with Plato, with the issue of memory as a conceptual focus. He develops themes pertaining to hermeneutics such as retrieval as a matter of convalescence, exile as a venture into the foreign, formation with respect to oneself and to life with others, the experience of language in hermeneutics, and the relationship between speaking and writing.

List price: $29.99

Your Price: $23.99

You Save: 20%

Remix
Remove
 

7 Chapters

Format Buy Remix

One: Memory and Life: Hermeneutics as Convalescence

ePub

Let me begin by reminding the reader of one among many possible stories about philosophy. It is the story (πόλογον) of Er told by Socrates at the end of Plato’s Republic.1 This is actually a story within a story, for what Socrates recounts to Glaucon is the story told by Er. As Socrates tells it, Er had died in battle but while lying on the funeral pyre he came back to life, and having done so he told the living what he saw on his journey in the afterworld. In telling his story Er is in fact not just a storyteller for he is at the same time a messenger (γγελοζ), who, in delivering the message, preserves for the living the vision of what he had seen there.2 Quite fittingly Er the messenger has a resemblance to Hermes— the god who, bestowed with the power of speech, is the message bearer and thus an interpreter for the gods.

In the main, the content of the report describes the drama of the comings and goings of the souls of humans with respect to a just life. At the center of this drama there is an elaborate account of the soul’s vision of cosmic Necessity (vγκη). The souls, having journeyed to the farthest reaches of the afterworld, arrive at a place where they could see a column of light—“the spindle of Necessity”—that holds together the cosmic movement surrounding her. It is in relation to this movement that the just life— the proper order of the living—is to be understood, for after beholding the spectacle each soul is called upon to choose a new life for itself. At this point in the story Socrates reminds Glaucon of the importance of being able to learn to distinguish the good and the bad life so as to be able to choose with care the better from among those that are possible. After each soul chooses a life, the souls are led to the barren plain of forgetfulness (Λήθη) and camp by the river of neglect and carelessness (μέλητα), whose water no vessel can contain because it flows forever.3 Here all the souls had to drink a certain measure (μέτρov), and those not saved by thoughtfulness (φρόvησις) drank more than the measure. With this drink everything was forgotten, but Er was not allowed to drink, and thus according to Socrates the story was saved and not lost.4

 

Two: Distressed Memory: Hermeneutics and the Venture of the Foreign

ePub

Let us recall that in Plato’s Myth of Er, Er the messenger makes a crossing. To be sure, it is no mere crossing from one place to another, but a crossing of borders from this world to the underworld and back. And while in the underworld, he travels from one strange place to another, following those who are deciding their fate. Er is constantly passing beyond the familiar. Er has made a venture into the foreign. As we have already seen in chapter 1, what Er reports from his venture is not without significance for philosophy. The question before us here concerns the character and significance of a crossing involving a crossing-over and a crossing-back in a configuration of departure and return—a crossing with respect to the element of the foreign—for philosophy and for hermeneutics.

Letting Plato continue to speak for philosophy and thus taking the person of Socrates as our primary indication of philosophy, it appears at first glance that the life of philosophy is not concerned with crossing borders and the venture into the foreign entailed by such crossing, but takes place solely in the home, where it depends on a fundamental familiarity and similarity for its presentation. As we learn from the Crito, Socrates has no desire to know any other city or any other laws than those of his native city and home, Athens.1 Moreover, as we learn from the preliminary discussion in the Phaedrus, even being outside his native city and home makes Socrates feel uncomfortable. He bears this discomfort well because Phaedrus discovered a drug to entice him to walk outside the city—the promise of speeches—suggesting at once that this departure from the home is an exception.2 After all, Socrates is Apollo’s gift to the city and Socrates himself will obey this pronouncement to the point of death, refusing the penalty of exile at his trial. And yet, it is also the case that Socrates is something of a stranger to the city, a stranger who finds it necessary for the work of philosophy to make the city strange to itself. He is in fact a stranger to the city because the work of philosophy, as the work of θεωρία, necessarily entails a departure into the foreign. In classical Greece, the cultural practice of θεωρία involved a journey beyond the home, a journey outside the city, for the sake of witnessing an event or spectacle.3 More specifically, this practice involved visits to the oracles, pilgrimages to religious festivals, and journeys abroad for the sake of learning.4 In all cases, the θεωρόζ left the home for a foreign place in order to have a look, to spectate, so that he would then return home with a broader view. As a civic activity, the θεωρόζ was often an official witness to a spectacle, and was required upon his return home to give a verbal account of what he had seen.

 

Three: Beyond Distress: Toward a Community of Memory

ePub

What if one were to look for a “solution” to the plight of journeying, the distress in the constant venture of the foreign, in the life of understanding? To do so would not be to remove the venture of the foreign from the operation of hermeneutics, but only to bring into view what in an everyday way occurs in relation to the home, namely, human community. From the perspective of a certain sensibility within the Greek experience of the world, a perspective brought to our attention in Sophocles’s Antigone, keeping the human community within view would amount to keeping human life from becoming ignoble (μ καλòν).1 What this means, though, is not immediately clear to the reader of Sophocles’s play, especially the reader who has also read Heidegger’s interpretation of the first choral ode of the play, where this sensibility is expressed.2 Staying more faithful to the text, this matter of the “nobility” of life that coincides with community is certainly not the grandeur of domestication. It is not, in other words, the grandeur of the rule of law that brings the order of life into view. It is rather precisely what Heidegger, despite the excessiveness of his interpretation, pays attention to, namely, the beautiful strangeness (δειvόv) of human life—the beautiful strange power that is a human life. But what is this strangeness? In variance with Heidegger’s reading of the strophe from Sophocles, the strangeness of the human—the strangeness in relation to which there is wonder and admiration—is not simply a designation for the uncanniness of the human, for this only tells us that the human is constantly unsettled. Reading the strophe from Sophocles in the context of the play, we learn that the human is designated as strange precisely because he has the capacity to create, and this capacity to create, as an essential determination of the human, is more than an ability for the production of artifacts. It is primarily an ability for a different kind of making, the making that occurs in being a being who is never helpless before its future.3 It is creation as self-creation—the bringing of a human life into its very being. Put differently, the marvelous power of a human life is that it can form itself, bring itself into a formation that is at once the formation of the polis. The chorus sings of this creation at the beginning of the strophe in question: the human “has taught himself speech and wind-like thoughts and the impulse for the laws of governing (κα φθέγμα κα νεμόεν φρόνημα κα στυνόμους ργς διδξατο).”4 One could perhaps say that in this self-teaching (διδξατο), the human is not just most strange but also most daring, for here it is a matter of a different venture, the venture of bringing the order of life into view, the order of life that is inseparable from the impulse for giving order to the polis.

 

Four: The Fabric of Life: Dialectics, Discourse, and the Art of Weaving

ePub

In the previous chapters I have tried to show how contemporary hermeneutics can best be understood through the character of recovery which is at issue in it as a philosophy of recollection. This ongoing recovery amounts to the life of understanding as a way-making activity of human life, a way-making activity that is at the same time an effort of making oneself at home in the world. In this chapter I want to consider the structure of this way-making movement on a different register; I want to explore this way-making in relation to the linguisticality of understanding. More precisely, the issue here concerns the way-making of meaning that occurs in discourse where the unity of meaning is formed in relation to a structure of identity and difference as the very constitution of discourse. As a hermeneutical concern, it would not be at all inappropriate here to describe the formation at issue here through the metaphor of weaving, since discourse, like the nature of every text, has a natural propensity to weave aspects together to form the unity of its particular whole. Accordingly, the formation at issue here can be designated with the metaphor “the fabric of life.”1

 

Five: Severed Threads: The Incapacity of Language

ePub

In this chapter I want to continue the analysis of language begun in chapter 4 by attending to the ontological condition of possibility that is set within philosophical hermeneutics’ account of language. This is the condition not of contingencies, which can occur in the enactment of a conversation in language, but of the dynamic movement within language that allows for new meaning to emerge: the coming into language of the thing itself (Sache). Gadamer affirms this capacity of language throughout his numerous writings on language, including, of course, his analysis of language in part 3 of Truth and Method. There he tells us that in living language every word “carries with it the unsaid to which it is related by responding and summoning”; and a few pages later: “To say what one means . . . means to hold what is said together with an infinity of what is not said in one unified meaning and to ensure that it is understood in this way.”1 The task of understanding for Gadamer is to find the word that can reach the other, and the fact that we do find such words, signaling the success of understanding through the power of language, is not really put in question, at least as he presents his position in Truth and Method. This process of an unfolding linguistic meaning in which “finite possibilities of the word are oriented toward the sense intended as toward the infinite” presumes, of course, that meaning does not reside in the statement, but is held within the very motility (Bewegtheit) of language, which Gadamer describes simply as living language.

 

Six: Reading beyond the Letter: On Memory and Writing

ePub

To read a text for the sense intended by language, especially in the case of a literary text, is to read beyond the literal; it is to read beyond the letter of the text. Following Gadamer, this experience of reading, as an effort of understanding, is, in effect, an effort of bringing the word to speak again—an act that privileges the voice in the experience with language. In saying this, it would appear that Gadamer’s hermeneutics of reading follows the classical treatment of the relation between speaking and writing found in Plato in which speaking is purportedly given priority over the written. Purportedly, the written word can only be an impoverished word, a word once removed from the primacy of the speaking voice, and as such it is a word lacking the authority to speak for itself. But as Gadamer presents it, the task of bringing the word to speak once again applies equally to both the spoken and the written word, suggesting at once that he does not intend to follow the classical hierarchical relation between speaking and writing. For hermeneutics the written is indeed to be read, and this matter stands in relation to the living word as the voice of the written. How this voice of the written is to be understood is the focus of my remarks here.

 

Seven: The Flash of Beauty

ePub

For John Sallis

In this chapter I want to pursue the connection between the beautiful and the vitality of discourse. As we have seen from the previous chapter, what is at issue in beautiful discourse has little to do with what rhetoric would call flowery speech, i.e., with ornamentation in language where words have a mere decorative function. Rather, what is at issue in beautiful discourse is nothing less than the generation of words in relation to the living movement of thought. If now we want to pursue this issue under the heading of “the flash of beauty,” we find ourselves returning to Truth and Method and specifically to the concluding section of the book that immediately follows the analysis of language. It is here that Gadamer claims that the metaphysics of the beautiful plays a decisive role in the “general task of establishing the ontological background of the hermeneutic experience of the world.”1 As anyone familiar with Gadamer’s position knows, that ontological background concerns the self-presentational character of being, and the metaphysics of the beautiful serves the task of establishing this background because it identifies the distinctive character of the coming to presence in the self-presentation of being.2

 

Details

Print Book
E-Books
Chapters

Format name
ePub
Encrypted
No
Sku
B000000031535
Isbn
9780253002198
File size
1.45 MB
Printing
Allowed
Copying
Allowed
Read aloud
Allowed
Format name
ePub
Encrypted
No
Printing
Allowed
Copying
Allowed
Read aloud
Allowed
Sku
In metadata
Isbn
In metadata
File size
In metadata