Sunday, April 24, 2005

Philosophical musings

The subject of one my recent posts, prompted by some of Ratz's comments, has twigged my interest. As a result, I'm reading things on the net about hermeneutics. The point of view that I was critical of in that post seems to be what this introductory article assigns to Edmund Husserl, namely that:
[Husserl's] phenomenological hermeneutics also assumes that in order for the object to be fully interpreted, a proper context, or a mental frame is needed. But instead of considering the extraneous historical and cultural contexts, phenomenological hermeneutics argued that the text reflects its own mental frame. Husserl stated his dictum Zu den Sachen selbst! ("to the things themselves"), because he considered objects as complete in themselves. To interpret a text, therefore, means to methodically isolate it from all extraneous things including the subject's biases and allow it to communicate its meaning to the subject. The goal of phenomenological hermeneutics is to capture the truth of the text as it is.
Husserl proposes an objective, third person view that has never existed for a human. Martin Heidegger is better but still not right:
Heidegger constructed a new subject whose mind and being are totally immersed in the subject's life-world, such that understanding and interpretation would always proceed from the perspective of the subject's life-world. The Heideggerian subject is a subject that is formed by the biases and presuppositions of his/her life-world making him/her incapable of attaining full self-consciousness and objective knowledge. Thus, instead of hypocritically scrapping these biases and presuppositions, dialectical hermeneutics argued for a better use of these cognitive baggage by using them as premises in conversing with texts and objects. By assailing the Cartesian subject, Heidegger also assailed the metaphysics of realism that served as the cornerstone for the Cartesian, romanticist and phenomenological philosophies of the object. A new philosophy of the object is needed. For dialectical hermeneutics, an object, or text, can contain an infinity of meanings.
It's that last part that I reject as outright nonsense. Our selves are not self enclosed like this unless perhaps we are the inhabitants of the mental ward. There are times when I think the conjunction of mass production and a mass media that is advertising driven is pushing us in that direction. That is what I think of when I hear discussion of 'lifestyle choices' - self alienation on a mass scale. When I was an English Lit undergrad we did discuss hermeneutics some, but we never got into it formally, which is a shame. The result was an awful lot of tutorials filled with bafflegab and perplexed students. I mean, if you're going to discuss something as esoteric as this, for heaven's sake outline what it is first. Now I'm interested in various theories of Bible reading and I'm curious to know what school is closest to my own thinking. I want to find out what people are going to say is the weakness of that school, and I want to know if I'm holding any contradictions. My own outlook at this early stage I would describe as drawn to the Classic / Romanticist school of Schleiermacher. I would, however, water down the mental strength of the 'Cartesian' interpreter abilities some. At the moment I'm reading an interesting book edited by Thomas Morris, God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason and I've come across at least two essays that are worth some reflection. One by William J. Wainwright is of some interest here. In "Skepicism, Romanticism and Faith," Wainwright quotes John Calvin:
Mingled vanity and pride do appear in this, that when miserable men do seek after God, instead of ascending higher than themselves, as they ought to do, they measure him by their own carnal stupidity, and neglecting solid inquiry, fly off to indulge their curiosity in vain speculation. Hence, they do not conceive of him in the character in which he is manifested but imagine Him to be whatever their own rashness has devised... With such an idea of God, nothing which they may attempt to offer in the way of worship or obedience can have any value in his sight, because it is not Him they worship, but, instead of him, the dream and figment of their heart.
I have three things to say about this passage. The first is that, whatever the merits of the many Calvinist churches the survive today, John Calvin himself is a very difficult character to like. The second is that Calvin's observation is true, and the third is that this truth applies to Calvin as much as anybody. That third point is a large part of my recent interest in the hermeneutics. Before going on to water down what I take as his strong points, Wainwright says some good and interesting things about symbols:
What struck me initially, and still does, is the way in which Plato weaves together closely reasoned pieces of analysis and myth and symbol. He clearly believes that the latter are needed to express some truths, or some aspects of the truth, but he employs them only when the resources of argument have been exhausted. This seems to me to be the ideal way to do philosophy. I have always believed that the same is true of theology. I suspect that some religious truths- and perhaps some of the most important ones- can only be expressed in symbol and myth. Nevertheless, I also believe that there is a nonsymbolic core that is least inadequately expressed by classical theologists like Clarke and Edwards. A person who neglects this core is in danger of allowing his or her beliefs to degenerate into arbitrary fancies. There is also another danger. One can succumb to the belief that religious symbols are only poetic supplements of the "real" facts or new perspectives that on familiar realities. To think of symbols in this way emasculates them. Symbols adumbrate the object of our longings. What we yearn for, however, is bread, not a paper mache facsimile... Victories that are only symbolic aren't real victories... Furthermore, I believe that symbols like those depicting God's victory over the powers of darkness have material or concrete implications; if they are true, the course of empirical events is different from what it would otherwise be... whatever their inadequacies, and however faintly they shadow forth the truth, they cannot be replaced by language that is deeper and truer. They are as close to the truth as we are likely to get.
In my thinking we are not Cartesian subjects because we do not access the fullness of a text (or the world for that matter) unaided, ie. without Grace. Even then we will be puzzled and in doubt about what just happened unless we can really open ourselves up to the possibility of the miraculous; we can, instead, suspend judgement idefinitley and thereby stay unmoved. Neither are we Heidiggerean existential subjects who can paint any symbol with any meaning we wish. We have access, when reason is at a limit, to a world of myth and symbol. Those things have a real but mysterious meaning and one of the ways in which meaning is excavated is through a discussion with other seekers. God is a unity and by working together we can learn to discard what is only personal want or personal fear and begin to grasp our real situation as humans. When I say 'working together' I don't mean just talking to our neighbors (although that's good), and I don't just mean reading widely (although that's good too). I mean also coming to grips with past discoveries and that is a task that is more than likely too much for the average person, even if they had the ambition and the means. It's too big a job for any one person to know the history and literary genre and philosophical expectations that the author of an ancient text took for granted in his writing. Those things are not unknowable, but they are too much to reasonably ask of lone seekers. I see my church as fulfilling that role. I see it as a storehouse and protector of "archaeological " discoveries about our ontology, discoveries that come to us encoded in the myth and symbol of ancient texts. These gifts are sadly often overlooked by people pointing to their watches and contemptuous of the idea that truths could could be locked in symbol form and then unpacked in strange lands and stranger times. They have, it seems, other ideas about how the truth will appear (if they think it exists at all). From where I sit, it looks like they have God just where they want him, in a double bind that leaves them free to go about their business as they see fit. If there were not an element of mystery in our situation, we would be less free and more compelled. The critics could hardly tolerate having freedom but being compelled by clear and objective truth to use it in a narrowly defined way, and yet they are just as critical of a divine hiddeness that gives us a much wider scope for the action of self discovery.

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