A Methodological “Confession”

Bless us, Father, for we have sinned. It has been 1600 years since Augustine’s Confessions, but we have forgotten that the true test for interpretive virtue is love for you and love for our neighbor. In our zeal to bring about unity we have neglected patience and the cultivation of interpretive virtues. We have instead placed our hopes in methodology and the power of unaided Reason. Mistakenly, we thought that your gift of reason needed not your guiding voice; we have thought that the hermeneutics of suspicion can reveal our sins and that the power of politics can correct them. We avail ourselves to the mercy and grace that is available through your Word, who is the apex, the τελος, and the interpretive key of your revelatory activity in the world. We submit ourselves to Him, and entreat you to work through your Spirit to confront us with your Word, so that we might stand subservient to Him, and not to Lord over Him as though He needed our methods. Help us to be circumspect and patient in the carrying out of our service as ministers of reconciliation.

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Paul Ricoeur on Husserl

Paul Ricoeur was a student of Gabriel Marcel, who translated Husserl. He began to note problems with phenomenology, one of which he describes below:

“We have a direct language to say purpose, motive, and ‘I can,’ but we speak of evil by means of metaphors. . . . It seemed, therefore, that a direct reflection on oneself could not go very far without undertaking a roundabout way, the detour of a hermeneutic of these symbols. I had to introduce a hermeneutic dimension within the structure of reflective thought itself.”

Paul Ricoeur, Fallible Man, trans. Charles Kelbley (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1967), pp. xvii-xix

Irenaeus, Hermeneutics

1. Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures;(4) and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions. Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. In like manner do these persons patch together old wives’ fables, and then endeavour, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions. We have already stated how far they proceed in this way with respect to the interior of the Pleroma.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.8.1

Polanyi and Words and Meaning

“If, then, it is not words that have meaning, but the speaker or listener who means something by them, let me declare accordingly my true position as the author of what I have written so far, as well as of what is still to follow. I must admit now that I did not start the present reconsideration of my beliefs with a clean slate of unbelief.  Far from it.  I started as a person intellectually fashioned by a particular idiom, acquired through my affiliation to a civilization that prevailed in the places where I had grown up, at this particular period of history. This has been the matrix of all my intellectual efforts. Within it I was to find my problem and seek the terms for its solution. All my amendments to these original terms will remain embedded in the system of my previous beliefs. Worse still, I cannot precisely say what these beliefs are. I can say nothing precisely. The words I have spoken and am yet to speak mean nothing: it is only I who mean something by them. And, as a rule, I do not focally know what I mean, and though I could explore my meaning up to a point, I believe that my words (descriptive words) must mean more than I shall ever know, if they are to mean anything at all” 

Polanyi, Persaonal Knowledge, 252.

Quotable: Ricoeur

We must let ourselves be drawn into the [hermeneutical] circle and then must try to make the circle a spiral. We cannot eliminate from a social ethics the element of risk. We wager a set of values and then try to be consistent with them; verification is therefore a question of our whole life. No one can escape this.”

Paul Ricoeur, “Lectures on Ideology and Utopia,” ed. George H. Taylor (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 184.

ht: Andy Stearns

Stanley Fish on the Constitution

From Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There Meaning in This Text:

Fish takes Rorty’s pragmatism and applies it to the project of interpreting texts. Like Rorty, Fish eliminates the distinction between interpreting texts and using them. In particular, he rejects the notion that ‘getting it right’ in interpretation means recovering the author’s mind or intention. The idea of the author is useful for some purposes, but we should not be fooled into thinking this concept corresponds to something in the text, nor should we think that everyone should use texts in order to find out something about their authors. We read books for many different purposes: for instruction, for entertainment, for encouragement, for escape. pp. 55-56

Fish avoids a thoroughgoing solipsism by locating the ‘authorizing agency,’ the center of interpretive authority, not in the author, the text, or even the individual reader, but rather in the interpretive community. p. 56

To say that we must read in order to recover the intention of the author is, for Fish, authoritarian. How dare you tell me what to be interested in or what to do with a text! p. 57

Where readers reign, reality recede. Fish’s pragmatist creed is briefly stated: “I now believe that interpretation is the source of texts, facts, authors, and intentions.” Literary knowledge is for Fish a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: readers will see what they are encouraged and taught to see. The literal meaning is the one the institution permits; the ‘natural’ sense is the one nurtured by the community. pp. 169-70

If all appeals to the text-in-itself are ruled out, and if all argumentation is relative to the norms of each interpretive community, then the only way to resolve interpretive differences is through majority rule. Fish is aware of the problem: ‘Does might make right? In a sense the answer is yes, since in the absence of a perspective independent of interpretation some interpretive perspective will always rule by virtue of having won out over its competitors.’ p. 170

Either a) Fish’s views have changed, b) Vanhoozer has misunderstood him, c) Vanhoozer has deliberately misrepresented him, or d) I have misunderstood both of them. Read his latest op-ed piece in the NY Times:

Why is Strauss trying to take the Constitution out of the constitutional interpretation loop? Because he wants to liberate us from it as a constraint. He repeatedly invokes Thomas Jefferson’s remark that “The earth belongs to the living and not the dead” and expands it into a question: “What possible justification can there be for allowing the dead hand of the past . . . to govern us today?”

That is like asking what justification is there for adhering to the terms of a contract or respecting the wishes of a testator or caring about what Milton meant in “Paradise Lost” or paying serious attention to the items on the grocery list your spouse gave you. In each of these instances keeping faith with the past utterances of an authoritative voice — the voice of the contracts’ makers, the voice of someone’s last will and testament, the voice of the poet-creator, the voice of the person who will make the dinner — is constitutive of the act you are performing. And not keeping faith raises the question of why we should bother with the Constitution or the contract or the will or the poem or the list at all. Why not just cut out the middleman (who is not being honored anyway) and go straight to the meanings you want?

The incoherence of what Strauss is urging is spectacularly displayed in a single sentence. Given the importance of common ground, “it makes sense,” he says, “to adhere to the text even while disregarding the framers’ intentions.”

I am at a loss to know what “adhere” is supposed to mean here. According to the dictionaries, “adhere” means “to stick fast to” or “to be devoted to” or “to follow closely.” But you don’t do any of these things by “disregarding” the intentions that inform and give shape to the text you claim to “honor”; you don’t follow closely what you are in the act of abandoning. Instead, you engage in a fiction of devotion designed to reassure the public that everything is on the (interpretive) up and up: “The Court could take advantage of the fact that everyone thinks the words of the Constitution should count for something.” Here “something” means “anything,” as long as it hooks up with what everyone thinks; and the advantage the Court is counseled to seize is an advantage gained by pandering. If this is what the “living Constitution” is — a Constitution produced and reproduced by serial acts of infidelity — I hereby cast a vote for the real one.