Hermeneutics and the Framing of “Truth”

Introductory comment by PG:

PG regards himself as reasonably intelligent and possessing a vocabulary that is larger than that of the average homo sapiens in the year 2020.

That said, he did not recall knowing (PG is at the age where there is a very occasional gap between knowing something and recalling that he knows something) much about Hermeneutics.

A quick online search took PG to a Quora comment from a self-described “Ph.D. Apologetics & Hermeneutics” addressing “What is the difference between exegesis and hermeneutics?” that seemed more informed and intelligent than other Quora comments PG has read:

Exegesis is the discipline of extracting, grammatically, out of the text what is says. Hermeneutics is the science of interpreting, based on what the text says, what it means; followed by validating that interpretation of what it means (e.g., “Scripture interprets Scripture), and then discerning the significance of that validated meaning.

Broadly speaking there are four steps to hermeneutics, defined by answering: 1) What does the text say? (Exegesis); 2) What does it mean? (Interpretation); 3) How do I know that’s what it means (Validation); 4) Now that I know what it means, so what? (Significance / Application).

With that background, PG plunged into an OP from The Los Angeles Review of Books titled, “Hermeneutics and the Framing of ‘Truth’.” The author of the LARB article is also the author of a book titled, “The Splintering of the American Mind.

All of which requires a warning to readers of TPV:

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

In his 2018 book Post-Truth, Lee McIntyre sums up what has become a mainstream warning about the complicity of so-called postmodern intellectuals in the rise of “post-truth” as the defining condition of today’s politics. He asks: “[C]an postmodernism be used by anyone who wants to attack science? Do the techniques work only for liberals […] or can they work for others also?” Citing plenty of evidence, in particular Robert Pennock’s convincing argument that intelligent design theory is “the bastard child of Christian fundamentalism and postmodernism,” McIntyre joins a small army of moderate, liberal voices in laying at least part of the blame on literary academics and their bewitchment by such continental thinkers as Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida.

Putting aside McIntyre’s astute-because-obvious prediction that “[s]ome will complain that the account just given is not sufficiently detailed or nuanced” (perhaps because, more than merely unnuanced, it’s flat-out incorrect), the real issue is the way McIntyre’s question, quoted above, misconstrues the philosophical tradition generalized under the misleading moniker of “postmodernism.” This tradition, existentialist and hermeneutic in orientation, is not a playbook of “techniques” to be randomly applied but rather a critical orientation that entails a thorough reformulation of Western thought. On the one hand, it moves away from the general presupposition of reality as a fixed, inert presence awaiting human appropriation; on the other hand, it embraces a suspicion that apparently neutral statements emerge from and promote positions that are themselves far from neutral, but rather rich in presuppositions, dependent on layers of context, and rife with vectors of power.

This background is particularly pertinent for a discussion of Santiago Zabala’s riveting and crucial new book, Being at Large: Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts, which analyzes the emergence of a political reality in which consensus around a basic set of facts seems alarmingly absent, in a way that portends catastrophic results for democracy itself. Zabala’s subtitle, with its reference to “alternative facts,” is a nod to Kellyanne Conway’s infamous defense of Donald Trump’s false claim regarding the size of the crowd at his inauguration. In defending the plurality of mutually contradictory “facts,” Conway has been joined by the president’s consiglieri, Rudolph Giuliani, who on Meet the Press in August 2018 defended counseling his client not to testify before the Mueller Russia probe because he might be accused of perjury if his account conflicted with those of his political enemies. When pressed by Chuck Todd that Trump could avoid perjury by simply telling the truth, this exchange ensued:

Giuliani: [W]hen you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well, that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth …

Todd: Truth is truth. I don’t mean to go like —

Giuliani: No, it isn’t truth. Truth isn’t truth …

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

PG notes that truth and politics tend to be uneasy companions. In an era where everything is political, Post-Truth, Hermeneutics and “Validated Meanings” too often create slippery slopes descending to undesirable destinations for much of humanity.

A lie told often enough becomes the truth.

Vladimir Lenin

6 thoughts on “Hermeneutics and the Framing of “Truth””

  1. A lie told often enough becomes the truth. – Vladimir Lenin

    — or a “fact”. The problem is, this is a two way street. The question isn’t what is a fact and what is not, the question is, who gets to SAY what is a fact and what is not.

  2. Having done teh grad stuff during the height of hermeneutics’ popularity — which is to say before Yale’s literature faculties had deconstructed themselves into oblivion — I snootily note that not the OP nor the underlying pieces nor the purported “PhD in Apologetics and Hermeneutics” approaches to a useful, reuseable, or accurate account of “hermeneutics.”

    In the end, hermeneutics is very similar to the old canard about how to sculpt stone: Chip away the parts that aren’t the statue, and when all of those parts are gone you’re done and have the statue. (It very well might be a statue of Cthulhu that drives every viewer, and especially the sculptor, utterly mad; but the “meaning of meaning” is outside the bounds of hermeneutics. As are other values that might be at issue after applying hermeneutic methods to, say, The Pr0tocals of the 3lder5 of Zi0n, which is semiobfuscated to keep PG’s site from showing up in troll-oriented search engines.) More formally, it’s a semiiterative process that seeks to determine meaning that is both entirely internally consistent with the text (or other means of expression) while not overtly inconsistent with what the interpreter knows outside the text. And that’s the harshest/narrowest possible definition of “knows outside the text”: Mere suspicion isn’t enough, and ignorance is an excuse. And the inconsistency has to be clear and overt, and significant enough to matter to a reasonable interpretation.

    In case that’s not reflexive, recursive, and language-bound enough for you, you should also import one or more of the weak versions of the Whorf hypothesis (strongest version, which has been refuted pretty well: “Language determines reality”), limitations on pluralism as suggested by, among others, Paul Armstrong (roughly “we often can’t state a definitive, positivist, excludes-all-other-possibilities meaning, but we often can determine that a proposed meaning is wrong”), and when “nuance” rises above the level of the kind of “noise” that would be eliminated by the literary equivalent of a Fourier transform or weighted moving average.

    If all of this together sounds like it can easily turn from being an inquiry into the nature of culturally-prescribed meaning into self-aggrandizing pontification in support of obtaining tenure approval by Deans and faculty senates who don’t share one’s own elevated understanding of nuance (or one’s own ego), you’re right. At its worst, hermeneutic-tinged analysis turns into demonstrating how much more clever is the analyst than anyone else, thereby providing the analyst with Authority. It can also be extremely useful, though, in exposing how cultural bias infects understanding; consider the way that Thomas Mann’s works are generally “taught” to American undergraduates, and then go read the texts either in German or in a more-recent English translation that wasn’t done by someone with An Agenda or in response to pre-1967 First Amendment law.

    The fun really begins when dealing with noncontemporaneous texts from largely oral traditions, for which the available linguistic evidence is lacking; I recall poking seminar-sized holes in a presentation on Chaucer’s Tristan one afternoon… and I was the polite one…

    • Is this still a thing in academia? I remember the days of literary theory, deconstruction, attacks on science (and texts that I now believe were genuinely incomprehensible), but I thought that this was all passe, that those culture wars were over, and that the combatants had moved on to gender studies and mourning the decline of the Humanities. It all seems so long ago: it must be getting on for 25 years since the Sokal affair hinted that maybe the emperor had no clothes.

    • I’m old enough to have learned and practiced in-depth literary analysis before hermeneutics drove out all the sane professors.

      That experience has borne much fruit during my legal education and career. If any of my professors were still alive, I would make a point of locating and thanking them.

  3. I recall reading with great interest what a reviewer contended I was trying to say in a book. It was brilliant. I just wish I had thought of it myself.

    • It’s the old critics vs author thing about authorial intent; critics think their takes matter, while authors know better. Authors are under no obligation to answer the questions they pose or acknowledge what is read into a story.
      After all, anybody can read anything into anything. Doesn’t make it real, though.

      Asimov’s THE IMMORTAL BARD pretty much said it all:


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