Random thoughts on random topics

National Museum, Tokyo

Gadamer’s approach to textual interpretation

Some distinctions to keep in mind when dealing with Gadamer’s views on hermeneutic interpretation that is puzzling and challenging at the same time. One distinction is more or less like that between possibility and necessity. It seems unlikely that Gadamer would deny that it is possible to read/interpret a text with the explicit purpose of trying to recover/understand its author’s intentions. There is such a thing as literary biography, intellectual biography, and obviously individual intentions and other facts about an individual’s (historical, social, psychological) situation are relevant there. However, what Gadamer would deny is that that is the point (the ultimate, true point) of the text, the real challenge that it presents to us. One way of understanding that is by linking it to what I guess is indeed a fact, viz., that dissociated from its individual context a text may indeed present us with several alternative interpretations. Or to put it differently, that different interpreters (or one and the same interpreter at different stages of the interpretation process) may come up with different interpretations, none of which can claim to be the one, true (correct) interpretation. And notice that this seems to hold even in the face of a factually correct (re)construction of the meaning intended by the author.

This introduces a second distinction: that between the particular and the general. It is quite right to state that the human situation (history, biological and psychological constitution, etc.) provides the framework within which we are able to interpret and understand. However, does that really constitute an argument against Gadamer? The aspects of the human situation that we need to take into account are general, not particular. Gadamer would have no problems with that, while still maintaining that hermeneutic interpretation concerns the text and the text only. To regard something (patterns of ink on paper, scratches in a piece of marble, activated pixels on a screen) as a text means to regard it as a product of human activity, which immediately brings the human situation into play. It is only when we argue that particular aspects of that situation (individuated along the lines of persons, historical periods, social strata, etc) need to be taken into account in order for interpretation to be possible at all (cf. the first distinction) that we have a point against Gadamer, it seems.

Then there is the distinction between literary and non-literary texts, that might be relevant for this issue. Take scientific works. Would we agree that for them the intentions of the author tend to be less relevant for a proper understanding? In the case of a scientific work it seems that it is quite natural to make a distinction between the content, i.e., the meaning of the text itself, and the author’s intentions, historical circumstances, etc. Of course, the latter are relevant for understanding, e.g., the historical development of a scientific discipline, or the intellectual development of an individual scientist. But ordinarily we consider the fact that Newton was a devoted alchemist as irrelevant for our understanding of, e.g., his first law of motion. Or take the so-called ‘frame propositions’ in the Tractatus that proponents of the resolute reading make so much of. Do these tell us something about the author’s intentions? Yes, definitely. But suppose that, e.g., the introduction of the Tractatus were missing: would we then be unable to get the message from the actual text? It seems not. To make the point in a different way: could it not be that the introduction of a text actually contained a mistake, not about the authors intentions, but about what follows from the main text? That seems possible (albeit perhaps unlikely). But that means that the meaning of the text is at least distinct (if not independent) from the author’s intentions. 

Of course, we could admit this, but only for a particular kind of texts, viz., scientific ones. With regard to literary texts, the interesting question is whether the same holds (should hold?) if we regard them as sources of knowledge, such as ethical know-how, psychological insights, etc. If (and in so far as) literature is to be regarded as a source of knowledge, it should be able to teach us something over and beyond the concerns of the individual author.

Finally, yet another distinction that we need to keep in mind when assessing Gadamer’s views, viz., that between interpretation of texts and interpretation in general, including spoken conversation. One might argue that in actual conversations the point is one of getting intentions across. That is why non-verbal clues and triggers are crucial in such situations. Gadamer is actually well aware of this fact: it is not without reason that he describes writing as ‘self alienation’. We all share the experience of reading something we have written a while ago and not recognising it as ‘our own’. We know we have written it, but we are not able to identify with the meaning of the text. Here intention and meaning have drifted apart. That never happens, it seems, in ordinary conversation. (Except in rare cases, e.g. of extreme fatigue, where we can actually ‘hear ourselves speaking’.) If this distinction holds, it does seem to indicate that Gadamer’s hermeneutic interpretation is concerned with a different type of object.

Martin Stokhof
from: Radical Discussion Board
date: November 2002