Random thoughts on random topics


Gadamer and materiality

On Gadamer’s move away from the materiality of text. What is interesting in this abstraction from the text as a material object to the text as a linguistic object is where it ends. For Gadamer what requires interpretation of a text is abstracted from its materiality, but it seems that it does remain linked to a particular language. That is to say, what is interpreted does not transcend the boundaries of a particular language, for example via translation in other languages. For translation cannot be independent of, let alone prior to, interpretation. If that were the case, then we would end up in something like the realm of Fregean senses, which do not depend on any form of expression at all, which can be grasped ‘as is’, and for which therefore interpretation  simply is not an issue. A consequence of that, it seems, is that meaning cannot be ontologically distinct from language and still be something that calls for interpretation. 

Is what Gadamer calls ‘deciphering’ of a text a factor in the move away from its materiality? That depends a bit on what Gadamer means by that. If deciphering a text means establishing the text as belonging to a particular language and as thus having an initial meaning in that language, then it seems that deciphering is a process that establishes a starting point for hermeneutic interpretation, quite independent from considerations regarding materiality. Of course, materiality might come in in the deciphering, and even prior to that, in establishing something as a text as such (independent of establishing it as a text written in a particular language), but those are considerations that are germane to the issue.

As for the evaluation of Gadamer’s move away from materiality: it seems that we need to balance two factors: the contextuality of texts, and transcendence of that same contextuality. It is, of course,   evident that texts are bound to contexts. But at the same time, texts are also the primary vehicles we have for transcending contextual boundaries. This is not only what makes texts efficient as a means of communication, it is also what makes them objects of interpretation. I think we are right to criticise Gadamer for looking only at the latter and disregarding the former, but that does not mean that the latter does not also exist

Another question that arises is what exactly  the boundaries of materiality of text are. In the old days that was clear: ‘paper and ink’. But think of the transition from manuscripts to print: from something that is unique, or exists in only a very limited number of copies, to  something of which there is no real ‘original’, but only  thousands and thousands of exemplars. In that transition, we see materiality becoming a distributed property, and one that is no longer unique (hardbound versus paperback versions, editions with or without the reference material, …). And then consider the electronic revolution, ‘print on demand’:  what kind of materiality of the text does that represent? 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 25/03/2021