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

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

Random thoughts on random topics

Phoenix Mountain, Beijing

On language as the medium of hermeneutic experience

Gadamer, in Truth and Method: “Interpretation […] is the act of understanding itself, which is realized—not just for the one for whom one is interpreting but also for the interpreter himself—in the explicitness of verbal interpretation.” This is the claim that language is the medium of hermeneutic experience. (And all experience, of whatever kind, is also hermeneutic.) Gadamer insists that the absence of explicit linguistic formulations does not constitute a counterexample: all non-linguistic demonstrations in fact rely on language. 

The general claim, that all understanding is linguistic, i.e., has language as its medium, definitely sounds counterintuitive, since we do intuitively feel that there are things that we understand but that we can not ‘put into words’. 

One thing to bear in mind, tough, is the intimate relation between understanding and interpretation: all understanding is interpretation, and all interpretation results in understanding. To the extent that this sound wrong, it might reflect a hidden assumption about the existence of something like ‘ultimate’, ‘final’, ‘true and complete’ understanding, a kind of understanding that transcends the kind of understanding that interpretation results in. That, Gadamer claims, is an illusion. 

That means that from a Gadamerian point of view our problem in fact reduces to the question: ‘Is all interpretation verbal (linguistic)?’ Again, we need to take that in a broad sense, i.e., without any presupposition of actual verbalisations. (In an analogous fashion, Gadamer argues that we need not worry about linguistic diversity.)

The claim then seems to come down to this: anything that is proposed as an interpretation is in principle subject to questioning, argumentation, justification. This must be so, for interpretation itself is the result of such questioning, etcetera. Asking questions, providing answers, disputing and justifying them, all this is done in language (or in a medium that presupposes language), and inasmuch as there is something that fails to be subject to these language-based procedures it can not part of the interpretation itself (and hence can not constitute (part of) understanding). 

It’s not that Gadamer would deny the existence of non-verbalisable phenomena, the claim is that as such they are not part of interpretation and hence not part of our understanding of something.  (Note that this comes remarkably close to Wittgenstein’s analysis of the ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ phenomenon in Philosophical Investigations, II.xi.)

To what is extent is this a feasible position? It seems it all centers around the question whether we can actually point to the existence of a kind of understanding that meets two requirements: it is essentially non-linguistic; it is somehow connected to the kind of understanding that is linguistic.

The second requirement is the really problematic one, I think. But it also seems justified. For without it, the dispute would in fact be merely verbal: Is there something that is not linguistic understanding? Of course there is. Can we call it ‘understanding’? Well, yes, but what would be gained by that? It is only when we can point to relationships between the two phenomena, that we really confront Gadamer’s position.

So the question is: Can we do that? What would be good examples?

Martin Stokhof
from: Radical Interpretation Discussion Board
date: fall 2004

Random thoughts on random topics


Uninterpreted content

Theodore Schatzki’s analysis of dispersed and integrative practises implies that normativity arises, not at the higher order level of rules, or practises, or institutions (at least not exclusively), but at the very basic level of individual interaction with the environment. This view is reinforced by various analyses of know-how and expertise.

What is interesting to note, especially with regard to Davidson and Gadamer, who actually are in the same boat here, is that uninterpreted content then plays a key role. We need such content in order for normativity to have a basis on which the language-based practises may build.

For Gadamer this is anathema: all experience is linguistic and exists only in and through language. For Davidson it presents a problem too, although it may not be immediately obvious that it does. For doesn’t Davidson avail himself of a primitive causal relationship between the world and us? And doesn’t he reject any form of mediation (linguistic or otherwise) between ourselves and the world?

But unmediated content is not the same as uninterpreted content as we use the phrase here. For in Davidson’s view our causal interaction with the world results in beliefs, and beliefs and (sentence) meanings are indistinguishable in terms of structure and content. So Davidson’s unmediated content is highly structured, in such a way that it is immediately expressible (given a suitably expressive language, of course): definitely not the uninterpreted content of everyday expertise. In fact Davidson seems committed to the same kind of linguistic view on experience that Gadamer embraces explicitly.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 21/11/2006

Random thoughts on random topics

Tang pottery, Tsinghua University museum

Concerning Gadamer and normativity

The following seems a very plausible conjecture: it is the meaning of the text itself that provides the necessary normative constraints on its interpretation. But there are a few problems with that. 

First of all, it makes interpretation very much a factual, ‘realistic’ concern: independent from interpretations and interpreters, there is such a thing as ‘the meaning’, and the task of interpretation is to discover that. Once we’ve done that, the task is fulfilled and there is no more need for interpretation. But that doesn’t sit very well with Gadamer’s insistence that interpretation is an on-going affair, and moreover, one that not only constantly changes the views of the interpreter, but also the meaning(s) of what is interpreted: the ‘fusion of horizons’ is a temporary equilibrium, brought about by adjusting both the perspective of the interpreter and that of the text.

Secondly, if the objective meaning of the text itself were to play this role, this wouldn’t fit into an interpretational scheme that follows the hermeneutic circle. Recall that if we follow the structure of the hermeneutic circle we need to compare two things that both are different from this postulated objective meaning of the text itself, viz., the fore-projection, i.e., our ‘initial hypothesis’, and the result of our (first) reading. The problem was that we can compare these two without any problem, but that in order to evaluate the outcome of that comparison, we need a standard, something normative. Now suppose the objective meaning were to play that role? How would that help? If we know that this is the objective meaning of the text, we wouldn’t need any interpretation to begin with. And if we do not, it will fail to hold any normative authority.

The essence of the problem is that the hermeneutic circle, precisely because it is a circle, involves only entities of the same kind (meanings). And without reference to any external source of normativity, none of these can play the required normative role, on pain of the entire circular structure collapsing into what is basically a realistically understood concept of objectivity.

Martin Stokhof
from: Radical Interpretation Discussion Board
date: 11-2006