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Author: Michael Barry
Title: Book Reviews: The Hermeneutic Onion
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
Summer 1998

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Source: Book Reviews: The Hermeneutic Onion
Michael Barry

vol. 1, no. 2, Summer 1998
Article Type: Book Review

Book Reviews: The Hermeneutic Onion

Michael Barry

Jost, Walter and Michael Hyde, eds. Rhetoric and Hermeneutics in Our Time: A Reader. New Haven: Yale, 1997. 406 pp.

Kögler, Hans Herbert. The Power of Dialogue: Critical Hermeneutics After Gadamer and Foucault. Translated by Paul Hendrickson. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996. Originally published as Die Macht des Dialogs, 1992. 322 pp.

Bruns, Gerald L. Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern. New Haven: Yale, 1992. 318 pp.

Hermeneutics, the study of the interpretation and understanding of texts, and more fundamentally, of our world, has been guided since Martin Heidegger's early work and Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method by the notion that preunderstanding conditions our understanding, and that as documentarists and historians, we are "more subject to history than it can be subjected to consciousness" (Grondin 114). Modern hermeneutics has thus emphasized historical situatedness and the need for interrogating our own biases—interrogating them with the consciousness that we will fail to comprehend them. Readers of and contributors to Post Identity may be interested in hermeneutic thought for this anti-essentialism. Hermeneutics also, because it arose in response to the problem of understanding texts dating from a different historical eras or utilizing different cultural assumptions, is concerned with the successful communication with the "other," and with the consequent problem of launching a convincing critique of ideology without having any foundation from which to launch it.

If you associate "postmodernism" with anti-essentialism and with a reluctance to endorse the epistemology of, say, socialism or feminism for the purposes of critiquing ideology, then this Heideggerian hermeneutics can be thought of as textual and social criticism plus post-modernism. Indeed, in "Charity, Obscurity, Clarity: Augustine's Search for Rhetoric and Hermeneutics," one of the essays that appears in Jost and Hyde's collection, Rhetoric and Hermeneutics in Our Time, David Tracy says that postmodernity resuscitated both rhetoric and hermeneutics because both resist distinctions between thought and feeling, between content and form, and between theory and practice. Other contributors to Jost and Hyde's volume are more skeptical about the relationship between hermeneutics and postmodernism: Nancy Struever, in an admiring essay on Charles Sanders Pierce and George Armstrong Kelly, laments the formalism and cant of postmodernism; Allen Scult remarks that hermeneutic inquiry's interest in sacred texts and classical texts confounds postmodern sensibilities. Scult is on to something: Jost and Hyde's volume barely touches popular culture—I recall a brief mention of All in the Family—and uses instead for its objects of study venerated texts like the Bible, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and for its original theoretical basis, Aristotle.

Hermeneutics would seem to be rhetoric's other half—what rhetoric deals out, understanding takes in, and the disciplines of rhetoric and hermeneutics systematically study these complementary activities. This simple dichotomy has helped me with the concept, though it should be only the beginning of the discussion. As Paul Ricoeur says in an essay in the Jost and Hyde collection, the situations that originally and traditionally informed the terms rhetoric and hermeneutics are quite different: rhetoric studies political speech in public places, hermeneutics studies the attempts to understand texts from a historical distance. The need for a distinct discipline of hermeneutics became especially urgent, then, after the invention of printing and after the Reformation underscored the importance of individual Bible study. Gadamer says, in one of two essays of his that are reprinted in this collection, that

these changes began a process that finally, over the course of centuries, not only eliminated illiteracy but at the same time led to a culture of silent reading that demoted the spoken word and even words read aloud to the second rank. This was an immense event of introversion of which we have only recently become truly aware, now that the mass media have opened the way for a new orality. (48)

When Heidegger and Gadamer take hermeneutics and apply it to the understanding of our life situations, the content of hermeneutics becomes even more distinct from that of rhetoric.

Jost and Hyde's volume, which comprises nineteen essays, some reprinted and some new, is about these definitions. Most of the essays adjust the definitions of the terms rhetoric and hermeneutics a little bit, and most address the issue of what one can bring to the other.

Have I said that Jost and Hyde's collection is an excellent book? It is an excellent book.

Here is Allen Scult on the ineffability of the "most essential meanings of sacred texts": "Even before Moses must relay his own hermeneutical experience in terms appropriate to a wider audience, he must himself be able to 'understand' the experience of God's presence in order to undergo it. And so his attention must be somehow aroused and made ready to be 'appropriately' affected by a strange and uncanny event that will change the course of his life" (291). Moses then has to prepare the people in a way similar to the way God prepared him: otherwise the Word of God won't "take."

Here is Eugene Garver arguing for a complicated hermeneutic of constitutional interpretation that demands not only the acknowledgment that the Constitution negotiates a pluralism of interests, but the acknowledgment that the interpretation of the Constitution must negotiate a pluralism of interpretive strategies, and that we must accept a "rhetorical culture of argument." "Instead of the image of the doctor avoiding litigation because the patient died," says Garver, "we have the jurisprudential practice of referring to dissents as authorities. If constitutional hermeneutic argument were good only when successful—that is, if we collapsed the distinction between justice and legitimacy—then referring to dissents as authorities would be incoherent" (182). At first I thought Garver was arguing for a certain professionalism removed from the turmoil of partisan politics: what he calls "craft values." But he isn't. The Dred Scott Decision was legitimate but is unjust by our current standards: "Legitimacy is a field for experts, while the determination of justice is a question left for citizens" (183). Garver wants us to keep the process of both these determinations.

Here is Wendy Olmsted on the importance in law of the argument by example, on the very necessity of simile in the construction of what would seem to be a literalist's bailiwick: "The finding of similarity or difference is the key step in the legal process" (241). That is, if the precedent in a law case is an earlier case in which "the owner of a gun sent a servant girl for the gun; it went off and shot the plaintiff's son, injuring the son," and the owner was found to be negligent, every element in the story—the people and the ratios and relationships and the actions—must be separately compared to the elements of the new case. Olmsted is arguing for the practical value of "relative indeterminacy": neither assurance of meaning nor despair over its impossibility.

Here is Charles Altieri on hermeneutics' overreadiness to say "yes" to the "other": "Suppose that sometimes what is disclosed requires us to close our fist rather than open it?" (104). He is responding to Gerald Bruns's 1993 volume, Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern, a portion of which is reprinted here in Jost and Hyde's volume (and a book about which I want to say more later). Altieri argues that rhetoric is better than hermeneutics at adjusting to the situation where the "other" has a will to power much like ours; hermeneutics can only urge "atonement."

The editors' introduction is among the most thorough and interesting chapters of this volume, and not surprisingly, it gets most interesting when it summarizes wonderful insights from other philosophers who attempt to define truth when they no longer believe in foundations. Wittgenstein's On Certainty, for example: "Why do I not satisfy myself that I have two feet when I get up? There is no why. I simply don't. This is how I act" (qtd. in Jost and Hyde 21). The two reasons we would never argue for the fact that we have two feet, as Jost and Hyde summarize Wittgenstein, are that "there are no argumentative premises we could cite that are better established than the claim being made about feet or people...[and] any attempt to doubt the claim presupposes experience with doubting and claiming, that is, presupposes involvement in a language game and a form of life as already given" (21). Jost and Hyde's introduction starts from a prior point, of course. It establishes some definitions, arguing, for example, that rhetoric teaches us to make judgments on the basis of limited knowledge, and thus makes a pact with historical situatedness (finitude). It summarizes Heidegger's position, which identifies the knowledge of the everyday world as the primordial hermeneutical task. It discusses Heidegger's distrust of rhetoric, a distrust attributable to the premium he places on authenticity. It introduces Levinas's criticism of Heidegger for making too little of "being-with-others," and too much of "one's own" call to conscience, which seems not to arise from any fleshly "others." Finally, it discusses at some length the function of rhetorical "topics," and why some think they are stultifying—a how-to book of argument—and others think they facilitate awareness.

Let me highlight one more of the essays. Steven Mailloux's essay on "The Pragmatic Intimacy Between Rhetoric and Hermeneutics" is not one that I would regard as among the volume's best, but I think it speaks to a compelling issue for Post Identity readers: cross-cultural judgments (as opposed to cross-historical ones discussed elsewhere, where the cultures feel continuous with one another). Mailloux addresses an interdisciplinary debate between those who automatically cede moral high ground to primitive cultures and those who justify their own beliefs—our own—on the basis that they are ours (I am thinking here of a chapter in Tristes Tropiques, "A Little Glass of Rum," where Levi-Strauss frames the debate this way). Mailloux takes up Evans-Pritchard's 1937 study of Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande and makes explicit the impossibility of evaluating the rightness of our judgments: the web of belief is so all-encompassing that the Azande "cannot think that his thought [and its texture] is wrong" (391). But changes can take place as the strands are rewoven. Mailloux follows Richard Rorty in Rorty's apology for ethnocentrism: he contends that we must "work by our own lights," and that "beliefs suggested by another culture must be tested by trying to weave them together with beliefs we already have" (391). Mailloux's treatment of this problem is, in this forum, brief. But interesting. And he is the only essayist here that explicitly allows for the subculture of hermeneutical theorists to exert an ethnocentrism of its own, again following Rorty: "we justify the condemnation of cruder forms of ethnocentric behavior" with our own form, which is called "respectful understanding" (390).

My impression of this book is quite positive; and yet I have some reservations. First, the "shake-ups" of ideas that it achieves are usually only achieved by adhering more or less closely to an already established pole of a dichotomy or dialectic. It is a safe book, where the tendency is to everywhere advocate a middle approach. For Victoria Kahn, it is prudence, which is between theoria and techne (152). Garver says something similar: prudence is between philosophy and rhetoric (184). Struever wants neither a "full Parnassian retreat to Culture Criticism, nor...a conservative fixation on an authorizing past" (228). Olmsted negotiates between meaning that is for some univocal, for others undecidable (235). Second, it talks about the other, but, as Eve Sedgwick might say, it does not sound as if it really has the political projects of any real "others" in mind (See Sedgwick 23). [1] Richard Palmer's essay on "What Hermeneutics Can Offer Rhetoric" lists the knowledge of the "dark thou" as an important contribution to our own horizons; the introduction, as I have said, introduces Levinas's ethical vision, which urges us to listen to the "saying of the face"; the Azande come up a couple of times. But look at the names of the contributors: they do not seem "other" to me. Third, nobody in this collection calls attention to the difficulty of acknowledging anti-foundationalism in rhetorical situations. Rhetorical theory might be comfortable with it, but should we try to say, in Congress, "No, Mr. Speaker, I was not saying that it is eternally true, I was saying only that, given our historical situatedness..."? You get the idea. Finally, the writing, though usually good, is not always. Garver's very fine essay has a couple of easy-to-identify ambiguous sentences; Kahn's essay is too full of untranslated Latin. Donald Marshall's essay boiled down to alternately labeling elements in Augustine's texts as either "rhetoric" or "hermeneutic."

In The Power of Dialogue, Hans Herbert Kögler occupies a position between that of Gadamer and Foucault, and meanwhile proposes a careful methodology for future inquiry, based on dialogue with the "other." What several of the essays in Jost and Hyde's collection do, Kögler does as well: he frames his theory by introducing someone who uses too much tradition, someone else who uses too little. "Here the hermeneutic task is to steer a course between the avoidance of symbolic violence within understanding (ethnocentrism) and the analysis of social power (as the critique of domination)" (248). Kögler claims to have the proper balance.

He argues in favor of Gadamer's hermeneutics to the extent that it stresses preunderstanding, but he spends much of his time explaining his opposition to some of its features. Its "linguistic ontology" reduces all social practice to language, for example, a troublesome reduction for Kögler because it loses sight of the possibility of dialogue across particular symbolic orders. Its doctrine of the "fusion of horizons" closes down true dialogic communication because it gives a too-prominent place to forging consensus: as such, it ignores the importance of encounters in which we as interpreters might persist in disagreement while still taking seriously the view of the other. This emphasis on consensus is part of a larger tendency to too-readily endorse tradition. Kögler believes that Gadamer's theory is incapable of distinguishing between situational validity and truth, because we end up using our background assumptions for evaluating the truth of what has been said. Finally (and again, a symptom of endorsing tradition), Gadamer's idea of the "transsubjective" nature of preunderstanding denies the individual agency of the interpreter. This agency is important to Kögler, though it does not stop him from admitting to the force of traditions and of power practices. In fact, however, Kögler divides preunderstanding into three categories—the symbolic order, social-power practices, and individual situations—and it seems to me that each one allows progressively more agency. Participation in the symbolic order sets the bounds on our thinking, but it is a particular symbolic order, potentially in dialogue with other orders. And after all, we have the power to reproduce or resist the traditions that are handed down to us.

Against Foucault, Kögler argues that the observations of the workings of the symbolic order are themselves situated, and that the audience reading Foucault's insights, then, will continue to lack agency, given the terms of Foucault's analysis. [2] The theorist must be in dialogue with a situated agent, the one involved in the practical struggle, the life situation, if he or she is to be hermeneutically open. Moreover, the situated agent must be the one to decide what counts as power: what feels like oppression. The theorist, it should be said, must be allowed a voice too: he or she can evaluate whether or not the stories told by those in power "hang together."

Kögler believes that "radical openness to the other" (169) is the salutary feature of a methodology of critical hermeneutics, and he criticizes both Gadamer and Foucault for their lack in this regard. He advocates this openness in the context of an insistence that we must watch out for treating the other as a homogenous oppressed group: power struggles can be intrafamily as well as interfamily, apparently. "The fear of violence [held, apparently, by overly scrupulous anthropologists] against foreign meaning contexts engenders a concept of understanding that is no longer capable of giving systematic attention to the fact of power structures within social meaning contexts" (218).

This book has some clear summaries of others' positions. It provides a clear explanation, for instance, of Foucault's belief that the potential for freedom is necessary for appreciating the concept of power, or that "Power technologies aim at a transformation of individuals in such a way as to disarm their power endangering potential for resistance and, at the same time, productively to redirect their psychical-organic energies to the benefit of the system" (241). In summarizing the "hermeneutic circle," Kögler says that

The interpreter does not, as traditional [pre-Heidegger] hermeneutics assumed, allow the textual interplay of whole and part to move back and forth until a comprehensive understanding of the object has been worked out. On the contrary, interpretive understanding is achieved between interpreter and text as a communication between interpreter and tradition—whereby tradition is present in the interpreter as well as in text, and at the same time determines the background of the interpreter's holistic preunderstanding. (26)

The book is also enlightening and interesting in summaries of Arthur Danto, Heidegger, Hilary Putnam, and Pierre Bourdieu.

But it is, at most junctures, unbearably hard to read. I did not read the German, but I do not think the problem is in the translation. It is mainly attributable to a heavy use of jargon and limited use of examples, maybe philosophers' and literary theorists' specialties. [3] Everything is "thematized" or "hypostatized," and so much depends on the word "methodological" (which I felt I could skip over since the sentence usually made sense without it). But more than that, Kögler just takes twice as many words as he needs. Kögler is probably right about almost everything, but despite his insistence on dialogue, I get the impression that he is profoundly uncomfortable if any loose end in the methodology of the social theorist is not tied up.

For its excellent writing without any loss in the way of insight or explanation, I should mention again Gerald Bruns's 1992 Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern, which I read on my way to writing a review of these other two books. Bruns's style includes occasional first-person accounts of how he has come to regard certain of these philosophical problems, and that is part of what I like about his writing. Moreover, he seems to be a little ahead of the game. For example, Altieri's essay in the Jost and Hyde reader, fine as it is, seems to catch Bruns off guard when it asks the question I alluded to above—what if we should close our fist to the demands of the other? This is a version of the charge that "Hermeneutics is too trusting" that Kögler also levels. Yet Bruns's book, in the essay that appears just before the one Altieri is explicitly addressing, shows his awareness of the question: "What if the other is a monster, is just corrosively evil? Knowing as becoming what you know has its mortal risks" (168). [4] Bruns's discussion of the "other" is fairly convincing as well: he actually takes us into the hermeneutics of Islamic mysticism in his description of the writings of Muhammed al-Ghazali, a Middle Ages Qur'an commentator. Bruns's chapter on the Judeo-Christian Bible is no less worthy in this regard: Bruns wants to try to get at the untamed Jeremiah that is beneath the imprimatur of the priestly traditions.

Bruns is also aware of hermeneutics' regular occupation of middle ground, a "kind of phenomenology of the between," he says, that is not likely to produce "conversion experiences." And yet, his essays do not feel, as those in Jost and Hyde's book do, as if they are negotiating the same questions that others have already raised.

Admittedly, the general argument of the book is not much of an upheaval: Bruns does a traditional historical study of the concept of hermeneutics as it has been practiced by those outside of the tradition of German idealism, a tradition that Bruns nevertheless admires and makes use of. Bruns wants to reinforce the fundamental nature of the hermeneutic endeavor, and in doing so he embraces Heidegger's idea that we come to our life situation as if it is a hermeneutical problem. He advocates moving hermeneutics closer to the "chaos and dark night" of poetry.

Two chapters stand out for me: one on Thucydides and the constitution of historical truth, and the one I have already mentioned on Jeremiah. Bruns quotes Thucydides at length in establishing that, for Thucydides, historical truth was what-people-will-believe. Writing his histories in this spirit, Bruns says, Thucydides had to make up some stuff. Those wonderful speeches that he transcribes, for instance? Thucydides wrote them. (Of course! But I never thought of it.) Bruns's chapter on Jeremiah's career as a prophet is similarly interesting. Bruns feels that a key passage in Jeremiah indicates Jeremiah's true rebellious and unsanctioned position with respect to his co-religionists at the time: it implies that scribes of the Deuteronomic tradition have rejected the Lord. Yet that passage is framed by a less rebellious text, and the book is in turn co-opted and approved by those who assembled the Deuteronomic tradition. So how do we peel away just the right number of layers to meet Jeremiah at his own place? This seems to me to be an extraordinarily relevant question for today's media-mediated rebels against the system.

The beginning of Bruns's conclusion is a good way to summarize his argument, call attention to his light touch as a writer, and end my critical and summary comments.

I've said in this book that our relationship with texts, or with the world (or with other people), seems inadequately served by the concept of meaning. I expect now that someone will take me to be saying that texts, etcetera, are meaningless and that hermeneutics is one more thief in the postmodern night. It is true that hermeneutics is not always reputable and that one should always double one's locks. But a serious hermeneutical lesson that one might draw from this book is that nothing, unfortunately, is meaningless; rather there are more meanings than we know what to do with, and not even texts that resist our efforts of interpretation will save us. We are like Odysseus, accumulating more stories than we could possibly want, but not too many to tell. Or maybe we are like Oedipus, who finds to his horror that everything he hears is the truth. (247)

Works Cited

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. (Wahreit und Methode. Tübingen: Mohr, 1960.) Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York: Seabury-Continuum, 1975.

Grondin, Jean. Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer. New Haven: Yale UP, 1994.

Levi-Strauss. Tristes Tropiques. Translated by John and Doreen Weightman. 1955. New York: Atheneum, 1974.

Ricoeur, Paul. Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action, and Interpretation. Translated and edited by John Thompson. New York: Cambridge UP, 1981.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.

1. Hans Herbert Kögler's book, which I will discuss shortly, may be culpable on these grounds as well. Kögler or his translator consistently use the feminine pronoun for impersonal situations: the average theorist, or situated agent, or wielder of social power. But no women are cited in the whole book, as far as I can see, outside of the notes.

2. Kögler wants to dispute several problematic poststructuralist claims that he does not necessarily identify only with Foucault. These include the treatment of all social phenomena on the level of the symbolic, a reduction that Kögler believes risks ignoring "practices and experiences of situated subjects," and the conclusion that discursive truth is always merely expressive of power relations: Kögler says it isn't, especially when there is a "methodological imperative" to side with the oppressed.

3. It is unfair to quote the most baffling sentences out of context. But I will anyway: "We have already seen, however, that reference to this dimension of language [holistic background knowledge] is not sufficient to dispose of the project of reflectively ascertaining meaning as simply the misguided goal of a subjectivity that, Gadamer claims, is thoroughly determined by language" (41).

4. Bruns also refers, most admiringly, to Paul Ricoeur's concept of the "hermeneutics of suspicion," the view of the world propagated by Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud: Kögler, by contrast, does not, outside of a brief note, mention Ricoeur, whose provisional solutions to the concern that Gadamer is too respectful of tradition might have taken some of the energy away from Kögler's charges (though no doubt Kögler is closer to Habermas than to Ricoeur).