William Grassie: Engaged Contemplations

Seeking Truth in a World of Competing Narratives

In today's global civilization, we are confronted with a Walmart of worldviews. We find ourselves in an entangled and sometimes toxic web of ideologies, religions, nationalisms, and ethnicities. We generally resolve this cognitive dissonance by doubling-down on our own prejudices in opposition to those with whom we disagree. We tend to pathologize and demonize the other. We frame these conflicts as zero-sum and negative-sum competitions. And if we are right and they are wrong, then we also had be sure that we have the might in the coming battles. Is there some other way to adjudicate between the competing metanarratives that shape our lives and identities, determining how we think and act, what we hold to be true and good, and even which facts and evidence we recognize as relevant to our disagreements?

The philosophy of interpretation can help us dig our way out of this relativistic mess. Interpretation is central to the metanarratives by which we create and re-create our sense of self and society. The theory of interpretation is referred to as "hermeneutics." The term derives from the Greek god Hermes, who was the messenger mediating between the gods of Mount Olympus, the mortals on Earth, and the gods of the Underworld. In the mythology, Hermes is something of a trickster, using his role as messenger to confound and confuse. So the analytics of Hermes is not a simple matter. How one interprets sacred scripture, translates from a foreign language, applies case law, constructs history, reads a work of literature, and interprets scientific data can lead to very different and sometimes contradictory conclusions.

All readers begin with a set of assumptions and prejudices about the text at hand. Even the selection of which text to read is partially determined by these prejudgments. Do we track the New York Times bestseller list or the Christian Booksellers Association list? Do we read The Nation or The Weekly Standard? Do we read in English or some other language? Do we read for pleasure or work or both? Were we trained in a particular profession? Were we raised in a particular religious tradition and culture? Our attitude toward the text is shaped by whether we approach it skeptically or sympathetically. We all have a finite amount of time and attention, so these pre-filters are not insignificant.

In the 20th century, a famous debate about the philosophy of interpretation occurred between the German philosophers Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jürgen Habermas. Gadamer rejected classical German hermeneutics, which seeks to "understand the author better than he understood himself." Instead, Gadamer looked toward a "fusion of horizons" that combined the world of the author, the text itself as something now disconnected from the author and his historical context, and the life of the reader in a different time and place. There seemed to be no possibility of a simple objective interpretation of a text because the text is a moving target—read, debated, interpreted, and re-read over a long history in very different circumstances and social contexts.

But Habermas was critical of the relativistic implications of Gadamer's approach. Habermas came out of the German socialist tradition and was committed to the possibility of social-scientific theories of society that allow critical and objective judgments to be made. To give so much weight to the reader's prejudice does not allow for the possibility of scientific objectivity in hermeneutics.

The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur picks up this debate, developing a creative dialectic between the views of Gadamer and Habermas. There is a kind of hermeneutical circle that moves in three stages. Readers begin with the understanding that they bring to the text—their prejudices in their particular historical and social contexts that valorize the text and orient them to its significance thereof. Ricouer agrees with Gadamer that we cannot escape these prejudices and that they need not be seen as simply negative.

The second stage of the hermeneutical circle involves explanation, the work of reading, comprehending, analyzing, and interrogating the text. Here, Habermas' critical theory can help. All manner of psychological, sociological, philological, literary, historical, and philosophical theories can be applied to the text. Each critical framework is like putting on a different pair of reading glasses with which we discover new insights in our reading; but each critical theory also partially determines how we read and understand.

This analytical stage then gives way to the third stage, our appropriation of the reading, a new interpretation based on the new data acquired and new relationships observed in a close, critical reading of the text. Through this increased familiarity with the text, we now end up with a deeper understanding. We have achieved Gadamer's "fusion of horizons," as the world of the text and the world of the reader interrelate and inform each other. Should we read the text again, our understanding will be enriched by previous readings.

Along with Habermas, Ricouer recognizes that the hermeneutical process so described can become a vicious circle, in which the prejudices of the reader dictate certain dogmatic readings over and over again. The explanation employed is selected to predetermine the appropriation. Such is often the case in the reading of sacred scripture or ideologically informed readings of history. Ricouer's solution is to interject the possibility of a willful distanciation from one's prejudices, a kind of temporary suspension of judgment. The challenge, then, is to imagine the prospect of standing outside a tradition or ideology as an objective observer of the text using multiple methodologies and critical theories. Ricouer renames the three stages as prejudgment, configuration, and refiguration. The suspension of judgment and shifting of standpoint are the keys to turning interpretation into a dynamic hermeneutical spiral.

Ricouer seeks in part to reverse the relationship between text and reader. Instead of reading a "passive" text, we should allow an "active" text to read us, informing and transforming our world with new insights and understandings. The Christian metanarrative, for instance, can be a closed, fundamentalist circle, in which each reading of the Bible and the tradition simply reinforces the prejudices with which we began. On the other hand, the Bible can also offer new critical and transformative insights into the world. Among Christians, there are disagreements about the correct reading of the Bible. Nor do all Muslim agree with each other about how to read the Quran. Orthodox Jews affirm that there are "70 faces of the Torah"—many correct readings of every verse. Even within a closed culture or dogmatic ideology, the sacred stories and guiding metanarratives are open to competing interpretations, some better, some worse, some more probable, and some highly improbable.

Our challenge today is so much more complicated than the intra-textual hermeneutics of a single sacred tradition, yet we still ought to think about this philosophy of interpretation as we try to effectively adjudicate between different worldviews and multiple and conflicting narratives of self, society, and cosmos. As Ricoeur writes:

[I]t is not true that all interpretations are equal. The text presents a limited field of possible constructions. The logic of validation allows us to move between the two limits of dogmatism and skepticism. It is always possible to argue for or against an interpretation, to confront interpretations, to arbitrate between them and to seek agreement, even if this agreement remains beyond our immediate reach.

Big History—a unified understanding of science and history—is also a limited field of possible interpretations. The many facts of science from diverse disciplines can be organized hierarchically by chronology of emergence, the scale of size, and thresholds of complexity realized. The challenge is to use this new Book of Nature as a common reality-based reference in our inter-religious and inter-ideological debates. That would be progress!

A version of this post was originally published on the Huffington Post, 2012/4/30.

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