Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Reading Philosophy as Possibility

The problem of how to read philosophy or, for that matter, anything serious that might affect how you see the world, is taken up by Gadamer whom we’ll study later on in the semester. But I thought a word or two on the problem as it arose today in class, especially as articulated by John and Merle, might be helpful at this point.

A continental philosopher we won’t have a chance to talk about this semester named Paul Ricouer tried to deal with the way in which suspicion can sometimes interrupt one’s understanding of a text, by suggesting that genuine understanding, that is, a true commitment to understanding the words of another, be divided into two moments. The first one he called “the hermeneutics of affirmation,” and the second, the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” In other words, we first “listen” to the words of the text as if they are true. We affirm them in the fullness of their possibility. This is the way I try to teach the texts that I teach. What sometimes happens (I choose texts that I think offer this possibility) is that one hears the truth originally spoken into the words. This moment of affirmation is risky obviously, but one only takes this risk if one assumes (as one can in the case of the great philosophers) that a genuine encounter with the text might yield an aspect of the truth.

Furthermore, it’s not that one completely dumps one’s critical faculties before entering into an encounter with the text, as if that were even possible. Rather, knowing how one’s own biases— one’s critical faculties— usually work, one softens them, quiets them a bit (Perhaps you know your prejudices well enough that you can lovingly say to them, “Shut up for a moment and listen.”) so one can hear the words of the text in their “possible rightness and truth”(Gadamer).

One is then ready for the second moment, the critical moment. Here’s where the question of danger raised by Merle comes in: How might the text you’ve come to understand (more or less) be wrong, or perhaps just part right, or perhaps right but dangerous? And what are you going to do about it?

There are obviously serious problems with this approach that we’ll get into when we study hermeneutics with Gadamer, but I wanted to bring in Ricouer and hint at Gadamer in order to point to an experience in reading which the hermeneutics of affirmation makes possible. The experience I mean is nicely articulated by James Boyd White in an essay he entitles “A Way of reading”:

“. . .I wish to exemplify what I call a way of reading: a way of engaging the mind with a text, and learning from it, that will affect the way one lives both with other texts, including those of one’s own composition, and with other people.”

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