Thursday, March 8, 2012

Hermeneutics as practical philosophy

Hermeneutics is a very old term that gained new relevance in 1960 with the book "Truth and Method". Hermeneutics is usually understood as a science or art of interpretation. It is interesting to note the combination of science and art here. In the 1700s this art form was placed along with subjects such as grammar, rhetoric and dialectic. The art (greek: techne) teacher has an educational tradition that goes way back in time and has started to become more alive again, namely from the Aristotelian philosophy. Here we find something that was called "practical philosophy". This was a subject which was alive in education from around 350 BC until about the 1700s. Practical Philosophy created a systematic framework all art forms, to the extent that they were for the best of the community (greek: polis). What is practical philosophy? Philosophy used to be a part of science, or rather, it was our first science. It had such a role until modern science was born in the 1700s. The modern conflict between theory and praxis is different from the classical dichotomy, which was more within the concept of knowledge itself, meaning that knowledge in itself could be contradictory. Aristotle says in his book "Politics" that "theory is itself a form of praxis" (1325b21). Today, this sounds like a contradiction because we understand praxis as application of theory or science.

Praxis is how we live our lives, a way of life that is lived in a certain way. The term was used by Aristotle to describe the status of the free citizens in the community. Practical Philosophy is not about having certain crafts and skills, but the pursuits of creating an awareness of the characteristics of man, namely, to make choices and take responsibility for the good.

The art of understanding our traditions, sacred books, legal texts, or major masterpieces, requires not only that we know "them", but also way mechanisms which lead them forward in history so that they survive. Understanding a tradition is not an easy task. It requires that you go back to the original sources, create a historical picture of what has been and set it forth on a new basis. This is the deepest meaning of hermeneutics. Just to describe a structure and coherence to a text, or simply to reproduce what an author says, does not mean that the text is understood. One must be familiar with the text itself. The main problem in all understanding is about having a practical relationship between what the text says and how we understand it. This can be done "scientifically" by removing all subjective assumptions, creating a verification basis and using controllable ways to interpret the text. There has been written huge volumes about how this could and should be done scientifically.

Something changed in science history when our whole culture was subjected to a radical doubt and criticism. Hermeneutics was recieved a renewed universal significance. These doubts began seriously with Nietzsche, who believed that we had to doubt much deeper than what Descartes recommended. He said we need to doubt the way illusions and idols controll our lives.

Interpretation does not mean only find the the meaning of a difficult text, but requires that we go beyond the obvious phenomena that can be observed. Such texts can be Heidegger's
difficult book "Was ist Metaphysik?" and "Sein und Zeit", Gadamer's book "Wahrheit und Methode", or Kierkegaard's book "Sickness unto Death". It is only when one understands, for example, the question What is metaphysics? that one can answer the question. Hermeneutics is not first and foremost about answering a question, but to go beyond the question. This requires a whole new understanding of the self, because the concept of self-understanding seems to have collapsed in today's society.

Self-perception is in many ways a popular word that is used often in politics, novels, social discussions. It was Fichte who gave the term its modern meaning in his great work on the Philosophy of Science in the 1700s. He believed that one must demand consequences of the thinker. It is only through radical consequences that one can develop ones ideas. To reach true self-knowledge, one must use philosophy. In Fichte's eyes this is about having the opportunity to be in full accordance with ones own thinking, and with the spontaneity of self consciousness. Fichtes work on the Philosophy of Science is about understanding everything in the world based on one's own consciousness.

The new insight we have gained through science in the last few centuries, does not provide an opportunity to apply this principle in particular, and to do so demands a revision of our understanding of ourselves. Self-perception can no longer be linked to a complete X-Ray of who we are, that is, a full presence for ourselves. Self-perception is "always already" (as Heidegger puts it) something that is on the way, and at the same time impossible to cover completely. This fundamental doubt about who we are, is important to bear in mind in order to understand the task and the limits of hermeneutics.
A complete meaning of interpretation is a contradiction in itself. Interpretation is as self-consciousness, always on the way. Hermeneutics was before understood as a subject, a special area where you could use a technique to overcome difficult texts. One could understand hermeneutics as an art to learn - but that is no longer the matter.
Philosophical hermeneutics is more interested in questions than answers. It is particularly important to go beyond to underlying questions. When we answer a question and do not quite understand the it, that is to say that we do not really know what the other wants to know, then we obviously try to understand the issue better. We may ask, "Why are you asking for?" Only when I know the underlying elements of the question, can I begin to look for an answer. We must ponder over the conditions that hides in the questions. Hermeneutics first goal is just to understand what is hiding behind the questions. To clarify the hermeneutical situation means to realize that we will never get full insight and clarity about the intentions behind the questions, but we still need to search.

Understanding, like action, is always an adventure and never permits an easy application of a set of rules to understand given statements or texts. Understanding is in many ways like a fairy tale, and just as dangerous and has just as many opportunities. Hermeneutics has much less security than in the scientific methods, not least because it is not satisfied with the answer, or with what is written, but returns to the basic interests and issues that govern the questions that occupy us. Gadamer's theory of the fusion of horizons ("Truth and Method") is not only useful in conversation situations, but also very much in the interpretation of a text, which we over time get on speaking terms with by asking new questions.
This means that we need to realize that we will never get the full insight and clarity about the intentions behind the questions.

In this way, Gadamer believes that Practical Philosophy lives on in hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is about a theoretical approach within an interpretive praxis, but also the experience that comes forward and in communicated perspectives. The relationship between a general willingness to acquire knowledge and a specific practical wisdom (fronesis) is an interaction. Thus Gadamer considers that theoretical awareness between the relation between the understanding of practiacl experience (the praxis of understanding) in philosophical hermeneutics and how we understand ourselves, cannot be separated from each other.

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