The Hermeneutic Situation

Featured image is Scenes from the Nakamura Kabuki Theater, by Hishikawa Moronobu.

Imagine the first American to see kabuki theater.

Did it seem completely unintelligible to him?

Or did that American mistake it for something like the performing arts he already knew? A play, or an opera, or even a dance. Did he miss what made it idiosyncratic?

What the American already knows, what he’s capable of understanding as, constitutes what Martin Heidegger calls his hermeneutic situation. It is not knowledge in the sense that we know arithmetic, but something we have that is prior to understanding and provides the necessary conditions for intelligibility.

Imagine in time this American began to see what sets kabuki apart from other performing arts; what is particular to it. He did not just add one more type of performing art to a mental list; his understanding of the performing arts he already knew about is changed by his having understood kabuki. In seeing how they are different from kabuki, he can see their particularity more clearly, and seeing what they have in common is similarly transformative.

This process is what Hans-Georg Gadamer referred to as a fusion of horizons, which in reality constitutes a transformation of both. It is akin to when an English speaker is learning Spanish, and reaches the moment in which they stop trying to mentally translate English sentences word by word.

Once you can formulate what you’re trying to say in Spanish from the start, you’ve broadened your horizons in a meaningful way. Your hermeneutic situation has been transformed; you have not merely added Spanish to English because your understanding of the latter is changed. Things you took for granted about language construction you are now capable of seeing as one possibility among others.

Kabuki is a game which the audience participates in. There is always a sense of otherness in a game, of the alien nature of a thing that is experienced “as a reality that surpasses” the player. For one who does not know the game, and attempts to get by on analogy with other games, the otherness is more acute. But games draw the players in; playing it becomes natural in time.

The hermeneutic situation which allows us to play such games has a fore-structure. That is, we do not reason the playing out as we go but must in a sense already grasp the game before we can play it. And this fore-structure is a structure, not a homogenous thing. There are several parts. These include the horizons which constitute the very frontiers of what we can see, and our prejudices which bias the direction we think we ought to be looking within those horizons.

So when the American sees Kabuki he is inclined to understand it as he would a western play. But perhaps there is something else he knows of that would have produced a greater understanding. For example, if he had fore-conceived it in terms of religious ritual as much as performing art, perhaps a better understanding would have been produced. Or maybe not—understanding is truly an art, which can only be learned in repeated application. There are no procedures or methods that provide shortcuts.

The Tangled Mess

Heidegger and Gadamer are concerned with what they both see as defects in the hermeneutic situation of most people in the west. In particular, we tend to fore-conceive of everything in terms of the subject-object schema. One relatively small way this handicaps us by producing misreadings of thinkers and works that existed before this schema was formulated. If you read Plato or Aristotle as discussing objective knowledge grasped by knowing subjects, you have simply misunderstood them.

Gadamer also speaks of the “prejudice against prejudice” enshrined by the Enlightenment. Any bias or prior inclination is treated as at odds with the ethics of true knowledge; only what is rationally evaluated from scratch can be validated.

But the fact that understanding has a fore-structure means that we are necessarily prejudiced just by having a starting point, an initial standpoint. Looking at a town from the ground biases you in different ways than looking at it from an airplane flying over it, but you must look at it from somewhere.

Our hermeneutic standpoint comes about through history and through tradition, which we are audience and author to, rather than detached observers of. From Gadamer:

In fact history does nor belong to us; we belong to it. Long before we understand ourselves through the process of self-examination, we understand ourselves in a self-evident way in the family, society, and state in which we live.

And later:

That which has been sanctioned by tradition and custom has an authority that is nameless, and our finite historical being is marked by the fact that the authority of what has been handed down to us—and not just what is clearly grounded—always has power over our attitudes and behavior.

But we are not passive receptors, molded by tradition. We are participants:

Understanding is to be thought of less as a subjective act than as participating in an event of tradition, a process of transmission in which past and present are constantly mediated.

As an alumni of GMU econ, I can’t help but think of this in terms of entrepreneurship.

Mainstream economics simply dissolves the entrepreneur into the structure of the situation. Arbitrage opportunities are features of the situation, which you either have information about or you do not. If you have information about it, and the expected return exceeds the expected opportunity cost, you will pursue the opportunity. If not, you won’t. End of story.

There’s no special role for judgment, ways of thinking, insight, or creativity in these stale models.

The Austrian school is better at affirming entrepreneurship as a creative act. Israel Kirzner in particular focused on the role of frameworks. And Don Lavoie tried to unite this tradition with hermeneutics, but was rebuffed.

Consider René Descartes, who many would credit above all others with making the subject-object schema so deeply a part of our hermeneutic situation. If you dig deep enough into the context he was operating in, you see more and more parallels to his ideas in lines of thought going back centuries.

The more context you add, the more Descartes’ individual contribution appears to sink into the currents of history. One can imagine the poor fellow with his nose and mouth just above the water, gasping “Help, help! I’m being carried along by impersonal forces that are beyond my control!”

But history is a tangled mess. This is something that otherwise subtle thinkers like Alasdair MacIntyre don’t do enough justice to, in my opinion. In arguing that our time exhibits a unique anarchy of competing frameworks, MacIntyre and others like him fail to provide suitable evidence of an order than reigned previously. When MacIntyre begins describing the earlier era, it seems full of rival frameworks all tangled up. And he and thinkers like Charles Taylor give convincing accounts of how, even today, there are certain fore-havings that overwhelmingly dominate. The subject-object schema is an example of this, as mentioned above.

This tangled mess produces variation and particularity in the hermeneutic situations of different individuals. Just as what we bring to a game is different depending upon our standpoint, what we bring to any situation is different with each individual.

When we flesh out the situation that Descartes faced, we do not thereby dissolve him into it, the way an economic model does an entrepreneur. Instead, we can see more clearly what was particular about his hermeneutic situation, which he brought to his writings and discussions. This hermeneutic situation wasn’t a static thing of course, it was put in motion by those very acts. But the particularity of it, what it meant for his ability to participate in the philosophy-games of his day, enabled him to make moves that had a lasting impact. It’s hard to measure this sort of impact, but few deny that it was enormous, or that we still feel it today.

Can individual influence be usefully thought of in this way more generally? What was the hermeneutic situation of General MacArthur in occupied Japan? The politics in Washington, within his own outfit, and in Japan, were texts that he had to read in order to decide what moves he ought to make.

What about the founding fathers? Or Napoleon?

I don’t know how far this approach can take us, but I think it is worth exploring.


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