The Courage to See, the Courage to Kill

Featured image’s source is NASA.

The struggle between enlightenment and spirit, detached reason and emotionally embedded life, is one of the characteristic conflicts of modernity. It has played out in arguments and in art, in politics and policy. Charles Taylor has traced the contours of this and related conflicts with remarkable skill and subtlety.

The 1954 science fiction story “The Cold Equations” is a useful example. A middling midcentury parable that is long on exposition and short on plot, it sets up a stark scenario in which fellow feeling and detached reason are at odds, but the latter must necessarily triumph.

Author Tom Godwin describes a future in which resource constraints on the frontier of space allow for almost no margin of error. They give ships just enough fuel for the exact amount of mass they are carrying. So any stowaway must be tossed out into the void immediately, or there won’t be enough fuel to decelerate, and everyone aboard will die.

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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.

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