Learning as Adventure

Michael Oakeshott referred to philosophical reflection as “an adventure.” He probably wasn’t thinking an adventure of the Henry Morton Stanley variety. Still, who hasn’t had a moment in their education when they were introduced to something new that seemed to open up a whole range of new, exciting possibilities? An adventure is as good a way as any to think about  the process of learning, when it is going well; a journey in which the goals and destination are continuously revised in light of what is discovered along the way.

Our guide today will not be Oakeshott, but Hans-Georg Gadamer. Our goal will be to encourage both optimism and humility in what you can accomplish in your self-education these days, in light of the vast amounts of texts and other media that are always just a few clicks away.

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The Tyranny of the Reader

Sweet Talk’s very own Adam Gurri picked up a little Gadamer recently, a fellow who applied 20th Century epistemological questions to literary criticism. In my mind, he dealt a fatal blow to structuralism, releasing us from its evil bonds for the exhilaration of “non-modern” reading, aka, the way reading was always done until the Continental fundamentalists ruined reading for two hundred years. Now we’re back to the cat chasing its tail, as it should be.*

He brought an end to the tired “implied author/implied reader” schematic as a formal means for textual criticism and interpretive method. The fact is, we know there’s something like an implied reader, because, as authors, we all project one. I’m projecting one right now, and I’ll even tell you who you are: a late-middle aged male sitting in the silent room of a 19th Century Londoner’s club, someone with white mutton chops facial hair smoking a large-bowl pipe, quietly folding back the paper in which this post has been published. In short, you, my dear implied reader, are my variation on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Mycroft Holmes.

Before I met Gadamer in my readings, I especially liked the schematic arranged left to right: The real author–> implied author–> text <–implied reader <–real reader. And now the fundamentalist program: identify, as best you can, the real author, his mind, and what meaningfulness he means to…to…

Well, what’s the word here? Nothing is appropriate. You make one up. “…meaningfulness he means to express.” Was ist das? Anyhow, just align yourself with the implied reader, and you’re set to get meaningfulness! Interpretation by numbers, ftw.

This is, as I say, a fundamentalist program, and everything fundamentalist is a tyranny. We were taught for a couple hundred years there to tyrannize interpretation, which, of course, kills it. Meaningfulness dies, and the author–>text–>reader experience becomes a cadaver under inexperienced and unexperiencing scalpels. “Here, can you see the latent feminist reaction?” “Why, yes! There it is!” Mirabile Dictu! I couldn’t have seen it without your help, but it really is there!

Well, Mycroft, you’re probably thinking, “How then should we interpret?” I don’t know, but I’m guessing you’re going to interpret more or less as you feel like interpreting, experiencing how you desire to experience, but not without having those immutable marks on a page or screen affect you somehow. The trick is to communicate that experience, if you want to, or to understand the effects it has on other readers.

As the drinker of a particular wine grows older, the wine’s effect changes.


*This, like everything, is debatable.