Caputo: Chapter Six—Truth in the Postmodern Situation—Part Three—Hermeneutics

We will continue now with the third highlight of hermeneutics discussed in the last post.  Caputo continues with the issue of creationism and how such is a bad interpretation of both the Bible and science.
“It is worth mentioning that the ill-conceived approach taken by the creationists, to treat the Bible as a competing scientific theory, confirms my earlier point about the degraded character of the category of ‘religion’ concocted in modernity.  Those religious believers who oppose such things as evolution are, if I may say so, aping the very modernity against which they are so violently reacting.  They have contracted an advanced case of Cartesian anxiety and the search for absolute certitude.  They have swallowed the modernist idea that truth is strictly a matter of propositions and the result has been that they shrink faith down to combative proofs for the truth of religious propositions.  This does a disservice to religious experience and it only succeeds in producing a poor send-up of science or reason.  The Protestant concept of the ‘inerrancy’ of the Bible (literalism) and the Roman Catholic conception of the infallibility of the Pope (certitude) are fabrications of modernity…”
This is where religious fundamentalists and even many evangelicals are truly cousins to the very secular modernists they rail against.  They want “science” or “reason” to validate their beliefs because they mistakenly think, like modernists, that those are the only ways to really know if something is true or not.  A striking irony, for instance, is how the favored epistemological theory for many modernists, even atheists, the correspondence theory of truth, is also the taught theory in the philosophy departments of many evangelical colleges and seminaries.  Even though the theory, used by both, leads them to completely opposite conclusions, they cling to the idea that such is the only way to know if something is true or not.  Caputo explains the difference between clinging to an abstraction that supposedly guarantees certainty and interpreting:
“An interpretation is a way of construing things, of having a ‘take’ on them, which casts things in a certain light, fits them within a certain framework or horizon, for better (when it is felicitous) or for worse (when it is ham-fisted or contrived).  Interpretation requires what we variously call judgment, discernment, or insight.  We have to be judicious, skilled in adjudication competing perspectives and in negotiating differences.  In all this, we will lack hard and fast rules to rule some things in and others out.”
In other words, it requires more than clinging to an abstraction or the letter written on a page.  In terms used by St. Paul, the letter kills but the Spirit gives life.  We don’t like this however.  It takes the power away from us.  The Spirit can’t be reduced to a book or an abstract theory or confined by such.  To interpret, and understand such is what we are doing, is risky and requires we use wisdom and that we look deeply.  It is easy to simply look up a passage in the Bible to address a question or memorize an abstract theory about corresponding truth; it is much more difficult to reflect upon the context of a question, the motives involved, the ethics involved, the people involved, the history involved, and a host of other intangible considerations and possibilities.  Further, regardless of whether one is using a book or an abstract philosophical system of reason and science, one still has to interpret either what the book is “saying” or what the philosophical system is “saying”.  There is no way around this.  Caputo continues:
“The risky thing about interpretations—which comes up right away when we use expressions like ‘a matter of interpretation’—is that they don’t derive from a rule.  If an interpretation succeeds it may result in a rule, but we don’t have a rule for coming up with rules, and the rules we do come up with only last until we run into the next exception, which requires a fresh interpretation.  Rules don’t go all the way down.  But interpretation does—that’s hermeneutics, in a nutshell.”
Now some might get confused here.  They will assume that “all the way down” means, wrongly, that a person could “interpret” the earth to be flat.  That is not what is meant (more about this shortly).  Obviously, a person could hold such an interpretation, but there would be no compelling reason for us to believe it true.  What is being said here is that there is no foundational rule, or book, or philosophical system.  Any such rules, books, or systems may arise from the interpretations of persons, but interpretations always come first and therefore go all the way down.  Our rules, our books, our systems, are secondary and derivative.  Interpretation is intrinsic to human life and communication.
“A common conversation is a delicate work of interpretation, because we have to construe not only the meaning of the words that the other person uses but also a host of non-verbal clues such as facial expressions, intonation, and body-language, which is why a video is superior to a transcript.”
There is much about writing a blog and responding to comments that reveals how difficult this matter of interpretation to be, especially when reduced to communication through writing alone.  We all know what we mean when writing, but do others?  We assume knowing the definitions of words and having some information about the subject and context is all that’s needed.  Hardly.  One only need peruse some of my posts and the comment sections to see how “delicate” indeed the work of interpretation can be.  To be human is to be an interpreter.  It goes all the way down.  And if there is no sure foundation, no system, no book, no abstract theory (although all these will arise from interpretations) then we interpret using our whole selves, which breaks down the all the barriers created by modernity.
“So, too, we bid a happy adieu to the rigorous divide that modernity tries to enforce between faith and reason.  An interpretation is not a matter of following rules but there is nothing irrational about it; it requires faith but it is not a matter of religious fanaticism or blind faith.  In any interpretation faith and reason work hand in hand.  Instead of Absolute Truth, we ask for insightful interpretations; instead of Pure Reason, we want good reasons, ones that do a lot of work for us and may hold up for a while.  We put a lot of trust in good interpretations, and trust is confidence and confidence means faith (fides).”
A constant refrain on this blog, is that we all live by faith, whether the atheist, theist, or agnostic, and the above is why.  There is no difference here between the three in this regard.  There is only a difference of interpretations, and they are all, ultimately, faith-based.  No one group is basing their view only upon the “facts” and “evidence” outside of interpretation.  Rather, all three are interpreting what they think the “facts” and “evidence” means and they are viewing (framing) the facts and evidence from a faith-based perspective or narrative of meaning, which goes all the way down.  And as noted above regarding “all the way down”, Caputo speaks to this again:
“One way I have found of getting the opposition’s attention in discussing hermeneutics is to deny that there are pure facts.  There’s the smoking gun, the friends of Absolute Truth conclude!  Facts are facts and the hermeneutists are against facts!  Truth to tell, if it is a ‘fact’ we like to think it is true, but that does not make it a ‘pure’ (uninterpreted) fact or an absolute.  (Hint: ‘pure’ would mean no context!) On the contrary, the only way to establish a fact is by way of interpretations.  Even the word ‘fact’ (from the Latin, facere, meaning ‘to make’) gives this away.  In the most literal sense, facts are made (factum), and here we hit upon another sense of ‘making the truth’…in hermeneutics we are perfectly happy to say that facts are formed, which means not pure of and uncontaminated by fiction.  We do not distinguish between formed and un-formed, but between well-informed and ill-informed, or between informed and uninformed, or between risky unconformity and being too conforming.  The friends of the Absolute rend their garments and look up to heaven for relief.”
Caputo’s point here becomes rather obvious if we give it some thought.  When someone asks us questions like, “Do you think there is a God?” or, “What is your opinion regarding the death penalty and abortion?” or, “What do you think the answer to terrorism is?” or, “Do you think morality is objectively true or only subjectively true?” or, “What is your opinion regarding capitalism?” and so on, we never respond by simply saying in response: “The sun is hot.”; “2+2=4”; “The earth is flat.”; “President Lincoln was assassinated.”, and so on.  Now, we may bring up facts, we may discuss a number of things that many, even most, would consider a fact and facts they could all agree upon.  But that is never the end of it—never.  All those “facts” will be “framed” somehow and put into a context like our puzzle pieces in any extended articulation of an attempted answer or response (unless one simply stands there grunting out one sentence facts like some sort of idiot).  There is simply no way of getting around this basic and fundamental aspect of communication.  Caputo:
“Consider the cold facts about cold facts.  In order to come up with facts, we have to make a contribution to the cause and do our bit.  They will not show up at door when we need them if we have not paid our annual dues.  Facts help those who help themselves.  We are saying that all understanding is interpreting; to understand is to understand something as such and such.  Without the ‘as’ nothing happens, nothing comes into view.  The ‘as’ supplies the frame, the context, the right presupposition.  Trying to understand the world without the ‘as’ is like using a remote whose battery is dead.  You cannot change the channels; you cannot even power up…Making contact with pure uninterpreted facts—and here we use an example from Kant—is like the illusion suffered by the dove which thinks it could fly all the more freely but for the wind that gives it such resistance.  An interpretation is not a wall between us and reality, but a window in the wall.  The better formed or framed or made the interpretation, the further we see out the window into reality…an interpretation gives us an angle, meaning an angle of entry into reality, like a spacecraft which can re-enter the earth’s atmosphere without burning up only if it strikes exactly the right angle.”
Caputo goes on to note that if we thought we understood something free from interpretation, it would be a supposed view from nowhere or God’s point of view—a view from all possible angles and frames.  Thus we would need to be eternal, omniscient, and omnipresent—something fairly tough to do—the last time I checked.  A claim to have a view from nowhere (which means everywhere) is really a claim to be God or transcendent.  The postmodern and this emphasis on hermeneutics is a return to humility.  We are finite.  We can’t and don’t see everything from all angles and perspectives.  We have blind spots.  We are bound by time and place.  We are unable to transcend these bodies and rise above everyone else to have a “clear” and unencumbered view.  Now, someone may then say, “Does this mean we are locked into a view and can never change?”  Of course not:
“Because interpretations are not eternal beings that have fallen from the sky into our laps, they are capable of change, and explaining how such change takes place is among the most important features of interpretation theory.  Most often the change takes the form of changes within the framework, refining and correcting the prevailing frame of reference, fine-tuning it as new events—new situations, unexpected results—pour in.  But sometimes the changes take the more radical form of a change in the framework itself, when the framework or horizon of understanding undergoes a shift.  Sometimes an event is encountered which the prevailing framework can accommodate, but sometimes it cannot and then things undergo an abrupt, discontinuous and holistic shift.  This brings us to language games and paradigm shifts.”
 And with our next post, we will continue with language games and paradigm shifts.

P.S.: America recently celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and his legacy.  That legacy and the man himself is something that confounds the logic of Nietzsche who we recently discussed.  King’s view, rooted in an objective referent, did not reduce to power alone.  Here is a very good essay regarding King and a different type of logic.  
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