July 2, 2018

The Imperfection of Hermeneutics

In chapter 3 of his magnum opus, Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation (2012), where Frank Ankersmit takes exquisite pains to establish "The Priority of Representation over Interpretation," his swelling argument begins to crest on page 57 with a nuanced and sympathetic (yet withering) critique of the field of hermeneutics. Please enjoy this liberally excerpted passage and then go buy multiple copies of the book (to pass around).
Normally the idea of reality penetrating into interpretation (and explanation) makes no sense: reality is, if anything, that which is being interpreted and explained, and it could not possibly transcend the forbidding barrier between itself (that is to say, the world) and what we say about it. However, this otherwise insurmountable barrier becomes porous in the case of representation insofar as representation aims at making an absent reality present again and thus at being "as good as" reality itself. Or, to put it in a formula: interpretation + reality = representation, where this liminal conjunction of interpretation and reality occurs only when the ultimate limits of interpretative success have been reached. 
   Turning this latter observation around, we might say that representation is a measure of interpretative or explanatory success. Hermeneuticists have been dealing for two centuries with the problem of how to measure interpretative success... one common suggestion is that a successful interpretation must somehow show us what reality actually is or was like. The intuition that successful interpretation takes us back to reality is captured, for example, in Michelet's characterization of historical writing as a resurrection du passe. And whether we think of Dilthey's hermeneutic circle, Robin Collingwood's "re-enactment of the past," or Gadamer's "fusion of horizons," the idea is always that interpretation should somehow erase the line between the order of interpretation (and of interpretative writing) and the order of what is interpreted. There always is a suggestion of an identification with what is interpreted that would make no sense at all in the sciences. No scientist would ever be tempted to think of explanatory success as consisting in an identification of himself (or his theories) with the objects of his investigation. For him, ontology and epistemology are mutually irreducible; he is a natural-born Kantian, so to speak, and each effort to bridge the gap between the two (and there is no shortage of such efforts nowadays!) will naturally be suspected of conflating his own discipline with the practice of the humanities. 
   In the humanities, by contrast, ontology and epistemology are like man and wife, always striving to overcome what separates them, to achieve a unification with each other, however partial and momentary it may be, and to overcome the demarcation line between interpretation and representation. ... 
   This is also where we must discern the imperfection of all hermeneutics, which therefore requires completion by aesthetics. For aesthetics is the philosophical subdiscipline addressed to the problem of representation. The work of art is the paradigmatic object of investigation by aesthetics; aesthetics is primarily interested in what we mean when we say that the work of art is a representation of the world. And we have every reason to agree here with Gadamer when he explains in the first part of Truth and Method what was lost when Kant and, above all, Schiller marginalized aesthetics by radically separating epistemology and ontology. Art, representation, and aesthetics were now expelled from the domain of knowledge and truth; and although art was extolled far above the domain of men's daily preoccupations and elevated to the highest realm of all human achievement, the price paid for this was the complete irrelevance of art and aesthetics to the pursuit of knowledge and truth. 
   It is exactly this which makes historical writing such a fascinating discipline...



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