The Problem of Reading

Who is the author?

For some time now, I have been fascinated with how we can understand data. This has a root in my attempt to read and understand the bible.

I remember I started reading the bible in a certain way, especially prone to interpreting text with “spiritual” meaning. For example, when I read the creation of Eve, I read it as the Church (people of god) being formed out of Jesus (the last Adam? – 1 Cor 15 – who was pierced on the side at his crucifixion?) .

I also read certain propositions such as “promised land”, “blessings” to mean something more relevant to my own life, such as where I am in life, my possessions, my job, my achievements or even my life-challenges.

The bible in this sense, spoke to me, that is, it spoke to my immediate situation through texts which otherwise have no direct connections to my life.

And then I realize how haphazard such practice can be. I mean, granted god may speak to everyone differently, but won’t it be bordering nonsense to say that each person will have a different personal or private understanding whenever they read the bible? This would shift the onus of meaning from the objectivity of the author’s intent to the subjectivity of the readers’ self.

The classical joke is how the protestants have replaced ONE (bible-interpreting) Pope with a THOUSAND others.

Indeed very Cartesian in its relocation of the foci of interpretation to some kind of self-certain rationality rather than to the external world, in this case of the author.

Time gap between reader and author

The first thing I realize about reading and interpreting the biblical text or any other literature or information is the existence of a time-space gap between the reader and the author.

characteristics of the hermeneutical problem is that something distant has to be brought close, a certain strangeness overcome, a bridge built between the once and the now (On the Scope and Function of Hermeneutical Reflection, 1970, Gadamer)

How do we therefore traverse the gap in order to interact with the data presented to us?

In answering such question, there are those who claimed that either 1) we can peep into the author’s mind through the text in order to understand his intents; or 2) we cannot possibly know the author’s intent because we necessarily interpret the text through our prejudices.

Many philosophers have contended that the above is a false dilemma. One such philosopher is the German Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002).

He view that while we have prejudices, they should not be view in the negative lights of the Enlightenment. Prejudices and pre-judgements are not only inevitable, i.e., cannot be separated from the person/reader, but they form the axis (or rather, in Gadamer’s word, horizons) from which the reader will interact with the new data presented by the literature.

Prejudice means a judgement that is given before all the elements that determine a situation have been finally examined (Truth and Method-TM, 1975, Gadamer)

Our prejudices, stemming from pre-understandings such as traditions and values, must be allow to interact with the meaning of the text (also a horizon) and understanding occurs when a fusion of horizons happens.

But what about the time gap? Surely some water will spill off as we attempt to transfer the pail from one location to another. Of course such imagery brings us back to the objectivism of believing that we can extract the pure meaning of the author (as if she even had a pure meaning) into our understanding.

Rather, to use another water illustration, the time gap and our prejudices is like water to the fish, invisible to the fish, but necessary for the function of hermeneutics. To Gadamer, time and therefore history is not an obstacle, but in fact part of the process of understanding, in that we judge (and therefore keep or remove) traditions handed down to us when interacting with the literature.

Hence temporal distance is not something that must be overcome… It is not a yawning abyss, but is filled with the continuity of custom and tradition, in the light of which all that is handed down presents itself to us (TM, Gadamer).

Playing game and trust

Very essential to the understanding of Gadamer’s hermeneutics is his concept of interpreting arts as playing games. Incidentally, a key concept in Later Wittgenstein.

When entering into a game, the players inevitably accept its rules and are absorbed into the world of the game. That is to say, the game does not inherit the players’ state of mind, but rather the players are drawn into the game’s reality (TM).

In this sense, when interpreting, hermeneutics of arts, and hermeneutics in general, is not merely about the subjective consciousness of the reader, but rather the reader is drawn into the world of the text as well.

At this point, compare Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigation, proposition #7 on language as a game.

Such hermeneutics I call the hermeneutics of trust. This is because both the reader and the author has to provide a level of acceptance of and openness to the others in order for interaction and hermeneutics to occur. This is also applied to other sorts of communication.

I will write more about this in another post with further comparison between Gadamer and Wittgenstein.

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