4.0212 Hermeneutics: was Ordering of Biblical Texts (1/118)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Thu, 21 Jun 90 17:26:32 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0212. Thursday, 21 Jun 1990.

Date: Thu, 21 Jun 90 00:32:19 EDT
From: Brian Whittaker <BRIANW@YORKVM2>
Subject: Re: 4.0196 Interpretation and Ordering of Biblical Texts

Peter Junger asked for methodological references dealing with the
problem of getting back to the way a text might have been read and
understood in the time and place where it was written, rather than
as it might be read by a historically naive reader in our own time
and place, or at some point in time and space between its origin and

As I tell my students, we look at texts and events down the wrong end
of the telescope of history... Edmund Spenser saw himself as influenced
by Chaucer; he did not see himself doing things that would influence
Milton. Matthew presents Jesus explicitly in relation to the Torah and
the Prophets; he does not present Jesus explicitly in relation to the
administration of the Church by bishops.

One major scholarly tradition devoted to this methodological problem
most often goes by the name of "hermeneutics." While this discipline
has roots that go deep into the ancient world, the modern movement
grows most directly out of the philosophical work of Martin
Heidegger, most notably _Sein und Zeit_ (translated as _Being and
Time_). Heidegger, like many people educated in the German
philological tradition, believed that the etymology of a word often
carried the true meaning of the word (a pun on the etymology of
"etymology" that Heidegger would have approved of). The German word
which most often corresponds to English "existence" is "Dasein": "sein"
would translate as "being" and "da" as either "there" or "then".
Thus existence must involve being in a particular place and time,
and, at least as far as we can know, being would not take place
in eternity. The contrast with the Platonic tradition is trivially

Applying this view of "existence" by analogy to the meaning of texts
would yield the hypothesis that a text does not have an eternal
and immutable meaning but rather has meanings specific to particular
audiences in particular times and places. If one of these meanings
has primacy, it would be the meaning of the text for its original
audience. This hypothesis has been pursued with considerable vigour
and influence by two of Heidegger's colleagues, Gadammer and Bultman.

Ernst Georg Gadammer, in _Wahrheit und Methode_ (translated as _Truth
and Method_) lays out a detailed method and sustaining theory for the
interpretation of texts in their original contexts. Gadammer's main
interest is in the interpretation of philosophical texts, and there
is in English a collection of translations of his shorter interpretive
essays under the title _Philosophical Hermeneutics_. Followers of
Gadammer have tended to see him in rather narrow Hegelian terms,
pursuing a historically verifiable and thus useful Ursinn or original
meaning to the exclusion of all other meanings. Gadammer himself
acknowledged a more Kantian attitude... advancing prescriptively
an agenda for the way a scholar ought to seek the original meaning
of a text while acknowledging descriptively the way the reader
enjoys and profits from the naive reading of the text. That the former
prescriptive hermeneutics and the latter descriptive (and aesthetic,
in the Kantian sense) hermeneutics were not only both important but
continually interactive for Gadammer may be seen from the following
anecdote: I once heard him address and audience of academics
who had (somewhat willfully) read him in the strictly Hegelian
and prescriptive sense I mentioned above. When he said that
even with a text whose meaning in its original time and place
he had studied with great thoroughness, like Nietshe's _Also
Sprach Zarathustra_ (_Thus Spake Zarathustra_), he still
enjoyed and valued the naive and anachronistic twentieth-
century meaning that he could get when reading the same text for
pleasure, there was a reaction of shock and dismay, especially
from those who had been teaching their students that Gadammer
insisted on always reading "hermeneutically." One graduate student
said during the question period "But surely it changes your under-
standing of Goethe's "Ueber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh" if you know that
it was written while Goethe was recuperating from a serious illness."
Gadammer sat down suddenly, put his hand over his mouth and sat in
silence for several minutes. Then he said, and I paraphrase as best
I can, "You know, all my life that has been my favourite poem, but
from now on I shall understand it very differently. I am profoundly
grateful to you."

Gadammer's colleague Rudolph Bultmann applied an interesting variation
of hermeneutic method to the study of the Christian New Testament.
Bultmann's approach in books like _Jesus Christ: Kerygma and Myth_
was to specify features of the text whose meaning was specific to
the time and place of writing, like the assumption of a (veritcal)
spatial relationship between heaven and earth, because of which
Jesus would return for the second coming "riding on a cloud", so
that these ancient elements could be discounted and the text
made more meaningful for modern readers whose world view was
radically different from that of the original audience. This
process of filtering the text to obtain what still survived as
meaningful Bultmann called "de-mythologizing".

There have been a number of recent publications on literacy and
reading habits in various periods, but one of the best books of
this sort for the medieval period is still Eric Auerbach's
_Literary Language and Its Public in the Latin Middle Ages_. He is
one of the few modern scholars to appreciate the extent to which
the Roman rhetoric texts shaped the medieval model of communication.

In the last half-century, the French structuralists, following the
methods of Saussure's _Cours general de Linguitique_ (_Course in
General Linguistics_), and more recently the French deconstructionists,
following the methods of Derrida's _De la Grammatologie_ (_Of
Grammatology_), have unnerved the more complacent among the
philosophers, historians, literary historians and art historians.
The impact of the Prague School structuralists, like Roman Jacobson,
may be more productive in these fields, because of the greater scope
this model allows for diachronic processes. Also from language study
one might cite the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein's _Philosophische
Bemerkungen_ and the injunction to ask not what a word means but
rather how the word is used. Barbara Raw's recent book _Anglo-Saxon
Crucifixion Iconology and the Monastic Revival_ applies this line
of enquiry to tenth-century scultpture and manuscript illustration;
where the art historian has traditionally begun with a kind of
etymology of the medieval sculpture or painting, seeking its
ancestry in earlier works, Raw begins with the question of how
the particular work of art was *used* - - what did people do with
it. Her book demonstrates just how fruitful this line of enquiry
can be.

Brian Whittaker
Department of English, Atkinson College, York University