Philosophy in Conversation

One more shameless plug:  Just found out that a paper proposal I submitted to the Society of Biblical Literature has been accepted and I will be presenting it at the New England Regional Conference in Boston on April 29.  The paper is on the hermeneutics (branch of philosophy interested in how we interpret texts) of Augustine, who I am putting in dialogue with the founder of modern hermeneutics Friedrich Schleiermacher and a prominent example of post-modern hermeneutics, Yale’s own Dale Martin.  This is only the second time I will have presented a paper at an academic conference, and though I am fascinated by hermeneutics I don’t have nearly enough background to consider myself an expert.  So I’m a little nervous about this presentation, particularly the Q & A part, but also quite excited for it! [Update: You can read the paper on the Articles and Papers page of this website.]

Hermeneutics is, I think, the pinnacle of philosophy.  It is, as it were, the meta-philosophy.  Given my three axioms, at the end of the day while I think philosophy provides us with certain basic beliefs that we need to make sense of the world at all- beliefs like the world exists, other people exist, etc.- I ultimately think that philosophy tells us very little with any certainty.

My subjective understanding of the world is, at the end of the day, something about which I cannot have objective verification.  I cannot ever really know that most of the things I believe are true.

I can make the claim that these beliefs I hold work in a coherent way with one another- that my view of the world makes sense of everything about the world that I have experienced.  But that is not to say that I know these things are true. The objectivity required for real knowledge is something I can simply never achieve.

This seemingly bleak, nearly skeptical picture that I have painted I have tried to temper by the idea of communication.  This idea is, I think, essential to philosophy.  As we communicate, as we enter into dialogue with one another, the ideas that we have may be challenged or supported.  Our sensibilities may be honored, or we may find ourselves offended by what others have to say to us.  All of this is part of entering into a conversation, be it spoken or in writing or perhaps in the form of art.  Hermeneutics attempts to describe how this conversation works, to provide us with a philosophy of the dialogue on which philosophy is built.

Here is where the third axiom becomes especially important, I think.  Previously I noted that embedded in this axiom seems to be the assumption that other people exist because for communication to happen we need more than one person.

What that also implies, I think, is that the other person is really saying something.

In post-modern hermeneutics there is a tendency to relegate meaning entirely to the realm of the reader.  The reader creates meaning, the author or speaker and the text have no agency whatsoever.

I think the most simple refutation of this is the phenomenon of reading a text with which you disagree or which you find offensive.  Perhaps we can find some deep Freudian reason why I might create a reading at which I myself am offended, but I think the more straightforward notion is to say that the text, or the author, or perhaps both, really are communicating with me as the reader.  Communication is not me in a vacuum imagining what others might say, it is me listening to what someone else actually has said.

The danger to saying this is that we might slip too far in the opposite direction and endlessly ponder what exactly the other person meant.  I’m not sure that is helpful, either.

I have mentioned before that I am a bit of a musician.  As a musician, I occasionally write music (though not nearly as often as I would like).  My experience when writing a song has generally been that while the song originates with something in my experience, be it an event or an emotion or whatever, it usually takes on a life of its own in the process of being written such that at the end of the day I can say simultaneously that I deeply identify with my own music, but also that none of the songs I have written are actually about me or anyone that I know.  They have become their own entity. I imagine that this is how many artists feel, whatever their medium.

I think this is also how much of our communication works.

The text and the author really are saying something.  But that something may not be clear, even to them.  So when we interpret a text, we interpret it based on how it affects us.  To a certain extent, that process is guided by who we are- it is part of our subjective experience.  But I also think it is the case that this process is the result of something from beyond us projecting into our experience, in a sense generating an experience for us from which we draw meaning.

Where this leaves us, I think, is a picture of a conversation.

As I approach others with my own ideas, I have the experience of learning about theirs.  Our ways of thinking, our philosophies, enter into a conversation with one another.  From that conversation we draw some sort of meaning.  That meaning may change us in some way, impacting our own way of thinking, molding our philosophy as our experience and understanding of the world grows wider and wider.  But it may also change and impact the other person, shaping their philosophy as they too grow in their understanding.


What do you think? I would love to hear from you, please share your thoughts. Just remember to be respectful of others.

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