Ricoeur on Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics or the interpretive problems anyone faces when dealing with a text was common-coinage when Ricoeur wrote The Conflict of Interpretations. What he offered though was an original and rigorous analysis of the full consequences of hermeneutics extended into other fields such as psychoanalysis and religion. However, we would do well reviewing the basics of hermeneutics before preceding into how this enriches other fields. In a word, interpretation is the work of deciphering the many hidden layers of meaning immanent to a single text. This process of discovering analogous meanings contained in symbols has a long history in biblical exegesis but it was only relatively recent that this was appropriated by philospohy to apply towards more general problems. The idea is that every text has a surface meaning conditioned by an immediate and simplistic understanding. Concealed within this literal interpretation though are unsuspected stratums of significance. We might say that every text has a hidden depth of meaning. Ricoeur expresses this layering of multiple significance as polysemic, meaning, every word possesses a certain opacity and richness. Language has a surplus of meaning, overlapping interpretations that make meaning overdetermined and equivocal or polyvocal. Confusing to be sure, but the more arduous and roundabout path of unlayering a plurality of meaning is better than sticking with the narrowness of a single interpretation in Ricoeur’s estimation. The work of the hermeneut then is to explicate the multiple determination of symbols and tease out different interpretations by using a variety of frames of reference or considering the text in different contexts. For the hermeneut the real sin is to only see or promote one dimension of meaning in a reductionistic and confined way.

This mode of suspicion bears real fruits when applied to psychoanalysis. If we think of the self as a text then it follows that the subject shows and conceals layers of meaning. This was Freud’s radical vision of interpreting the dreams of his patients. (For those unfamiliar with Freud his idea was that dreams were wish fulfillments that had been censored and distorted by our consciousness to hide our true unconscious thoughts. Our most shocking wish according to him was the male’s desire to sleep with his mother and kill his father). He mistrusted the manifest content of the dream (it was distorted) and worked to uncover the real motives and latent meaning behind it all. He arrived at this hidden meaning by working backwards from the confusing dreams of his patients (the analysands) would recall. Like the hermeneutics of a text, the concealed truth was revealed by transcending the simple previous meaning therefore following a progressive interpretation of the analysand. The upshot of the abandonment of an ideal, univocal ego profoundly transformed the cogito and sparked the ongoing discipline of psychoanalysis. Because of Freud we now know to be suspicious of our consciousness. But its tricks have been unmasked and we are better because of it.

The same applies to the phenomenology of religion (Ricoeur is speaking of Christianity here). It’s not difficult to think of faith as having lower and higher dimensions. What is more disturbing for many though is the threat that once we apply a suspicious hermeneutic to faith there is no recovery of simple faith. Of course if faith does survive this chastisement it would be more informed and critical sans superstitious and pretentious ideas. Ricouer’s idea here is that by undercutting many of our “taken-for-granted presuppositions” a higher dimension of faith, one grounded more in hope than certainty, would emerge from the ashes of a fallen faith, much like a phoenix. The death of God therefore is interpreted by Ricoeur as the death of an idol. What displaces our old sedimentary conceptions of God is the God who is to come, more an icon this time than an idol. Through this progressive hermeneutic Ricoeur understands a mature faith to be open and ongoing rather than stifilingly enclosed. And rather than faith existing in spite of doubt and criticism they are strongly alloyed.

This plurality and confusion of meanings simultaneously benefits and haunts the whole of philosophy as has been briefly shown. If we read philosophy as a text (or the world for that matter) it appears that meaning is in motion. In Hegelian terms the spirit is realized in the dialectic process of history; surpassing and overcoming previous meanings but retaining traces of their existence through every stage. In this way philosophy draws us out of our infancy in the same way psychoanalysis does for the subject and phenomenology does for religion. Philosophy just happens to be more meta-critical, viewing a wide range of problems rather than narrowly focusing in on the small details. In Ricoeur’s terms “philosophy itself becomes the interpretation of interpretations.” In other words, philosophy reflects on the reflections that other disciplines have made and attempts to see larger trends, what we might name the spirit of the day.

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3 responses to “Ricoeur on Hermeneutics”

  1. Matt Martin says :

    One would want to point out (as you already have to some degree below) that philosophy itself always starts somewhere. In other words, philosophy itself is an interpretive tool of a larger mythopoeia. In this way, theology, even when critiqued and corrected by philosophy and poetry, is still first thought in its received/revealed form.

    For example, in popular and even academic philosophical circles, we often tell ourselves the story that philosophy as a discipline of reason was born out of and contrasted with (and was superior to) mythology in ancient Greece. The supposedly-unique thing about the Milesian philosophers is that critical human reason and autonomous thought (vis a vis narrative myth and received/revealed truth) were fist brought into play by them. This, of course, fits more with the story we want to paint in our mythopoeia than it does with actual texts and history.

    The cautionary note, then, is that an over-reliance (or, worse, exclusive reliance) on philosophy and poetry as tools of continual critique to overturn preconceived notions and established thought is that both are starting from the human, and both return to the human. Consequently, both also bring with them the danger of not actually overturning anything significant. They create a hermeneutically and epistemically closed circle. We must have theology as a third partner in dialogue. I will leave aside the question whether it is the superior partner or an equal one, but theology alone brings in the voice from the “outside”–the Transcendent.

    Of course, this requires a worldview radically different from today’s enclosed circle of nature. Thus, we again have an example of where philosophy and poetry themselves must begin from an always and ever-prior mythopoeia. This mythopoeia can evolve in time in response to philosophy and poetry, but it is also always and ever leading it to where it will go.

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