Philosophy & The Mirror of Nature: Philosophy without Mirrors (I)

Hermeneutics and Edification

Having established the priority of hermeneutics in our conception of ourselves and the world, and having dispensed with the term epistemology in the process, Rorty analyses the concept of edification through an exposition of Gadamer’s arguments primarily found in Truth and Method. Gadamer substitutes the notion of Bildung, glossed by Rorty as education or self-formation) for “knowledge” as the goal of thinking. The concept of Bildung points to a picture of self-creation through activities such as reading, talking and writing; it is a ‘dramatic way’ (359) of saying that sentences become true of us by virtue of such activities. These ways of changing ourselves can, furthermore, be classed as “essential”, though Rorty is careful to point out that his definition of essential differs from the traditional metaphysical sense. On the hermeneutical reading, wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewusstsein (consciousness of the past which changes us) characterises the attitude in which we are interested in what we can get out of nature and history for our own practical uses, rather than a merely theoretical interest in what is out there in the world. In this attitude, ‘getting the facts right…is merely propadeutic to finding a new and more interesting way of expressing ourselves, and thus of coping with the world’ (359). Thus, Rorty concludes, from this educational perspective, ‘the way things are said is more important than the possession of truths’ (359).

Rorty chooses to use the term “edification” in place of both “education” (‘ a bit too flat) and Bildung (‘a bit too foreign’), ‘to stand for this project of finding new, better, more interesting, more fruitful ways of speaking’ (360). The project of edification can be characterised in a number of ways, whether it is hermeneutic activity oriented toward making connections between our own culture and foreign cultures (one can substitute disciplines for culture as well) through the poetic creation of new aims, words or disciplines; or the reverse of hermeneutic activity, in which we make the familiar unfamiliar. The process of edification is not constructive; rather, it supports abnormal discourse as a means of taking us ‘out of our old selves by the power of strangeness, to aid us in becoming new beings’ (360).

For Gadamer, there is no tension between the desire for edification and the desire for truth, because the desire for objective knowledge (Truth with a capital ‘T’) is, in the Heideggerian sense, one more human project among others. Sartre takes this one step further and claims that the attempt to gain objective knowledge of the world, and oneself, is a way of abdicating responsibility for choosing one’s project: ‘[the desire for objective knowledge] present a temptation to self-deception insofar as we think that, by knowing which descriptions within a given set of normal discourses apply to us, we thereby know ourselves’ (361). Thus, for Heidegger, Gadamer and Sartre, the desire for objective knowledge is not necessarily a bad thing for it is but another way of seeking to cope with the world; the danger comes when it hinders the process of edification.

The existentialist view of objectivity taken by Gadamer, Heidegger and Sartre can be characterised along the following lines: objectivity is the conformity of norms of justification we find around us. This conformity to norms only because dubious when it overreaches itself, in other words, when we use it to ground our processes of justification. When we ground a practice, we are implying that there is no need for further justification because we have identified a clear and distinct philosophical foundation. For the existentialists and for Rorty, this act of ‘grounding’ is self-deceptive for two reasons. First, it is a circular argument, for how do you ground the ultimate justification on something that is itself unjustifiable? Second, it assumes that the current vocabularies of science, morality etc have a privileged connection with reality, rather than just being further sets of descriptions that may become obsolete for future audiences. Insofar as the existentialists agree with the naturalists that redescription is not a “change of essence”, Rorty argues that this needs to be followed up ‘by abandoning the notion of “essence” altogether (361). The naturalists, however, fall down in trying to show that there is something essential about a particular culture, which leads to all incommensurable vocabularies being branded as ‘“noncognitive” ornamentation’ (362). Thus, Rorty sees the utility of the existentialist’s position as the ability to see various descriptions – be they based on scientific principles or artistic interpretations – as standing on equal footing: ‘the former are not privileged representations in virtue of the fact that (at the moment) there is more consensus in the sciences than in the arts. They are simply among the repertoire of self-descriptions at our disposal’ (362).

The process of education, which is thematic to the existentialist position, is often countered by the positivist attempt to distinguish learning facts from acquiring values. On the positivist point of view, Gadamer merely restates the commonplace idea that ‘even when we know all the objectively true descriptions of ourselves, we still may not know what to do with ourselves’ (363). However, from the existentialist point of view, the trouble with the fact-value distinction is that it conceals the fact that alternative descriptions from those offered by normal inquiry are available to us. Moreover, the positivist position implies that once all the facts are in, there is nothing left but to adopt a noncognitivist attitude, in other words, one that is not rationally discussable. Thus, Rorty argues that such ‘artificial diremptions…tempt us to think of edification as having nothing to do with the rational faculties which are employed in normal discourse’ (364). For Gadamer, Heidegger and Sartre, discovering the facts is just one more project of education among others: ‘all we can do is be hermeneutical about the opposition – trying to show how the odd or paradoxical or offensive things they say hang together with the rest of what they want to say, and how what they say looks when put in our own alternative idiom. This sort of hermeneutics with polemical intent is common to Heidegger’s and Derrida’s attempts to deconstruct the tradition’ (364-5).education-pic

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