Category: hermeneutics

“Heidegger is There”

Martin Heidegger is an extremely difficult philosopher to follow. If you have ever read any of his stuff, specifically his well-known work Sein und Zeit (better known in the English-speaking world as Being and Time), then you know what I mean. I have a degree in philosophy, and I’m finishing up a PhD on philosophical hermeneutics–but let me tell ya, Heidegger is still hard! Diving into his Being and Time, a work full of abstraction and weird words like Da-sein (“being there”), is not for the faint of heart. He is difficult. 

But he is necessary.

His work was game-changing on many levels, to be sure, and the modern thinker must deal with him. There’s no way around it. 

The focus of my own research has been centered around Hans-Georg Gadamer’s particular construal of hermeneutical theory. Since Gadamer’s hermeneutic was influenced by Heidegger, every good Gadamerian needs to know Heidegger. There is a great quote (below) from Gadamer in his book called Heidegger’s Ways. For those familiar with Heidegger, you’ll appreciate what he has to say.

Gadamer was an extraordinary writer and in typical fashion, his first sentence in the last paragraph below is nothing short of poetic (admittedly, though, I am prejudiced toward Gadamer). All the same, it made me smile:

Heidegger’s rescue attempts are violent. He is constantly rupturing the natural understanding of familiar words and forcing new meanings upon them–often basing this on etymological connections that no one else sees. The products of this approach are extremely manneristic expressions and provocations of our linguistic expectations.

Must it be so? Does not the natural language in its universal malleability always offer a new way to express what one has to say? And is it not the case that whatever does not allow itself to be said has been insufficiently thought? Perhaps. But we have no choice. Now that Heidegger has posed the question, we are obligated to continue our inquiry in the direction it delineates; we can only hope to be assisted by that found in his works which is accessible to our understanding. It is easy to poke fun at things unusual or violent. To improve on it is much more difficult. Certainly the game in which participants shove around the little ivory discs inscribed with Heidegger’s conceptual jargon–a for of following Heidegger that is very common–should not be played. This type of scholasticism blocks the way into the opening formed by the question asked no less than the most caustic polemics.

But either way, Heidegger is there [da]. One cannot get around him nor–unfortunately–can on progress beyond him in the direction of his question. He blocks the path in a most disturbing way. He is an erratic block awash in a stream of thinking rushing toward technical perfection. But he is a block that cannot be budged from its place. [1]

  1. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Heidegger’s Ways, trans. John W. Stanley (Albany: State University of New York, 1994), 27. 

Quote: Richard Hays on the Relationship between Paul’s Gospel and his Hermeneutic

“There is no possibility of accepting Paul’s message while simultaneously rejecting the legitimacy of the scriptural interpretation that sustains it. If Paul’s way of reading the testimony of the Law and the Prophets is wrong, then his gospel does constitute a betrayal of Israel and Israel’s God, and his hermeneutic can only lead us astray. If, on the other hand, his material claims are in any sense true, then we must go back and learn from him how to read Scripture.”

Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1989), 182.

Quote: N.T. Wright on Words and their Meaning

“First, the meaning of a word (following Wittgenstein) I take to be its use in a context, or an implicit context; that is, its use of potential use in a sentence or potential sentence. If I say ‘book’, the meaning of this is in doubt until I form a sentence: ‘I am going to book the tickets’; ‘The book is on the desk’; ‘The criminal was brought to book.’ Even where a word is clearly univocal, we can never rule out possible metaphorical meanings, and in any case we only know the univocal meaning through experience of sentences in which it has become plain. Second, the meaning of a sentence is its place in a story or implicit story. ‘The book is on my desk’, spoken by my assistant, carries a different meaning (a) in an implicit story in which I have been searching my shelves in vain for a particular book, and (b) in an implicit story in which I had intended to hide the book before the next person enters the room. ‘Jesus was crucified’ carries different meanings in the story told by the centurion as he reported back to Pilate, in the story told by the disciples to one another the same evening, and in the story told by Paul in his mission preaching. Third, the meaning of a story is its place in a worldview. (This assumes, no doubt, several intermediate stages, in which lesser stories acquire meaning within larger ones, and so on.) As we have seen frequently, stories relate in a variety of ways to worldviews: the articulate them, legitimate them, support them, modify them, challenge them, subvert them, and even perhaps destroy them. The same story can have different meaning in relation to different worldviews.”

N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, vol. 1, Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 115-116.

New Book on Hell

Check out Dr. Preston Sprinkle (PhD, Aberdeen) in this video talking about a new book he has edited on the nature of hell. (You can order a copy of the book, Four Views on Hell [2nd ed., Zondervan], at Amazon.)

My favorite line is where Preston talks about how this book will help Christians to get outside of their preconceptions and assumptions about hell. He hopes this book will “[force Christians] to wrestle with the actual text of Scripture” in formulating the right view.

Never a bad thing to do!


“We Know in Part”: On the Limits (and Comforts) of our Way of Knowing

Human beings are knowers. That is, our mode of being—i.e., the manner in which we go about life—is that we come to know things. What things? Everything—things like people, objects, TV shows, the color of that dress, what this blog post is about, etc. But in order to know these things (and anything, really), we must interpret. No matter the person, everyone is engaged in interpretation. All of life is interpretive. For example, we are always interpreting other people (“What are they saying with that facial expression?”); we are always interpreting TV shows (“What was the ending of LOST all about?”); we are even at times interpreting the color of dresses (“Is that dress gold or blue?”); you are even interpreting this blog post (“What in the world is Matthew saying?”).

Thus, you are an interpreter. Your entire life is interpretive, and through interpretation, you come to know things. But what can you know? I believe that people can have confidence that they are able to arrive at truth about the real world. You can surely know, quite reasonably, things about other people (for example, their likes and dislikes; what makes them happy or sad). Moreover, you can know that the moon exists or that there is a computer (or smartphone) screen in front of you or that there is a chair in the middle of the room (if indeed there is one). 

But it is important to say one thing about our ability to know these things: We don’t know things completely and objectively; we don’t know things as they totally are.

Now, this might be confusing, but let me explain. Let’s suppose I have an object sitting in front of me, say, a big square box. Now, since I’m sitting on the couch across from this big square box, I wonder to myself, Can I see the box in its completeness? The answer, of course, is no: I cannot see the box in its entirety. That is, I cannot see it completely. The reason is because I am only looking at the part of the box facing me at the moment (and of course part of the sides of the box since it sits a bit diagonally across from me). But make no mistake, I cannot see it completely. Moreover, by not being able to see it completely (all of the sides, including the top and bottom at the same time), I also cannot see the box objectively (at least in the purest since of the word). That is, I can’t see the entire object, which I call “the box.” How come? Because I, as the viewing subject, am looking at the box from a certain angle, namely, from the west side of the room where I am sitting on the couch. Thus, I do not, strictly speaking, see the box objectively or completely. Echoing St. Paul, I know the box only in part (1 Cor 13:9).

A further illustration is in order. Suppose I’m standing on the northwest corner of Fifth and Main. Looking across the busy intersection, I witness two cars wreck into each other. I observe, as it were, two cars collide. But I only do so from a specific angle or vantage point, namely, the vantage point of the northwest corner of Fifth and Main. Did I see the wreck completely or objectively? No, for my encounter with the object (the wreck) was actually only partial and subjective. Make no mistake about it, though: Even though I could not see the object of my observation (i.e., the wreck) completely and objectively, it doesn’t follow that there never was an actual wreck or actual cars or actual people driving the cars. Thus, I don’t think I need to say the wreck’s happening was somehow contingent upon my observing it. (Relativism is not a necessary consequence of what I’m saying here.) At any rate, I can know there was a car wreck, just not from a God’s-eye point-of-view. Rather, I witness it from a human’s-eye point-of-view. Why? Because, well, I am a human.

I happen to think that all of interpretation is like this, for we all have angles from which we interpret, whether car wrecks or biblical texts. We each have an angled-view, or rather a worldview, from which we come to know things—all things, in fact. It’s nonsensical to suggest otherwise. But let’s suppose I do suggest otherwise. Suppose I say, “I can know the big box in the middle of the room completely and objectively. After all, I can get up off my couch and walk to the other side of the room and look thusly. If I do this for every possible angle (a tiring enterprise, I suspect), then I can see the entire box as it is—completely and objectively.”

In response to this, I concede that one could perhaps do this (given enough time and perseverance), and it would appear that as a result one could “know” something objectively and completely. However, on closer analysis I’m not so sure. For at the very moment you get off of the couch and observe the box from a decidedly different angle is to, at the same time, leave your previous point-of-view and substitute it for another. It is at this point where your view of the box is still a “point-of-view.” In fact, with each and every point-of-view, you are moving as it were through space (not to mention time) and viewing the object differently in each case. This does not do violence to the realism of the object, but it does necessitate a change in how you come to know the object and in your perception of it (perhaps you discover, for example, that the other side of the box is colored pink—thus, your horizons of knowledge about the box is enhanced and broadened. That is, you learn something new). Similarly, as you go for a walk in the park, you can only see (and hence observe, interpret, and know) that which is in front of you. Your viewpoint is always angled in this way. Even if you were to turn around and look behind you, your looking behind is, once more, angled. In short: You cannot ever know things fully and completely at the same time and same place; you cannot know things without a point of view. You are not God, after all. Your knowing is always provisional in this sense because you are a humble human.

Personally, I find this whole thing frustrating (finitude is never comfortable). But never mind that, for it is the reality of what it means to be a human—that is, a human being. And this, as a result, is part and parcel of what it means to be finite—not just in regard to mortality but also our knowability. Just as I cannot be in more than one place at one time, so also I cannot know something without knowing it from just one place in one moment of time. The German philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer, encouraged us to take our own historicality and finitude seriously; that is, according to him we ought to allow it to come to bear upon our knowing and understanding things. Thus, while we can know truth and the real world, we can only know it partially. This, I think, accords well with traditional religious conviction, especially of the Christian sort. If one were to insist to Paul that our knowability was infinite (i.e., “God-like”), I suspect he would respond to such a proposition with a mē genoito.

As a committed theist, not to mention a Christian, this approach is arguably the humble one, for it accounts, as I have said, for our own human finitude (a fairly important aspect of Christian doctrine). The Enlightenment encouraged us to pride ourselves on reason, with some strands of the movement going so far as to say that we can know things as they are (a strong positivism, we may call it). Ever since Descartes, we don’t like anything that whispers even a hint of uncertainty. But the Christian tradition arguably takes exception to such claims. A Christian epistemology, it seems, would imply a less proud approach to what, and how, humans know—namely, that what we know, and the way we know, is only in part. (Descartes rolls in his grave at such a suggestion, but let him roll.)

Moving on, this idea I have expounded on above has, I think, ramifications for Christian belief and praxis. Perhaps there are some pastoral implications as well. As a pastor, I find myself in constant engagement with hurting people—with death, interpersonal conflict, doubt, and questions about life and life’s difficulties. Like most pastors, I sincerely want to offer hope and help people. (Seldom, though, do I ever end the day thinking I’ve done a good job on this; there is always one more person I could have visited or called or counseled or prayed with; hurt is everywhere, at least since Eden’s gates slammed shut). That said, some of the hurts that people experience are, sadly, unanswerable. Unfortunately, there is no repository of theological-pastoral answers from which I can draw and hand them to my people for a quick and easy fix (hasten the day for when Eden’s gates fling open!) Moreover, for someone who hates overly-tried and obnoxiously-tired clichés and platitudes, I find myself using them even on myself. Unfortunately, pastors are not immune to suffering. I, often enough, go through times of hurt and pain, too. Such self-inflicted clichés take the form, more or less, of the following: “I’m not sure why there is evil and suffering in my world, but I know there is a reason.”

Ugh. Psychologically, I find such words unsatisfactory.

But I wonder if I should reconsider. I mean, even though this is psychologically unsatisfactory, could it not be philosophically reasonable? There’s nothing unreasonable, after all, about the idea that just because I do not know something completely and objectively (namely the answer to why there exists evil and suffering) that it follows there is no complete and objective answer to the question itself. Personally, again, I find my limits to what I can know frustrating; but I wonder if there is not, upon closer consideration, something comforting about these limits? Let me explain.

Just as I would not want to deny that there is a box in the middle of the room merely because I cannot see it completely and objectively, so also I do not want to deny that there is an answer to the question of evil and suffering just because I cannot, completely and objectively, know it. In some ways, I reckon it’s at least possible that precisely because I can’t discern a complete and objective answer to the question of evil and suffering, that such provisionality itself grounds the idea that there is indeed an objective and complete answer out there. In much the same way, I suspect it is not unreasonable to suggest that, precisely because I can observe a square box (however partially) from a particular angle is due to the corollary fact that there does, indeed, exist a whole object in the middle of the room. Likewise, my provisional understanding of how, and why, suffering exists is, perhaps, due to the fact that there is a larger answer somewhere out there. At the very least, I don’t think this idea is outside of the realm of possibilities.

We may question the color of the dress from person to person as to whether it is gold or blue, but it seems altogether unreasonable to question whether there is a dress at all. We know in part precisely because, perhaps, there is a whole. We may not know the whole thing, but it doesn’t follow that it isn’t known or at any rate knowable by Someone. It is not unreasonable, then, to trust in the One who knows things fully and completely—whether it be the real existence of dresses or the real existence of real answers to our own very real suffering.

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

(1 Cor 13:12-13 ESV)

Gadamer on Being Prejudiced

hans-georg-gadamerHere’s a great article touching on the work of 20th century German philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer. I’m currently finishing up my PhD on Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, and it continues to be a wonderful experience. If you have any interest in the subject of hermeneutics (and even textual exegesis), you need to check out Gadamer, a premier philosopher if there ever was one. His magnum opus, Warheit und Methode, is game-changing. (You can get the English translation, Truth and Method, at our bookstore).

As the article suggests, the thrust behind Gadamer’s work was that he sought to do the unthinkable: undermine the Enlightenment’s most basic idea, namely, that a person can, by adopting a (scientific) methodological approach to knowledge, free themselves from all the restraints and chains of prejudice. (This word, prejudice, is a translation of the German Vorurteil, and it simply means to “pre-judge.” Originally, this word never connoted anything negative; today, however, the word has taken on new meaning, denoting a social vice of some sort—e.g., when a person speaks of one’s “sexist prejudices.” Originally, the word implied nothing of the sort; it simply meant to make a preliminary judgment, whether good or bad.)

All that to say, scientific methodology continues to be all the rage these days. It’s not uncommon to even hear philosophers (of all people, they should know better) talk about the benefit of becoming a critical thinker who can now “free his/herself from things like assumptions (particularly religious ones).” As a critical thinker, they say, one “doesn’t have to be held down by such things any longer.”

Like the article mentions, these sentiments come from the likes of Richard Dawkins, who isn’t a philosopher by trade, though who does remain a rather hawkish atheist who regularly speaks critically of religion but praises science and reason. Dawkins (and others) often talk about how science is the key to progress, whereas religion—being held down by prejudices and tradition—remains nothing more than a nagging vestigial organ of the bronze age.

But as Gadamer painstakingly shows in his Truth and Method, such ideas don’t hold much weight. We all have prejudices—whether religious or skeptical prejudice. And the scientist is no exception. It’s simply foolish to think otherwise.

Read more here.