Hermeneutics and Postmodernism



Hermeneutics is the study of the principles and procedures underlying the activity of interpretation. Had I been asked to give this workshop in 1960, it would have been relatively simple, though by no means decisive: I would have distinguished between hermeneutics as an outlining of the procedures of interpretation from hermeneutics as a universal and grounding reflection on the notion of understanding itself, and then move on from there. Over the past thirty years, however, two things have happened: in 1972 (tr. 1975) Hans Georg Gadamer, one of Martin Heidegger's most brilliant students, published his major work, Truth and Method, an epoch-making study of the history of hermeneutics that "historicized" and problematized what we understand by the term "hermeneutics." Second, a group of widely divergent thinkers, mostly French, has emerged who challenge the very possibility of classical or Gadamerian hermeneutics as a legitimate activity. I'm speaking, of course, of those we know as the postmodernists. The postmodernists embody something dangerous in their thought, something dangerous to thought itself, that we could characterize variously as Montaignian skepticism, epistemological nihilism, or what I would call a DeManian quietism. The phenomenon known as postmodernism is formally analogous to the outcome of the breakup of classical certainties characteristic of Hellenism, or those of the Enlightenment. During the Hellenic period, we saw Stoicism and Epicurianism forming the extremes of a collective Weltanschauung incapable of endorsing the certainties of classical Hellenism. Romanticism is another response to the destablizing effects of profound political and social change. Since the Seventies, we find a sky-filling constellation of thinkers incapable of endorsing, not the traditional verities and certainties of the Enlightenment's commitment to rationality, but any possibility of certainty. Regardless of their differences, the postmoderns are united in their certainty of the impossibility of certainty. Since textual interpretation is a procedure whose goal is to establish certainty regarding the meaning of texts, postmodernism is a challenge not to the procedures of hermeneutics, but to the very possibility of hermeneutics.

Despite the seemingly fundamental opposition between hermeneutics and postmodernism, they are one in confronting a central issue: language. A globally-encompassing understanding of language, of la langue rather than la parole, has been the concern of both hermeneutics and postmodernism. However, rather than a serendipitous unity of concern, their focus on language in the 1970s to the present is merely the culmination of one of this century's two central philosophical preoccupations.

Speaking broadly, we can isolate two major themes that link together the disparate strands of twentieth-century philosophy, those of language and temporality. Developed over the century, and taken together, these two themes attack the Enlightenment notion of subjectivity, developed from the Cartesian cogito, and the idea that this isolated subject can confront and control what Descartes called extended things, that is, nature. Those themes focusing on language include the philologically-oriented tradition beginning with Ferdinand de Saussure, and developing into the semiology of Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco and others; the structuralism that originated with Roman Jakobson in Russia, continued in Prague with Renè Wellek and others, and was modified by Levi Strauss and others; the widely scattered variants of analytic philosophy, beginning, in a sense, with Frege, enlarged by Russell and Moore, and altered fundamentally in Wittgenstein's language games, as well as the direction of J. L. Austin and John Searle; Heidegger's concern with interpretation as constitutive of Dasein's self-understanding, a line that continues through important variants in Sartre, Gadamer, Merleau-Ponty, and Ricoeur, to what are now called the "postmoderns": Derrida, DeMan, to an extent Foucault, Lacan, that wacky funnyman from Nantes, Baudrilliard, and their lesser lights; and finally, the Frankfurt School, a.k.a. the Critical Theory movement: Horkheimer, Adorno, Fromm, Benjamin, Marcuse, and Jürgen Habermas, as well as a new generation of Americans, such as Douglas Kellner, Mark Poster, Martin Jay, and others. To this list a minor, though important variant of linguistic concern must be added: the politically-oriented philosophical school of Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, and someone who may not see himself within that tradition, Stanley Rosen. With respect to temporality, we can trace three strains: those of Bergson, Whitehead and again, Heidegger. We'll return to Heidegger and temporality later.

One important group of thinkers that has escaped this broad brush are the information theorists, who, beginning with Bertalanffy's general systems theory and Claude Shannon's information theory, have evolved, as far as I can tell, into two groups: those who see information theory as a cosmological explanatory system that comprehends everything from telephones to the working of DNA (whose principal popular representative is Jeremy Campbell), and another group, represented by Mark Poster, who has embedded the originally scientistic orientation of information theory into a social and political program whose roots are in Critical Theory.

With the exception of naming Heidegger and Gadamer, you'll notice that I've left out an important tradition of concern about both language and time, that of hermeneutics. The reason is that hermeneutics, unlike, for example, semiology, is difficult to characterize as a "school" of thought. If it were, it would have clearcut roots, such as phenomenology's in Husserl and Heidegger. Instead, hermeneutics seems either to be a method ancillary to the great philosophical traditions of the twentieth century, an adjunct hired for $1300 to do a job within the system and then leave, or it seems to be a meta-activity (following Heidegger's lead in Being and Time), one which pervades and permeates all the traditions above, to the point that they all can be unified as variants of hermeneutics. In speaking to you today I don't propose to solve this quandary, that is, whether hermeneutics is a localized philological method within the human sciences, or a transcendental, unifying category of thought. Why won't I solve it? Well, I offered to solve it for $1200, but Stuart and Ron only offered me $400, so I've decided to leave the quandary as it is. Seriously, though, these do seem to be simultaneous, but independent notions of what the term "hermeneutics" means, so I plan on outlining the development of both of these understanding of "hermeneutics" without claiming that one or the other should have precedence, any more than I would claim that Husserl or Heidegger really has the corner on phenomenology.

In general, I would like to do the following. First, I'd like to trace the history of the term "hermeneutics" (a process fraught with methodological danger, since historical interpretation is itself a hermeneutical process, which means that the "meta-" problem has already reared its ugly head), and talk about the relation between hermeneutics to postmodernism by examining two of postmodernism's principal representatives, Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrilliard. Along the way I would like to refer to two or three other disciplines, namely family therapy, law, and psychology, and provide what I hope to be provocative suggestions to people in those disciplines, since my knowledge of them and $4.00 would buy me a gallon of gasoline. Throughout, I would like to defend the following claims: postmodernist thought raises issues that seriously challenge the legitimacy of hermeneutics. However, postmodernist thought is guilty of overreaching: it asks us to endorse a position which, by the terms of its own position, cannot be proven. To illustrate this second point, and to rehabilitate the possibility for hermeneutics, I will argue that postmodernism is, not so simply, a resurgence of a strand of German romantic thought, one in which the German romantic focus on subjectivity and its attendant problems has been replaced by a focus on language and its attendant problems. In making the link between postmodernism and romanticism, I hope to show that postmodernism has overreached itself to the point of incoherence, and that, while its insights are extremely valuable, it suffers from a lack of that classical virtue, prudence.

History of the Term

As we all know, the term "hermeneutics" has its origin in Hermes, the French manufacturer of fine clothing accessories. More to the point, however, as Richard Palmer has pointed out, "hermeneutics" comes from the Greek verb hermeneuein, which means "to interpret" and the noun hermeneia, which means "interpretation." The word "hermeios" referred to the priest at the Delphic oracle, and points back to wing-footed Hermes, messenger of the gods. The connection with Delphi is interesting. The oracle, as it was said, neither confirms nor denies, but gives a sign. Thus, what the oracle said was not a simple communication, but a form of language that required interpretation, and, if interpreted wrongly, invariably put the interpreter in peril. Herodotus tells us of Croesus, king of Lydia, who sought to invade Persia, and consulted the oracle. The oracle replied that "if Croesus attacked the Persians, he would destroy a mighty empire ..." [Herodotus, I.53]. Croesus, misinterpreting the oracle, invaded Persia, and a mighty empire was defeated--his own. So, etymologically, "hermeneutics" refers to messages that come from oracles, which are by definition cryptic and in need of interpretation, and from the gods, via Hermes, although messages from the gods become more problematic in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition.

This should briefly outline the etymology of hermeneutics. Historically, hermeneutics originated in biblical exegesis. "Probably the earliest recorded occurrence of the word as a book title is J. C. Dannhauer's Hermeneutica sacra sive methodus exponendarum sacrarum litterarum (1654)." [Palmer 34] Even at this early date a distinction was made between two senses of hermeneutics, between commentary on a text, which we call exegesis, and the rules, methods, or theory governing interpretation. Once separated conceptually from biblical interpretation, then, and connected with the scholarly activity of philology, hermeneutics came to be seen as an essentially historical activity, in which a reader of one historical period tried to come to grips with the communications of an earlier historical period. In doing so, the scholar needed a method, a set of procedures that would serve as the guarantor of the dependability of his scholarly activity. This became the philological or hermeneutic method. This notion of interpretation of linguistically-based evidence from the past became expanded to refer to all linguistic activities. At this point, hermeneutics becomes not a system of rules for interpretation of documents, but a conceptualization of what is involved in any act of understanding. Most recently, interpretation has been seen as the foundation of humanity's being, insofar as humans are different from other living things. Hence, speaking broadly, we can see three historical transformations in the term, from a philological procedure within the linguistically-based disciplines (from theology to antiquarian studies), to a broad and general epistemological approach to what constitutes any act of understanding, to, finally, a ontology of human being.

Two important concepts link together all three of these historical transformations of the term. First is the assumption of a distinction between depth and surface: that the scholar or philosopher is confronted with something that, on the surface, isn't what it seems, something that must be penetrated to its unseen or un-understood depth to ferret out its truth. This is the type of assumption that informs such practices as Freudian dream analysis, critical interpretation of modernist texts (e.g., Ulysses), structural anthropology, Marxist social analyses, and so forth. Second, there is the assumption of what we could call a "transcendental signified" by which the truth of an assertion can be determined. Traditionally, this transcendental signified has been called "truth," but procedurally it involves examining whether the statement violates certain basic rules, generally those of identity, non-contradiction, and sufficient reason. If those rules aren't violated, then the utterance is true (obviously, other criteria enter in here, according to the individual situation). Both these assumptions will become crucial when we turn to a comparison of hermeneutics with postmodernism.

Before doing so, however, let's look at a few historical highlights in the development and transformation of hermeneutics. Although works on hermeneutics had been published in the fields of protestant theology (Marcus Flacius Illyricus' Clavis Scriptura Sacrae [1567]), classical philology (Vives, Scioppius, Johannes Clericus, Laurentius Humphrey, Bishop Huet, et al.), jurisprudence (Constantius Rogerius' Treatise concerning the Interpretation of Laws [1463]), and philosophy (Aristotle's On Interpretation), hermeneutics as a discipline didn't begin until the Enlightenment. Among the first writers on hermeneutics during the Enlightenment was Chladenius, whose 1742 work, Introduction to the Correct Interpretation of Reasonable Discourse and Books was a systematic exposition of hermeneutic theory. However, for him, interpretation was essentially verbal explication. Not until Friedrich Schleiermacher do we find a thinker reflective on the problematic nature of hermeneutics.


Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), as his dates indicate, was part of the early Romantic movement in Germany that encompassed such writers as A. W. and Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis, Tieck, Wackenroder, as well as Fichte, Schelling, and Schiller. Schleiermacher's thought is an advance on Chladenius, because rather than viewing hermeneutics as simply a form of decoding, or means of clearing up the obstacles to understanding, he saw it as a means of demonstrating the necessary conditions for the possibility of understanding. Scholars differ, however, on exactly what Schleiermacher was about. In part results from an uncritical acceptance of Dilthey's interpretation of Schleiermacher; in part, also, is a real scholarly difference of views. In one view (Linge/Gadamer), Schleiermacher's notion of hermeneutics is scientistic and psychologistic: "For Schleiermacher, ... what the text really means ... must be recovered by a disciplined reconstruction of the historical situation or life-context in which it originated," which, in David Linge's view involves an "... identification of understanding with scientific understanding ..." That is, "Understanding is essentially a self-transposition or imaginative projection whereby the knower negates the temporal distance that separates him from his object and becomes contemporaneous with it." In English, that means that the good interpreter "puts himself in the place of" the text by eliminating all of the "subjective" elements of the interpreter's historical situation and instead taking on the historical elements of the text's environment. This places him squarely in the scientistic tradition of Dilthey. Others, however, view Schleiermacher's position differently, claiming that Schleiermacher combines a structural and phenomenological viewpoint [Mueller-Vollmer 11]. In any event, Schleiermacher's notion of interpretation involved combining two planes of experience: understanding as an expression of the text's relation to the language system of which it is a part, and understanding as part of the speaker's intentional activity. A self-conscious combining of these two planes in an interpretative act would result in a true understanding of the text [Mueller-Vollmer 10f].

What is clear about Schleiermacher, however, is that he did not distinguish between understanding and interpretation. By making ambiguous claims about whether understanding and interpretation are separate activities, or whether any act of understanding is always already an interpretation, he muddied the waters for future students of hermeneutics. In addition, this distinction between understanding and interpretation has clear implications for postmodernism, since if, along with most of the postmoderns, we believe that there is no experience independent of or prior to language, then "everything" is an interpretation, a position that clearly has relativistic, or possibly anti-rational implications.


Passing over figures such as Wilhelm von Humboldt, Johann Gustav Droysen, Philip August Boeck, all of whom wrote on hermeneutics, we come to Wilhelm Dilthey, the most influential writer on hermeneutics before Heidegger and Gadamer. Dilthey (1833-1911), one of several historians and philosophers of the nineteenth century, was principally concerned with the problem of history insofar as it affected understanding. Dilthey went beyond Schleiermacher and other prior thinkers in his attempt to employ hermeneutics as a philosophical ground of all the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften). While Dilthey still maintained that hermeneutics was the art and science of interpretation, he saw the interpretive act as extending beyond language to other forms of experience. He saw hermeneutical activity as a "category of life," a mode of human relation to the world, which in turn became rationalized as a formal method within the human sciences. Thus, he saw hermeneutics both as a method, and as something more fundamental with respect to experience.

However, what will become important in Dilthey for later thinkers is his insistence, along with Schleiermacher, that the interpreter's historical situation interferes with proper understanding of a text, and that the intention of the author of the text is the target of the hermeneutical act.


For our century, however, the nine hundred pound gorilla of hermeneutics is Martin Heidegger (1899-1976), whose brilliance and profound influence on our thought has been obscured lately by concern with his ties to Hitler's government. The great transformer of hermeneutics has thus himself been subjected to an ideological interpretation that has, in some circles, severely damaged his reputation as a philosopher. However, let's pass over this more contemporary concern and look at how he conceived the notion of interpretation in his most influential book, Being and Time (1927). Let me add that Heidegger is extremely important for the present talk because he is really the trunk from which the branches of postmodernism in its Derridian form and hermeneutics in its Gadamerian form grew. Consequently, if Derrida and Gadamer are fundamentally at odds, the origin of this difference is in the work of Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger's project, unfinished in Being and Time, was to ground philosophy in an understanding of Being. He contended that "originary" Greek thought began with an investigation into the meaning of Being (e.g., the fundamental philosophical question is the childlike one of "why are there beings rather than nothing?"), an investigation that was derailed by Plato's inauguration of what Heidegger called "Western metaphysics," a form of thought that dominated the West from Plato to Nietzsche. Heidegger sought the "destruction" (cf. Derrida's later "deconstruction") of Western metaphysics in the interest of a form of thinking he saw as the most fundamental. He called this thinking "fundamental ontology."

Heidegger argued that while we may want to pose the question about the meaning of Being, we must engage in a prior step. Before we can ask about Being, we must complete the project of the self-understanding of our own being, what he called Dasein. Dasein is a hopefully-neutral philosophical term for what we call human beings, or persons. Put another way, Dasein is the being for whom Being is an issue. Hence, the task of Being and Time is to investigate the meaning or constitution of Dasein, with the long term aim of investigating the meaning of Being. I might add that this investigation was derailed following the publication of Being and Time by Heidegger's conviction that a study of language held the key to the problems he posed in Being and Time, and that in my view Jacques Derrida has carried on Heidegger's sometimes gnomic investigations with astonishing results.

So, to repeat: Being and Time sought to investigate the constitution of Dasein in what Heidegger called phenomenology, a philosophical practice which sought to avoid the Platonic and Cartesian pitfalls of previous philosophical inquiry. There is a lengthy battle over this term, phenomenology, between adherents of Edmund Husserl, Heidegger's teacher, and Heidegger's students. Like the dispute between Plato and Aristotle's ideas about the proper disposition of the Forms, choosing sides in this dispute involves an annihilation of the other's position. For now, let's assume that Heideggerian phenomenology is phenomenology proper.

Heidegger argued that at the beginning of any philosophical inquiry that we are already at one remove from the proper object of our reflections. That is, the "theoretical" approach of philosophy doesn't do justice to our actual experience of reality. He argued that we are always-already in the "world," a notion he called "thrownness." Heidegger's concept of thrownness suggests that whenever we begin reflection, we begin at a remove from "reality," that we "come to" reality unreflectively. This unreflective attitude of our Being-in-the-world Heidegger called ready-to-hand. For example, when we use a hammer, we don't think "I'm going to use a hammer"; instead, we reach for it and begin hammering. We only reflect on the hammer as a hammer when we reach for it and it breaks. Analogously, if we wish to begin with our direct experience of the world, as mandated by the phenomenological approach, we must understand that our pre-reflective consciousness is a more "authentic" orientation to the world than our reflective, philosophical consciousness, which he called presence-at-hand. Given this state of affairs, we need to investigate what we always-already find ourselves in, our thrownness.

Skipping over some argumentation, we can next say that Heidegger claims that the significance of our Being-in-the-world, which we could say is equiprimordial with consciousness as such, involves interpretation. In his words, "Significance is that on the basis of which the world is disclosed as such" [BT sec. 31]. In this sense, then, understanding doesn't mean competence at a task, but the precondition for the possibility of the worldhood of the world. However, this confrontation, via significance, with the world, doesn't occur, as we might think, in the present. In a move that Sartre was to later leap upon and make his own, Heidegger argues that "... possibility ... is the most primordial and ultimate positive way in which Dasein is characterized ontologically" [BT sec. 31]. He then claims that "Understanding is the Being of such potentiality-for-Being," suggesting that a futurally temporal state of understanding-oriented pro-jection characterizes Dasein as such. "As long as it is, Dasein always has understood itself and always will understand itself in terms of possibilities. ... As projecting, understanding is the kind of Being of Dasein in which it is its possibilities as possibilities" [BT sec. 31].

It's important to see that for Heidegger, this Understanding isn't a subsidiary act, as in, I see something and then I (later) understand what it is. In his words, "That which is understood gets Articulated when the entity to be understood is brought close interpretatively by taking as our clue the `something as something'; this Articulation lies before our making any thematic assertion about it." Clearly, if we "understand" the world in terms of its significances before we encounter it in a reflective fashion, then this type of understanding is absolutely fundamental to who and what we are as beings. Hence, Heidegger has transformed the Dilthean "category of life," that is, one way of orienting ourselves to the world, to the way we orient ourselves to ourselves and the world in an originary fashion. In his words, "In interpreting, we do not, so to speak, throw a `signification' over some naked thing which is present-at-hand, we do not stick a value on it; but when something within-the-world is encountered as such, the thing in question already has an involvement which is disclosed in our understanding of the world, and this involvement is one which gets laid out by the interpretation" [BT sec. 32].

This brings us to one of the genuine transformative moments for hermeneutics, Heidegger's notion of the hermeneutic circle. Incorporating what Heidegger calls the "for-structure" of the understanding and the "as-structure" of interpretation, whenever we seek to understand something, we always-already Understand it within our significatory (ready-to-hand) activities. That is, it comes to us unreflectively, but as part of the world. Then we interpret the thing as something in our reflective manner. Hence, any act of interpretation is already interpretative, yet once it has been interpreted reflectively, the world within which we have encountered it has changed by the act of interpretation. "This circle of understanding is not an orbit in which any random kind of knowledge may move; it is the expression of the existential fore-structure of Dasein itself. ... The `circle' in understanding belongs to the structure of meaning, and the latter phenomenon is rooted in the existential constitution of Dasein--that is, in the understanding which interprets. An entity for which, as Being-in-the-world, its Being itself is an issue, has, ontologically, a circular structure" [BT sec. 32].

Note the enormous difference between this notion of understanding and the notion of "putting yourself in the place of" the text in question. Here we have what we could call a metaphysical notion of hermeneutics, that interpretation is constitutive of who and what we are. If so, then interpretation as a mode of "erasing" ourselves to understand something else, the Cartesian-inspired move of Schleiermacher and Dilthey, is impossible. Instead, interpretation moves in a circle. It will be left to Hans Georg Gadamer to establish this idea in a programmatic and historically grounded way.

Before we turn to Gadamer, one final note on Heidegger, namely on his view of language. Language, for Heidegger, is "... the Articulation of intelligibility. Therefore it underlies both interpretation and assertion." Or, "Discoursing or talking is the way in which we articulate `significantly' the intelligibility of Being-in-the-world" [BT sec. 34]. Because we are always already "in" the world, language is not the sharing of the "internal" contents of some consciousness, but is itself a report on the "outside," an outside which Dasein, interacting interpretatively with the world, shares with other Daseins. While it is beyond our scope now, it should be pointed out that this is the beginning of talk later in Being and Time about "The Call," Der Ruf, which is the opening to the possibility of authenticity. We can note, however, that if language is equiprimoridal with Dasein's self-understanding, then the grammar of the actual language in which the discourse is expressed becomes a significant issue, since the grammatical structure of a language configures the possibilities of the disclosure of the world to Dasein, and of Dasein to itself. It was no whim of Heidegger's therefore when, after the publication of Being and Time he said he felt the need to go relearn German.


Heidegger, on an ontological level, paved the way for his student, Hans Georg Gadamer, whose philosophical investigation into the role of hermeneutics in constituting our being was published as Truth and Method (1972; tr. 1975), as well as in a river of articles. While Heidegger focused primarily on the role of interpretation from an ontological perspective, Gadamer concentrated on the historicity of understanding. Although Gadamer's focus on hermeneutics was less revolutionary than Heidegger's, Gadamer's interest in the history of hermeneutics has provided a valuable store of material for scholars. Like Heidegger's hermeneutic circle, Gadamer has also produced several valuable interpretive ideas, among them the notion of prejudice and that of the fusion of horizons. In my discussion I will appropriate the words of David Linge, whose introduction to Gadamer's Philosophical Hermeneutics you read for today.

As I've indicated, Gadamer took over the Heideggerian view that hermeneutics is a matter of ontology rather than method, that is, that ordinary "interpretations" we may make, which we may variously call propositions, assertions, or judgments about texts or states of affairs, are themselves dependent on an antecedent hermeneutical act, Dasein's self-understanding as a "thereness" (a Da-sein) in the world, something that Dasein always already discovers itself in (what Heidegger calls "thrownness"). The world that Dasein encounters is not a world of things, but instead, in Linge's words, "a realm of possibilities upon which it has already projected itself. The entities of Dasein's world manifest themselves initially as tool-like in character (zuhanden) and deteriorate into mere `objects' only when they fall out of Dasein's own projects" [Linge xlv]. Hence, for Gadamer, while we may indeed devise hermeneutical methods, those methods are themselves predicated on the emergence of a world that is itself first confronted hermeneutically.

Gadamer's critique of Schleiermacher and Dilthey rests on their scientific, or what I would call Cartesian, approach to understanding. As Linge indicates, "... beginning with Schleiermacher, the talk is no longer of `not understanding,' but rather of the natural priority of misunderstanding ... (something we'll want to talk about when we turn to Schlegel's "On Incomprehensibility.") Misunderstanding arises naturally because of the changes in word meanings, world views, and so on that have taken place in the time separating the author from the interpreter. ... For Schleiermacher, therefore, what the text really means ... must be recovered by a disciplined reconstruction of the historical situation or life-context in which it originated." Note that this reconstruction occurs independent of the historical circumstances of the interpreter; like a good scientist, Schleiermacher saw the interpreter as an isolated cogito, which then confronted and operated on the res extensa, in this case the historical text. Note also that the intention Schleiermacher seeks out is not the text's but that of the author. Dilthey maintained both of these assumptions. "Like Schleiermacher, Dilthey identified the meaning of the text or action with the subjective intention of its author..." [Linge xiii]. Consequently, following Gadamer, we can say that for both Schleiermacher and Dilthey, "Understanding is essentially a self-transposition or imaginative projection whereby the knower negates the temporal distance that separates him from his object and becomes contemporaneous with it." Indeed, for them "... the knower's own present situation can have only a negative value." Historical understanding, according to this theory, is the action of subjectivity purged of all prejudices..." [Linge xiv].

Here we find the wedge that Gadamer will use to drive between his hermeneutics and the scientific understanding of the interpretive self employed by Schleiermacher and Dilthey. For Gadamer argues that prejudices, far from being a negative element in the interpretive situation, provide the possibility for the existence of interpretation. As Linge says, "Gadamer takes the knower's boundness to his present horizons and the temporal gulf separating him from his object to be the productive ground of all understanding rather than negative factors or impediments. Our prejudices do not cut us off from the past, but initially open it up to us. ... Shaped by the past in an infinity of unexamined ways, the present situation is the `given' in which understanding is rooted, and which reflection can never entirely hold at a critical distance and objectify. This is the meaning of the `hermeneutical situation' ..." [Linge xiv-xv]. "The familiar horizons of the interpreter's world ... constitute the interpreter's own immediate participation in traditions that are not themselves the object of understanding but the conditions of its occurrence" [Linge xii].

Given the "productive" aspect of our prejudices, how do we encounter texts? That is, how can we understand, say, a classical text, given our prejudices? Given Gadamer's description of our historical situation, aren't we more or less trapped in the bubble of our contemporary prejudices, unable to make contact with other times and other texts? If we are genuinely historical creatures, wouldn't our historical boundedness make it more, rather than less difficult to appropriate texts? Wouldn't the Schleiermacher/Dilthey model work better?

The answers to these questions are, as usual, yes and no. Our historical boundedness does complicate things, but it has two things in its favor. First, according to Gadamer, it is the only legitimate description of our hermeneutical situation. A related second point is that the Cartesianism of Schleiermacher and Dilthey distorts what we do in an act of understanding: we simply cannot erase ourselves from the act of interpretation. They have presented us with a method that misrepresents how we go about interpreting a text.

How do we then begin interpreting a text? According to Gadamer, we begin when we locate the question the text is asking. Similar to Habermas, Gadamer sees interpretation as analogous to a Socratic conversation, a Socratic elenchus. Like a conversation, we cannot locate the content or meaning of the conversation in the subjectivity of either conversational partner: the conversation emerges through the participation of both speakers. Consequently, in a conversation a certain type of "fusion" of the two speaker's interests and questions occurs. The same is true of interpretation. Linge: "We understand the subject matter of the text that addresses us when we locate its question; in our attempt to gain this question we are, in our own questioning, continually transcending the historical horizon of the text and fusing it with our own horizon, and consequently transforming our horizon" [Linge xxi]. This is Gadamer's famous "fusion of horizons," the central metaphor describing his view of the hermeneutic act.

If understanding is constituted by a fusion of the horizon of the text and its interpreter, then "Understanding is not reconstruction [in the sense of Schleiermacher or Dilthey] but mediation. ... Understanding is an event, a movement of history itself which neither interpreter nor text can be thought of as autonomous parts" [Linge xvi]. "It is the formation of a comprehensive horizon in which the limited horizons of text and interpreter are fused into a common view of the subject matter--the meaning--with which both are concerned. ... The concept of understanding as a `fusion of horizons' has more in common with a dialogue between persons or with the buoyancy of a game in which the players are absorbed than it has with the traditional model of a methodologically controlled investigation of an object by a subject" [Linge xx].

Among Gadamer's contributions is his conception of the text, not as a scientific object, controlled by and presided over by an isolated subject, but as an active participant in the act of meaning-constitution. Neither the author of the text, nor the text proper "contains" the meaning intention, but nor does the subject or interpreter, as reader-response critics will maintain. Instead, the meaning of the text emerges out of the fusion of the horizons of the text and its interrogator. An interpretive act constitutes, then, a type of record of a conversational act.

While I have been emphasizing Schleiermacher and Dilthey to make the historical connection among those who have thought about hermeneutics directly, we should note that the notion of interpretation they formalized is one which virtually all humanistic disciplines, scientistically oriented or not, share. Ever since Comte's success in the nineteenth century in establishing the ahistorical, empirically-oriented, metaphysically hostile ideals of sociology onto the social sciences in general, the Cartesian subject reconstructing the meaning of a text by negating himself and "putting himself in the place of" the text's originator has been the model. Hence, the divisions here are not ideological: prior to Heidegger, and, to a certain extent after him, Marxists as well as non-Marxists, for example, are one in this view of the interpretive act. Thus, while Gadamer may be rigorously oriented toward history, those disciplines that are also historically oriented don't necessarily share his views, and generally are still lodged in the nineteenth century, hermeneutically speaking.

Once we do agree about the fundamental historicity of the interpretive act, however, we must contend with the usual, and to me often compelling criticisms of historicism. In Gadamer's defense, however, we must agree that the usual idealistic criticisms of historicism are of little use, since they depend on either a disregard for language in the act of understanding (e.g., that language is a transparent mediating tool for transferring the contents of one consciousness to another), or they insist upon a Cartesian view of the mind, or both. For Gadamer, "... the meanings of words depend ... on the concrete circumstances into which they are spoken. On this level, the logic of language is not simply the formal logic of Aristotle or that of the positivists [in which specific utterances can be analyzed independent of the particular historical act of speaking or writing], but the `hermeneutical' logic of question and answer [which involves, as far as I can tell, a return to some version of the Socratic notion of the assent of the interlocutor as the measure of the truth of a claim]" [Linge xxxii]. For the present, I would like to omit any substantial criticism of Gadamer's position and save that for our discussion. In fact, if we were to begin criticizing Gadamer's position, the most effective approach would be to begin with the defects in Heidegger's ontological analyses of Dasein, and his criticism of a type of humanistic subjectivity in which he himself seems to participate.


As I suggested at the outset, the possibility of hermeneutics rests on two distinctions, those between surface and depth and those between the transcendent and the immanent (or between the transcendental signified and that which it certifies as true). To anticipate, postmodernism destroys these distinctions. Frederick Jameson has identified four areas in which the surface/depth distinction obtains: the romantic distinction between the inner self and the outer self, the dialectical one of essences and appearances (along with "a whole range of concepts of ideology or false consciousness which tend to accompany it"); the Freudian model of latent and manifest, or of repression; the existential model of authenticity and inauthenticity (originated by Heidegger and popularized by Sartre), and finally the opposition of signifier and signified. On reflection, we can see that in each of these models, the assumption is that we originally encounter a surface, which isn't, to quote Mick Jagger, what it seems, and then through a generally agreed on method, obtain a meaning from behind or beneath the surface. If postmodernism denies the viability of the inner self, essences, the latent, the authentic, and the signified, we can see that its claims are large ones indeed. But before we jump into postmodernism, let's talk in a non-postmodern, hermeneutical fashion about the term "postmodernism." I know it sounds passè, but that's the kind of guy I am.

Postmodernism obviously suggests that there was something like modernism, and that we're now past it. Modernism, I suggest, has three broad ranges of meaning. One emerges from the distinction between Classic and Modern, made popular by Leo Strauss and others. "Modernism" then means the historical period originated by, say, Vico, Machiavelli, and Hobbes. We'll ignore this generally political sense of the modern. A second sense of the modern is that of the Enlightenment, that great optimistic period extending from approximately 1688 to 1789 in which, the French philosophes Voltaire, Condorcet, Condilliac, Diderot, D'Alembert and others originated a profound faith in reason, progress, a universal notion of human nature, a hatred of the so-called superstitions of religion, an amicable attitude toward science, and a general humanistic optimism that social and personal problems could be solved through human means. Following on its heels, and the devastating effects of a devotion to reason we witnessed in the French Revolution, the Romantic period emerged, stressing the fragmentary character of human existence and its concomitant longing for unity, the valorization of imagination over reason, the assumption that political change could come about only through private, inner change, a hostility to the deadening, dehumanizing effects of science, and a general faith in the ability of inner imaginative transformation as a solution to humanity's ills. There are those who view postmodernism as a continuation, with alteration, of romanticism.

A second sense of modernism is that something that began sometime around 1910: As Silvio Gaggi indicates, "Picasso began working on the `Demoiselles d'Avignon' ... in 1906-07; Stravinsky's `Sacre du Printemps' had its riotous premiere in 1913. The first book by Ezra Pound to bear the title Personae came out in 1909; J. Alfred Prufrock made his debut ... in 1915. In 1914, Joyce had finished the Portrait and was turning his full attention to Ulysses. ... Roger Fry's Post-Impressionist show ... was followed by the New York Armory show, which introduced Post-impressionist art to America. D. H. Lawrence took his first steps as a poet and novelist in the years around 1910. From 1910 onwards, F. T. Marinetti was lecturing explosively around Europe on an ill-defined but violent esthetic program that he called `Futurism'" [Gaggi 18]. Hence, among the modern movements we can count Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Functionalism, atonality, serialization, and stream-of-consciousness. Consequently, given this sense of the modern, postmodernism is a rejection of, or reaction to, the great questioning of the unity of subjectivity, the unreliability or multiplex character of perception, the uselessness of aesthetic rules, the elevation of arbitrariness over systematization, the value of spontaneity over method, and the superiority of function over form, all of which characterize twentieth-century modernism.

The literature on postmodernism is vast, exceedingly so for a concept less than twenty years old. However, to understand the wild variations in the definitions of the term we encounter, it may be best to establish a typology of postmodernism based on these two views, namely that postmodernism is either a reaction to the Enlightenment or to twentieth-century modernism. Basically, in postmodern literature there are four positions:

1) postmodernism is a negative reaction to the Enlightenment

2) postmodernism thinks it is a negative reaction to the Enlightenment, but in fact is a continuation of it in another form

3) postmodernism is a negative reaction to twentieth-century modernism

4) postmodernism thinks it is a negative reaction to twentieth-century modernism, but in fact is a continuation of it in another form.

Consequently, adherents of postmodernism celebrate it because it advances us either out of that old, stodgy Enlightenment consciousness, or because it is the next wave of the avant garde beyond modernism. Opponents argue that it is either merely a romantic continuation of the Enlightenment problematic, or it is modernism in a novelle guise. For those of you who will begin, or continue to read around in postmodern discourse, these distinctions may come in handy.

But what, you may ask, is postmodernism? Rather than continuing to blather on in general terms about its meaning, I'd like to look at two individuals representative of postmodernism, Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard. To paraphrase the old saying, we gave them Jerry Lewis and they gave us postmodernism.


The origins of postmodernism in philosophy and literature are multiple, but in looking at Derrida we must first look at Heidegger. The best road in, I think, is to look at an unusual practice of Heidegger's whenever he spoke of Being, the practice of things terms sous rature, or under erasure.

As good ontologists, we want to speak of Being. But a problem immediately presents itself. It makes no sense to say, for example, "Being is X," since Being provides the possibility for the "is" of "Being is." Being is something beyond the "isness" of grammatical structure. Heidegger, recognizing this, adopted the practice of placing and "X" over Being, and any copula associated with it. This "X" put Being "under erasure," signifying, as it were, that the sign "Being" didn't, and couldn't, refer to that which it was referring. The linguistic sign "Being," stood in the place of a referring that we take as natural in language, but impossible when our subject is Being.

Being, then, stands either "behind" or "over" any linguistic act. It is that which provides the possibility of there being, as it were, any linguistic act. Being, then, is the transcendental signified that certifies language's existential possibility to refer to intentional objects and, by association, things.

But, of course, if Being is something to which language can refer only in its absence, Being cannot be present in language. If Being is not present in language, then language cannot appropriate Being understandingly within language; Being stands outside of language and, while providing its possibility, is apart from it. Once Heidegger had this insight, he recognized that his project of fundamental ontology was poisoned from the outset if it claimed that it could appropriate the meaning of Being linguistically. Hence, his turn, after Being and Time, to what we could kindly call increasingly gnomic linguistic practices. This, by the way, is also one way into Heidegger's notion of the "destruction" of metaphysics, since metaphysics assumes the presence of Being to consciousness.

Being is absent from language, but leaves in it a trace of its absent presence in the copula. The "is" of language certifies the intentional presence of its referents, but not of Being itself. Speaking generally, then, we could say that language supplements Being's absence from the intentional presence to consciousness of the signifying act.

This would be a mildly interesting intellectual turn, one which was already enacted by medieval theologians of the via negativa, such as Nicholas Cusanus, were it not for a fact we mentioned earlier: Heidegger equates the being of Dasein with interpretation.

The sign "Being" then evokes the absence of something assumed to be present. There is an inescapable heterogeneity to the sign and its referent; one cannot "stand for" the other in this case. But before we link together Heidegger's notion of sous rature and interpretation, let's look briefly at the work of Ferdinand Saussure.

In Ferdinand Saussure's famous analysis of the sign, of the signifier and the signifiant, he noted that signs themselves are related only through difference. That is, a string of signs is "connected" not by any relation to one another, but by a difference from one another. Hence, in seeking the meaning of one sign, we are led to other signs, which themselves are related to each other only because they are not the one to which they supposedly refer. To put it another way, syntactically signs are connected to one another through the play of difference. There is not any necessary semantic association between the signs.

We recognize this on the level of signs, that is, in writing, but are somewhat more confident that there is a necessary relation between words and things when we speak. But think about it: when we speak, the speech-signs are as arbitrary as the written ones. The speech-sign is also arbitrarily "different from" that to which it refers. Hence, both in writing and speech, the sign's referent is always "not there"; the very structure of the sign is always to be found in what it is not. The absence of the presence of the intentional object in the act of intending it is a condition of language itself; language is always trying to "make up for" this absent presence.

Hence, for Derrida, Heidegger's insight about Being and sous rature can be extended globally to all language. The ground of phenomenology's confidence in its assertions is "presence to consciousness," the fullness of the objects of consciousness' intentional acts to itself. However, if the very structure of Dasein is significatory, that is, if Dasein is interpretation, then presence cannot ever be fully present to itself. Instead, within presence is always an absence: to coin a phrase "to be is to be and not to be."

For philosophy to be possible, we have assumed the integrity of the following relations:

1) the sign is grounded in the truth

2) language is grounded in being

3) speech is grounded in thought

4) writing is grounded in speech.

But as we can see from Derrida's analysis of Heidegger and Saussure, all these relations, which phenomenology gathers together under the rubric of "presence," are not singular, but dual in nature. The "origin" of truth, being, thought, and speech is a "trace," which itself "is" primordial, but since it isn't graspable in a linguistic act, both "is" and "isn't." In short, the ground and origin of being, truth, and presence itself is fundamentally dual.

To continue with this analysis, let's pick one word, truth. Truth becomes, under this analysis, a play of signifiers. Some "metaphysical" questions: does Being have its origin in Being or NonBeing? Well, both. Is presence or absence the fundamental structural element of consciousness? Well, both. This "truth," to which we refer to ground our semantic claims, both is and isn't the ground of them.

Here we can see the beginning of Derrida's famous practice of deconstruction. Derrida analyzed the history of metaphysics as the arbitrary privileging of one element of the trace ("truth," "being,") over the other ("nontruth," "nonbeing") and then "oppressively" employing that privileged element to ground claims. The process of deconstruction demonstrates the fundamental, as it were, duality of origins, and, through a systematic process of reversal, shows that assertions cannot mean what they intend.

It's a short step from this move to say that, if assertions cannot mean what they intend, and if, according to Heidegger, Dasein, is constituted by a primordial hermeneutical activity which he calls readiness-to-hand, then subjectivity itself is not singular, but dual.

It's helpful to remind ourselves that this move is predicated on affording language center stage in the relation between consciousness, its object, and language. That is, language is constitutive of consciousness, and consciousness originates the intending or referring process. Thus, while previous pre-Heideggerian "metaphysical" views have seen language as the transparent mediating tool in transferring the contents of one consciousness to another, Heideggerian hermeneutics and Derridean deconstruction both see language as constitutive of consciousness, not the other way around. Consequently, an analysis of the structure of natural languages is in turn an analysis of consciousness. Since we know, irrespective of our metaphysical or nonmetaphysical position that language always carries within it a self-referential or "meta-" structure, then this structure will naturally be transferred onto the structure of consciousness. It is this move, I think, that characterizes much of what we call postmodernism.


Before submitting this position to a critique, let me call attention to another postmodern thinker, one who has been embraced by the fine art world as well as sociology and pop culture enthusiasts in general, Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard can be characterized generally as a Marxist who has sought to wed the insights of semiotics with those of Marxism. His Marxist thought originates with the idea that for Marx, the central concern was production, while today, the central concern ought to be consumption, and for Baudrillard this consumption involves consuming not objects, but signs. Lately, however, he has abandoned, in my view, any pretense to scholarship, and instead has begun issuing a series of enjoyable texts in the inimitable French style, that is, intoxicating, provocative rhetoric, without a hint of evidence except, of course, the charm of the text. His America, for example, records a three-week trip he made to our shores, and he weaves together an number of assertions which, when taken at face value are simply absurd, but which ingested through the medium of his stylistic pyrotechnics, are delightful reading. There is little question in my mind as to why he is popular, but whether what he says has any substance is another question altogether. He has been called "the first science fiction critic" [Kellner]; his writing has been characterized as "free associational hysteria" and "a mudge of pseudo-science enhanced by blague" [Danto NR]. He has, however, provided us a valuable concept for our MTV world, that of the simulacrum, and perhaps a less valuable, but provocative one in his notion of hyperreality.

Unlike the Orwellian notion of an oppressive political system that employs the media (in home surveillance screens, Ten Minutes Hate, the Ministry of Truth, and so forth) to restrict individual freedom, or the Marxist idea that the corporate world creates mass consciousness through cynical manipulation of the media, Baudrillard sees the media as pandering to the tastes of the public, creating a public phantasmagoria which is neither that of the media itself, nor of the public. This construction of a reality, to repeat, is neither the property of a political order, nor of the public, but bases itself on popular representations of fantasy images (e.g., the Huxtable family, Dan Rather as a journalist, Oliver North as a patriot, Pat Robertson as devout man). These images, while drawing on the real (i.e., Bill Cosby, Dan Rather, Oliver North and Pat Robertson are actual human beings, although I'm not so sure about North), these images themselves are not representations of people but elements in a larger semiotic universe that has a relation only to itself. That is, Mr. Huxtable, Rather, North and Robertson aren't images that stand for humans, but images are whipped up, intensified by the work of the media until the-superpatriot-Oliver-North and pumped-up-bimbo-Donna-Rice and warm-and-cuddly-Cliff-Huxtable exist relative to one another. Baudrillard argues that the public takes these images not as images, but as what he calls hyperreal, cutting the tie between the so-called image of the thing and the thing. In a world dominated by media, the thing represented ceases to have any relevance; what is relevant is the relation of the sign (the image) to other signs. While semiotics ordinarily understands signs to refer to things, Baudrillard sees signs as having severed that relation, and refer only to other signs. To put is another way, like Saussure, he thinks that signs don't acquire meaning from what they stand for, but from the differences of other signs that make up the total system [Danto NR]. This procession of signs Baudrillard calls simulacra, themselves a system of differences with no external referents.

Historically, Baudrillard claims that in early modernity, signs were fixed: clothing indicated social status, painting sought to imitate nature, and so forth. However, the rising bourgeoisie sought to remake the world in its own image, introducing stucco, for example, to create simulacra of natural building materials. These "simulated" buildings liberated decoration from imitation of nature but were indicatory none the less. By using stucco and reinforced concrete, the bourgeoisie sought to control the system of signs in the interest of order and power.

The second period of simulacra occurred during the industrial revolution. Robotic machines, which imitated the actions of humans, didn't seek to imitate nature, but to dominate it. Film, for example, doesn't seek to imitate nature, but to replace it with a more valuable system of signs (or better, a female impersonator of Marylin Monroe.)

Today, Baudrillard argues, we have reached a third stage, in which signs themselves have overtaken the world and indeed constitute the world as such. "... within track suburban houses, interior design manuals, exercise video cassettes, child-care books, sexual manuals, cookbooks and magazines, newspapers and broadcast media all provide models that structure various activities within everyday life" [Kellner 80]. This "reality" which is the result of a public system of signs Baudrillard calls "hyperreality," the unreality that is realler than the real.

Hence, if we are looking for a model for Baudrillard's modern world, we need look no farther than the fashion world. Here, signs are periodically exchanged for other signs, creating a reality that governs the behavior of, in particular, women, yet the signs themselves don't "refer back" to anything else; they are simply a set of free floating signifiers that, while referring to each other, aren't indicative of anything else except themselves.

For Baudrillard, then, the postmodern is distinguished from the modern in that while modernity produced industrial products, postmodernity produces simulations, simulacra which in turn come to dominate social and psychological life. But it's important to note that for him, these simulacra don't mean anything; they subsist owing to a larger, delirious productive structure; they emerge for their own sake and yet end up dominating our social and psychological universe.

Given this view, its clear why, for example, we cannot define postmodernism: we can produce a list of definitions, but those themselves are simply a play of signs.

Of course, before we confront these ideas, we may wish to establish where we got this information. From Baudrillard? From the simulacrum of Baudrillard? From a certain play of signifiers, known as a book, which in turn produces advances and residuals, which go to ... Baudrillard?

Postmodernism as Romantic Fascism

Let me now say two or three evaluative things about postmodernism. The texts of postmodernism raise serious issues, and may well properly describe an historical transition that we are now undergoing. However, postmodernism's claims are extraordinarily inflated; they suffer, as I indicated from the outset, from the lack of the classical virtue of prudence or sophrosyne. I will argue that postmodernism is a form of Romantic fascism, in which the Romantic subject, à la Fichte, has been replaced by the postmodern text, with the ironic effect that the postmodern "subject" is himself or herself elevated to the status of the ground of the text, quite similar to the Romantic idea of the fragmentary, but certifying subject. While the Romantic certifies his or her text through "love," the postmodern subject certifies his or her text through the market, as a commodity.

The first thing we can say about postmodern discourse is that, strictly speaking, it doesn't make any sense. A postmodern thinker, assuming he or she understood the sense of my claim, would be inclined, I think, to agree. Once you remove the transcendental signified, and once you assume that surfaces contain no depth (at which point, they also cease to be surfaces), there is no possibility of grounding a claim. As Stanley Rosen says, "If the contingent is intelligible, that is, if it is amenable to judgment, then the basis of intelligibility or judgment cannot itself be contingent" [Rosen 149]. The notion of inversion, explicit in the practice of deconstruction, does not replace one mode of truth-making with another, but simply eliminates the possibility of truth. We have reached the point where Cretans neither lie nor tell the truth; they chat.

However, that postmodern discourse doesn't make sense isn't necessarily a fatal criticism. As identified by J. L. Austin in How to do Things With Words, and continued and expanded by John Searle in Speech Acts, performative discourse has been shown to employ language for an effect which, while not sense-making, is world-effecting. The postmodernists are not purveyors of performative discourse, however, as the Derrida-Searle exchange in Glyph a while back indicates.

I argue that what the postmoderns have done is invert the traditional relation between rhetoric and logic. Once the logic of language, that is, its truth-making capacity, has been reduced to the play of signifiers, then the power of language to be effective is transferred solely to rhetoric. We have met those who have elevated rhetoric over language before in history. We call them sophists.

One way to look at the postmoderns, then, is as modern day sophists. That is, their goal in the manipulation of language is money-making. Gorgias originated his famous proof (the world doesn't exist; if it did exist it couldn't be understood; if it could be understood it couldn't be communicated) not to make a claim about the cosmos, but to show off in front of the rich young Athenian men so they would hire him to teach them rhetoric. We could see Baudrillard continuing his delightful and bizarre pontifications with a Gallic eye on the bottom line, although there's obviously more at stake for him that simply money.

But, of course, this is argumentum ad hominem. There is a sense in which a scholarly approach to texts shouldn't resort to questioning the motives of a thinker, but instead examine his or her arguments. And while ad hominem arguments are not necessarily appropriate in this case, there is a sense in which the "man" is relevant.

Let's ask another question, not, "are postmodernism's claims true?" but "Why ought we to believe postmodernism's claims?" As a rationalist, one is obligated to accede to the truth of a claim, even if it makes one's life difficult, because as a rational being one has an obligation to and humility before reason. Irrespective of our whims, prejudices, and personal interests, claims must be believed if they are grounded in reason. Once we eliminate the possibility for any ground, what do we have left? All we have left is the personality (i.e., the style) of the author. Whether that author is Jean Baudrillard, the Man from Nantes, or Jean Baudrillard, the simulacrum, I suggest there will always be a tendency to identify the author with the words he or she put into the word processor, regardless of what Foucault may say about the social construction of the subject. Hence, Derrida's claims are true because I like Derrida. Is Derrida or Baudrillard correct when they differ? The only way to solve this issue in a postmodern universe is to see, numerically, how many people like each thinker, which we generally establish by book sales. Tote up the sales and figure out who's telling the truth.

Book sales, I think, are like votes: in a society in which, as Baudrillard has correctly pointed out, everything is a commodity, the personality of the author, as expressed in his or her prose style, is the ground of the truth of his or her claims. On a political level, politicians who are elected, not on the basis of their character or programs, but by their personality, and who rule by the strength of their personality (e.g., Hitler) are fascists. Postmodernism is a form of fascism of the intellect; we can discuss the Romantic element of it when we look at Friedrich Schlegel's "On Incomprehensibility."

One Concluding Comment about Language and One Comment on Family Therapy

It's one thing to say, for example, as Thales did, that all things are ultimately composed of water. This cosmological claim can be validated or invalidated either, as the preSocratics did, on the basis of its logical inconsistency, or as a modern, scientist would, on the basis of an experiment. However, our new cosmologists, in universalizing claims about language, that everything exists first as the logos (e.g., Heidegger's claim that when we walk through the woods, we walk through the word "woods"), we remove the possibility of both logical and scientific methods of proof. We cannot prove or disprove a claim about language on a scientific object, since, with the exception of certain early analytic philosophers, language cannot and does not exist as an object of scientific study. Second, we cannot prove or disprove a claim about language on a logical basis, because of the ongoing "meta-" problem that seems inherent in language itself (I say "seems," because even this claim comes under the same critique). That is, to make a claim about "all language" within language is similar to trying to bite your teeth, see your eyeball, or point at your finger. Whenever we make a substantive claim about language, this claim can and should be applied to the claim itself. So, for example, if I claim that all statements are historical, and therefore contingent, or all statements are culturally bound, and therefore contingent, it's obvious that such claims cannot be validated or invalidated since they themselves fall under the relativizing rubric of the claim. This insight, by no means new or even novel, is, however, frequently ignored. Those who don't ignore it, such as Foucault or DeMan, properly find themselves unable to sustain their totalizing critiques of society or language; instead such critiques are compartmentalized within a given episteme or paradigm. The question then arises, from a moral or rational point of view, to what extent should we be compelled to believe the truth of their claims? Of course, a question such as this is a subject-centered, rationalist-Enlightenment question, one which would be poo-pooed out of existence by any self-respecting student at the Ecole Normale Superior. However, the alternatives to this approach are 1) scholarly fascism; a cult of personality, or 2) a concern solely with surfaces, à la Baudrillard. The former case is clearly indefensible, but in the latter case, this self-announced concern with surfaces is itself constantly undermined by the meta-problem itself, namely, it is a depth statement to claim that there are only surfaces, so we are forever in the position of making a single exemption to the general claim, namely the general claim itself. Thus, we are back to the old problem of the transcendental signified, except that the signifier has been attenuated to a single claim by a single scholar, instead of a grand claim about the cosmos, or humankind.

Ever since Aristotle, the family has been seen to the morphological equivalent of the socio-political structure, and yet each of these structures have changed, sometimes in tandem, sometimes not, as new understandings of either family or society have emerged. However, what is clear, is that in both cases the sense of "distortion," whether that be pathological familial relationships, or repressive political relationships, have the same structure: namely both occur against a background of the "proper" family structure and/or political relation. Hence, psychological analysis of the family and either rhetoric or revolutionary violence function as structural equivalents: the therapist moves from the distorted structure, through language, to the "proper" structure, in which family relations are re-formed through counseling. The reforming politicians points out the distorted, that is, repressive political structure and hopes, through social reform enacted through language, to restore the proper political relation among members of the polis. However, note in both situations the assumption that there is a "healthy" family relationship or a "just" political order. Both of these assumptions are, strictly speaking, idealist and hence subject to the various forms of postmodern critique. As Stanley Rosen has pointed out, though, once we sacrifice the healthy/distorted or just/repressive model by claiming that "the healthy" or "the just" are idealist conceptions and hence subject to a historicist or other type of deconstruction, we have lost altogether the possibility for distinguishing among rival conceptions of the good, whether the good manifests itself on the level of family or society. Otherwise, we have "only" hermeneutics, that is, we have only competing interpretations, without a means of adjudicating among them. At this nodal point, I would argue, is the modern (or postmodern) "crisis" of both the therapeutic and the political: on what basis do we establish a means of understanding what the distorted is a distortion from; what is the intuitive self- or institutionally understood basis for value claims we make for familial health and political freedom?

One direction is to see the hermeneutic process as occurring on more than one level, that is, that interpretive models subsist not only on the linguistic level (as the postmoderns claim), but on one that we might call contextual. Or: postmodernism has established its own aporia in claiming that "everything" is ultimately linguistic; making such a claim in language is similar to trying to bite your teeth, or point your finger at itself. There has to be a level, a human, contextual level, free from a devastating "meta-critique" that recognizes our fundamental sociality, to play off language.

As an example of our non-linguistic self-understanding, I offer this from the moral realm: it is wrong to kill a person for no good reason. While we may argue about what a "person" is, or what constitutes a "good" reason, we can all agree to the truth of this statement, assuming we're not nihilists. And yet, it is not derived from language, but rather from the empathetic context of our natural and experiential sociality. Or another example: all people should have the opportunity to be free, psychically and politically. Again, we may argue about what "free" means, or the proper causal relation between the psychic and the political, but there is an alinguistic (whether its prelinguistic or not is too difficult for me to sort out) understanding that this claim is true, and it is one against which we can measure "distortions" of such opportunities, both in the family and in politics.

In sum, what I'm arguing is that although the postmoderns have, for at least two decades, announced the death of the human, Dasein itself does have a self-understanding of its sociality and its attendant social responsibilities (even though individuals may and will disagree what those responsibilities are) that no amount of evidence to the contrary can disprove. Hence, while we, along with Freud and Gadamer, need to be conscious of the linguistic base of the possibility of experience, we also need to have a hermeneutics that investigates the relation of the linguistic realm of human experience to the empathetic. In so doing, we will be reinvestigating on a contemporary level Rousseau's quest of both difference (pursued in the "Second Discourse") and equality (pursued in the "Social Contract").

Copyright © Steven E. Alford