The Life of Understanding: A Contemporary Hermeneutics

The Life of Understanding: A Contemporary Hermeneutics

by James Risser


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In Gadamer’s hermeneutics, interpretation is inseparable from the broader concern of making one’s way in life. In this book, James Risser builds on this insight about the juxtaposition of human living and the act of understanding by tracing hermeneutics back to the basic experience of philosophy as defined by Plato. For Risser, Plato provides resources for new directions in hermeneutics and new possibilities for "the life of understanding" and "the understanding of life." Risser places Gadamer in dialogue with Plato, with the issue of memory as a conceptual focus. He develops themes pertaining to hermeneutics such as retrieval as a matter of convalescence, exile as a venture into the foreign, formation with respect to oneself and to life with others, the experience of language in hermeneutics, and the relationship between speaking and writing.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253002143
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 07/25/2012
Series: Studies in Continental Thought
Pages: 154
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

James Risser is Professor of Philosophy at Seattle University. He is the author of Hermeneutics and the Voice of the Other: Re-reading Gadamer's Philosophical Hermeneutics and editor of Heidegger Toward the Turn: Essays on the Work of the 1930s. He is editor (with Walter Brogan) of American Continental Philosophy: A Reader (IUP, 2000).

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The Life of Understanding

A Contemporary Hermeneutics

By James Risser

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2012 James Risser
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00219-8


Memory and Life: Hermeneutics as Convalescence

Let me begin by reminding the reader of one among many possible stories about philosophy. It is the story ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of Er told by Socrates at the end of Plato's Republic. This is actually a story within a story, for what Socrates recounts to Glaucon is the story told by Er. As Socrates tells it, Er had died in battle but while lying on the funeral pyre he came back to life, and having done so he told the living what he saw on his journey in the afterworld. In telling his story Er is in fact not just a storyteller for he is at the same time a messenger ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), who, in delivering the message, preserves for the living the vision of what he had seen there. Quite fittingly Er the messenger has a resemblance to Hermes—the god who, bestowed with the power of speech, is the message bearer and thus an interpreter for the gods.

In the main, the content of the report describes the drama of the comings and goings of the souls of humans with respect to a just life. At the center of this drama there is an elaborate account of the soul's vision of cosmic Necessity ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). The souls, having journeyed to the farthest reaches of the afterworld, arrive at a place where they could see a column of light—"the spindle of Necessity"—that holds together the cosmic movement surrounding her. It is in relation to this movement that the just life— the proper order of the living—is to be understood, for after beholding the spectacle each soul is called upon to choose a new life for itself. At this point in the story Socrates reminds Glaucon of the importance of being able to learn to distinguish the good and the bad life so as to be able to choose with care the better from among those that are possible. After each soul chooses a life, the souls are led to the barren plain of forgetfulness ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and camp by the river of neglect and carelessness ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), whose water no vessel can contain because it flows forever. Here all the souls had to drink a certain measure ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and those not saved by thoughtfulness ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) drank more than the measure. With this drink everything was forgotten, but Er was not allowed to drink, and thus according to Socrates the story was saved and not lost.

Leaving aside for now the motifs of journeying and movement which run throughout the story, the story is of interest for several reasons. As the counterpart to the story of the turn to philosophy in the middle books of the Republic, we see here that for Plato the theoretical enactment of philosophy does not stand by itself but is taken up in relation to a practical demand. The enactment of philosophy is dramatically joined to accomplishment in life, to living well, for which one cannot be without care. Equally important, the story reminds us that for Plato the acquiring of insight transpires within the dynamics of memory. The enactment of philosophy, tied as it is to accomplishment in life, involves a repetition that takes the shape of a recovery from forgetting. And here we should immediately add that Plato is not alone in determining the shape of philosophy as a process of recalling and recovery. We see it also in Augustine, Hegel, and, of course, in the philosophical hermeneutics of Heidegger and Gadamer. Heidegger in fact makes use of this very story by Plato to tell one version of his story of sorts of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and its counter-essence [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which is at once for Heidegger the principal configuration for the question of the being of beings. But even before Heidegger was telling this story of sorts, he had already ascribed to philosophy the task of recovery and saving relative to life's falling away from itself. For the Heidegger of the early 1920s, philosophy was a matter of a hermeneutics of facticity: the interpretation of life from out of the way in which I am already in the hold of life. More to the point, philosophy is here an interpretive encounter with a life in its givenness here and now that continually confronts a resistance to its "opening up," a resistance that he calls ruinance—a movement against itself—whereby the interpretation of life proceeds by way of a "tracing back and repeating." When the later Heidegger then abandons the idea of a hermeneutics of facticity, he does not at the same time abandon the recovery and saving character of thinking with respect to the issue of being. That issue becomes one of overcoming metaphysics, in terms of which thinking is a thinking back to a site of origination in relation to an essential forgetting. The word for this thinking is said by Heidegger in many ways: Erinnerung, Andenken, Gedächtnis; its essential character, though, remains the same: to remember in the manner of an attentive keeping in mind in which there occurs something like the saving of the phenomenon—in this case, the being of beings. And for Gadamer, who also begins from the perspective of a hermeneutics of facticity, philosophy is likewise a matter of recovery, perhaps foremost so. Whether it is a matter of understanding the historical object, the meaning of a text, the word spoken by another, or one's own enterprise of freedom in a technological age, these endeavors of understanding all take place for Gadamer in relation to an anterior life from which we are removed by virtue of distance and forgetting such that everywhere philosophizing is attempted a recollection of being takes place. A philosophical hermeneutics is Gadamer's attempt at telling us how we are to recover and save the words that tell us about the enterprise of our human living.

In this chapter I want to explore further this defining feature of hermeneutics that has ties to the basic experience of philosophy, at least as we see it in Plato. In order to keep in play the relation between philosophy and life that is central to this basic experience of philosophy, I would like to characterize this hermeneutic recovery as a matter of convalescence. The general meaning of this word is clear enough. Convalescence is the gradual return to health after an illness. More precisely, convalescence concerns a space of time in which one does not, in the manner of accomplishment, enter a state of health; rather, it concerns a time of getting over in which the source of the illness never really withdraws completely. Of course it cannot go unnoticed that Plato himself speaks of convalescence at the end of the Phaedo. Socrates's last words, spoken after his face is uncovered, are to remind Crito not to forget that a cock is owed to Asclepius, the son of Apollo who is the god of medicine. The practice of philosophy has been for Socrates a matter of convalescence and now at that point where the convalescing is brought to an end by forces outside itself, Socrates wants to pay what is owed to Asclepius. This word, then, already has much to say about the nature of the recovery that operates in hermeneutics and certain philosophies of recollection. At the outset, it indicates that the recovery is a matter of a recovering in which the recovery itself remains outstanding. And insofar as hermeneutic recovery is such that it can't get over its own operation of recovery, we will want to distance this hermeneutic recovery from the idea that hermeneutic recovery is simply a matter of a memory that opposes itself to forgetting and concealing by fetching the lost object back to presence and unconcealedness. Thought in terms of a convalescence, hermeneutic recovery could only be, to say the least, something like "the time of memory," i.e., the living out of one's own history in loss and regeneration. Hermeneutic recovery is a recovery tied to a source from which it can't recover and yet everything depends on there being a recovery.

* * *

At the outset of this attempt to describe hermeneutics as convalescence, it becomes immediately apparent that any such description is not without its difficulty. Any description would seem to depend on whose version of hermeneutics one takes as a starting point. One could in fact say that there are at least three possible versions of hermeneutics as convalescence: a direct version given by Nietzsche, an analogical version given by Gadamer, and an indirect version given by Heidegger.

Nietzsche gives us a direct version insofar as he takes as his main problem the sickness of spirit that has lasted for more than two thousand years in the West. This sickness, which is the sickness of nihilism, begins, according to Nietzsche, with Socrates, who prescribes dialectics and the life of reason to combat the natural vitality of life rooted in the instincts.

It is a sickness made worse in the morality of Christianity, where life's vitality is lessened by resentment and forms of punishment. This sickness is accordingly one of weakness and decay with respect to human living, one that has been aided over the years by misguided physicians of the soul whose "cure in the long run produced something worse than that which it was supposed to overcome." What it produced was nihilism, a state of living in decline where the enhancement of life is lost to a perverse form of preservation (of life). The overcoming of this sickness, which Nietzsche explicitly identifies as a convalescence, will consist of a return to a condition of enhanced strength, as the condition of living well. The hermeneutics of recovery with respect to this health proceeds first through suspicion in the form of a genealogical critique in order to expose the pretension of strength. The resulting (still convalescing) free spirit is then able to engage with life's incessant hermeneutical operation issuing in perspectivism whereby the recovery is tied to a certain accomplishing in life.

As if marking the turning point for this recovery in regard to himself and his writing, Nietzsche tells us in the Preface to the second edition of The Gay Science that here

[g]ratitude pours forth continually, as if the unexpected had just happened—the gratitude of a convalescent -- for convalescence was unexpected. "Gay Science": that signifies the saturnalia of a spirit who has patiently resisted a terrible, long pressure—patiently, severely, coldly, without submitting, but also without hope—and who is now all at once attacked by hope, the hope of health, and the intoxication of convalescence.

This convalescence, as Nietzsche tells us elsewhere, is a long road of recovery with "years full of variegated, painfully magical transformations ruled and led along by a tenacious will to health." The road to recovery is long in part because the sickness remains as a resistance within the organism. In fact, Nietzsche actually questions "whether we can really dispense with illness ... and whether our thirst for knowledge and self-knowledge in particular does not require the sick soul as much as the healthy, and whether the will to health alone is not a prejudice...." The recovery is accordingly not only constant, one for which a measure-taking is needed since the will to health often disguises itself as health already achieved; it is also always comparative, always a matter of becoming healthier: "to remain sick for a long time and then, slowly, slowly, to become healthy, by which I mean 'healthier', is a fundamental cure for all pessimism.... There is wisdom, practical wisdom, in for a long time prescribing even health for oneself in small doses." Accordingly, great health—"that mature freedom of spirit, which is equally self-mastery and discipline of the heart and permits access to many and contradictory modes of thought"—is not absolutely measured but always measured against the way in which the organism confronts its inevitable threat of destruction.

And let us not forget that Nietzschean convalescence also includes a recovery with respect to history. Both individual and cultural life have a history and both have a need to preserve their historical life through memory. The sickness of nihilism is about a history gone wrong; it is about the festering of an illness when the human animal clings tenaciously to a certain past such that the convalescence here becomes a matter of learning how to forget. Here an active forgetting is necessary to make room for new things. But forgetting is essential to action of any kind, for one who could not forget would be lost in the flowing stream of becoming. And memory is not always a burden. Convalescence is accordingly a matter of forgetting in the right way or in the right amount—a certain measure-taking with respect to itself—so that the "memory of the will" is carried into the present and the future. Everything depends, Nietzsche tells us, "on one's being just as able to forget at the right time as to remember at the right time; on the possession of a powerful instinct for sensing when it is necessary to feel historically and when unhistorically."

It would appear that Gadamer's hermeneutics has little in common with Nietzsche's version of convalescence, though it is interesting that in regard to the person Gadamer too had always been concerned with the condition of his health. As a young man he was stricken with polio and came to believe that nature itself provides the best remedy for nature's illnesses, thereby construing health as an inner accord relative to nature's "self-maintaining and self-restoring totality." Gadamer discusses this idea of health in a small book published in 1993 and translated into English in 1996 with the title The Enigma of Health, setting it against the approach of modern technological science that regards nature in a very different way. In its dominant orientation to mastery and control, modern science is not just knowledge, but a construction through which all that is natural can be rendered artificial. The scientific approach to medicine is no exception to this orientation, and, as a consequence, health too is taken as something subject to manipulation with little regard for its natural self-restoring dimension. Ironically, health itself, Gadamer claims, is rarely the object of investigation in the "art" of medicine; rather, it is always the state of illness—the dysfunction that appears as a break from and a resistance to health—that concerns medicine. The condition of health for the most part escapes our attention, residing in the rhythmic processes within the living organism, including that of sleep, which keeps the condition of health hidden from view. It is in this context that Gadamer speaks of the enigma or, better, the hidden mystery (Verborgenheit) of health, intentionally echoing Heraclitus's fragment which says "the harmony which remains hidden is mightier than the harmony which is revealed." Here the recovery from illness becomes in effect a return to an equilibrium that depends on a distinctive measure-taking—one that cannot be arrived at by an external rule and fixed yardstick. It is the measure-taking of the fitting or appropriate—the due measure that Plato speaks about—with respect to the matter itself.

It is easy to see that the recovery with respect to the self-sustaining living whole characterizes quite well the operation of interpretation and understanding in Gadamer's hermeneutics. The self-sustaining living whole is here the living whole of language that has its wholeness interrupted by the foreign word that reposes within—that word of the other in voice or text that has interrupted communication in language and that testifies to an experience of loss. Hermeneutics is the attempt to recover that loss—a convalescence directed at overcoming the resistance to our familiarity and being at home in the world that is undergone through the experience of language. The resistance to meaning occurring in the foreign words of the other is like a broken wound that is to be healed by bringing the resistance into its relation to a living whole—a whole that is not subject to human mastery. And here too, not unlike what we find in Nietzsche, such healing depends on the peculiar measure-taking of health. For Gadamer this is the measure-taking of dialogical conversation that by its very nature of performative enactment regarding the self-showing of the matter itself does not produce a measure from an external rule or fixed yardstick. And here too hermeneutics remains a convalescing from the broken wounds that remain as the permanent condition of living language and historical life. They remain in a way that will set philosophical hermeneutics against the progressive "ontological self-domestication belosnging to [Hegelian] dialectic," where the wounds of spirit leave no scars. Philosophical hermeneutics cannot ultimately make the return home because the resistance remains as the condition of finitude. Hermeneutic convalescing becomes in effect the vigilance against the infectious night of self-forgetting and loss that empties words into lifelessness.


Excerpted from The Life of Understanding by James Risser. Copyright © 2012 James Risser. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Platonic Gestures
1. Memory and Life: Hermeneutics as Convalescence
2. Distressed Memory: Hermeneutics and the Venture of the Foreign
3. Beyond Distress: Toward a Community of Memory
4. The Fabric of Life: Dialectics, Discourse, and the Art of Weaving
5. Severed Threads: The Incapacity of Language
6. Reading beyond the Letter: On Memory and Writing
7. The Flash of Beauty

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Texas A&M University - Theodore George

More than enriching or clarifying issues in current debates, James Risser's work pushes hermeneutics toward a genuinely new stage of development.

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