Gadamer, Kafka and interpretation

gadamerLawn, C. 2006. Gadamer: A Guide for the Perplexed. Continuum, New York.

Gadamer was a traditionalist. He didn’t like the way the dominant scientific method focuses on the future and forgets about the past. He believed that knowledge is interpretation, and that the hermeneutic circle can and does apply to everything, with layers and layers of parts and wholes (of which we are always a part), influencing one another and causing meaning to be constantly shifting.

Gadamer built on the work of Schleiermacher but claimed to disagree with him on certain things; he felt that Schleiermacher did not emphasise the universal application of hermeneutics, and put undue emphasis on the psychological or empathetic aspect of interpretation; where one seeks to get inside the mind of the author – to come to know the author better than the author themselves – in order to more interpret their words more accurately. Gadamer felt that this emphasis subordinates the text itself, and the power of language itself to disclose truth. Did he simply mean that our words often communicate more than, or something other than, we intended to express? That would make sense. Gadamer also felt that the emphasis on the biography and psychology of the author subordinates that of the interpreter; he was in favour of interpretation that is dialogic and interactive; a collective divinatory act.

Chris Lawn, whose writings on Gadamer I’m reading, having tried Truth and Method and felt truly and thoroughly perplexed, feels that the difference between the grammatical and the psychological is not as emphatic as Gadamer claims it to be. Psychological features, after all, are made manifest through language; we find the psychological trace through the text. But when we conceive a ‘text’, where are the boundaries around it? For example, my friend Richard recently got me to read Kafka’s The Trial. There was a lot I liked about The Trial (not least that it taught me a lot about Richard and the way he experiences the world), but something I found particularly enlightening was the note at the back that explained Kafka’s dying wish that all copies of The Trial be burned, as he did not feel the work was significant or otherwise worthy of merit. Now, I would include such information – particularly as the publisher chose to print it within that edition of the book itself – as part of the text that added something to my interpretation of it. It would appear that Kafka did not even intend me to read The Trial; let alone to read it and to know that he felt it wasn’t worthy of merit. But I can still take all this information and make what I want from it. It seems a little unethical, and at odds with Gadamer’s vision of congenial, dialogic divination, but we all know that if writing is the vocation you choose, then this goes with the territory. It’s like trying to take down your own tweets, or courting media attention and then complaining about lack of privacy.

Incidentally, it was interesting to discuss The Trial with Richard and to compare our interpretations of it. They overlapped a lot; obviously it helped that I knew a little about Richard and that he felt this book was highly significant to him, but there was one key point of departure between our interpretations. Near the end of the book, the beleaguered lead character is told a parable by a clergyman; a story of a man who finds a door that leads to Truth. The door is open, but guarded by a doorkeeper, who doesn’t let the man through. The man stays with the doorkeeper, trying to persuade him to let him in, and remains there until he grows old and dies. At the moment of death, the doorkeeper closes the door. My interpretation of the parable was that it illustrated the insanity – and the paradox – of an obsession with truth; why spend our lives doggedly and pointlessly trying to get at it, when we could choose to walk away, out into the sunshine, and go skiing, or dancing, or learn to surf? Crucially, what paltry, half-assed, incomprehensible truth can possibly lie beyond that door if we’ve spent the only life we have sat on a stool next to it?

This was not how Richard had interpreted it; I rather think he quite admired the man’s determination, and shared his intrigue about what lay beyond the door of Truth. Which just goes to show how important our own biographies and psychologies as interpreters are in finding meaning in texts.

The relevance of all this to my thesis project is because I’m going to be exploring, interrogating and interpreting other people’s views about the purpose of universities. In seeking to be an equal partner in conversation with my participants I am explicitly and intentionally stepping within the hermeneutic circle; I make no pretensions of being a detached, objective observer. My interpretation of the conversation and its implications will be deeply influenced by my own position and biographical context.

This approach also has potentially weird and wonderful implications for my chosen method of Conversation Analysis. CA was devised for the analysis of naturally-occurring speech, and the speech I’m going to be capturing is not going to be wholly natural; also, half of it is going to come from me. I managed to stumble across one of the tutors at Brookes on Tuesday who happens to be a bit of a CA expert and I need to pick his brains about this… Perhaps it would be best to simply get the conversations done as soon as possible, before I get too familiar with the CA technique… otherwise the knowledge of what I’m going to be looking for is likely to influence what I say and how I say it?!

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