The Problem of Interpretation
Here shall he hunt [this beast] through every city until he will have sent her back into the underworld there whence envy first dispatched her.[1] The problem of interpretation (hermeneutics) is one with the problem of standards, which is at once the problem of the interpreter. Modernity (“Machiavelli’s World”) involves the invention of an interpreter… The post The Problem of Interpretation appeared first on VoegelinView.




Here shall he hunt [this beast] through every city until he will have sent her back into the underworld there whence envy first dispatched her.[1]
The problem of interpretation (hermeneutics) is one with the problem of standards, which is at once the problem of the interpreter. Modernity (“Machiavelli’s World”) involves the invention of an interpreter “beyond good and evil,” abstracted from his subject matter, now objectified if not fetishized into an objective world. The real is identified with all that is alienated from the interpreter, now reduced to the status of new subject, an entity “thrown” (jectum) beneath (sub) an ocean of objects. The subject as Cartesian res cogitans (co-agitans) is the site agitated with/by res extensa; a site in which mere material can convert into something unprecedented, namely a conscious material. The unconscious (the new nature) evolves by producing and then using the conscious (the new man) as steppingstone for the emergence of a new world in which the sub-human becomes super-human, unconscious compulsions being awarded the status of highest authority, if only in a Law serving as mask of unbridled passions. This is the core innovation of modernity represented today most notably by the ideology of transhumanism.
If we take a step back or outside of the ideological sphere of influence of modernism we find that interpretation calls for recognition of the natural dignity of the interpreter as invested entirely in the interpretative act.  The interpreter is not split between a moral conventional self and a scientific self; his activity is not cut off from our moral-political, human condition (whence the significance of the character, integrity or goodness of the interpreter).  Indeed, the subject matter of interpretation is studied as reflected in human creations, being only-derivatively mirrored in what we can conceive as distancing itself from human art.  Our proper, original science/knowledge is then no abstract, universal physics, but a political middle-term between physics and metaphysics: what we know most properly is the mediation between body and mind, between appearance and reality, between “fallen nature” and “integral nature” (to speak in medieval Christian terms).  Plato’s Socrates reminds us of this much when recalling metaphysical ideas from the heavens of naturalists’ contemplation back within the polis.  The lesson we are to heed is that far from being alien to the human, truth is the very heart of humanity: that which distinguishes the human from the subhuman; that which defines our human effort (our being that effort) to transcend all that is fallen, derivative, broken, or alienated, toward what is originally wholesome.  Interpretation, then, involves the emergence of the interpreter as the site of the marriage of thing and intellect (adæquatio rei et intellectus), which is none other than truth (veritas) itself, as Christianity stands to remind us.
Reading Galatians 2:20 (“yet, it is no longer I who live, but the Christ who lives in me”—ζῶ δὲ οὐκέτι ἐγώ, ζῇ δὲ ἐν ἐμοὶ Χριστός) in the light of Plato’s Apology of Socrates, 21d (“yet, as for me, not only do I not know [what is beautiful and good], but do not pretend to know”—ἐγὼ δέ, ὥσπερ οὖν οὐκ οἶδα [καλὸν κἀγαθὸν], οὐδὲ οἴομαι) invites the following interpretation: “It is no longer I who live, but Reason that lives in me” (ζῶ οὐκέτι ἐγώ, ζῇ δὲ ἐν ἐμοὶ ὁ Λόγος). The reason in question is a living one, a reason that is truth itself as the “marriage of thing and intellect,” or “the subject matter of interpretation as mind itself.” Interpretation would then be the ascent from a “fallen condition” in which thought is at a loss—lost in perplexity—to an “integral condition” in which thought is at work providentially as mediator between being in its perfection (purely intelligible being) and being lost in non-being; between the good itself and signs of the good; between “what is beautiful and good” and all that falls short of it.
The very life/death of the interpreter is at stake, now, and his only safety is in truth itself as the pulsating heart of interpretation.  The student of interpretation shall then renounce alienation from the hidden or providential agency of truth ordering our experience (or our empirical world), exposing himself to his own being (“essence”) as coinciding with truth’s own ordering or “rational” activity, an activity that does not create a super-human out of a sub-human, but opens the sub-human to the super-human, thereby sustaining a properly human world, an order in which the physical stands originally as pointer to and reflection/mirror of the purely metaphysical/noetic.
Interpretation entails knowledge, not as a property grasped by a subject aside from an object, or as a “conceptual abstraction” (not to say, sheer information) representing “symbolically” a studied object, but as interpretation itself coinciding with the exposure of what is apparent to what is eminently hidden, of appearance to Reality (the res ipsa of Socratic investigations).  The knowledge yielded by interpretation will not be “dead,” but living in and as the very essence of interpretation: mutual disclosure of “objective form” (μορφή) and its content, beyond both the alienation of appearance and meaning and their collapse into each other.  Interpretation will then emerge as “way, truth and life” (ἡ ὁδὸς καὶ ἡ ἀλήθεια καὶ ἡ ζωή), to cite John 14:6: the way, truth and life of knowledge.  This is the primary sense of the activity most proper to the human being; this is the Adam who is absolutely first, appearing second in the order of investigation.
The Second Adam, the one disclosed beneath Adam’s mere-appearance, involves a return to or resurrection of appearance (“external form”) as appearing to itself and thus as properly intelligible.  No longer is any Self awakening to an object, for the object is restored to its own source, wherein it lives eternally.  There is no transporting of an unconscious object into a field of subjective consciousness; rather the latter is to yield to a mysterious or secret/sacred consciousness presupposed by all objectivity, namely a source “creating” the object (determined/finite being) from within (or from its ground up), not merely nominally/formally, but existentially.  Transcendence of conflict between form and content is thus sought not historically in a technological “Singularity,” but poetically in a Form sustaining the empirical distinction between form and content.
The proper locus or seat of knowledge, the place of awakening, of consciousness, of illumination, of awareness, is the place nourished by interpretation—the place interpretation caters to.  If that place is not originally external to things, then the “objects of experience” are not mere objects, no mere res extensa before us, but things in which there must subsist a trace of meaning, a spark of consciousness, a sign of mind.  The crudest object of experience must contain such a sign, just as all “matter” must be “informed”—to speak with medieval scholars.  Form is presupposed by all experience, not simply as meaning attributed extrinsically, or a posteriori by an alien onlooker, but as something constituted with its matter, or co-created with matter.  In this respect, all objects of experience bespeak their perfection, pointing us to that perfection, inviting us to rise to that perfection and thereby to the consciousness that is one with that perfection.
To rise to the perfection of an apple is to rise to the consciousness out of which the empirical apple arises in the first place, or ex nihilo, which is to say, “out of itself” (insofar as ex nihilo entails absence of anything outside of an emanative source).  The discrete apple could not exist without the seed of its perfection.  To interpret the apple, as unseemly as the expression may seem, would be to retrace the seed of the apple back to a place where the form of the apple is one with the consciousness of the apple.  Now, that place is what Platonists of old refer to as the Idea of the apple, or apple in its original intelligibility.
Of course, we are not seriously troubled by the challenge of interpreting apples.  Interpretation’s proper stage is overtly human.  We interpret primarily human creations as mirrors of all that transcends us as finite beings lost in a “fallen world,” an imperfect order, or empirical universe.  The obscure wilderness—what Dante called selva oscura—in which we exist or “awaken as dreamers” (Dante’s dreamer “finds himself” in the dream of our life) is best approached in the element of poetry, or human creations; thus on what Dante’s Virgil calls Socratically “another way” (altra via or altro väggio).  Not the landscape we feel confusedly as any brute could, but one created by a painter, is the proper object of interpretation; not the voice of locusts, but that of men, to echo Plato’s Phaedrus.  In other words, the truth of nature is disclosed through the mirror of art, which is properly a making (poetry) imitating or rehearsing the birth/nature of things, the way finite things are emanated out of their indefinite or infinite source.[2]  Interpretation of art is, in sum, the proper way for us to rise out of the condition of beasts and become fully human, fully alive.
To return to John 14:6, it is “through, as and in” interpretation coinciding with logos, “living reason,” that our experience is saved from a beastly condition.  But this is possible only insofar as even the most beastly experience presupposes a spark of intelligibility, or a glimmer of the divine, which is to say of the experience’s original place in perfect intelligibility.  It is then in the context of interpretation properly understood, of interpretation taking its bearings from providential signs of divine perfection, that our very imagination is to be saved, being guided out of the vortex of compulsions that we, as children, are all too familiar with.  But for us to seek out divine signs is for us to trust that we are not utterly lost in a beastly condition, a wilderness utterly devoid of providence.  In an age such as our own in which we are likely to be raised to grab objects of experience as mere-data, devoid of any inherent meaning, interpretation is not likely to thrive.


[1] Dante, Inferno, Canto 1.109-111 :  Questi la caccerà per ogne villa, / fin che l’avrà rimessa ne lo ’nferno, / là onde ’nvidia prima dipartilla.  Worthy of notice is the affinity between the elision of inferno and that of invidia, or the obscuring of genuine vision.  The underworld of bestiality is a place where poetry is permanently banned and whither Dante’s prophetic hero bans bestiality.  On “envy,” see also Dante’s Purgatorio, Canto 13.
[2] Cf. Dante, Inferno 1.10, 22-27, 40.

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