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Sundry Reflections on Hermeneutics as the Interpretation of Life
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-07-12 14:24:47
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“The Unexamined Life is not worth Living”

Hermeneutics is a philosophical theory of literature, or narration if you will, largely thought- out by the Neapolitan philosopher of history Giambattista Vico (see his The New Science, 1725), later developed in modern times by the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, (see his Truth and Method, 1960) which proclaims that the mere recording of experiences, impressions, and natural phenomena accumulated by humankind in its long historical journey ( a documenting within the sphere of the scientific and of modern positivism). is not primary to what makes us human beings.


Truth and Method (1960)

We share with animals the ability to be conscious of myriad experiences which assault the mind daily via the senses. Our bodies are subject to the same laws of physics and nature. We are born and we die, naturally. We share biology (the science of life) with animals, and to a certain extent, even with plants. But to be human is to be within the realm of the intelligible and the rational; that is to say, we need to leave behind the realm of the sensible, the material and the experimental, leave behind the proverbial dark Platonic cave and come out in the light of day to contemplate Truth, Beauty and Goodness. Here the aesthetic experience and art in general can be very helpful indeed, something we have been discussing in the Ovi symposium for a year or so now. Moreover, Vico teaches us, we may hope to best know what we ourselves have made (works of art, language, political institutions, history itself) while nature which was made by God having its imprint in its very workings) can best be understood by the God that made it; we will never understand it 100% via science.


Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of G. Vico (1993)

Put in other words, we need to take the innumerable experiences bombarding our senses daily and attempt to make some sense out of them. We must interpret those experiences and give them some overarching meaning, for, to put it in more Socratic terms, the unexamined life is not worth living. That kind of life, dedicated to the avoidance of pain and the maximizing of pleasure accentuated by sheer hedonism (at least the Epicureans accentuated intellectual and spiritual pleasures…) will ultimately turn out to be a meaningless and empty kind of life; the life of the chicken without a head which can nowadays be put on a support system and kept alive for months at a time. That has been hailed as a great medical technical achievement, and it may be so, but it remains a life not worth living, not even for a chicken, I dare say. It is the kind of life that may even deny science itself. There is no global warming one hears by various chickens without a head, and government should stop impeding progress and desist from interfering with its regulations on the maximizing of profits and wealth. If that is not mindlessness, I don’t know what is.

To go through life gathering experiences without ever reflecting on what they may possibly mean to one’s life is to have fallen into despair, never to ask what may be the ultimate meaning of mankind as well as the individual as a human being journeying through life. It is in effect to have become a nihilist, to be afflicted by what Kierkegaard calls the sickness unto death, the ennui of the meaninglessness of life: to be terminally sick and not even to be aware of it. The present day dehumanizing suicidal tendencies of humankind is an ominous sign that such a disease unto death, i.e., the meaningless life full of distractions and pleasures and signifying nothing, may be the virulent disease, a Trojan horse so to speak,  already inside the body-politic as a sort of Trojan horse waiting to come out as a global epidemic. The ominous signs are there.

One may ask: this is pretty dire stuff, is there still hope? Yes, as long as there are men and women who are still capable of sitting quietly on a chair for fifteen minutes a day, away from noisy distractions, and reflect on the destiny of human kind, perhaps starting with the primordial question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Such a question is not the concern of science which wants to go on a journey to the moon and back, and has in fact done so. Science is not concerned with that question and may even ridicule it as the sort of question asked by exalted, slightly deranged minds. But it remains fundamental to the proper concern of philosophy which etymologically means “love of wisdom.” It is the first attempt at the interpretation of the meaning of life.

Gathering much knowledge and information is neither philosophy nor education. It is simple knowledge and busy fact-gathering which admittedly yields power over nature and one’s environment but precious little meaning fpr one’s life. “Knowledge is power” declared Bacon, the father of the scientific method, culminating eventually in Nietzsche’s “will to power” oblivious of the Aristotelian “will to truth” and the Socratic “know Thyself.”

How do we know ourselves? Simply by reflecting daily on where is the journey of our lives leading us both as individuals and as a species. It consists in interpreting the experiences of one’s lives; perhaps writing them down on paper to better clarify them. To even begin to do that, one has to cultivate the contemplative life; not necessarily in the methodical monastic sense of hours of meditation and contemplation and prayer (although that too may be necessary, if nothing else to infuse some order and discipline in one’s life), but simply in being mindful of what the true goals and purposes of human nature may be.

To be mindful of those purposes means to have first answered the questions: What does it mean to be human, and “what exactly is human nature? It is in other words to return to the Socratic injunction “Know Thyself.” Precious few heed it nowadays, yet it remains the most essential thing for our brave new world built on efficient ordering and technology falsely promising to solve all our predicaments and crisis. The stock market is not and never will be the most important and meaningful concern of our lives, it may in fact lead us to our doom with its fallacious idea that progress is unstoppable, that grown is infinitely and universally sustainable and admits of no boundaries and regulations.  

In the very pages of this magazine we have heard the misguiding sirens of entrepreneurial economic “progress” promising the Third World the growth and wealth of a Singapore and a South Korea or an Honk Kong as well as “spirituality” (reduced to engine of “progress”) but when one looks closely one discovers that those successful growth-oriented economies are only 3% of the struggling economies of the impoverished Third World. The other 97% remains in abject poverty merely useful to the economies of the wealthier nations and the entrepreneurs of our brave new world. This is true even within wealthy economic blocks such as the EU.

Perhaps the present Pope has it right on target when he reminds us that the problem is less one of growth and more one of justice, solidarity and compassion for the poor; that the problem if one of unfair income disparity and and distributive justice; that to retain our humanity we ought to find it obscene that some 60 multi-billionaires in a world of 7 billion people own half of all its wealth.


But to return to philosophy proper, I am afraid the real problem is not economic, as important as that may be, but it is the human problem, and science will not solve it by ignoring the humanities, the liberal arts and, above all, philosophy. Only philosophy, or love of wisdom, can solve that sort of problem. True “enlightenment” would be for “enlightenment” to enlighten itself and become aware that the beginning of wisdom is in the realm of the intelligible where transcendent realities such as Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, abide. Those realities can be found and would, once discovered, infuse meaning and purpose, and even joy, into our lives.

Hermeneutics anybody?   

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