For the last two weeks, I took an intensive on philosophical hermeneutics at Fuller by visiting professor Dr. Merold Westphal. I was so excited to get to study under a philosopher of his caliber (who has devoted a great deal of his career to exploring hermeneutics), having read several of his books before. The class exceeded all expectations, and I suspect when I look back at my time at Fuller, it will be the class that shaped me the most. And a shout out to all the guys in my class whose conversations together on the material we covered made the class even better! I only wish we had more than a day and a half at the end to cover the distanciation found via the hermeneutics of suspicion in Neitzsche, Marx, and Freud.
Also, we got Dr. Westphal to sit down and ruminate on the current interaction of theology within Continental philosophy for the Homebrewed Christianity podcast! I’ll be sure to update you when the interview posts.
As for the material itself, we started with the developement of Romantic era hermeneutics at the time of Schleiermacher. This era prized deregionalization, the Schleiermachean hermeneutical circle, psychologism, and objectivism. From there, we traced the past two centuries of hermeneutical and linguistic development through Dilthey, Hirsch, Wolterstorff, Gadamer, Derrida, Ricoeur, and others. We arrive at the “death of the author.” Gadamer’s thesis is not that the author has no role in determining the meaning of the text, but that we have no definitive access to what the author intented (nor, ultimately, does the author herself know exactly what she meant by the text she wrote, since there are always factors outside our awareness that find themselves in our text). In practice, this means that any interpretation/application of the text involves the reader inserting his/her own meaning into the text. We never “just see” what the text “plainly says.” Neither do we even have the option of simply returning to “the original intent of the author.”
Regarding the death of the author, I remember several years ago when it first occurred to me how odd it is that we so confidently reinforce doctrinal conclusions from one Biblical writer by supporting it with verses written by another. It is not that the whole cannot ever be used to support the part (and vice versa), but this should always be done with a fair amount of skepticism and a great amount of care. I had realized it should be patently obvious that the writers were not all working from the same theology (indeed, what two people ever agree on everything), and from there, the obvious question is “how much of that disagreement gets recorded in the text?” An easy example of this is the recent debate that has played out in Evangelicalism over the unpopularity of Hell; many have retorted “what does the Bible say?” as if the text has a unified doctrine of afterlife. The clear problem is that an afterlife did not begin to really develop within Israelite-Jewish thought until the 6th century BCE, meaning Abraham, Isaaac, Jacob, and Moses would have differed with Ezra and Nehemiah (who would have differed with Paul, and so forth). This gets resolved in one of three ways. 1) you can acknowledge the ambiguity and dissonance in the text (which is the position I take). 2) You may claim God-as-author overrides all human influence/difference/ambiguity in the text. 3) Westphal notes that the doctrine of perspecuity in the Reformed tradition emerged to deal with this. Perspecuity essentially claims that if you interpret the text correctly, you are “just seeing” the plain meaning of the text. Option 2 is a properly theological claim (if speculative, unsubstantiated, and a priori), and option 3 is more a hermeneutical method that, inevitably, retreats from all modern progress in hermeneutics.
I cannot tell you how helpful this has been and how much I wish more people grappled with these concepts. Psychologism is the term for the intent of the author in his/her own mind. Psychologism, along with objectivism, was a staple of hermeneutics two centuries ago, but has since been demonstated to be impossible. But you wouldn’t know that from popular discourse in religion and politics. We naturally tend to submerge into the illusion that a theological conclusion can be derived only from “what the text plainly says” and “what the original author plainly meant.” Hermeneutics since Schleiermacher has progressively dismantled this, resulting in the complete deconstruction of the text with Jacques Derrida. In other words, there is a giant chasm between the hermeneutics taught at the academy and the naive realism reinforced by pulpits and pundits. That lead me to ask Dr. Westphal a question during our last Q/A session about the role of hermeneutics in theology: if the so much of theological discourse essentially ignores the progress made in hermeneutics over the last two centuries, what hope do we have for dialogue with those who admit no need for hermeneutics? His answer was that there may be none at all. I’m hoping there is a better way forward.
Several friends asked for the audio of the class. I hope the ordering is clear enough (1a is day one, session one. 2d is day two, session 4, and so forth). Here it is, all 30+ hours of Westphal’s hermeneutics:
by Tad DeLay