Monday, November 19, 2007

A new reign of Truth by means of a 'destructive' critique

PREMISE / Volume II, Number 8 / September 27, 1995 / Page 12
Paul Ricoeur and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion: A Brief Overview and Critique
by G. D. Robinson
Hermeneutics is both science and art. In many ways this beguilingly simple statement is responsible for the modern ferment in hermeneutics - a process begun with F. Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and his attempt to gain meaning through understanding the mind of the author; given significant impetus more recently in the seminal work of Hans-Georg Gadamer and his call for a dialectic between the horizons of the text and reader; and radicalized in the increasingly reader-response oriented hermeneutics of today.[1]
The French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, while essentially operating from within the reader oriented end of the spectrum, is uncomfortable with the intrinsic subjectivity associated with such hermeneutics and seeks to walk the fine line between a call for objectivity (grounded in some way in the text), and yet at the same time seeking to remain "open" to what the text may have to say. Ricoeur's hermeneutic of suspicion represents his attempt to retain both science and art, whilst disallowing either an absolute status; "Hermeneutics seems to me to be animated by this double motivation: willingness to suspect, willingness to listen; vow of rigor, vow of obedience."[2] Distilling the essence of Ricouer's hermeneutics here stated, A. Thisleton notes that:
The first addresses the task of 'doing away with idols,' namely, becoming critically aware of when we project our own wishes and constructs into texts, so that they no longer address us from beyond ourselves as "other." The second concerns the need to listen in openness to symbol and to narrative and thereby to allow creative events to occur "in front of" the text, and to have their effect on us.[3]
It is this hermeneutic of "critical openness," of "suspicion and hope"[4] that I wish to examine briefly below. It is hoped that by examining Ricoeur's own heroes of suspicion, how his hermeneutic applies to certain genres of text, the implications of suspicion with respect to epistemology, and finally, how a hermeneutic of suspicion works out in a suspicion of ideology, that both the strengths and limitations of such a hermeneutic for Biblical studies will be made clear.
Paul Ricoeur's Masters of Suspicion
In his highly influential work, Freud and Philosophy, Ricoeur (1970) draws attention to three key intellectual figures of the twentieth century who, in their different ways, sought to
unmask, demystify, and expose the real from the apparent; "Three masters, seemingly mutually exclusive, dominate the school of suspicion: Marx, Nietzche, and Freud."[5]
What was it in these three 'masters of suspicion' that so impressed Ricoeur? The answer to this question is not insignificant since it would appear that the suspicion displayed by these three serve as paradigms for Ricoeur's own hermeneutic. David Stewart has addressed this question directly and has demonstrated how each of these masters sought to find or explain the true meaning of religion by stripping away the false meaning.[6]
Very briefly, Marx's analysis of religion led him to the conclusion that while religion appeared to be concerned with the lofty issues of transcendence and personal salvation, in reality its true function was to provide a "flight from the reality of inhuman working conditions" and to make "the misery of life more endurable."[7] Religion in this way served as "the opium of the people."[8]
Similarly, Nietzche's understanding of the true purpose of religion as the elevation of "weakness to a position of strength, to make weakness respectable" belied its apparent purpose, namely to make life for the 'slave morality', the weak, the unfit, a little more endurable by promoting virtues such as pity, industry, humility, and friendliness. Thus Nietzche unmasks religion to reveal it as the refuge of the weak.[9]
Likewise with Freud, the same pattern of "unmasking" to reveal and distinguish "the real" from the "apparent" is evident in his analysis of religion. So, while religion was perceived to be a legitimate source of comfort and hope when one is faced with the difficulties of life, in reality religion was an illusion that merely expressed one's wish for a father-God.[10] It was only a small step for Ricoeur to recognize the suspicion of religion and culture offered by the heroes and then apply the same principle to the act of communication under the rubric of a hermeneutics of suspicion.
Furthermore, Ricoeur insisted that it would be a mistake to view the three as masters of skepticism. Why is this? Because, while it is true they are involved with destroying established
ideas "All three clear the horizon for a more authentic word, for a new reign of Truth, not only by means of a 'destructive' critique, but by the invention of an art of interpreting."[11] In other words, each of the masters have, in their own way, unmasked a false consciousness, a false understanding of the "text" (society) by systematically applying a critique of suspicion, with the result that the true understanding, one that more faithfully tracks and correlates with the real situation now becomes unmasked and revealed. All three, for Ricoeur, "represent three convergent procedures of demystification."[12]
Such a hermeneutic when applied to a text gives rise to the possibility of a "second naivete"[13] whereby the goal of interpretation may be reached, namely "a world in front of the text, a world that opens up new possibilities of being."[14] What is an appropriate response to Ricoeur's analysis from an evangelical perspective?[15] It seems to me that Ricoeur's insight here is an essentially valid one. It is simply too easy when reading a (biblical) text, especially one that we are familiar with, to do so with a rigidity and complacency that tends to "freeze" its meaning irrevocably. To approach the text with suspicion - to query whether what the text appears to say really does correspond with its true message - seems to be both a valid and necessary hermeneutical process.
Ricoeur's three masters highlight another important aspect of this question of suspicion, namely that suspicion needs to operate with a bi-polar focus. Just as Marx, Nietzche and Freud in their own contexts criticized both the participants (society at large, or individuals) and "the system" (religion), so we too need to be aware that suspicion has a dual focus as we approach a text; I need to apply suspicion to myself -am I imposing a meaning upon this text?[16] And a suspicion to the text - is the text really saying this? Both poles of suspicion are valid and necessary if we are to hear afresh what God may seek to communicate to us. Ricoeur is in a way merely reminding us, in a startling manner no doubt, of the reality of the hermeneutical circle. We must approach the text critically and suspiciously in order that its message may truly be heard, and so that our own pre-understandings and certainties do not mask the truth

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