THE WORD hermeneutics alludes to a way of doing, or of saying, philo-sophy as a search for, rather than the possession of, wisdom. It has to do with a sophia (wisdom) that always escapes from us, slips between our fingers, and so does not exclude not-knowing, generating a docta ignorantia conscious of the limits of our reason, awareness, and language.
As hermeneutists, we are thus in the company of Socrates, Nicholas of Cusa, Montaigne, and the humanists of the Renaissance, among many others, who have reveled in the knowing of not-knowing. For us, their legacy takes the shape of a reflection on interpretation. Hermeneutics presents itself, in effect, as an effort to rethink philosophy after a series of failures, from Plato to Husserlian phenomenology, under the assumption that failure is a constitutive element of human existence, rather than something accidental and secondary. That is why hermeneutics renounces the point of departure in reality, being, or God — characteristic of the Greco-Christian antiquity — as much as in the subject or the human being, whom modernity believes to be in a position to guide the course of history and to control nature through science and technology.
Hermeneutics proposes to begin with the problem of interpretation. It asks what happens when we interpret, realizing that the human is, in fact, an animal that interprets, a weak and clumsy animal that, given its biological deficiencies, needs to interpret its environment and even itself in order to survive. By interpreting, human beings generate cultures, that is to say, myths, languages, the arts, techniques, and sciences, at the same time that they interpret themselves. Interpretation is the mode of being of the human being, an animal that lives off its interpretations and that survives — though we do not know for how much longer — in its interpretations. The human adaptation to our environment consists in culturally interpreting it, converting it into a “world,” which the Greeks optimistically named cosmos and which remains associated with order and harmony, even if many times in history — indeed, the majority of times — it has rather resembled worldlessness.
Hence, reality is not something closed off in itself, absolute, finished and definitive, independent of human construction. Instead, it is contingent upon our hermeneutical gestures, just as the latter depend on reality. According to this thesis, reality has an open and dynamic character, which is relational or, better yet, co-relational. The reality and its interpreter enter into a relation and dance together: more or less together, as the case may be. The scientific dancer dances alone, keeping his distance; the mytho-poetic dancer seeks more contact, proximity, fusion. Still, this is a special kind of dance, because, in the course of dancing, the dancers are transformed. More than that, we might say, together with Eckhart Tolle, that reality and life are the dancers, and we are the dance that interprets them.
What matters, in any event, is the relation that we keep or, more precisely, that keeps us. Hence, another central thesis of hermeneutics, inherited from phenomenology: the relation is primary, preceding and founding both the subject and the object, both the human and the world. In this manner, docta ignorantia is concretized in the becoming-conscious of our interpretations, in the acknowledgement of interpretation as interpretation. Assuming that our relation to the real is a relation of interpretation implies the recognition of a limit, the acceptance of a failure in the intention to capture reality without either touching or staining it, to capture it as it is. We thus renounce Truth, spelled with capital “T.” Here, according to Nietzsche, art plays a pedagogic role, insofar as it teaches us to deal with fictions knowing that they are fictional, to play with representations while renouncing the immutable and objective Truth of the metaphysical tradition. (We would do well to recall as an illustration of this point the painting titled This Is Not a Pipe by Magritte.)
And yet, the recognition of a limit does not signify an impasse. The consciousness of a limit, whereby we become aware that our interpretations are but interpretations, leads rather to an opening, in which hermeneutical endeavors appear in the plural. Those who know that they are interpreting know that other interpretations are possible and that a great deal escapes from their hermeneutical grasp. In other words, they know that, although interpretations make possible the event of meaning, not one of them exhausts this event.
Once hermeneutics puts our interpretations, symbols, theories and models within their proper limits, it prevents us from conflating them with reality itself and from rendering them dogmatic. This move does not spell out a total annihilation of truth, but only a transgression of literal meaning and of the rationalizations that have “dried it up.” Hermeneutics, in turn, enlivens meaning once again, understanding it as a series of anthropological propositions and, thereby, liberating its symbolic dimension.
Interpretation is, in keeping with Gadamer’s suggestion, a conversation. If it is to exceed a mere interrogation, a conversation needs to be an adventure, which, despite having a beginning, does not predetermine where and how it will take us. Such an adventuresome conversation is a dance that keeps transforming us, even as it is itself transformed.
Translated by: Michael Marder