The Most Important Word: Hermeneutics

This past Saturday I delivered a TEDx talk here at SUNY Geneseo and I wanted to post the written transcript for those who couldn’t be there. I will only post the first third on here and then leave the rest as a comment on the blog post so that I don’t take up three feet of screen space. Reading time should be about fifteen minutes. The takeaway from the talk is that interpretation matters, but interpretation is not subjective.

“Good afternoon my name is Kyle Navratil and I am currently an undergraduate student here at SUNY Geneseo and let me just say, I love language. That’s what I study in the English Department, from writing poetry to analyzing the most influential literary texts in all of human history. I cant help but love words and believe that they have power. Not just as objects themselves but for the ideas that they convey. And I want to talk to you about what I believe to be the most important word, the word with which we understand all other words: Hermeneutics.

For those of you who do not know immediately what this word means, there is a bit of irony in this, because every single one of you that is able to interpret and understand the words that I am saying right now is actually engaging in hermeneutics, because hermeneutics is interpretation, specifically the interpretation of language. And as we talk about our visions for the future, I believe that at the very heart of this discussion is hermeneutics and the concept of interpretation.

Hermeneutics is typically associated with religious traditions as many of the world’s major religions are inextricably found in literary texts. The Bible, the Quran, the Vedas. Entire world-views are contained within these books, and the practice of rigorously analyzing and discerning the meaning of a text is called exegesis. Lawyers engage in a similar practice when interpreting legislature.

Yet the language is not the only thing that we interpret, it is merely the means we use to convey our interpretations of the world. Whether through scientific empiricism, divine inspiration, or simply asking a friend’s advice on a difficult situation, we are constantly forming interpretive frameworks that help us best understand the world and our experience within it. These are our personal hermeneutic models, and they exist beyond language. And it is through these interpretative frameworks that we vision cast into the future.

Let’s be honest, we don’t all have the same interpretation. Think of religious schisms and political controversy, both protestants and Catholics have the same Bible. Sunni and Shia have the same Quran, and Democrats and Republicans have the same constitution and you and your friend were looking at the same situation. It is not the texts, but our interpretations that vary.

And I want to say something that at first may seem a little controversial: some interpretations are better than others. Or, said inversely, some interpretations are just plain wrong.

In language, this is self evident. For instance if I say that you’re pulling my leg, are you actually pulling my leg? If I’m speaking in terms of an idiom, then no. And to interpret my words envisioning someone actually pulling on my leg would be wrong. Yet I think that misinterpretation goes beyond the semantics of language into our understanding of the future and the world as well.

Let me just tell you quick story. “

One Reply to “The Most Important Word: Hermeneutics”

  1. “I have a nephew and I absolutely adore this kid. He’s six years old, about yay high and he loves to play. So one day, Jayden and I are in the front yard and we are having a blast. I needed to go inside for a minute to check on his sister who was napping. So I say, “Jayden, I’m going inside for a minute buddy, and I need to you to stay away from the road. I do not want you to go near the road, ok? ”

    I told him that because I have an interpretation of what might happen if my six-year old nephew plays near the road.

    So he smiles. He laughs and says “ok uncle Kyle.”
    As I begin to walk into my brothers home, I look back and what do I see? Jayden is beginning to run toward the road. He is acting on his own interpretation. And as he begins to run I can see that he is completely blind to the truck hurling towards him at 60 mph.

    So I do what I any good uncle would do. I sprint after him, three strides for every one his. Adrenaline thumping through my veins. And just as Jayden is a few feet away from the road about to step in front a moving truck I lurch forward and scoop him up into my arms. The horn blares in our ears. Jayden’s crying. I’m crying. But ultimately, everyone is just glad that he is safe.

    Now here’s my point. Jayden had a different interpretation of what it meant to go near the road. He didn’t think he would get hurt, or that he might die. and I don’t think that there is a single person in here that would disagree with me when I say that Jayden’s interpretation was wrong.

    This story, which for the record is completely rhetorical and did not happen, exemplifies that there is a possibility of us misapprehending the world and the future so badly that we blindly run into oncoming traffic.

    I think that it is illogical to hold the position that all interpretations are equally true. Yet in our culture today, many people have adopted the idea of relativism and subjectivism, which claims that there is no absolute truth and that we have no objective and communal experience. Perhaps that’s why some of you shuddered at the claim that some interpretations are better than others.

    This subjective approach to life has the West and in a very dangerous position because it bars us from having any kind of productive conversation. Because if we can agree that some interpretations of the future are wrong, such as my nephew’s understanding of what it meant to play near the road, then we can move to much more useful and interesting questions like: how do we decide which interpretations are better? And what do we mean by “better”?

    In politics, interpersonal relationships, and morality. Everything from voting on legislature that determines the legality of choices like abortion, or the assassination of foreign generals, or the culpability of police officers in a country that was explicitly racist for much of its history. As we discuss our visions for the future and our hopes for a “better” world, we all have an interpretation. We all have a hermeneutic. And many of them conflict.
    I want to explore the question now: what is it that has most influenced the way in which the west perceives the world today?
    What has contributed to our cultural hermeneutic?
    I want to begin our present conversation about the future, by looking toward the past, focusing generally on 150 or so years of intellectual history looking at what is known to literary theorists as “the school of suspicion” or “the hermeneutics of suspicion.”

    Paul Riceur categorized three men, Sigmund Freud, Frederich Nietzsche and Karl Marx into the “hermeneutics of suspicion” as these three thinkers were skeptical that anyone really knew what was going on. They believed that most people were completely blind to the truth, asserting their own ideas as true of course. They claimed to be the uncle that could see the truck coming. Let’s look at each one.

    First, is Nietzsche. He was a late 19th century philosopher and his writings span a critique of organized religion and Christianity, ultimately summed up in the polemic and prophetic phrase “God is dead.” If you have heard this before, you have heard of Nietzsche.

    He was claiming that our post-enlightenment, scientifically advanced Darwinian civilization made it no longer possible for sane rational people to believe in God. For Nietzsche, the fallout of God’s death was nihilism or the feeling that nothing matters. His vision for the future circa 1890 was that humans would reject absolute morality and spiral into a flux of interpretive chaos regarding good and evil. With no judeo-christian ethic underpinning the western culture, we no longer had an authoritative source for understanding good and evil.
    What do you think? Is God dead? Are we in a state of confusion regarding religion and morality today? How would you respond if I said that good and evil is not relative, but absolute?

    Each of these texts defines a doctrine or code of ethics, and each claims an authoritative interpretation of good and evil. And this is where division occurs, a plain reading of these texts makes them mutually exclusive and they cannot all be right. But what is your moral hermeneutic and what is it that makes it authoritative? Divine inspiration? Scientific empiricism? Or subjective experience? These are the questions I want to challenge you to think through as you evaluate our visions for the future, and formulate your own.

    Next, let’s talk about Sigmund Freud. In the late 19th century he founded the school of psychoanalysis and out of this movement, Freud brought into mainstream dialogue this concept of “the unconscious.” While he didn’t come up with the idea, he is often attributed with popularizing it. For Freud, unconscious desires played a major role in governing the way people behave, he was skeptical that anybody could truly know themselves and give a full account of why they act the way that they do.

    I am curious how many of you today believe that there are processes going on in your mind that are totally hidden from your conscious experience? How many have heard of the term “implicit bias” or “unconscious bias”?

    This interpretation of our psychology rests on this concept of “the unconscious.” If you believe in implicit bias, then you agree with at least this aspect of Freudian psychoanalysis.

    And today, what is it that informs our opinions on the killing of unarmed African Americans like Oscar Grant or Trayvon Martine or Tunisha Anderson, Renisha Mcbride and too many others.

    Lastly, I want to talk about the German philosopher Karl Marx. In 1848 Karl Marx and Frederich Engels published the communist manifesto. In this book, they describe their interpretation of all of human history as an economic class struggle. The working proletariat in subjection to the ruling and rich bourgeoise. And in this book they called for radical change.

    How many have heard of this idea? This concept that the heart of all human suffering is economic inequality and if we could just level the playing field, creating a purely egalitarian economy, we could usher in a utopia? If this is familiar to you, then you are familiar with Marx.

    An incredibly important point as we talk about Marx right now, is his definition of ideology. Marx defined ideology as a kind of veil, or false consciousness blinding everyday people so that we would continue participating in a capitalist structure that exploits us. Marx was claiming that “all interpretations of the world other than mine, blind people to the truth.” If you do not believe Marx, then you are blind, according to Marx. The only remedy for this was education and the implementation of his political hermeneutic at a massive scale.

    And the reason I am talking to you about all of this is because I believe that Nietzsche, Freud and Marx have deeply shaped our cultural hermeneutic in how we interpret morality, money, and even our own minds.

    These men had their own hermeneutics: a hermeneutics of suspicion. They were scholars, but intellect makes no indication of virtue. The evil genius is a common theme for a reason.
    I want to continue for a moment and test our hermeneutics not only in the realm of language and world-view, but in symbolism too. Perhaps Marx is right and there are veils shrouding our interpretive vision. Who knows what these symbols mean?

    The image on the left, the hammer and sickle, represents the successful implementation of a Marxist hermeneutic in the USSR. The image on the right, is a swastika, representing the hermeneutic of Nazism.

    Without disagreeing about the means or the numbers, it is a unarguable fact that a staggering amount of people have been killed in the name of these interpretations.

    To this day, there are some that hold these hermeneutics as authoritative. On both the left and right side of the political spectrum. Supporting hatred for discrete groups both economic and ethnic. In the very country I call home, there are some who would say that my nephew is inferior based on the color of his skin.

    While I am not here to tell you what the perfect interpretation is, I can say with the least degree of suspicion, that the hermeneutics of white supremacy, Nazism, and communism are wrong. and I have no suspicion about that.

    But this still leaves us in a difficult position. It’s easy to play Monday morning historian and look back at what has happened, but how do we interpret these issues today?

    My vision for the future, my interpretation and hope, is that we can begin to have a conversation about our interpretations with humility; recognizing that we have been wrong before and that we have a civic responsibility to tell others when we think they may be wrong.

    I look to men like Daryl Davis. Someone with the courage to speak with others so different from himself, with the hope that through humble conversation about their interpretations of the world, that he might win obstinate, racist and human Ku Klux Klan members to the side of reason and compassion. And because of his willingness to dialogue over 200 members have left the KKK.
    What I want to see in the future, is a discussion that moves beyond merely stating what our interpretations are, and honestly discusses why we interpret the world the way that we do. I want to see us make the bold claims necessary to not just move toward a future, but move toward a good one.

    What is your hermeneutic? Your relationships, our political system, and what kind of future my nephew will live in depend on how you answer that question. Because who knows, maybe you, or someone you love, is running towards a moving truck and you don’t even realize it.

    Thank you.”

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