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Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Hermeneutics of Suspicion

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10/23/2013

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Paul Ricoeur and the Hermeneutics ofSuspicion: 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 themodern ferment in hermeneutics - a process begun with F. Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and his attempt togain meaning through understanding the mind of the author; given significant impetus more recently in theseminal 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 thespectrum, is uncomfortable with the intrinsic subjectivity associated with such hermeneutics and seeks towalk the fine line between a call for objectivity (grounded in some way in the text), and yet at the same timeseeking to remain "open" to what the text may have to say. Ricoeur's hermeneutic of suspicion represents hisattempt to retain both science and art, whilst disallowing either an absolute status; "Hermeneutics seems tome to be animated by this double motivation: willingness to suspect, willingness to listen; vow of rigor, vowof 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 projectour 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 creativeevents 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 certaingenres 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 hermeneuticfor 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 intellectualfigures of the twentieth century who, in their different ways, sought tounmask, 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 notinsignificant since it would appear that the suspicion displayed by these three serve as paradigms forRicoeur's own hermeneutic. David Stewart has addressed this question directly and has demonstrated howeach of these masters sought to find or explain the true meaning of religion by stripping away the falsemeaning.[6]  Very briefly, Marx's analysis of religion led him to the conclusion that while religion appeared to beconcerned with the lofty issues of transcendence and personal salvation, in reality its true function was toprovide a "flight from the reality of inhuman working conditions" and to make "the misery of life moreendurable."[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 positionof strength, to make weakness respectable" belied its apparent purpose, namely to make life for the 'slavemorality', 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 merelyexpressed 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 communicationunder 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 isthis? Because, while it is true they are involved with destroying establishedideas "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) bysystematically applying a critique of suspicion, with the result that the true understanding, one that morefaithfully tracks and correlates with the real situation now becomes unmasked and revealed. All three, forRicoeur, "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 newpossibilities 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 arigidity 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 botha valid and necessary hermeneutical process.Ricoeur's three masters highlight another important aspect of this question of suspicion, namely thatsuspicion needs to operate with a bi-polar focus. Just as Marx, Nietzche and Freud in their own contextscriticized both the participants (society at large, or individuals) and "the system" (religion), so we too need tobe aware that suspicion has a dual focus as we approach a text; I need to apply suspicion to myself -am Iimposing 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 hermeneuticalcircle. We must approach the text critically and suspiciously in order that its message may truly be heard, andso that our own pre-understandings and certainties do not mask the truth.
Suspicion, Metaphor and Parable 
 Ricoeur's hermeneutic of suspicion finds expression in his understanding of metaphor in tensive terms.[17]  Ricoeur believes that intrinsic to metaphor is both an "is like" element and an "is not" element. The formerpoints to the literary vehicle used to convey the metaphor, while the latter indicates that the referent of themetaphor is not to be found in literal terms. This tension projects 'a world in front of the text' which is thetrue metaphorical referent.[18] For Ricoeur, "the metaphorical meaning and reference await appropriation through the recontextualizing activity of the current reader."[19]  By this interaction with the world in front of the text, Ricoeur seeks for a "metaphor-faith beyonddemythologization, a second naivete beyond iconoclasm"[20] - a stress on the "is like." However, Ricoeur simultaneously seeks to stress the critical "is not" aspect and thus renders his hermeneutic an open systemwhich seeks to avoid a naive credulity. This tension finds expression in three spheres: (i) within poeticlanguage, (ii) between interpretations of this language, and (iii) between theseinterpretations and the lives of the readers or listeners. These tensions find resolution in the present by thecreation of new meanings and new referents.[21]  Ricoeur identifies biblical "limit expressions" where tensions intrinsic to metaphor especially apply, namelyproverbs, eschatological sayings, and parables. In applying his hermeneutic of metaphor to parables, Ricoeursees the "is like" component in the narrative form of the parable (the model), and the "is not" in the way thenarrative form is transgressed (the qualifier) by the intrusion of the extraordinary or even scandalous. Thesedual components leads to the tension between the "closedness" of the narrative form and the "openness" of the metaphorical process. Again, the tension leads to the projection of a world in front of the text between theinterpreter/hearer and the text itself whereby the referent of the parable becomes apparent.[22] Ricoeur's definition of a parable as "the conjunction between a narrative form, a metaphysical process, and an

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