Ramón Rodriguez: Hermenéutica y subjetividad
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- Jaran, F. Cont Philos Rev (2012) 45: 603. doi:10.1007/s11007-012-9240-y
Considered the first heir of Heidegger’s phenomenology, hermeneutical philosophy walks in the master’s footsteps when it tries to bring into question the primacy granted to subjectivity by modern philosophy. However legitimate this task may be, it is often regarded as leading directly to the abandonment of any philosophical truth claim and, therefore, as a deviation that drives philosophy on impassable roads. To show that the critique of subjectivity still offers a fecund ground—beyond some excesses of Déconstruction, Ramón Rodríguez’s book on hermeneutics and subjectivity analyzes, paraphrasing Nietzsche, “the advantage and disadvantage of history” for contemporary philosophy. The author, an important figure in the Hispanic philosophical world, is known for his research on Heidegger (La transformación hermenéutica de la fenomenología, 1997; Heidegger y la crisis de la época moderna, 2006) and on hermeneutics (Del sujeto y la verdad, 2004). This new book contains a series of texts that look into the possibilities opened in the last century by hermeneutics as well as by phenomenology to take into consideration the history of philosophical thought.
The first two figures that naturally come to mind are Hegel and Heidegger, two philosophers that still regularly intervene in today’s debates in continental philosophy. Being the first to conceive a “coherent” history of philosophy, Hegel brilliantly succeeded in showing that “the whole richness of past determinations” was contained in the philosophical present (p. 28). According to Hegel, this inheritance is “overcome” but at the same time “preserved” (aufgehoben) in present-day philosophy. Insisting on the existence of some logical structure inherent to the historical course, Hegel linked the destiny of philosophy to the understanding of its own history and eliminated the apparent tension that seemed to exist between the bundle of historical philosophical systems and the united search for truth.
Rodríguez defends that this way of studying philosophy’s past is not how a real dialogue between philosophies from different eras can be elaborated. The debate that present-day philosophy can establish with historical philosophical figures should be carried out as a discussion between a variety of contemporary intellectual possibilities. If we follow Hegel in thinking past philosophies as “condensed” in the present (p. 32), we have no other option than to conceive them as obsolete ways of thinking that no longer appear as rival positions. The author will then turn to Heidegger and Gadamer in order to find a more promising way of dialoguing with philosophy’s past.
Thanks to his “Hermeneutics of Facticity,” Heidegger elaborated in the 1920s a concept of historicity that took its distances with the Hegelian universal history (Weltgeschichte) and tried to embrace the facticity of human existence in which every possible history finds its ground. The conditioning of the present by the past is thus explained thanks to the transmission of meaning and that of some possibilities assumed by human existence. However, instead of trying to neutralize the past’s effect on the present—as the historical consciousness would require, hermeneutics conceives the transmission as the condition of possibility of any intellectual understanding. The philosophical endeavor can never escape from the historical horizon from where it emerged and it is now philosophy’s task to throw light on its own anticipation structure (Vorstruktur). If Heidegger envisages this task as that of a “phenomenological destruction” that allows us to free ourselves from the hold of traditional philosophy, Gadamer’s hermeneutics will rather insist on highlighting our belonging to this tradition by giving back its prestige to concepts judged negatively since the Enlightenment such as those of “prejudice” and “authority.”
Comparing both hermeneutical projects to that of Hegel’s Weltgeschichte, Rodríguez observes that Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s main contribution is the outlining of the factual (faktisch) characteristics of history and the account given on philosophy’s historicity. The author nonetheless insists on the fact that the importance given to the historical horizon in contemporary hermeneutics is excessive and could create the harmful illusion that it constitutes from now on the main philosophical preoccupation.
After this introduction concerned with historical consciousness, Rodríguez looks into the evolution of Heidegger’s thought from the 1920s philosophy of human existence to the 1940s philosophy of being. If Sein und Zeit (1927) still tried to “dissolve” the misunderstandings produced by traditional philosophy and thus collect positive indications for the elaboration of the question of being, the “second” Heidegger abandoned this path and preferred to take his distances with “metaphysical tradition” so to leap into what he called the “remembering of the history of being.” The author gives an excellent account of the famous “turning” and reaches the conclusion that only the “first” Heidegger tried to preserve the positive possibilities contained in past philosophies. These possibilities are precisely what allow a fertile dialogue with the past to be established.
When contemporary philosophers dismiss modern philosophy altogether with the idea of subjectivity, they end up, Rodríguez argues, unfairly leaving out some important philosophical options such as Kant’s moral concept of autonomy. In his lecture courses of the 1930s and the 1940s dedicated to Nietzsche, Heidegger interpreted the essence of autonomy as a mere self-positioning of the practical subject, as a mere step towards the Nietzschean will to power. The author rejects this interpretation and shows that the idea of autonomy isn’t necessarily linked to subjectivity’s unconditional power, but rather to the awareness of human reason’s own limitations, an issue that should raise interest in contemporary moral philosophy.
The following paper questions the relationship between philosophical hermeneutics and its most direct ancestor, phenomenology. According to Heidegger, hermeneutics was an efficient way of rescuing phenomenology against its idealistic deviation that surfaced in Husserl’s Ideen zur einer reinen Phänomenologie from 1913. On the contrary, Rodríguez tries to show that we can’t interpret hermeneutics’ results as a radicalization of phenomenology’s starting point, but that we rather should consider it a reassessment of phenomenology (p. 81). Even though we can’t deny the existence of many similarities between both philosophical movements (primacy of intuition, notion of horizon, etc.), hermeneutics is based on the idea that the “given”—phenomenology’s very own factum brutum—is itself historically constructed and, consequently, that the evidence that stands at its basis is burdened with “ahistorical ingenuity” (p. 89).
However, by taking its distances with the idea of evidence, hermeneutics is taking a hazardous path. Rodríguez insists on the positive aspects of the concept of evidence showing that our own belonging to a world consists in a sharing of evidences. When we “admit a fact” or when we “surrender to the obvious” (rendirse a la evidencia), we use a positive notion of evidence that has nothing to do with the tradition of modern subjectivity. Hermeneutics’ abandonment of the concept of evidence represents the loss of a certain capacity for self-criticism insofar as the evidence constitutes, volens nolens, the ground upon which philosophy must stand if it wants to be able to evaluate its own accomplishments and failures. Taking the problem of language as a guide, the last text of the first part of the book carries on with the analysis of Heidegger’s turning. Starting with the distinction Heidegger already established in Sein und Zeit between discourse (Rede) and language (Sprache), Rodríguez shows how in later texts (namely Unterwegs zur Sprache, 1959), Heidegger argues that language itself has to be understood as a response given to a call. This study serves as a transition point to the second part of the book that begins with a discussion on the concept of “call” that will allow Rodríguez to present a “new” philosophical figure that could overthrow that of subjectivity.
One of the most important battlefields of contemporary deconstruction has been and still is that of subjectivity. “Continental” philosophy always tried to show that the relationship between the subject and the object did not have the status of a necessity for philosophy in general, given that it could not render an accurate account of our experience of the world, of others and of our own being. The first study of this second half of the book questions the model proposed by some distinguished critics of subjectivity (E. Levinas, J.-L. Marion), namely the model of the “subject of the call” (sujet de l’appel), a subject that is no longer autonomous and no longer is its own fundament, but that is rather the receiver of a call and is subjected to the authority of this call. The “subject of the call” is here considered the rightful successor of the “transcendental subject”: although it looses the condition of autonomy, it nonetheless inherits from his predecessor the comprehension, the freedom as well as the discourse that articulate the response to the call (p. 125). In later texts such as the Brief über den ‘Humanismus,’ Heidegger already considered that subjectivity could only be overthrown with the help of a call that, unlike the “voice of the consciousness” in Sein und Zeit, would come from outside. Rodríguez reviews different ways to conceive the call—as language (Heidegger, Marion), as the belonging to a tradition (Gadamer), before drawing a parallel with the use Althusser made of this model to describe the relationship that exists between the subject and the ideological system to which he answers. If hermeneutics shares Déconstruction’s diagnostic on modern subjectivity but rejects the ways adopted to criticize it, the subject of the call presents itself in the present-day horizon as one of the routes hermeneutics has to consider.
After this analysis of the concept of the call, Rodríguez dedicates the next chapters to Heidegger’s method of interpretation and to Gadamer’s hermeneutics. The studies dedicated to the “phenomenological interpretation” present an issue that is barely debated in Heideggerian studies, that of the methodological principles that guide the interpretation of philosophical texts Heidegger carried out during the 1920s under the auspices of Husserlian phenomenology. Insofar Husserl never used, at least in the 1920s, his phenomenological method as a tool for historical critique, the very status of phenomenological interpretation is seen from the beginning as a philosophical problem. In his first writings, Husserl tried to legitimate the use of our concepts thanks to a going back to the repeatable intuitions, which give birth and meaning to our concepts. Heidegger, on the other hand, tried to gain access to these “fundamental experiences” (Grunderfahrungen) situated at the ground of our conceptuality, thanks to a careful reading of philosophical classical texts. The key to these phenomenological interpretations, Rodríguez argues, is the concept of care (Sorge). The interpretation of Greek ontology from the perspective of the world of production is well known to the readers of Heidegger’s texts of the 1920s. However, the “phenomenological” status of these exegeses is problematic and the author’s great merit is to show that these “historical” interpretations are phenomenological in a very specific way: they never lean upon scholarship but only refer to our own world and our own intentional or “caring” relationship to it.
The study that follows outlines this status of phenomenological interpretation showing that it never consists in a critique of the past, but rather in a critique of a certain historical configuration that affects us (p. 156). We go back to the Hegelian idea that all past philosophies are “condensed” in that of the present. But the model followed here is not the Aufhebung, but the critique. In fact, Heidegger goes back to the past in order to criticize the inadequacy of the categories that were historically inherited and try to straighten them up. The one and only aim of the phenomenological interpretation is to bounce back on the present. Heidegger never thought of his analyses as being a rival to the accuracy of the philosophical-historical exegeses insofar as he based his interpretations on behaviors one can observe in human existence and not on historical hypotheses that would try to bring back the past as it really was.
However, Rodríguez makes his point writing that we have to take these affirmations on the “objective validity” of the Heideggerian interpretations with a pinch of salt. The reference to the sources and to the fundamental experiences that gave birth to our philosophical concepts incites us to believe that we are here accessing important philosophical truths. But how can we certify the validity of theses interpretations? Heidegger’s task will be to try and reveal the “unsaid” that always operates on the background of a philosophical thought. The interpretations aim at showing what the thinker himself will never sense: the horizon from which he discusses his matter. However, we still have to deal with the complex question of the validity of these interpretations. By revealing the hidden meaning of the past doctrines—a meaning that is never the factual and historically verifiable origin of the concepts, Heidegger succeeds in opening philosophical possibilities for the present. At first, the phenomenological destruction of a concept seems purely negative: it doesn’t try to prove the universal validity of the concept (Husserl), but rather to restrict its use, while showing it is subjected to a historical horizon or to a factual field of experience (p. 166). However, the phenomenological interpretation also has a positive aspect. While revealing the hidden meaning of a concept, it opens in a critical manner the possibility of its legitimate use. Rodríguez thus concludes that the phenomenological interpretation never abandons the claim to a certain truth.
The last two studies of this book are dedicated to Gadamer and to the truth claim that, according to the author, is still preserved in his thought. If Gadamer fights against historical consciousness and its aspiration to objectivity and in favor of a “hermeneutical consciousness”, it is mainly because he refuses to take the “scientific” historical account of the past as more fundamental than our own natural relationship to history. The objective investigation on the past never takes into account the mutual implication that exists between past and present. Gadamer’s notion of the “effective history” (Wirkungsgeschichte)—sometimes translated by “history of action” or “reception history”—describes precisely the effect that past and tradition have on the present. However, the author defends, this recognition of the importance of history for our present doesn’t lead to a historical relativism, but to a better evaluation of our own understanding of history that is always linked to a particular tradition. In order to justify this judgment on the hermeneutical task, Rodríguez concludes his work with a defense of the truth claim that governs today’s hermeneutics.
If Heidegger defended the idea according to which past has to unsettle present’s inertia, Gadamer goes a little bit further by showing that the reading of texts that belong to the past is precisely what puts the subject in the necessity to give an answer. According to Gadamer, tradition plays the role mentioned above of sending a call to the subject. The “call” has been identified in Gadamer’s Wahrheit und Methode (1960) with tradition’s own truth claim. Tradition’s truth claim has to be understood as its capacity to call upon us, to speak to everything which is influenced by tradition. Truth is no longer seen as a perfectly justified certainty. The truth of a text, for instance, isn’t contained in its possible justification, but rather in the fact that it shows what there is to be seen. The text requires from us that we recognize that what it says agrees with the matter. Hermeneutics presents here its new version of the adaequatio.
Thanks to this transparent and rich outline of the problems concerning the relationship phenomenology and hermeneutics maintain with the philosophical past, Rodríguez manages, in a brilliant manner, to show that contemporary continental philosophy never abandoned—as many have argued—its claim to truth in favor of mere historical considerations. The rejection of the traditional subject-object relation never meant to be a relinquishment of the philosophical project itself. By insisting on the notion of the call, the book indicates a fertile path on the way to thinking philosophical truth claim beyond the modern model. Besides offering profound analyses of Hegel’s, Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s historicist thinking, the author succeeds in presenting his own vision of the dialog between past and present and in showing clear suggestions for hermeneutics’ future.