Hermeneutics and Educational Experience
During its long history – in biblical research, in literary criticism, in legal studies – hermeneutics was an interpretative art which sought to avoid the kinds of misunderstandings that arise from rigid, or hasty, or overly literal interpretations. Thus, an old rule of hermeneutics states that any part of a text must be understood in the context of the whole, but also that the whole must be understood in the context of its parts. This rule, which has helped to inspire various kinds of modern philosophical research, implies that there is unavoidably some circular interplay involved in coming to understand texts. Historically the term “texts” in hermeneutics referred mainly to important or influential documents such as scriptures, legal documents, or literary texts. Two main features distinguish contemporary hermeneutics from more traditional forms. Firstly, the circular movement of interpretation comes to be disclosed as an inescapable feature, not just of understanding texts, but of human understanding itself. Secondly, the scope of hermeneutics as a field of research undergoes a significant shift. It moves from an enquiry concerned with an understanding of texts to one concerned with investigating what happens when understanding itself takes place in human experience more widely, including the experience of carrying out research. These developments have made hermeneutics itself a major theoretical resource for research in the humanities and social sciences. The consequences of such developments for research on educational experience will be explored below.
Questioning the Standing of Theory
To make the exploration more illuminating it is worth adding a few comments at the start on the significance of the two features just described for the issue of research procedure, or for what is frequently called the “theoretical standing” of research activity. In relation to the issue of circularity, the kind of understanding that merits the status of “research understanding” undergoes an important change. Without losing its critical focus on the question or data being investigated, it now pays more systematic attention to the context the researcher herself/himself brings to the enquiry. In particular it puts the spotlight on the nature of the assumptions that invariably reside in that context – e.g., biases of a gendered, ethnic, religious, social class or other kind. Here the notion of research as certainty tends to lose anything like an unquestionable authority or absolute finality. A research outlook, or theoretical stance, that is disciplined by hermeneutic awareness grants a procedural priority not to certainty, but to the more provisional notion of justified warrant; a warrant that remains open to further criticism and revision. On this account, what may reasonably lay claim to such warrant can be summarized as follows: the argument or theory which offers openly the best fruits of its own disciplined efforts but which can also withstand the kind of critique that seeks to be as non-parochial and as well-informed as it can be. In relation to the second issue – the broadening scope of hermeneutics itself – it is not surprising that the expansion of hermeneutics into the main currents of ontology, epistemology and ethics has given rise to new questions within these domains themselves, indeed to new questioning of the domains themselves. In particular, any claims by ontology or metaphysics to have achieved a magisterial vantage point are called into question. Similarly called into question is any kind of epistemology which insists on absolute, as distinct from provisional notions of objectivity or certainty.
Hermeneutics as Philosophy
Broadly speaking then, two key ideas mark the transition from traditional hermeneutics to philosophical hermeneutics: that of a circular interplay rather than a linear logic in human understanding itself and that of inescapable limitations in human understanding itself. This transition is associated chiefly with the researches of Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer. Heidegger’s critique in Being and Time (Heidegger 2008, first published in 1926) of the “essence” of human being (Dasein) unsettled the presuppositions on which centuries of traditional understandings of being were based. He shifted the emphasis of enquiry from “being” as a what with certain “properties” to the verbal sense of the word: i.e., to a kind of being who is from the start a being-in-the-world. What was definitive moreover in Heidegger’s ontology was that this is a being for whom his or her own being-in-the-world is the issue (Heidegger 2008, Section 9). “Being” is no longer associated with changeless essence, and essence itself (Wesen) is understood as “to be”: a self-understanding that is to be thought about, decided upon, neglected, renewed, etc. in one’s encounters with an unfolding historical world.
“It is because absolute knowledge is impossible that the conflict of interpretations is insurmountable and inescapable” (Ricoeur 1981, p. 193).
The new paths opened by Heidegger were developed in a major way by Gadamer’s researches. In these researches hermeneutics becomes something much more significant than a method for systematically interpreting texts. Rather, as philosophical hermeneutics, it proceeds from a recognition of the point that interpretation cannot finally be overcome and replaced by objective knowledge. Against the claims of classical epistemology that anything less than a certainty cleansed of all bias is a deficiency, philosophical hermeneutics stresses the point that interpretative understanding is humankind’s inescapable way of experiencing a world. There may be better and worse efforts at understanding, but all such efforts involve some element of interpretation from the start. Human understanding is thus constituted less by the rational autonomy of critical consciousness than by a rationality that is itself unavoidably interpretative, whether vigilantly so or not. (See also the entry on Gadamer and the Philosophy of Education).
Philosophical hermeneutics has thus provided an understanding of human rationality which is quite different from how rationality has been understood in traditional Western philosophy – including both metaphysics and epistemology. It has given up the pretensions to absolute knowledge that characterized many centuries of metaphysics. It has given up the quest for unshakeable foundations for certain knowledge associated with classical epistemology. It has focused in a special way on the relationship between the predisposed self-understanding of the interpreter and the active character of everything that addresses that understanding. This “everything” could include the reading of a text, the experience of a debate, the conduct of an experiment, and, not least, the presentations of a teacher. Pursuing the educational implications of this, it must be remembered that teachers are interpreters and learners just as much as pupils or students are, albeit at a different level of experience.
A hermeneutically disciplined understanding, on this account, would be particularly important for how educational experience is to be understood, and in particular for educational research. Firstly, it would disclose in each instance the advent of the unexpected in what the learner, or interpreter, is attempting to understand. This is often called the “object of learning.” But such a reified term beclouds the point that this “object,” whether in science, history, languages, or whatever, is itself an active field of enquiry, continually in need of newcomers, as distinct from being a store of inert knowledge or ready-made skills. Secondly, a hermeneutic view of educational experience would shed light on the more subtle, or overlooked dimensions of the joint situation where a teacher has a leadership responsibility in seeking with students to understand something new. Previously undetected biases, as well as new insights, might thus be progressively disclosed about both learner and teacher and about what addresses the efforts of each. These disclosures might be surprising, or disquieting, or satisfying, or inspiring, or otherwise challenging. There is a strong parallel here with Dewey’s remarks on “collateral learning” in his late work Experience and Education (1938/1991). “Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies,” Dewey writes, “is the notion that a person learns only the particular thing he is studying at the time.” The attitudes that the student learns collaterally, but in an often unobserved way, may be much more significant in the longer term. “The most important attitude to cultivate” Dewey observes, “is the desire to go on learning.” (Dewey 1991, p. 48). The parallel between a hermeneutic and a Deweyean perspective here gives a particular ethical orientation to experience that is properly educational in character. The remainder of this article will seek to elucidate this ethical orientation a little more. A good way to start is by considering possible difficulties or objections.
If preconceptions play an inescapable part in all instances of human understanding, isn’t every act of understanding likely to be something of a misunderstanding? How would one distinguish a form of understanding that brings a change for the better rather than a change for the worse in this connection? The short answer to the first of these questions is “yes,” but a yes that discloses unforeseen insights rather than bringing enquiry to an abrupt end. Gadamer’s approach to such questions is to emphasize what he calls “the dialogue that we are / das Gespräch das wir sind” (Gadamer 1989, p. 378). To explain, the world experienced by humans is constituted by a totality of influences, a totality that is ever changing and that is itself made possible through the articulations of multiple literatures, sciences, religions, musics, politics, and so on. In no two individuals is the range of such influences, including salient and minor influences, likely to be identical. Each individual moreover experiences only a tiny slice, a very partial slice, of such influences. “Partial” here should be understood in both senses of the word: firstly, incomplete; secondly, affected by bias. This double limitation is a feature of the human condition itself (again, some resonances with Dewey, also with Popper, later Wittgenstein and others), and the ethical orientation it signals for educational endeavor is likewise twofold. Firstly there is an acknowledgement of the provisional character of the fruits of even the most advanced accomplishments of human intellect. Secondly, and arising from this acknowledgement, there is a certain conversational imperative. What I mean by this is an openness to critique, a desire to further one’s best understanding of the matter to date by seeking informed perspectives from others. This provides fresh impetus for advances to be made in an educational journey; one of seeking, listening, experimenting, reconsidering, and so on. But crucially, this conversational imperative of educational experience includes a recognition that the journey itself is unfinishing, and probably unfinishable, as far as humans are concerned.
Such an ethical orientation steers clear of any and all conceptions of a final truth that human reason might authoritatively seek to claim as knowledge. It conceives educational experience instead as being ever “on the way” to truth. Where the quality of that educational experience is concerned, this orientation gives a pedagogical priority to questions over answers, to attentive listening over assured assertion, to the openness of enquiry over the finality of pronouncement. This is not to say that one would have to abandon here one’s previous convictions. Hermeneutics itself would argue that such an abandonment would be far from self-transparent and could only be partial, even at best. Rather it means a willingness to place at risk in one’s engagements with others the claim to truth in these underlying convictions. Such engagements include, not least, the engagements of teaching and learning. Reference should be made here to the early Socratic dialogues of Plato, for instance Euthyphro, Gorgias, Protagoras, Apology. The combination of critique and self-critique embodied in the standpoint of the Socrates depicted in these works anticipates much of the ethical perceptiveness and ontological cast of Gadamer’s “dialogue that we are.” A hermeneutic reading of these early works of Plato also reveals the Socratic origins of what I have called above the conversational imperative of educational experience.
In his major work Truth and Method (1960/1989) Gadamer was frequently less than explicit in drawing the more far-reaching consequences of his arguments; consequences that are radical for how educational experience is to be understood. This inexplicitness has led to a range of criticisms. The early criticisms came from opposite perspectives. On the one hand, by Habermas and others he was charged with conservatism. The heart of this charge is that philosophical hermeneutics privileges the claims of “tradition,” with all its institutionalized exclusions and unacknowledged inequities, to the neglect of the claims of critique. On the other hand, the relativist charge of “radical historicism” was made against Gadamer’s hermeneutics by critics such as E.D. Hirsch (1962) and E. Betti (1967). Some authors writing from postmodern perspectives have mistakenly sought to dismiss what they have termed the “hermeneutics of meaning” (Lyotard 1984), or “deep hermeneutics” (Dreyfus and Rabinow 2014), as some kind of teleological “grand narrative,” or some kind of metaphysical grasp for comfort.
For we live in what has been handed down to us, and this is not just a specific region of our experience of the world, specifically what we call the ‘cultural tradition’ … No, it is the world itself which is communicatively experienced and continually entrusted (traditur) to us as an infinitely open task. It is never the world as it was on its first day, but as it has come down to us (p. 29).
Evident in these quotations from Gadamer is an investigative or “empirical” emphasis that disavows the kind of metaphysics that claimed superiority for centuries over other forms of learning. But it also disavows the empiricism of the skeptical philosophy that came to challenge such metaphysics in the eighteenth century. For instance, the hermeneutic notion of a conversational imperative reveals (contra David Hume) how an “ought,” or ethical orientation, can quite naturally arise from an “is” – i.e., from an uncovering of the predisposed nature of human understanding itself. With hindsight one can readily see that Hume’s empiricist philosophy needed to be empirical in a more radical sense in its own efforts to disclose the nature of human understanding.
These remarks highlight the importance of what Gadamer and others have called the universality of the hermeneutical in human understanding, including theoretical forms of understanding promoted by research. Far from imposing a uniformity of interpretation on educational experience, this universality is captured in Gadamer’s own phrase: “we understand in a different way if we understand at all” (Gadamer 1989, p. 297). Attentiveness to these differences – of sensibility, of conviction, of cultural orientation, and so on – reveals the ethical tenor of philosophical hermeneutics as one that is both critical and ecumenical, conservationist and radical, inclusionary and pluralist, progressive and unfinishing. It embodies a sense of universality which is not an a priori one but one which is constituted in the to-and-fro of dialogue itself and which remains open to further criticism and revision. Authors who have taken a critically hermeneutic stance to Gadamer’s own work have variously described this as an “interactive universalism” (Benhabib 1992) or as a “constitutive universal” (Ricoeur 1981). This kind of universality differs then from the “totalitarian” universality that postmodern authors criticize and shun. Like the conversational imperative considered earlier, such a universality now emerges as a practical necessity for educational experience. This is all the more pertinent if teaching and learning are to be conducted not only in a genuinely fruitful way but also with a defensible warrant amid the plurality of humankind, locally or globally.
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