Thursday, August 03, 2006

Tim and the Germans

I am 99% sure who the commenter “Tim” at my Freakonomics asking about linguistics and hermeneutics is, and he provides an excellent opportunity to describe what being the Assistant Village Idiot is like. The title, like the job, was chosen because “Village Idiot” was taken. It is meant to have ambiguous meaning, both arrogant and humble, and that fits me well. Sure I’m a bright enough guy and love collecting information, but much of the point of this blog is that many issues aren’t really all that complicated. Despite the evasions people go through to avoid plain sense, many things are understandable even to the Village Idiot. So - sometimes, the Village Idiot designates me to explain them to you.

I had a predictive essay, complete with scoring, about another religious thinker recently. I will attempt this feat again. At no time will my fingers leave my hands. I admit, even though I know flat nothing about hermeneutics, I have an advantage, which I will illustrate with reference to a similar advantage Tim has in another sphere. Young Tim grew up in an evangelical denomination, but more to the point, he went to Baptist schools (With my son. That’s how I know). Tim’s antennae for detecting someone trying to sneak in a culturally Baptist idea under theological cover are always going to be better than mine. Minutes before the speaker has come near mentioning popular music, Tim is going to pick up the faint whiff on the breeze “He’s going to claim that rock music is unspiritual.” (Or that evolution is bunk, or whatever). In reading about an historical figure, Tim is going to perceive that a hagiography is being loaded into the blunderbuss before the rest of us do. There are some things that Tim is forever going to see coming from five hundred meters out. The number of topics that you can do this with will grow, Tim, which is why old people get grouchy.

Eventually, of course, enough new things happen in the world that grouchy old people start guessing wrong, but I think I’m still at least a decade out from that.

Hermeneutics. Linguistics. German name. So that must be post 1920. Assigned reading at North Park for some class (North Park is the Evangelical Covenant school, and the Covenant is a cross between the evangelical and mainstream denominations), so we will suspect that it’s attempting to inject Protestant Mainstream Academic into the discussion.

Though the German arrogance is quiet, and under the radar in this area, it is nowhere more complete than in Philosphy. German philosophers define themselves entirely in terms of each other, as if no one else exists. They might treat a Dutchman (Spinoza) or a Dane (Kiergegaard) as an honorary German for purposes of discussion, and they find the French philosphers amusing, but they put their energy into what they say versus what other Germans have said. So this big name in hermeneutics is going to be one more fitting himself into the mix. What did Kant say, and how does my work compare with his? In contrast to what Heidigger thought, what do I think is better? And Fichte and Wittgenstein and Schopenhauer – must see how they fit, too. The construction of a vast abstract system whose beauty can be contemplated by other Germans is the goal. Bertrand Russell, Hobbes, Bosanquet, JS Mill, Santayana - these people don’t really exist as far as the Germans are concerned. They might have a drink with Sartre or Derrida, but they really can’t make heads or tales of those intriguing Frenchmen.

(To be fair to the Germans on this, it is true that French philosophy largely consists of taking German ideas, which at least attempt some coherency, and screwing them up even further, so that personal morality becomes not just ignored, but denied. For this, see Foucault, DeMan, Artaud.)

In and amongst this will be the sordid biographies of impregnating the maid, obsessions with the best friend’s wife, complete estrangement from family, messy divorces, envy of other contemporary German philosophers and their preferments, misuse of money, and in the 20th C we must always ask “What did you do in the war?” The answer usually is “kept a low profile. But I really, really hated the Nazis.”

This contrast is not accidental and not simply ironic. It is two sides of the same coin. Simple piety is beyond them, therefore, they compensate by constructing these elaborate systems of knowing, sensing, intuiting. How to contemplate God. How to know the Truth. Insofar as moral considerations can intrude into the discussion, it is never the persoanl morality of individual actions. It is always the morality of the community’s actions that intrigues them. Huh. Fancy that.

Next: Putting the linguistic angle into hermeneutics will consist of stretching some obvious items into another of those vast systems. That words change in meaning over time is hardly surprizing, nor that different groups of people interpret abstractions such as liberty and truth in different ways a huge advance. These are reasonable cautions in approaching texts. And it’s way cool to talk about, because you get to bring in sociology and patiently explain how things don’t really mean what they seem to mean. It is also a great opportunity to tell other people what Jesus really meant. Which for all of us, if we are allowed to engage in such an exploration, always results in Jesus teaching exactly what the cool kids thought when we were young and impressionable. Example: find an important difference between what Jim Wallis teaches and what we used to say at church basement coffee houses in the 60’s. Or between Jerry Falwell and the social teachings of small Appalachian churches in the 1950’s. Philosophers don’t usually sink that low themselves, of course, contenting themselves with the abstract. It falls to those after to point out that contemplating the Absolute is much, much more moral than merely being honest.

I’m going to guess that the linguistics involved in Herr German’s hermeutics is going to be theory of mind, theory of meaning stuff, derived from Edward Sapir (look up Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis), who was another German who was “in the air” through much of the 20th C. This is why I guessed “after 1920” for this philosopher. Sapir’s idea of the cultural relativism of meaning, as exemplified in language, would likely appeal to a German hermeneuticist. The fact that linguists, led by Chomsky and Pinker, are much less convinced of SWH, probably didn’t cause him to change his theories much if he lived that long.

Summary: Things to look for:

1. German philosophy indistinguishable from other Germans unless you really, really care about these things. How can we make it look like we’re contemplating Truth, God, Absolute, without getting stuck with things we don’t like? If we could work in theories of Art and talk about Schiller and Rilke, that would be extra cool.
2. Complete political passivity during the Nazi era. If he was too young for that, then activity in leftist social movements of the 50’s – 70’s – when it was safe - would be my second choice.
3. Something seedy in the biography. Morality that is corporate rather than personal.
4. Linguistic theory based on the cultural relativism of Edward Sapir.
5. Regular words used in specialized ways, usually capitalized, like “Phenomenon,” or “Meaning.” Of course, most philosophers do this.

I’m not going to do the scoring on this one. Just an educated guess this time.


bs king said...

Nice post. However, my guess is that the "Tim" who posted was not actually my brother, but actually an acronym for "Time is Meaningless", the chosen name of a nihilist who's been stalking me for a couple months. Armed with this knowledge, your response is basically worthless, but because of the commentors chosen life style, my guess is he will not get back to reading it. The Coen Brothers were right, nihilism is exhausting.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

You're kidding.

I'll bet I got the philospher right anyway, though.

bs king said...

Yeah, I just made that up. Sorry.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

You are much to talented in your evasiveness for me. I can't tell when you're smirking and when you're being straight.

bs king said...

My secret goal in life is to be so ambiguously dry that I can say whatever I want, whenever I want, and make it utterly impossible to slap a dementia label on me. Anyway....the acronymed nihilist stalker is fiction. My brother is real.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

But it was so plausible.

I have a friend of many years - an ex-girlfriend who led Tracy and I to Christ in 1975 and Jonathan's godmother, in fact - who would just make up plausible-sounding things and pass them off as true. Many years later she confessed that they were not meant to play games on people, but to simply appear knowledgeable and intriguing. She would say things like "your body responds differently and your digestion is more efficient when you sit down while eating," or "Italian surnames which have definable meanings are usually indications of lower class backgrounds, though they may be far back. The more elevated names don't have translateable meanings." I believed both of those things for years, and even repeated them to other people.

You would like her.

Anonymous said...

20 out of 10- sniffing out Baptists, Calvinists, Lutherans and other heretics. God’s just given me the gift of discernment on those evil spirits. I’m kidding… sort of. The comment about the heterodoxy of the commonly held view of scripture coming out of these traditions flowed out of an incredible amount of angst built up ever since the time I had points taken off of my Bible grad for asking too many questions. Wholly unnecessary but boy does it feel good.

1. 5 out of 10 I’m sensing a grudge against the germans. I’d give you half credit on this one but with some clarification. Gadamer and other germans are very sensitive to their philosophic genealogies especially after Hegel. This can produce both the philosophic elitism but also a very revealing self consciousness that allows for a great deal of honesty as well. I think your accusation of indistinguishable german philosophies except for those who really care is much more accurate between Kant and Hegel than the period between Hegel and Gadamer.
2. 9 out of 10. Ouch! Right on about the Nazis. Very passive but I am asking for just one point because he never joined the nazi party and by the end of the war had managed to remain uninvolved. So I’m going to argue that he actively didn’t join the Nazi party. Certainly no Bonhoeffer but still not a Heidegger who removed the dedication to his Jewish teacher and mentor during the rise of the Naziis in his work Being and Time.
3. 0 out of 5. I’ve never read anything seedy about him but that’s probably just because he hid it better. So maybe we should assume you get at least half credit. This could be semantics but… I think I smell a Baptist. And not the sweet old grandfatherly Billy Grahm southern demo kind either. The point I would like to make, which the AVI may agree with me once I clarify is that PERSONAL ETHICS DO NOT EXIST. Ethics by nature are always communitarian. From a Jewish French philosopher (emmanuel levinas) who came out of the concentration camps made the point: it is our encounter with the other which reveals that at the base of our existence is a responsbility to the other. Ethics necessitates community and personal responsibility by the nature of being ethics and it is quite possible that ethics be the fundamental discipline of philosophy but that’s a long debate. This does not require a social determinism in which the indvidual is abdicated from responsibility but neither does it fall prey to the typically evangelical fallacy of believing that simply changing hearts will change society. To state that one could hold morality that is corporate rather than personal or personal rather than corporate creates a dualism that is contrary the nature of ethics qua ethics.
4. 0 out 10 Sorry, this is a strong Heidggerian. He’d be running in circles and debate with Habermas and Derrida. Maybe some similar theory. But from my understanding pretty different approaches and I doubt there was much cross pollination.
5. 10 out of 10. Ha! Good call. I’m just surprised you didn’t throw in the-fact-that-english-translations-of-german-always-have-really-long-hyphenated-phrases-that are-used-as-if-they-are-single-words-over-and-over-again.

You’re identifaction with Gadamer as a more mainline protestant thinker and infusing it into evangelicalism underestimates the philosophy program at NP. In my opinion the philosophy department at NP is one of the best things it has going. While small I wouldn’t trade it for any other Christians schools philosophy department and it’s allowed me to keep up with U Chicago philosophy students (and have a wonderful time making fun of wheaton philosophy students). All that to say Gadamer’s Truth and Method would be most closely linked to the orthodox catholic theological school of Bernard Lonergan and his famous work Insight.