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        discursive reading
a hermeneutical hike
March 2007
        gary e. davis  

Heuristically, consider the situation of textual interpretation relative to a rhombus or “diamond” of four points: point of the text; the author of the text; the reader of the text; and “the world” (whatever that is, but as something more generally shared apart from author’s world and reader’s world).

Is “the world” shared between reader and author? To some degree, inevitably—and the variability of this is huge, from, say, (1) a young reader’s contact with a new elderly author in a different language “a long time ago” to (2) the reader who is an intimate of the living author. But note: The world of the text isn’t equivalent to the shared world of author and reader. In some important sense, there are at least 4 worlds implied by the site (the diamond) of reading: author’s world, text’s, reader’s, and “the world”. The world of the text isn’t even equivalent to the author’s relevant world (i.e., the world of the author inasmuch as it’s relevant to the author’s text). How can one make determinate sense of these differences?

One thing’s for sure: The reader and author can see the same text. Of course, an author isn’t going to read her/his own text like a non-author of the text. We would say that the author has privileged understanding of the text. But does s/he really? (I’m going to just say “he” and “him” hereon, rather than “s/he,” etc.). They say a text has a life of its own, in the sense that it gains an audience and may enter into a tradition of reading—or not (inasmuch as separate readers don’t become aware of others’ readings; or readings don’t become highly influential). Is the author best positioned to see the text in its own way? In other words, does the author have privileged access to the meaning of the text itself? The baseline insight here is that a text has a determinate meaning, and a reader may be in just as good a position to determine that as is the author (who may be too close to his presumptions). This is because the language of the text and the world implied (i.e., the world of the text) “belong” to the language of the world. An issue of author vs. reader may be a matter of the quality of reading (which is ultimately a matter of the conceptuality of understanding).

How good are you at reading the language of the world? What is reading well?—reading the well of a siting or ensiting fourfold?

How do you know what the author intended? Is the derived intentionality of the text the same as the author’s intention? If you can argue soundly for what the intention of the text is, does it matter what the author may have differently intended? Surely, that does matter if your interest is to understand the author. But, if your interest is to understand the text, the difference might not matter, except inasmuch as authorial commentary elsewhere also interprets the same text (and, of course, the likely condition that the reader's conceptuality is no match for the author’s, in the first place). Anyway, a reader’s access to the author’s understanding of the text is very much more variable than any two reader’s access to the text itself. In other words, two readers can more easily attend constructively to a text than to claims about the author’s sense of the text apart from what the text says.

So, the text has primacy of place for the site of interpretation, due to its determinability, and the author might have no special access to “fate of reading” (G. Hartman) that the text shows. For the reader, the heuristic diamond becomes a triangle—textual world, worlded reader, and “the world” in which both text and reader are ensited.

The textual world (or world of the text) includes all the usually suspect differences between [a] surface comprehensibility of the grammatical marks (with baseline lexicality), [b] denotative meaning of its parts, and [c] significance (meaningfulness) of its passages (with a scale of passages up to the text as such). The world of the text is a textual world in all this complexity.

A German text and its English translation don't represent the same textual worlds, yet we would say about a noncontroversial translation that the two texts are about “the same” thing. Must the English translation of a German text yield to interpretation of the German text in order to make sustainable validity claims about the English text?

“Well, what you say about the English may not be what the German author meant.”

Such a claim means (supposing the English is validly interpreted) that the English text mistranslates the German text, relative to either a claim about reading the German text, construable from the German text; or due to extra-textual knowledge of what the author meant in German. But all that may be collateral to the “autonomy” (in the sense sketched above) of the text, English or German, as issues of translation bring into question the language translator’s reading of the German author’s text (or dispute between translators about straightforward reading of the author’s text) like any reading of any text. Reading itself, within a language, is a translation between (1) the textual world (via resonant scales of passages) and (2) the worlded reader. The better the translation between languages, the more that the “plight” of the German translator’s reading mirrors the condition of the English reader of the English text. The basic site of translation is simply the reading of a text, between textual world and worlded reader in “the same” world.

Through the text, the worlded reader seeks to understand the world of the text. The reader faces a window that may also be variably a mirror. So, phenomenological construal is the primary reality of reading (possibly inviting a psychoanalytic reading of another’s mirroring—reading a reader writing as mere reading). But let’s suppose, for the sake of moving onward, that a reading is accurate, relative to the text; and also that it’s satisfactory relative to the author’s own sense of the text, where satisfactoriness would be as if the author is comfortable talking about his text without interrupting to say something like “you misunderstand.” Such satisfactoriness would almost always be a reader’s implied validity claim (apart from knowing the author) about a diamondic “interpoint” relationship between the author and reader. That’s the ideal situation, where normally the reader reaches the author inferentially through the text, idealizing a gap-closing between distances: reader-to-text and reader-to-author. Let me stipulate a situation in which that’s not problematic—a text is validly taken to heart, so to speak.

(1) The effect of that reading may affect the reader’s worldedness such that the effect affects reading generally, i.e., the reading becomes part of the legacy of the worlded reader’s reading of whatever else. All readings that are taken to heart partially effect (participate in) a hybrid legacy of reading that partly identifies only a given worlded reader (an individuality of reading). The reader lives with a legacy of reading that affects the reading of any other text (depending on how influential for one’s sense of reading a given text is). That individual legacy, by the way, is partially swayed by whatever experience has been taken to heart, including whatever readings. The lifeworldliness of reading backgrounds the next reading (inasmuch as reading is axial here, but for an individuation that has many modes of developmentality). Who can say what the character of the legacy “really” is? (For example, there is “Habermasian” thinking; what is that “exactly”?) To the degree that all perception is like reading, the character of the background (individuality of development) is itself a reading. (But I’m not hiking toward some vertiginous relativism of interpretation!—only intending to connote that the issue of reading pertains to reflective reconstruction as well, whatever the kind of reconstruction.) The readership of the worlded reader expresses an untraceable legacy of individuation that might be called a reader’s worlding, expressed as a reader's “perspective.”

I avoid perspectivism by arguing (or would argue) that perspective is accountable to the discursive legacies that are most relevant to reading the text. A problem of relativism can be avoided in terms of the relativity of discursive legacies within an integrated sense of cultural evolution, in which discursivity itself “is” “evolving”. [June 7, 2014: In other words, there is a robust basis—somehow—for claiming that one reading may be objectively better than another. I associate this now with elder Hilary Putnam’s apparent anticipation of a fusion of horizons of Truth and Value.] The question of what is evolving—what is evolving—faces the “nature” of discursivity as such (i.e., saying this calls inquiry into such questioning). The sense of manifold interfacing here is pragmatic for calling inquiry into what may be possible to discursively do. [I’m anticipating a cultural-evolutionary conception of discursivity associated with the history of philosophy as having a singular history of paradigmatic ways of thinking, which would pertain to a possible history of paradigmatic hermeneutics of reading. I think of Heidegger’s experiment with a “history of Being” or of ways of thinking.]

(2) The taken-to-heart reading of a given text enters into a legacy of reading that same text again, but showing only in a perspectivity of reading (except inasmuch as the previous reading shows itself in the perspectivity of new reading). The perspectivity of the reading expresses a claim about the value of its perspectivity (i.e., not just one’s perspective on the text, but one’s way of reading). What’s the comparative merit of perspectivities? How does one decide between readings that conflict?

One must at least presume the thing itself, going back to reading the real text, if the matter at hand is the text. The matter at hand may be: better knowing other readers, in which case the reading is collateral to social interaction. But a standard situation of a third party (facing conflicting readings) is that the conflicting readers are better able to make a case for their reading than can the third party reader. The third reader has no basis for decidability, based on the text itself—except inasmuch as the reader can appreciate validity of interpretation and evaluate readings relative to that appreciation. Inasmuch as the third reader is able to determine validity of interpretation by standards of evaluation that are independent of the conflicting readings (e.g., values of discursive relevance), then conflicts become relatively decidable for that reader.

Authorial intent of a disputed text, always only derivable across passages, is one kind of interpretive interest. But other kinds may be appropriate: Which reading is more insightful, relative to what can be done tenably with the text? (This invites the question of one’s sense of insightfulness, which I’ll return to shortly, in terms of a sense of discursivity.) This interest in perspectival insightfulness is typical for literary criticism, such that the reader implies a theory of reading, exemplified in a given reading. To dwell with the reading may be to dwell with an exemplification of a theory of reading, a hermeneutic. Hermeneutics (as interpretive practice—as a counselor has a practice) is proximally about working with the approach to reading that a given reading implies. There may be good reason to prefer one hermeneutic (implied theory of translational reading) to another. Often, perhaps, overt disputes about a text are tacitly disputes about hermeneutics (by readers not interested in hermeneutics per se).

Of course, persons who are overtly interested in hermeneutics (or translationality in reading) don’t have special access to hermeneutical insightfulness simply by thematizing the interest. One person’s reading may be hermeneutically more insightful than another’s while neither are overtly concerned with their own implied theory of interpretation. Literary theorist Harold Bloom commonly explicated “poetic misprision” in readings by great writers as being more insightful than readings that display high fidelity to the read text. This situation may belong to philosophy especially. Derrida’s reading of Hegel is more insightful than Charles Taylor’s reading of Hegel, though Taylor’s may be more accurate, relative to Hegel’s professed intent.

So, an interpretation may employ a text importantly by making an interest in fidelity secondary to an interest in reading that advances a kind of discourse. Discursive appeal doesn’t translate into “aesthetic” appeal (which tends toward a purely perspectival claim?). A reading of an earlier kindred may proffer an evolvability of their kindredness (domain engagement) by conceptual misprision that’s really progressive. Such considerations are no instrumentalization of the text; rather, this may exemplify employment of the text in progressive inquiry (being no rationalization of misreading).

Accordingly, one may look at a “conflict of interpretations” (Frankly, I don't recall what Paul Ricoeur was exactly doing in the 1970s; note to myself), relative to the implied discourses of each and make a philosophy of discourse the arbiter between implied discursivities. (Of course, this surmise only calls to question the sense of discursivity that I want to proffer.) Such kind of implicature may be commonly implied when one merely prefers, for example, one kind of interpretation over another; e.g., a Piagetian reading of a representation over a Freudian reading—or a Habermasian “reading” of political reason over a Rawlsian reading—not here to bring attention to Piaget or Habermas; but to further a sense of implicature in reading.

The potential of ensitation is the potential of reading to become discursive philosophically, i.e., philosophical reading is a determinable arbiter of conflicts of interpretation (especially pertinent to theorizations that use philosophical notions in unphilosophical ways). One grows into an historical legacy that is determinable. Reading may imply one’s point in an evolution of reading or discursivity that is determinable. Existing (individual) legacies of reading tend toward an historical condition of reading such that the history of philosophy tends to have a singularity that any new philosophical project (or theorist endeavoring to be philosophical) eventually realizes is quite stable due to the evolution of conceptuality involved. “You” thought you were original in your critique of, say, Habermas, but it turns out that Kant was awaiting you, and you haven’t yet basically met Habermas. (Habermas’ critique of Derrida might have Heidegger awaiting him. And my Heidegger-via-English?)

The probability that one is conceptually original through one’s reading, relative to the history of conceptuality as “philosophy,” is low. The probability that one’s insights are existentially unprecedented may be high, especially for talented minds (inviting a question of the nature of talent). Yet, the domain of a discursive formation (a specialty in philosophy or literature—or biology or mathematics, etc.) has an evolutionary stability that embodies great inertia for good reason of the reality that its field (philosophy, literature, biology, mathematics, etc.) lives, as real community of readers disseminated across countless real venues (campuses, organizations, media). That reality aggregately expresses an evolutionarity of reading, heuristically like a diamond of talent [author], domain [world or specialty], work [text], and field [readers or professional receptivity]. (This fourfold model [not my parentheticals] corresponds to a research-based model of high creativity [or originality], concordant with a leading empirical theory of intelligence, which I've been following, for as long as it’s been proffered, i.e., nearly two decades.)

A philosophy of discursivity should need to be a complex that is political (relative to a market or field), historical (relative to the conceptuality of a domain), and anthropological (relative to the evolution of talent). Evolutionary discourse would ultimately be readers “reading” evolution—reading as reconstructive inquiry into evolvability. So, how should we read evolvability? (What’s the “nature” of such inquiry?) How can we get to prospects of truly advancing the conceptuality of inquiry?

At the very least, this is a matter of the conceptuality of one’s sense of evolvability (much beyond an historical anthropology of this), i.e., what it is contemporarily that tenably renders something as really “evolving”), which I presently favor calling progressive realism. What I have in mind involves integrating a range of discursive work—from evolutionary psychology, through cognitive science to contemporary work in evolutionary ethics and reliabilist epistemology—that develops Habermas’ exemplarity beyond David L Hull's theory of conceptual evolution, which Hull explicates in terms of “conceptual inclusive fitness” and “demic efficacy.”

    Be fair. © 2014, g. e. davis