You Oughta Know: Generous Readings & Hermeneutics of Suspicion

All of my first week’s lectures in the MAPH program were over Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.  As I mentioned in this post, I feel that Freud is a tragic intellectual hero–a man who managed to invent psychoanalysis, popularize the dominant theory of the mind, and still manages to influence quite a bit of popular culture’s conception of sexuality.  Yet, Freud is also a joke.  His theories of sexual development seem almost Puritan in their pro-reproductive, heterosexual zeal and his views on children’s sexuality are often considered misguided at best and downright pedophillic at worst.  After actually reading through Freud’s own words–at length and carefully–I can both understand how people can justifiably discard his writings on the aforementioned grounds and argue that Freud remains a misunderstood genius.

Thanks for checking out this, my third post, valiantly attempting to quantify just what a good undergraduate education should prepare one to do in grad school.  Having addressed the importance of reading for understanding and experiencing for intention, this article will briefly delineate a vision of good reading posture.  No, I’m not going to tell you that the nuns where right all along and you need to sit up straight!  By reading posture I mean the mental attitude that one adopts as he or she approaches a text.  Specifically, my concern is two mutually exclusive but complementary postures necessary for advanced academic work.

Generous readings are those that approach the text expecting to find rational, significant, and internally cohesive arguments.  Stated as simply as possible, generous readings assume that a classic book, movie, opera, painting, or building is classic because it really does have something to say to them.  So to return to Freud, a generous reading of the Three Essays begins by humbly allowing that Freud is not a hack, fraud, imposter, pretender, hopelessly irrelevant, or a pedophile–among other things.  People have labored long and hard over his works because there was something in them worth unpacking.  So an interpretation of Freud that defines his terms and understands his points in such a way that they are rationally incompatible, mutually contradictory, or just obviously flawed is failing to give Freud his due.  If his works really had such obviously faulty premises and logic that on a first reading they stick out like a sore thumb they would not have facilitated the creation of a new discipline.  In less extreme cases, a reader’s understanding of terms must be open to revision so as to allow internal cohesion–or if it doesn’t make sense, your probably not interpreting it correctly.  This kind of reading is nowhere more necessary–and more often ignored–than in the case of the visual arts.  Only a few days ago I heard a Jackson Pollock painting referred to as “the product of a particularly bad case of diarrhea.”  Now, come on–is it really reasonable to think that somehow modern artists have perpetrated such a con job on all other artists, gallery owners, museum curators, art historians, and the academy in general that they have managed to pass off canvases, sculptures, films, and buildings that had nothing to contribute to the world for better than eighty years?

Generous readings show a certain amount of respect for creator as a member of his or her guild, the work as a contribution to its discipline, and the knowledge and wisdom of the past.  They can be grueling to construct because they demand a thorough understanding of the text, its contributions, and the conversation to which it belongs.  However, only a generous reading actually attempts to understand what a creator was trying to communicate.

On the other hand, a hermeneutic of suspicion (HoS) is an interpretive posture that asks probing questions of the authority of the text, its value to the contemporary conversion, and the traditional ways that it has been understood–especially in regard to hierarchical, patriarchal, and colonial models of interpretation.  This is the point where I will likely run afoul of proponents of both the ways that a hermeneutics of suspicion has traditionally been employed.  Much of Post Modern thought has used a HoS as a starting point to deconstruct the traditional ways that Modernism had read and utilized texts.  By beginning with a HoS they assume the creator of a work could not overcome the limitations of their era and created in ways that reinforced privilege and power.  Therefore, the interpretive work left to us is to strip aside those conventions and re-examine the text highlighting its internal conflicts, shortcomings, and fragmented nature.  From the other extreme, others have argued that the HoS is not an interpretive tool at all as it imposes a contemporary view–often in direct contradiction to the stated goals of the creator–onto a work while doing nothing positive to understand it.  (Yes, I know–there are many, many shades of nuance to be worked out between these two camps.  However, for the sake of brevity and clarity I’ll let these caricatures stand).

In contrast to the extremes, I would suggest that a HoS is a useful second step following a generous reading.  By questioning the limitations of the authority of the text, considering the distance between the contemporary conversation and the conversation into which it originally spoke, and how the presuppositions that the text is founded upon differ from ours it becomes possible to correct and amend a text even as we seek to hear it out.  So, there you have it.  Grad school requires the ability to both hear a text clearly with a generous reading and the ability to confront a text when it is necessary to do so.  Feel free to ask questions, yell at me, or ignore me completely in the comments section below.  Next time we will consider the importance of Facts and Conversations.


4 comments on “You Oughta Know: Generous Readings & Hermeneutics of Suspicion

  1. Robert Minto says:

    Sorry I didn’t read this before posting my follow-up comment on the last post. Let me reiterate it in the briefest possible manner: is it possible that the HoS and a generous reading are not so opposed as you make out, insofar as one can more wholeheartedly appropriate a reading for systematic purposes when one doesn’t chalk up all its deformities and lapses to the author’s direct intention; whereas, on the other hand, treating a text as the product of an omnipotent author, and therefore beyond the reach of historical-materialist, psychoanalytic, deconstructive, systems theory, worldview, or what-have-you analysis, requires either a subsequent pseudo-theodicy or a constant distance from (not to say disgust with) the author?

  2. maphman says:

    I would agree with you that a generous reading and a HoS are not opposed to one another as much as they are two sides of the same coin. In the hermeneutic methodology I have advocated thus far it has been argued that a creator does intention all–or nearly all–aspects of a work. Although, in the case of some artifacts, the work is the result of many, many creators intending their own small contributions to the whole–as in the case of films. A generous reading allows a reader to explore the work–in as much as it is possible–according to the original intentions of the other. A hermeneutic of suspicion, however, compensates for deformities and lapses in judgment which are the product of the authors direct intention or are the unconsciously added ingredients that just happened to be “in the air” as of the time of the work’s creation. So, in my scheme, the author takes responsibility for everything initially, but can then be absolved of short-sightedness or cultural bias in the HoS process, where as you would prefer to assume that defects and vulgarities were never truly intentioned by the creator–such that she cannot be held responsible for them. We ultimately arrive at the same place–or at least very near the place, but I can’t really imagine what your hermeneutic looks like in action so lets take a practical example with which we are both–too–familiar: Kuyper’s Stone Lectures.

    I would argue that Kuyper intended every single racist remark, but a generous reading coupled with a HoS recognizes the cultural biases of his time and allows us to recognize and bracket off those aspects of his lectures, making small corrections where necessary to accommodate the excising of those biases. In this way we are arriving at a generous reading that is generous enough to recognize that the man really did intend to say everything he said. Otherwise our reading amounts to a friend of mine who constantly responded to my quips by saying “you don’t mean that!” to which I eventually responded “of course I do, and it’s rude of you to suggest that I can’t regulate my speech to communicate my meanings.”

  3. Robert Minto says:

    Actually, I wouldn’t characterize “prefer[ing] to assume that defects and vulgarities were never truly intentioned by the creator” as my hermeneutic method. In general, I confess, questions of generosity rarely concern me at a hermeneutic level. In my other comment, on the earlier post, I mentioned that it seems to me that a generous reading is one which (a. makes the best systematic contribution to the interpreter’s own reflections and (b. casts the fewest possible aspersions on the character of the author. In general, I would hesitate to restrict myself in the way that maintaining an equilibrium between these two points requires: I read for the use of my systematic thinking and don’t really give a crap about the author’s reputation… Inconsiderate of me, perhaps. I brought up the issue of “absolving” the author, primarily because it seemed to me to be an issue necessarily at stake in a hermeneutic, like yours, which begins with the assumption of authorial omnipotence.

    (Ultimately, however, I’m beginning to suspect that was a leap on my part: you demonstrate in your example w/ Kuyper that you don’t feel the need to absolve the omnipotent author of meaning bad things, but, instead, you simply attribute them to him and then decide to forgive him.)

    However, I should make two distinctions. First, one’s reading always has a pragmatic orientation, which guides the hermeneutic involved. Reading Kuyper as a matter of historical interest (to reconstruct, for example, how a Dutch Calvinist Nationalist thought) is a different matter than reading him to “get something out of him,” as members of our alma mater’s community are encouraged to do. In the former case generosity is moot (insofar as historical reconstruction should strive to exclude mixing up reconstruction with anachronistic judgments), and one simply compares Kuyper to similars in an attempt to isolate what is distinct about him from the perspective of one’s posited historical categories (as a Calvinist, how was his politicking different than other Dutch politicians; as a politician, how was his Calvinism different than other Calvinists; as Dutch, how was his political Calvinism different than that of other political Calvinists, etc.). When trying to “get something out of him,” one includes him in some line of inquiry that, at the same time, implicates oneself — say one is a Calvinist, and wants to develop a politics, making use of Kuyper — and suddenly generosity becomes paramount (though for, let’s be honest, quite self-aggrandizing reasons) as one seeks for a core of intended Calvinism, purified of its blood-and-soil overtones, so that one can recruit Kuyper and his political ideas without worrying about contaminating oneself with the less savory aspects of those ideas. But not even all readings “to get something out of him,” would require that the issue of generosity come up: for instance, I might be an anarchist working out a critique of arguments for governance, and I might wish to “get” from Kuyper his Calvinistically and Dutch inflected theory of governance, in order to test the mettle of my own arguments against it. In this case I have a specific pragmatic interest in tracing possible connections between Kuyper’s theory of governance and his racism. Generosity completely aside, I want to know if his racism was a systematic requirement of his theory or if it was contingent on his socio-historical placement.

    So in short, I can’t think of a generalizable concept of hermeneutics that would require generosity to be a fundamental question at all.

    The second distinction I would make, in response to your last paragraph, is that when dealing with intention and meaning it is helpful (I find) to bear in mind the distinction between what is assumed because of its presence in the lifeworld of an author and what is intended as arguable. To take a common example, certainly the authors of many ancient texts meant quite precisely what they wrote when they called the earth flat; but for most of them the question wasn’t arguable in the first place, and so its intending wasn’t of the same kind as the intending of those statements where they differ from contemporaries (or even from their own imaginary interlocutors). That’s what I mean by something emerging from background assumptions to become “arguable” — that one asserts it against another position (even if that other position is merely posited). It would never occur to these ancient authors to assert that the world is flat as some kind of arguable claim; they merely assert it as common knowledge.

    If generosity were at stake for me in reading Kuyper (which I confess it’s not anymore), I would still feel bound, to the best of my ability, to ascertain whether Kuyper asserted his racism as arguable. I think he did. No one as obsessed with the French Revolution as he was or as familiar with the history of philosophy and Christian theology can claim to be unaware of the concept of equal human dignity. Even if I was trying to be generous, I would have to acknowledge that he was fully culpable for his racist statements — and I would have to investigate whether his theories were bound up in that culpability.

    To sum up this very longwinded comment, my many variations on the interpretation of Kuyper, and my two sets of distinctions: the upshot of them all, for me, is to problematize both the persistent relevance of the question of generosity across many pragmatically oriented hermeneutics and, where generosity is at stake, both the need to maintain the stance that the author was omnipotent and the advisability of absolving him.

    Perhaps I’m unnecessarily complicating matters, since you weren’t trying to be uber-philosophical in your post, but rather to communicate a basic skill set. If so, I apologize, and I’ll gladly let your response to this comment stand as the last word.

  4. maphman says:

    I appreciate your comments–as always–however, I would pick at one thread you address. I am suggesting that generosity is a counterbalancing agent to a pragmatic or utilitarian reading of a text. You suggest that you an think of no “generalizable concept of hermeneutics that would require generosity to be a fundamental question at all” which makes me question what element would prevent the reader from simply projecting the interpretation most beneficial to one’s program? Generosity seems–definitionally–concerned with allowing the creator to speak their peace with as little deformation–as a result of the need to tailor the text to fit it to their own purposes.

    For those following along, it is useful to note that Robert and I do seem to be indicative of two different interpretive/ hermeneutic approaches which have also both shown up in the MAPH program too. 1) a reading that is generous in the sense of trying to understand how the author originally intended in their writings while using a HoS to question certain aspects of those original intentions, and 2) a reading that is pragmatic in the sense of only being concerned with how the text may be utilized to problematize, highlight points in, or clarify other positions so as to contribute to the interpreter’s program.

    I would say that both approaches are legitimate–as long as author and audience are clear in communicating what sort of reading they are presenting. An example of a work that fails to clearly communicate this distinction would be Gilson’s reading of Thomas in “Spirit of Thomism” and “Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy,” both of which read Thomas Aquinas as though he were a neo Thomist.

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