Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Ricoeur Review 4: Explanation and Understanding

Now the fourth essay in Paul Ricoeur's Interpretation Theory, a series of foundational lectures on hermeneutics that he gave in 1973 at Texas Christian University.

1. Language as Discourse
2. Speaking and Writing
3. Metaphor and Symbol

Now the final chapter before the conclusion, "Explanation and Understanding."

The first essay in the series dealt with the speaker and an utterance--"What is meant when somebody speaks?" (71). The second dealt with a writer and a text--What is meant "when somebody writes?" Then the third essay dealt with the situation "when somebody means more than what he actually says."

Now this final essay deals with the reader and a text. "What is it to understand a discourse when that discourse is a text or literary work?"

1. Beyond Romanticist Hermeneutics
There is a little bit of background that Ricoeur draws on that we might clarify from the beginning. By "Romanticist hermeneutics," Ricoeur refers to a hermeneutic that aims to "understand an author better than he understood himself" (75). That is, it is an approach to a text that aims to recover the psychic state of an author in writing, the author's intention.

In an endnote, Ricoeur distinguishes himself from E. D. Hirsch on this score: "the intention of the author is lost as a psychic event" (100). In actuality, Ricoeur and Hirsch share much in common, especially over and against those like Stanley Fish and Jacques Derrida who have more or less completely divorced the meaning of a text from its writer. But Ricoeur nevertheless draws a clear line between the psychic intention of an author and what we as readers actually have in front of us, namely, a text.

In Ricoeur's description, Romanticist hermeneutics draws a sharp distinction between explanation and understanding. Explanation is something you do in science (Naturwissenschaften). You make a hypothesis and test it. By contrast, understanding relates to the humanities (Geisteswissenschaften) where we understand the speaker on the basis of our common human experiences. Interpretation is then a subcategory of understanding in the case when we connect with the mind of the speaker indirectly through writing.

Ricoeur of course rejects this neat partitioning. "Understanding and explanation tend to overlap and to pass over into each other" (72). He thinks of understanding as comprehending a text as a whole, in one act of synthesis that pulls together the chain of partial meanings that go sentence by sentence. Explanation then, for him, is the unfolding of the range of propositions and meanings.

His understanding in this essay goes back to a maxim he set out in the first lecture: "If discourse is produced as an event, it is understood as meaning" (73). So in reading, in Ricoeur's terminology, understanding is the event of reading. "The first time, understanding will be a naive grasping of the meaning of the text as a whole" (74). "In the beginning, understanding is a guess."

Explanation is then, in his terminology, "is more directed toward the analytic structure of the text." (74). It relates to the meaning of the discourse (71). Meanwhile, he uses the term "comprehension" for "a sophisticated mode of understanding, supported by explanatory procedures." That is, after a circular process of understanding, then explaining, then understanding again, we move toward comprehending a text.

This entire process, in Ricoeur's terminology, is the process of interpretation. Interpretation is "the whole process that encompasses explanation and understanding" (74).

2. From Guess to Validation
So, according to Ricoeur, the first act of understanding a text takes the form of a guess. "With writing, the verbal meaning of the text no longer coincides with the mental meaning or intention of the text" (75). "Consequently, to understand is not merely to repeat the speech event in a similar event, it is to generate a new event beginning from the text in which the initial event has been objectified."

"The author can no longer 'rescue' his work" (75). Inevitably, the meaning of the text surpasses the intention of the author (thus the subtitle of this book, the "surplus of meaning"). The dialectic (back and forth) of erklären (explanation) and verstehen (understanding) begins with this surplus of meaning in the text over and against the author's intent. "Misunderstanding is possible and even unavoidable" (76).

Guess is unavoidable at the start. "To construe the meaning as the verbal meaning of the text is to make a guess" (76). "There are no rules for making good guesses." However, "there are methods for validating those guesses we do make."

"The transition from guessing to explaining is secured by an investigation of the specific object of guessing" (76). Ricoeur suggests three dimensions to that investigation. First, there is a conceptualization of the text as a whole. This is more than just a sense of a text sentence by sentence because "a work of discourse [emphasis on the word, "work"] is more than a linear sequence of sentences. It is a cumulative, holistic process."

A complex work will have a certain "plurivocity" that goes beyond the "polysemy" of individual words and the ambiguity of individual sentences. There is a circular process of reconstructing the text's architecture, a construal of the whole in a recognition of the parts and then the parts again in the light of the whole, and around again.

Second, the individual text is located within known genres of texts. One may know a type of work with certain general characteristics. How does this specific text stand within that genre? There is a "process of narrowing down the scope of generic concepts, which include the literary genre, the class of texts to which this text belongs, and the types of codes and structures that intersect in this text" (77).

There is a "perspectival" aspect to these processes. "The text as a whole and as a singular whole may be compared to an object, which may be viewed from several sides" (77). "A specific kind of onesidedness is implied in the act of reading. This onesidedness grounds the guess character of interpretation" (78).

Finally, there is the question of "potential horizons of meaning, which may be actualized in different ways" (78). Ricoeur especially seems to have the question of metaphor and symbolism in view here. Are there multiple meanings beyond the meaning in general? Metaphor and symbol "provide a decisive extension to the field of meaningful expressions." They "open the work to several readings."

In exploring all the dimensions of reading a text above, the guess of the reader is the starting point of interpretation in the back and forth (dialectic) between understanding in the light of explaining and then explaining in the light of understanding and so forth.

We test our guesses, looking for validation. Ricoeur agrees with Hirsch that this process is "closer to a logic of probability than to a logic of empirical verification" (78). That is to say, we will not find certainty in the meaning of the text, only perhaps probability of meaning. The "hermeneutical circle" is a dialog between a subjective approach to the text (the guess, the perspective, which relates to the Romanticist's Geisteswissenschaft) and the objective meaning of the text under investigation (which is something like the Romanticist's Naturwissenschaft). But these two converge rather than being clearly separate and distinct, as in Romanticist hermeneutics.

"To the procedures of validation there also belong procedures of invalidation similar to the criteria of falsifiability proposed by Karl Popper" (79). There is a competition between competing interpretations. "An interpretation must not only be probable, but more probable than another interpretation." "It is not true that all interpretations are equal."

3. From Explanation to Comprehension
Comprehension, for Ricoeur, is something like the goal of this dialog between understanding as a sense of the text's meaning as a whole and explanation as the unfolding of its parts. It is something like the goal of a reading process than has moved from guess to validation. Understanding in this process, for him, is the process of guessing meaning, while explaining is the process of validating or falsifying those guesses.

In his consideration of this goal of comprehension, Ricoeur returns to another dimension of communication from the first and second essays, namely, the dialectic between sense and reference. The second essay spoke of how "the referential function of written texts is deeply affected by the lack of situation common to both writer and reader" (80). It is even possible in some literary works for the referential intention to be suspended.

Ricoeur conceptualizes the dialog between explanation and comprehension to an adventure in the referential function of the text. He suggests two options for comprehending the text that open up when we consider the reference of the text from the standpoint of the reader.

The trajectory of this final part of the essay might be summed up in some statements at the end of the essay. "To understand a text is to follow its movement from sense to reference: from what it says, to what it talks about" (87-88). The world behind the text had to do with the author. A text in relation to a reader, however, for Ricoeur, does not point backward. It points forward. "The sense of a text is not behind the text, but in front of it" (87). It "points toward a possible world" for the reader.

While Ricoeur surely sees some relationship between this world the text creates and the event of text creation in its past, the final part of this essay seems to lose all track of the event of text creation and its encoded meaning. He suggests two attitudes in relation to the text as a reader, which form a sort of movement in his mind. [1]

First, he legitimates interpretations of texts that suspend the referential function altogether. Here he especially has in mind structuralist interpretations. "According to this choice, the text no longer has an exterior, it only has an interior" (81). [2]

For several pages, Ricoeur then addresses structuralist approaches to myth and narrative, which he considers examples of interpretations which suspend the referential function of language. He begins with Claude Lévi-Strauss' analyses of myth. Strauss analyzes the components of myth (mythemes) much like phonemes come together to make combinations of sounds and morphemes come together to make combinations of grammatical bits. Mythemes are for him the constituent units of the myth.

As an example, Ricoeur looks at Strauss' analysis of the Oedipus myth. Strauss makes four columns. In the first and second he puts family relationships that are over-esteemed and then under-esteemed. In the third and fourth columns he puts monsters with their destruction and then words relating to the difficulty of walking properly. Strauss sees polarities in these columns that imply a certain underlying explanation of the myth. (although Ricoeur would say, not an interpretation of it--we have not re-enacted it so that its power comes out)

As another example of suspension of the referential function, Ricoeur turns to the narrative analyses of Greimas. A narrative is segmented into units. The logic of action involves the linking together of action kernels. We see a certain underlying narrative logic. We also see relationships between the roles in the narrative, a "hierarchy of actors correlative to the hierarchy of actions" (85).

But these analyses, which suspend the referential dimension of the text, still point toward the reader in front of the text.

The second possibility that emerges from Ricoeur's analysis is that the text will be read against "a new situation" (81), namely, that of the reader. "Nobody stops with a conception of myths and narratives as formal as this algebra of constitutive units" (86). This whole "system of oppositions and combinations" points beyond itself to the underlying existential conflicts of human experience. The Oedipus myth would not be meaningful if it were not for the underlying human oppositions of "birth and death, blindness and lucidity, sexuality and truth." These are referential dimensions to the reader in front of the text.

"Could we not then say that the function of the structural analysis is to lead us from a surface semantics [the suspended referential dimension]... to a depth semantics, that of the boundary situations, which constitute the ultimate 'referent' of the myth?" (87).

So structural analysis is "one stage--albeit a necessary one--between a naive interpretation and a critical one, between a surface interpretation and a depth interpretation" (87). The structural analysis relates to the sense of the text and the depth interpretation relates to its reference. The depth interpretation "points toward a possible world."

"Understanding has less than ever to do with the author and his situation. It seeks to grasp the world-propositions opened up by the reference of the text. To understand a text is to follow its movement from sense to reference: from what it says, to what it talks about" (87-88). [3]

"What we have said about the depth semantics that structural analysis yields rather invites us to think of the sense of the text as an injunction coming from the text, as a new way of looking at things, as an injunction to think in a certain manner" (88). "The text speaks of a possible world and of a possible way of orientating oneself within it."

[1] In this last section, Ricoeur seems to lose sight of one particular kind of reading scheme whose goal is, as much as possible, to try to reconstruct the most likely intended, historical senses and references of the text.

[2] We can question whether or not it is really possible truly to suspend the referential function of a text. All readings of texts are, in the end, reader readings that presuppose a world. There is no text-in-itself, as far as meaning is concerned.

[3] It seems to me that Ricoeur here slightly alters his use of the word "understand" from the way he has used it earlier in this essay. Earlier, he has used it of the first guess at a text's meaning. It seems that he would be more consistent here if he used the word "comprehend" instead of "understand."

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