Thursday, May 10, 2007

Siris on Clarity

Siris has an interesting post on clarity. Following from Nigel Warburton's claim that "[c]larity is expressing yourself in a way that allows readers to follow what you are saying," Siris raises the important question: who are the readers? Can I take any clear account in analytic philosophy, walk the streets, give it to any randomly chosen passerby, and expect them to say, "Yeah, this is clear; I know exactly what they are saying!" No, since understanding and seeingly clear what another is saying depends on the background familiarity of the reader.

Ricoeur talks about this in terms of mimesis3: "the intersection of the world of the text and the world of the hearer or reader; the intersection, therefore, of the world configured by the poem and the world wherein real action occurs and unfolds" (71). It is the point where the understanding of the reader, including the kinds of texts, disciplines, and ways of thinking that they are familiar with, comes to bear on the text and influences how it is seen. This is seen particularly in literature, but also in the sciences: a proponent of string theory will approach a text on quantum physics quite differently from one that follows a Copenhagen-type approach; a philosopher of science and scientific history will read the same text in a different way, as different aspects of the text will be more salient than others.

Siris brings up the question of taste, which I think is relevant. Gadamer, in Truth and Method, gives a similar account (also relying on the Scottish philosophy): "The concept of taste undoubtedly implies a mode of knowing. The mark of good taste is being able to stand back from ourselves and our private preferences. Thus taste, in its essential nature, is not private but a social phenomenon of the first order" (36). Gadamer then goes on to recount how taste became a "subjective" thing, particularly through Kant. The essential tie to both ethics, epistemology, and, Heidegger and Gadamer both argue, ontology is lost in the wake of modernity's subjectivism and individualism.

Many readers decry Heidegger's enigmatic writing style, stumbling over neologisms and such. But once you really dwell with his writings and get a feel (or a sense) for both what he is saying and, perhaps more particularly, how he is saying it, then it is much clearer (though still not easy). The same must be true of analytical texts: it takes time, it takes developing (literally) the skills to see what the author is saying so that, even if the sentence structure is not spot on, you can still understand what they are saying. Then, when asked to demonstrate that we are reading correctly (that we really have this sense of the text), we will eventually be pushed to (a variation on) Wittgenstein's claim: "This is simply what I [sense]."

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2 Comments:

Blogger Nathan said...

Hey Kevin,

This seems (to me anyway) a problem concerning literary theory. With the advent of the death of the author interpretation is is up for grabs, providing of course the claim is not too outrageous.
If I understand this correctly, the reader would need to have an understanding of the author's history to a certain extent, however this means nothing to those studying literature. As a reader I don't need to have any background familiarity, I can clearly understand and know exactly what they are saying. Unfortunately on the basis of my own world view.

It's a struggle I have being a student of philosophy and a student of literature.

Cheers, Nathan.

10:03 AM  
Blogger Kevin Winters said...

Nathan,

The question that Ricoeur is raising is whether the three-fold hermeneutic structure (mimesis) does not extend beyond mere literary theory. As you do more with Heidegger you will probably find that hermeneutics can extend beyond its usual boundaries.

I'm not so sure about the "death of the author" movement. While it is granted that no author is self-contained and that trying to find the intended meaning of a work is misguided (there are too many un-saids behind every said), that does not mean that the author is "dead" nor that there are no good or bad interpretations of their work.

The most basic understanding that we share with other people in other cultures is the practical field: the field of embodied movement and action. We must share at least this if we are going to understand a text. Beyond that there are more intricate details such as how certain actions are valued (and others not valued, or even derided), how they understand their world, etc.

That said, one of the aspects of mimesis3 is the fact that the work has been released from the context of its creation. It is sent out into a world that may not understand it, that may misunderstand it, or that may even distort its meaning by appropriating it within a wrong context (like the Bible and modern science, as if the Biblical authors shared our ontology, or Nietzsche's work among the Nazi's, as if Nietzsche never wrote against nationalism). No, we cannot completely understand another person anymore than they can completely understand themselves. But we must be capable of sharing an at least similar horizon or else we would lose the ability to communicate; our worlds would be too dissimilar to be meaningful to the other.

12:40 PM  

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