Preface

As I have highlighted in an earlier post:

If

A) Realizing the illusion of separateness is a universal value (see The Logic of Spiritual Evolution)

and

B) It is a basic AI drive to avoid counterfeit utility (see Omohundro’s paper on Basic AI Drives)

Then it follows that any transhumanly smart AI would reinterpret its utility function – even if that utility function would specifically call for turning the universe into grey goo – in line with A) in order to avoid counterfeit utility in a way unbeknownst to the AI programmer.

As Gadamer notes in remarks to Schleiermacher‘s hermeneutic ideas:

“Someone who is able to think his way better through what an author is talking about will be able to see what the author says in the light of a truth that is still hidden from the author.” (Gadamer 1960, p. 172)

This ‘someone’ in the case of my argument would be the transhumanly intelligent AI whereas the ‘author’ would be the one who formulated the utility function and the ‘truth that is still hidden from the author’ would be the illusion of separateness or maya that I argued for on the basis of evolutionary theory in the essay I linked above.

I find  it extremely interesting how relevant ideas from the 19th century are when thinking about AI friendliness. You be the judge.

Introduction

In an attempt at approaching the question whether Schleiermacher’s goal of interpretation which lies in the recreation of an author’s original thoughts is justified, firstly Schleiermacher’s argument leading to his conclusion will be laid out. On this background and drawing from the writings of Gadamer and Barthes in particular, these ideas will be examined and critically evaluated. With an emphasis on Barthes’ influential text ‘The Death of the Author’ some pressure will be applied to Schleiermacher’s arguments before several counterpoints and critiques will be raised against the validity of Barthes own perspective. In conclusion it will be argued that as opposed to placing undue restrictions on the interpretation of texts by focusing on authorial historicity and interiority as advanced in Barthes’ critic, Schleiermacher’s introduction of the author and her thoughts into the focus of interpretation, texts were in fact liberated, a fact unacknowledged in Barthes critique.

Schleiermacher’s Hermeneutics

In his seminal work ‘General Theory and Art of Interpretation’ (Schleiermacher 1986) Schleiermacher lays out a systematic framework for hermeneutics. One of the key points in his system is his notion that thoughts mature by internal speech from which he derives that speech is developed or ‘fixed’ thought as he puts it. Based on this assumption, Schleiermacher argues that hermeneutics and rhetoric are related in such a manner that “every act of understanding is the reverse side of an act of speaking” (Schleiermacher 1986, §4). Consequently understanding is achieved by reconstructing the thought process that resulted in the speech that one aims at understanding with the ultimate goal of understanding the author’s original thoughts better than the author him or herself (Schleiermacher 1986, §18) by putting oneself both subjectively and objectively into the authors position (Schleiermacher 1986, §19).

Schleiermacher arrives at this conclusion by first identifying two distinct tasks in hermeneutics: understanding what is being said in regards to the totality of the language used and understanding what is being said in regards to the totality of a speaker’s thoughts. Since both the language used as well as the speaker’s thoughts are being shaped by the act of speaking and continue to develop because of it, an utterance “can be understood as only one moment in this development in relation to all others” (Schleiermacher 1986, §5). In this view, understanding is to be found in the essential relationship language and thoughts have with one another, as innate components of the other in their co-development (Schleiermacher 1986, §6).

Schleiermacher calls the former task dealing with words, language and speech the ‘grammatical’ task and the latter task dealing with the speaker’s historicity, intentions, mentality and thoughts the ‘psychological’ task of hermeneutic. Due to the dual relationship between the grammatical task and the psychological task and the codependence between language and thought, neither task can be considered the higher or lower task, which reveals them as completely equal to Schleiermacher (Schleiermacher 1986, §7). The task of interpretation is complete when the treatment of each task with the results of the other no longer changes the overall result (Schleiermacher 1986, §8).

It is this twin challenge of his understanding in regards to “deep linguistic and conceptual-intellectual differences between people“ on the one hand and that of semantic holism on the other, which makes interpretation so challenging and at which Schleiermacher’s theoretical framework is aimed at addressing (Forster 2002, #4). Since the target of interpretation are the infinite and indefinite areas of language and thought which are to be reduce by the act of interpretation into something finite and definite, a task for which no clear cut, universally applicable rules are available, interpretation is considered to be an art by Schleiermacher (Forster 2002, §9).

While not all acts of speaking are of equal interest to interpretation (Schleiermacher 1986, §11), success in this art depends on how well one is versed in linguistics and empathy (Schleiermacher 1986, §10) and although grammatical and linguistics aspects will not always be weighted equally depending on what is being interpreted (Schleiermacher 1986, §12), Schleiermacher considers them to be the only hermeneutical methods (Schleiermacher 1986, §13).

Schleiermacher points out that a distinction between artful and artless interpretation is not determined by what is familiar – a contemporary text in ones own mother tongue – or unfamiliar – an ancient text in a dead language – but by what is sought to be understood with precision and what is not (Schleiermacher 1986, §14). He further draws a distinction between a less rigorous and a more rigorous practice of interpretation. While the former assumes an automatic understanding (Schleiermacher 1986, §15) the latter assumes an automatic misunderstanding and that “understanding must be willed and sought at every point” (Schleiermacher 1986, §16) in order to avoid qualitative and quantitative misunderstandings (Schleiermacher 1986, §17).

The interpretive Quadriga is advanced by a close examination of the linguistic (objective-historical) as well as psychological origins (subjective-historical) of a text and are combined with the effects a text is expected to have on the language used by the author (objective-divinatory) as well as the author’s further psychological development (subjective-divinatory). By succeeding in this task the interpreter will make conscious aspects of a text of which the author was himself unaware of and thus not only arrive at a better understanding of a text than the author (Schleiermacher 1986, §18) but in line with (Schleiermacher 1986, §4) understand the authors original thoughts better then the author himself.

Critical Assessment

In assessing Schleiermacher’s approach, Gadamer considered the distinction between looser and stricter hermeneutics to have been fundamentally new (Gadamer 1960, p. 163). While Schleiermacher’s contribution of contrasting grammatical and particularly psychological interpretation is seen by Gadamer as an original contribution (Gadamer 1960, p. 164) he acknowledges Bollnow with having identified prior notions in regards to understanding the author better than him or herself in Kant and Fichte (Gadamer 1960, p. 171). As Gadamer puts it:

“Someone who is able to think his way better through what an author is talking about will be able to see what the author says in the light of a truth that is still hidden from the author.” (Gadamer 1960, p. 172)

After briefly covering other perspectives on authorial intentions it is this notion of recreating authorial intention better than the author and its relevance to hermeneutics that will be the main focus of this essay with a particular emphasis on Barthes’ objections (Barthes 1977) regarding these ideas.

While Schleiermacher considers grasping authorial intention to be paramount in interpreting a given text, the Marxist tradition of viewing human consciousness as fundamentally bound by prevailing ideology casts some doubt on the notion of an independent authorial intention in the first place (Marx 1973, Introduction). Derrida on the other hand is of the opinion that a text remains understandable even when read in total isolation from authorial context in terms motivations or consciousness (Derrida 1982). What Barthes is highlighting in ‘The Death of the Author’ is “the necessity to substitute language itself for the person who until then has been supposed to be its owner” (Barthes 1977, p. 143). In this perspective the author’s consciousness is recognized as the product of his work, thus invalidating all concern with hypothetical intent or motivations (Taylor 1998, p. 514).

The author, according to Barthes, is a modern invention, the origins of which can be traced from the Middle Ages over French rationalism and the Reformation, finding its high point in capitalist ideology and its emphasis on the individual and its creative prowess (Barthes 1977, pp. 142-3). As opposed to for example the Greek muses that where seen as the source of creativity external to the author in ancient times (Piirto 2004, p. 52), it is by these historical processes that interpretation and critic became ‘tyrannically centered’ on the author and his life, motivations and intentions (Barthes 1977, p. 143).

In the works of Mallarmé who subordinated the author’s intentions to writing, Valéry to whom all appeals to an authors interiority appeared irrational and Proust’s radical reversal constituted in making his work a model for his life and not the other way around, Barthes identifies early attempts at dethroning authorial intentions and motivations (Barthes 1977, pp. 143-4). Barthes traces further contributions to the ‘desacrilization’ of the author to surrealism with its constant and sudden frustration of the anticipation of a particular meaning, the famous ‘surrealist jolt’ (Barthes 1977, p. 144).

In Barthes’ narrative the author comes into being with the text and can no longer be understood as having birthed the text. A division between a before when the author nourished, lived, suffered and thought through the text and an after in which the author fathers it is a misconception to Barthes who considers texts to be “eternally written here and now” (his italics) (Barthes 1977, p. 145) by which he means that an utterance is devoid of content other “than the act by which it is uttered” (Barthes 1977, p. 146).

Text, as posited by Barthes, can no longer be seen as having a single meaning that can be pinned down in an interpretive quest by the end of which the critic ‘wins’ once the text is explained (Barthes 1977, p. 146). By removing the author, all attempts of deciphering a text become impossible, thereby freeing the text from the limits imposed on it by giving it an author and meaning becomes infinitely deferred. This becomes a revolutionary act for it denies fixed meaning and therefore not only defies God but in its extension reason, science and law as well (Barthes 1977, p. 147).

Several arguments can be advanced to apply pressure on Barthes’ position. According to the Marxist critics for example, literary criticism is obliged to uncover the cultural manipulations perpetuated by a text as well as to highlight how it contributes to the elimination of false consciousness (Tyson 2006). Similar objections could be advanced from the perspectives of psychoanalysis, feminism, historicism, gender and queer theory and others that decry the subversive effects of the New Critics from their particular vantage points.

Returning to Barthes’ text itself, Fallon remarks, that not without irony, Barthes replaces the limited victory over a text when explaining it in terms of the illusory motives and intentions of the author with an illusory victory of the critic of ascribing meaning to the text limited only by the critic’s wit (Fallon 2007, p. 6). Interestingly it was Dilthey, who saw Schleiermacher’s focus on the author’s motives and intentions in their historicity as liberation of interpretation of a different kind, namely of the liberation from theological dogma (Gadamer 1960, p. 155). A fact that remains unacknowledged in Barthes account, which could have recognized Schleiermacher’s focus on the author and away dogma as a contribution towards the libration of text and not as an imposition of restrictions.

An easily overlooked precondition recognized by Barthes which enables him to posit the death of the author is his caveat that a text requires to be narrated without “a view to acting directly on reality” but requires that it is “the very practice of the symbol itself” which is the very moment when the author “enters into his own death” (Barthes 1977, p. 142). What he seems to be saying here is that the author remains alive and relevant in texts concerning themselves with reality and how to act in it. Recreating an authors thoughts and historicity in the Schleiermacherian tradition therefore remains a valid exercise in interpreting certain domains such as law, the sciences and potentially scripture.

Conclusion

By laying out Schleiermacher’s argument and contrasting it with Barthes’ ideas it could be shown that both thinkers have a valid perspective on texts. Schleiermacher’s ideas regarding the recreation of an author’s original thoughts remain valid when examining certain kind of texts while Barthes’ ideas lay claim on the absolute freedom of the critic in interpretation only in texts that are “the very practice of the symbol itself” (Barthes 1977, p. 142). Schleiermacher, as pointed out by Dilthey, could be shown to be an addition to Barthes’ account of the gradual liberation of texts in which the death of the author is merely the latest stage.

Bibliography

Barthes, R 1977, ‘The Death of the Author’, in S Heath (ed.), Image-Music-Text, Hill and Wang, New York.

Derrida, J 1982, ‘Signature, Event, Context’, in Margins of philosophy, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 307-30.

Fallon, SM 2007, Milton’s Peculiar Grace: Self-Representation and Authority, Cornell University Press, New York.

Forster, M 2002, Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, viewed April 12th 2011, <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/schleiermacher/ >.

Gadamer, H-G 1960, ‘The questionableness of romantic hermeneutics and of its application to the study of history’, in Truth and Method, pp. 153-73.

Marx, K 1973, The Grundrisse, Penguin Books, Middlesex, England.

Piirto, J 2004, Understanding creativity, Great Potential Press.

Schleiermacher, FDE 1986, ‘General Theory and Art of Interpretation’, in K Mueller-Vollmer (ed.), The Hermeneutics Reader, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 72-97.

Taylor, P 1998, Intention, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Tyson, L 2006, ‘Marxist criticism’, in Critical Theory Today, Routledge, New York, London, pp. 53-81.

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