PREMISE / Volume II, Number 8 / September 27, 1995 / Page 12
by G. D. Robinson
Hermeneutics is both science and art. In many ways this beguilingly simple statement is responsible for the modern ferment in hermeneutics - a process begun with F. Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and his attempt to gain meaning through understanding the mind of the author; given significant impetus more recently in the seminal work of Hans-Georg Gadamer and his call for a dialectic between the horizons of the text and reader; and radicalized in the increasingly reader-response oriented hermeneutics of today.
The French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, while essentially operating from within the reader oriented end of the spectrum, is uncomfortable with the intrinsic subjectivity associated with such hermeneutics and seeks to walk the fine line between a call for objectivity (grounded in some way in the text), and yet at the same time seeking to remain "open" to what the text may have to say. Ricoeur's hermeneutic of suspicion represents his attempt to retain both science and art, whilst disallowing either an absolute status; "Hermeneutics seems to me to be animated by this double motivation: willingness to suspect, willingness to listen; vow of rigor, vow of obedience." Distilling the essence of Ricouer's hermeneutics here stated, A. Thisleton notes that:
The first addresses the task of 'doing away with idols,' namely, becoming critically aware of when we project our own wishes and constructs into texts, so that they no longer address us from beyond ourselves as "other." The second concerns the need to listen in openness to symbol and to narrative and thereby to allow creative events to occur "in front of" the text, and to have their effect on us.
It is this hermeneutic of "critical openness," of "suspicion and hope" that I wish to examine briefly below. It is hoped that by examining Ricoeur's own heroes of suspicion, how his hermeneutic applies to certain genres of text, the implications of suspicion with respect to epistemology, and finally, how a hermeneutic of suspicion works out in a suspicion of ideology, that both the strengths and limitations of such a hermeneutic for Biblical studies will be made clear.
Paul Ricoeur's Masters of Suspicion
In his highly influential work, Freud and Philosophy, Ricoeur (1970) draws attention to three key intellectual figures of the twentieth century who, in their different ways, sought to unmask, demystify, and expose the real from the apparent; "Three masters, seemingly mutually exclusive, dominate the school of suspicion: Marx, Nietzche, and Freud."
What was it in these three 'masters of suspicion' that so impressed Ricoeur? The answer to this question is not insignificant since it would appear that the suspicion displayed by these three serve as paradigms for Ricoeur's own hermeneutic. David Stewart has addressed this question directly and has demonstrated how each of these masters sought to find or explain the true meaning of religion by stripping away the false meaning.
Very briefly, Marx's analysis of religion led him to the conclusion that while religion appeared to be concerned with the lofty issues of transcendence and personal salvation, in reality its true function was to provide a "flight from the reality of inhuman working conditions" and to make "the misery of life more endurable." Religion in this way served as "the opium of the people."
Similarly, Nietzche's understanding of the true purpose of religion as the elevation of "weakness to a position of strength, to make weakness respectable" belied its apparent purpose, namely to make life for the 'slave morality', the weak, the unfit, a little more endurable by promoting virtues such as pity, industry, humility, and friendliness. Thus Nietzche unmasks religion to reveal it as the refuge of the weak.
Likewise with Freud, the same pattern of "unmasking" to reveal and distinguish "the real" from the "apparent" is evident in his analysis of religion. So, while religion was perceived to be a legitimate source of comfort and hope when one is faced with the difficulties of life, in reality religion was an illusion that merely expressed one's wish for a father-God. It was only a small step for Ricoeur to recognize the suspicion of religion and culture offered by the heroes and then apply the same principle to the act of communication under the rubric of a hermeneutics of suspicion.
Furthermore, Ricoeur insisted that it would be a mistake to view the three as masters of skepticism. Why is this? Because, while it is true they are involved with destroying established ideas "All three clear the horizon for a more authentic word, for a new reign of Truth, not only by means of a 'destructive' critique, but by the invention of an art of interpreting." In other words, each of the masters have, in their own way, unmasked a false consciousness, a false understanding of the "text" (society) by systematically applying a critique of suspicion, with the result that the true understanding, one that more faithfully tracks and correlates with the real situation now becomes unmasked and revealed. All three, for Ricoeur, "represent three convergent procedures of demystification."
Such a hermeneutic when applied to a text gives rise to the possibility of a "second naivete" whereby the goal of interpretation may be reached, namely "a world in front of the text, a world that opens up new possibilities of being." What is an appropriate response to Ricoeur's analysis from an evangelical perspective? It seems to me that Ricoeur's insight here is an essentially valid one. It is simply too easy when reading a (biblical) text, especially one that we are familiar with, to do so with a rigidity and complacency that tends to "freeze" its meaning irrevocably. To approach the text with suspicion - to query whether what the text appears to say really does correspond with its true message - seems to be both a valid and necessary hermeneutical process.
Ricoeur's three masters highlight another important aspect of this question of suspicion, namely that suspicion needs to operate with a bi-polar focus. Just as Marx, Nietzche and Freud in their own contexts criticized both the participants (society at large, or individuals) and "the system" (religion), so we too need to be aware that suspicion has a dual focus as we approach a text; I need to apply suspicion to myself -am I imposing a meaning upon this text? And a suspicion to the text - is the text really saying this? Both poles of suspicion are valid and necessary if we are to hear afresh what God may seek to communicate to us. Ricoeur is in a way merely reminding us, in a startling manner no doubt, of the reality of the hermeneutical circle. We must approach the text critically and suspiciously in order that its message may truly be heard, and so that our own pre-understandings and certainties do not mask the truth.
Suspicion, Metaphor and Parable
Ricoeur's hermeneutic of suspicion finds expression in his understanding of metaphor in tensive terms. Ricoeur believes that intrinsic to metaphor is both an "is like" element and an "is not" element. The former points to the literary vehicle used to convey the metaphor, while the latter indicates that the referent of the metaphor is not to be found in literal terms. This tension projects 'a world in front of the text' which is the true metaphorical referent. For Ricoeur, "the metaphorical meaning and reference await appropriation through the recontextualizing activity of the current reader."
By this interaction with the world in front of the text, Ricoeur seeks for a "metaphor-faith beyond demythologization, a second naivete beyond iconoclasm" - a stress on the "is like." However, Ricoeur simultaneously seeks to stress the critical "is not" aspect and thus renders his hermeneutic an open system which seeks to avoid a naive credulity. This tension finds expression in three spheres: (i) within poetic language, (ii) between interpretations of this language, and (iii) between these
interpretations and the lives of the readers or listeners. These tensions find resolution in the present by the creation of new meanings and new referents.
Ricoeur identifies biblical "limit expressions" where tensions intrinsic to metaphor especially apply, namely proverbs, eschatological sayings, and parables. In applying his hermeneutic of metaphor to parables, Ricoeur sees the "is like" component in the narrative form of the parable (the model), and the "is not" in the way the narrative form is transgressed (the qualifier) by the intrusion of the extraordinary or even scandalous. These dual components leads to the tension between the "closedness" of the narrative form and the "openness" of the metaphorical process. Again, the tension leads to the projection of a world in front of the text between the interpreter/hearer and the text itself whereby the referent of the parable becomes apparent. Ricoeur's definition of a parable as "the conjunction between a narrative form, a metaphysical process, and an appropriate qualifier" is thus seen to be consistent with both his overall hermeneutic of suspicion and his specific understanding of how metaphor functions.
Having outlined Ricoeur's approach to metaphor, and more specifically, to the genre of parable, several responses seem appropriate. First, Ricoeur's insight into the dual aspects of metaphor as simultaneously containing an aspect of familiarity and an aspect that points beyond the familiar is helpful; I suspect Luther's insistence on "this is my body" in literal terms would have been modified in the light of Ricoeur's insight into the fundamentally dual nature of metaphor! In addition, much of the fanciful interpretations associated with expositions of the book of Revelation by some Bible teachers would benefit from Ricoeur's understanding here. Furthermore, Ricoeur's application of this principle to parables is also helpful. Many parables are indeed characterized by the model/qualifier structure with the resultant call for the reader to recognize and enter into the metaphoric process.
Despite these positive aspects of Ricoeur's understanding of metaphor and parable, there are aspects of his hermeneutic that needs to be seriously questioned. The first concerns the insistence that the dynamic between reader and text is characterized by "openness" and in principle cannot be closed. This is related on the one hand to Ricoeur's high view of the role of the reader in his hermeneutic, and on the other to his conviction that "the written text becomes a disembodied voice, detached from the author and the author's situation" once written.
Interestingly, while both Ian Ramsay (whose metaphoric model of "is like" and "is not" Ricoeur applies to his own hermeneutic) and Ricoeur recognize the existence of the deliberate disjuncture and tension introduced into a parable by way of a qualifier, their conclusions regarding the function the qualifier serves in the parable differ significantly.
For Ramsay, the function of the qualifier is to lead, by means of a logical process, to "God", the word that 'completes' and 'presides over' all language. For Ricoeur, on the other hand, the function of the qualifier is to rupture the logic of the narrative and disorient the reader or listener. While both Ramsay and Ricoeur agree that the qualifier is the means by which language is pushed to its limit, the former advocates a closed system of hermeneutics and the latter an open system.
Ricoeur's dialectical approach to the text, together with his desire to avoid absolutizing either text or the interpreting self, leads him to an intrinsic "openness" regarding the meaning of a parable - and, in fact, to all written texts where distanciation is present. In his desire to find meaning, not in the text itself, but in front of the text, Ricoeur in fact allows for an inescapable relativizing of the text's message. As the reader's context changes so does the world in front of the text and in reality the "is not" is allowed to dominate at the expense of the "is like." Ricoeur wishes to maintain the tension, but in reality the tension is finally resolved in favor of the "new meaning" generated in the flux between reader and text; an intrinsic destabilizing of the text's message and an associated relativizing of that message inevitably follows.
While it is true that certain biblical texts do seem to invite a reader response, the responses called for in the biblical text are guided and even determined, not by the reader, but by the text itself. It is the text that controls the appropriate response on the part of the reader, and the reader's response is not allowed to be an arbitrary one. Furthermore, many texts are only indirectly calling for a reader's response since those passages are more historically oriented (e.g., Pentateuch) or didacticly oriented (e.g., Pauline epistles). The reader is not free to establish new meaning on the basis of a dynamic interplay in front of the text. While the text's own, fixed meaning needs to be applied, Ricoeur seems to confuse meaning with application or contextualization.
There is a certain "givenness" about biblical texts that opposes a plurality of meaning being sought on the basis of the reader's response. Thisleton summarizes the concern well:
The theological understanding of biblical texts as given, then, does not short circuit questions about the reader and the reader's response . . . Nevertheless these considerations (related to the givenness of the biblical texts) place serious question marks against theories which attempt to dispense altogether with authors or with extra-linguistic contexts of situation.
Ricoeur's hermeneutic of suspicion is, ironically, in fact too open and functions as an eternal hermeneutical circle, and fails to realize that hermeneutical procedures may be developed that lead not to an endless circle, but a spiral, where in principle a determinative meaning, coincident with the author's intended meaning, may justifiably be sought and found.
Suspicion and Epistemology
Just as Ricoeur's hermeneutic of suspicion led him to seek to maintain the tension between absolutizing the reader or the text in the process of gaining meaning, so also the shadow of the same hermeneutic may be seen to operate regarding the question of methodology in gaining knowledge. Put simply, Ricoeur is "suspicious" of an epistemology that relies exclusively on "explanation" on the one hand, and "understanding" on the other.
This distinction between explanation and understanding arose in debates in the last century over theories regarding an adequate epistemology with one wing arguing that positivistic, methodologically oriented scientific explanation was adequate for interpreting phenomenon, while proponents of the humanities argued that scientific explanation was adequate as far as it went, but could not account for the whole of reality and human experience - they called for a theory of understanding where teleological purposes and imagination play a legitimate role in human knowledge.
Ricoeur saw this contrast between understanding and explanation exemplified in the hermeneutical approaches of Gadamer and Habermas respectively - the "ascending" and "descending" pathways of hermeneutical reflection. Gadamer's "openness" and lack of methodological interest in establishing how knowledge (and its immediate corollary, the interpretation of that knowledge) is gained may be discerned in this statement by him:
In language there is, first of all, both langue and parole, to use Saussure's distinction. The spoken word (parole) is something other than the system of symbols (langue) that constitute language. . . . Speech exists in texts. Yes, certainly, but the texts are alien or brutal. How is this speech, the speaking word, really preserved in the written text? Is it completely the utterance of my mind? Are we not all acquainted with the alienation between what we said and what we had in mind? . . . We must always look for the real meaning of an utterance.
The problem Ricoeur (rightly) has with Gadamer's hermeneutic is that it offers no methodology for gaining real meaning - how are we to know "the real meaning of an utterance"? Gadamer's approach offers no check to the advances of positivistic epistemologies into the area of the human sciences - it is too subjective.
Habermas's approach, by contrast, does actively involve the positive sciences and does lead toward an epistemology of methods. Whilst there are several aspects of Habermas's approach that Ricoeur agrees with (e.g. his interest in linguistics which matches well with Ricoeur's own attempt to work out a "transcendental semiology"), Ricoeur nevertheless faults Habermas for the error of "identifying the problem of understanding with the problem of understanding another . . . He thinks in too exclusive a sense, that the meaning of a transmission must be the meaning that other subjects have put there." This too, is ultimately a subjective and uncritical approach to meaning.
Ricoeur's own approach would seek to avoid the lack of methodology of Gadamer (with its attendant lack of objectivity), and the lack of criticality of Habermas who too readily confuses meaning with the text itself. Instead Ricoeur strives for a method whereby "one will both uncover the ontological structures of meaning and perhaps succeed in giving an interpretation of a 'sort of being-in-the-world unfolded in front of the text.'" Semiology, a linguistic tool that strives for meaning on the basis of the text alone (apart from its authorial intent, or solely in the intent of the reader), Ricoeur believes can provide for both "participation" in the intentions of the speaker and independence from the particular references which the speaker actually had in mind. Through such a dialectical method of text/symbol-reader interaction, "we will have a form of knowing in which the subject will possess truth both in the manner of a participation and in the manner of a truth critically reached."
Certainly Ricoeur is correct in recognizing the excessively subjective nature of Gadamer's approach, but one suspects that Ricoeur's own concern to avoid subjectivity in his call for "participation" with the speaker's intention while at the same time refusing to locate that participation with authorial referents can be equally criticized as being too subjective. Ultimately, if authorial intent is not grounded upon the clues given by the author in his text as to the referents of his statements, then meaning and referent are bound to "free-float" wherever the interpreter decides they will go. And this latter point is true irrespective of any (Semiotic) theory of language used to justify the dissociation of the text's writings from the original author's intended meaning and referent. Habermas is not to be faulted in seeking to understand another (though he may be faulted for failure to be suspicious enough of his own pre-understandings in approaching the text), and his approach is not to be viewed as a type of epistemology of "explanation" with its assumed simplistic and inadequate methodology.
Ricoeur, wishing to avoid the subjectivity associated with an "understanding" epistemology, actually cannot avoid this subjectivity because of his seeking objectivity and a critical methodology, not in terms of authorial intent established by sensitively "listening" to the author express himself in his text, but in terms of an impersonal linguistic analysis. Ironically, by pushing the author 'out of the way,' Ricoeur effectively ensures the subjectivity of the interpreter prevails, even through the use of a "scientific" tool (Semiotics).
Suspicion and Ideology
The influence of Ricoeur's hermeneutic of suspicion beyond the immediate confines of reader-text dynamic may be seen in the various strands of liberation theology - black, feminist, or Latin American. Nowhere is this more clearly visible than in the suspicion of ideology that undergirds the socio-critical hermeneutics of Uraguayan theologian Juan Segundo. According to J. O'Donnell, who has examined the influence of Ricoeur's interpretation of Freud on Segundo's writings, Segundo deliberately based his theology of liberation upon Ricoeur's hermeneutic of suspicion.
Segundo's thrust is directed not so much to establishing a theological "system" (though of course he cannot avoid this), but rather his interest is focused towards theological method; if one's theological method is invalid then the theological superstructure built upon it will inevitably be invalid also. Furthermore, Segundo insists that theological method is a function of ideology. With these presuppositions, it is clear why a hermeneutic that evaluates ideology suspiciously - i.e. critically - becomes so attractive for Segundo. In fact "Analytical instruments of suspicion . . . designed to discard . . . the commonplace, the tranquilizing escapisms, the false explanations" are called for.
Working through Freudian categories of psychic transformation that centers around a demystifying, unmasking hermeneutic that aims at making the individual accept reality, that is, realize that things are not as they appear, Segundo develops his "reality principle." This calls for a certain humility that allows for the deciphering of hidden meaning in an apparent meaning as societal ideology (the "text") is interpreted with suspicion.
In the light of this analysis theological categories such as sin, faith, grace, church, eschatology all become reinterpreted in a way consistent with the unmasking and demystifying of traditional ideological frameworks that maintain and promote the exploitation and oppression of the poor. Segundo maintains that "the alienating sin of the world is ideology." As a consequence "Liberation means, therefore, to opt for the exercise of an ideological suspicion in order to unmask the unconscious ideological structures which dominate and which favor a powerful, privileged minority."
Liberation theologians, of course, also apply their hermeneutic of suspicion to the biblical text. An instance of such an application has been evaluated by M. Bleyker regarding a favorite text, Luke 4:16-30 (Jesus' inaugural ministry in Nazareth). Bleyker notes that "Liberation theology calls for a hermeneutic of suspicion because it feels that North American and European theologians have been unduly influenced in their hermeneutics by a capitalist mind-set."
Once more both the strength and weakness of Ricoeur's hermeneutic of suspicion manifests itself in this area of theological discourse. Without a doubt, the liberation theologian's insights concerning the tendency of (any) ideology to blindly maintain the status quo, usually in its favor, is a valid and necessary one. Here the hermeneutics of suspicion, whether oriented directly to a critique of ideology, or indirectly via a suspicion of biblical texts viewed traditionally (and uncritically) within a fixed ideological grid, does indeed serve to unmask false or distorted interpretations of society or text.
Unfortunately, by failing to consciously seek to ground a legitimate critique within the biblical message itself, liberation theologians become prey to a non-biblical ideology (often Marxist in flavor), and end up merely exchanging one self-serving ideology for another! This new perspective/ideology then, ironically, becomes frozen, with the result that "In the interpretation of the biblical message suspicion is often cast upon the hermeneutics of anyone who may happen to arrive at a contrary conclusion concerning that message."
What is needed is both a hermeneutic of suspicion, but also a suspicion of that suspicion! This is so because it is too easy for the reader/interpreter to merely substitute one understanding of a text on the basis of a critique promoted by suspicion, for another equally invalid understanding imposed upon the text by the reader who (probably unknowingly) brings to the text his own distinctive interests, emphases, prejudices and theological pre-understandings.
To avoid a premature and invalid interpretation, two factors need to be operative; first, a continual attitude of suspicion - a suspicion of suspicion. In this respect Ricoeur is right in recognizing the need for a prominent place in "openness." But second, and equally important, a valid move, migration, or spiral must be made towards determining the biblical text's message. It is on this latter score that Ricoeur's hermeneutic ultimately flounders, and this due to his erroneous belief that text and author become divorced once written and hence that authorial intent is, even in principle, impossible to achieve. This, in turn, leads him to seek meaning in a world created in front of the text.
Under such hermeneutical conditions, a radical and inherent relativism and subjectivism is unavoidable, allowing the reader to dictate, ultimately, what the text is allowed to mean. In the end, Ricoeur's hermeneutic of suspicion that attempts to find the balance between "explanation" and "understanding", science and art, falls on the side of the perpetual and inescapable openendedness of art. The hermeneutics of suspicion needs to be balanced by a hermeneutic that is grounded in the recognition that written texts represent valid expressions of their author's intent, and that principles may be established that would guide the reader to that intent. The science and art of hermeneutics is to be more than an eternal hermeneutical circle; it should move towards the closure implied by a spiral. A hermeneutic of suspicion helps in this move, but alone is ultimately inadequate for the task.
Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove: IVP, 1991), 368-369. See also Osborne's excellent chart on p. 396 depicting the move away from the centrality of the text towards the centrality of the reader (and vice-versa) in modern hermeneutics.