Hermeneutics and distractions

I will begin be begging pardon for the pun that is soon to follow. Pardoned only by the pun, I think you’ll find. As a proposition it is unfair, and not just that, it is incorrect (The cardigan-clad philosophers that haunt these corridors tell me that “unfair” is a thick concept. Not as in “stupid”, but as in “carrying layers of meaning”. Which is very sensible in this climate of ours. Come to think of it, may I start calling the philosophers “thick” due to their mode of dress? I believe they might take offense. And that settles it.  Anyway: “Unfair” is both a moral concept and a descriptive one. To be unfair is to be bad in a certain way). Have you quite brazed yourself? Good. As I read your last letter I thought “Ah, more morose Rose”. I am so very sorry, after having hatched the notion there was no possibility of not writing it down and sending it to you.

On the subject of life experience, I must say that a life is a very unreliable method for accumulating data in anything resembling a scientific manner. A younger colleague pointed me towards an episode of the really quite admirable TV-show “the Simpsons” where an older man is taken in as a writer on a fiction-within-fiction TV-show. The producer says to they younger writers something like “This man has what you lack: life-experience”. And one of the younger writers retorts “Hey, I wrote my thesis on life-experience”. The comic effect to one side, it’s not entirely a misguided reaction.

Experience, I find, is often misguided and abused, as people tend to think that it automatically provides their beliefs with weight. It weighs your beliefs down, certainly, but it doesn’t by itself generate validity. People develop all kinds of prejudices and biases and become rigid and settled in their beliefs, which means they become less sensitive to experience. Becoming settled is a good thing only if the beliefs are kept in principle open for revision. The same things, by the way, holds for societies, I believe.

As to when to read what, Bloom certainly has a point (he usually does) but he also misses one (he usually does that to). We call it the “hermeneutic circle”: to understand a text, you need to have read and understood other texts. Ideally all other texts. So how do you start? Well, you start by reading something that is inevitably over your head. Something that you don’t quite understand and then you start generating meaning around it. Make things up and tell people about it. Those people will tell you that you are mistaken, and then you are already into the marvelous hermeneutic merry-go-round. Eventually you will have read quite a bit, and can return to the things you started with, as you say. Like the notorious river in Heraclitus (which is the only acceptable name for the kind of piercing we where discussing the other day, by the way. Not quite Cockney-Rhyming-Slang, but near enough), stepping down into the same book is always something new. Neither we nor the book is ever quite the same. I read “Faust” in German when I was 16 and knew extremely little German and, sure enough, understood very little. But not nothing.

I see you’re still into scanning the web for things to read. Good for you (And for me, seeing how that’s how we met, remember?)! I came across this kill-joy of a person called Richard Watson who believe that digital devices are distractions and will ultimately mean the end of deep thinking. As dear mr Flowerpothead above, he’s onto something and he’s out of something at the same time. Certainly, distraction occurs, and there’s an immense amount of time spent doing trivial things on the web when otherwise thinking might have occurred. It’s also true that since blogging became universal, people spend less time on working their ideas through properly before submitting them to the scrutiny of others. It lowers our shame threshold a bit, for better or for worse. But what he misses is that thinking and writing doesn’t stop there. A blogpost or a tweet or a text is not the end-product of thinking but, more often than not, the start of thinking. Even more so since it is not bound up and on the shelf only after enough time have passed that the author have forgotten what she was thinking about.

Ah! I feel all refreshed now. Leaves are leaving their places, the ubiquitous rain is upon us and I can see the end of this teaching spell approaching.

Frequently Yours


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