A invasão hermenêutica

"Openness" and Keeping the "Conversation" Going

Here we must note two variants of the common hermeneutical theme. On the one hand are the candid relativists and nihilists, who assert, with an inconsistently absolutist fervor, that there is no truth. These hold with the notorious dictum of the epistemological anarchist Paul Feyerabend that "anything goes." Anything, be it astronomy or astrology, is of equal validity or, rather, equal invalidity. The one possible virtue of the "anything goes" doctrine is that at least everyone can abandon the scientific or philosophic enterprise and go fishing or get drunk. This virtue, however, is rejected by the mainstream hermeneuticians, because it would put an end to their beloved and interminable "conversation."

In short, the mainstream hermeneuticians do not like the "anything goes" dictum because, instead of being epistemological anarchists, they are epistemological pests. They insist that even though it is impossible to arrive at objective truth or indeed even to understand other theorists or scientists, that we all still have a deep moral obligation to engage in an endless dialogue or, as they call it, "conversation" to try to arrive at some sort of fleeting quasi-truth. To the hermeneutician, truth is the shifting sands of subjective relativism, based on an ephemeral "consensus" of the subjective minds engaging in the endless conversation. But the worst thing is that the hermeneuticians assert that there is no objective way, whether by empirical observation or logical reasoning, to provide any criteria for such a consensus.

Since there are no rational criteria for agreement, any consensus is necessarily arbitrary, based on God-knows-what personal whim, charisma of one or more of the conversationalists, or perhaps sheer power and intimidation. Since there is no criterion, the consensus is subject to instant and rapid change, depending on the arbitrary mind-set of the participants or, of course, a change in the people constituting the eternal conversation.


The prime moral duty proclaimed by the hermeneuticians is that we must at all times keep the conversation going. Since this duty is implicit, it is never openly defended, and so we fail to be instructed why it is our moral obligation to sustain a process that yields such puny and ephemeral results. In keeping with this alleged virtue, the hermeneuticians are fervently and dogmatically opposed to "dogmatism" and they proclaim the supreme importance of remaining endlessly "open" to everyone in the dialogue. Gadamer has proclaimed that the highest principle of hermeneutic philosophy is "holding oneself open in a conversation," which means always recognizing "in advance, the possible correctness, even the superiority of the conversation partner's position." But, as Barnes points out, it is one thing to be modestly skeptical of one's own position; it is quite another to refuse to dismiss any other position as false or mischievous.


In all the blather about openness, I am reminded of a lecture delivered by Professor Marjorie Hope Nicholson at Columbia University in 1942. In a critique of the concept of the open mind, she warned: "Don't let your mind be so open that everything going into it falls through."

There is another self-serving aspect to the hermeneutical demands for universal openness. For if nothing–no position, no doctrine–can be dismissed outright as false or mischievous or as blithering nonsense, then they too, our hermeneuticians, must be spared such rude dismissal. Keeping the conversation going at all costs means that these people must eternally be included. And that is perhaps the unkindest cut of all.