It Depends

One important but easily overlooked lesson from hermeneutics is that you must attend to the particulars.

Students who lack experience and have an appetite for abstraction are generally looking for shortcuts. I recall a math teacher who joked that mathematicians would spend enormous amounts of time trying to find the quickest way to solve a lot of problems at once. There’s nothing wrong with that mindset—it’s how we get innovation in general. But there are domains where it is inappropriate.

Understanding texts is one of those domains. It takes patience and consideration to understand a text. Moreover, it is an ongoing task: the more you read beyond that text, the more context you have for understanding it. There is a gulf between an experienced scholar and a newcomer to the field which can only be bridged by a great deal of patient, careful reading. And that takes time—there is no shortcut.

The desire to seek shortcuts where they are inappropriate is common. One man wanted to determine whether the great works of the western canon were really all that great through a very simple probabilistic analysis. Another wants to be able to expand the price system to every facet of life so that he can know what he ought to prioritize. The latter’s impoverished hermeneutical framework makes it literally impossible to conceive that there is concrete knowledge that (say) a dog show judge has about different dog breeds which allows them to have superior judgment over the audience, or that such judgments are qualitative rather than expressed in equations.

Perhaps this is the aspect of hermeneutics that causes those ignorant of it to attribute an anything-goes relativism to it. Unlike the various species of rationalism, or even skepticism, hermeneutics offers no concrete answers. It provides a fairly skeletal outline of how understanding works in general, but offers no constraints on the nature of what might be understood. Intellectual shortcuts are precisely that—constraints on possibilities.

But this isn’t relativism at all. It’s the simple admonition, which we all know on some level but love to deny, that there’s no shortcut to wisdom. It’s very easy to find a reason to be dismissive but much more hard to actually wrestle with what you wish to dismiss, to understand it enough to see if you were correct about its lack of value.

No matter how wise you become, you may have missed something truly crucial. Perhaps you missed a great deal. This is not relativism, but humility.


The Language of Community

I’m going to observe, rather than define. Communities are groups of people who share a common language, in which communal relations can be articulated. The most basic such relation is membership.

How much is the language peculiar to that community? Are all English-speakers a community, because they speak English? Let’s set that question to the side for a moment and treat the big, recognized languages as something separate. Particular communities draw on the resources of the big languages but develop their own idiosyncrasies. In some contexts this is called a dialect. In other contexts it is called jargon. But it is peculiar to the community.

More important, perhaps, is lower-level language; language at the level of practice. “Body language” puts it crudely, but the nonverbal aspects of practice have a kind of vocabulary of their own. We see this quite clearly in community rituals, thick with meaning even when no one is saying a word.

But we also see it in how people in a community behave towards one another; telegraphing their relative standings without consciously intending to do so. There are also formal protocols, of course, on top of informal ones. I know how to behave in an interview, a wedding, and a barbeque hosted by a friend; the expectations in each case are quite different. But people have no trouble communicating when I’ve crossed a line I shouldn’t have.

Communities rest on formal relations, spelled out at least in part in actual forms. That is, documents. Dave has hammered this into me again and again in our discussions of community, and it has stuck at last. The local Catholic church has a deed for the property, a charter, a formal relationship with the mother church. There is a whole set of documentation behind the priest. They undoubtedly have lists of who attends regularly, especially if they have signed up for church activities at some point.

My diploma, my lease, my employment contract, my birth certificate—all of these things indicate membership in communities of various sorts. In this case they refer to a community of alumni, or a neighborhood, or an industry, or a political community. Some are more specific than others; my employment contract gives a thin outline of my role at the company, what I owe them and what they owe me.

There’s only ever so much that’s put on paper, but the paper establishes a formal relationship with a formal community.

Not everyone is multilingual at the level of big languages, but at the level of community-specific language, we are all multilingual. A white Mississippi boy from a poor family who is the first in his family to go to college, and eventually takes a job in Canada, learns to speak in the language of at least three communities. Typically, he is most likely to seem like a foreigner in how he speaks and acts to the people in the town he grew up in.

The nature of community is, in short, intimately tied to the nature of language. This drives home Hans-Georg Gadamer’s belief in the universality of the hermeneutic dimension, and his evocative phrase that “being that can be understood is language.” Hermeneutics and linguistics are as important for understanding community as sociology—perhaps more important.

Don’t Look Down

My father believes that the 21st century by necessity will be a metaphysical age. Our tacit metaphysics so divides us from one another and from the world, that we will have to find our way back again. I do not doubt that a new, great unified metaphysical framework may bloom. As to its necessity—I wonder.

For a long time, as a devoted believer in the philosophy of David Hume, I thought that “metaphysics” was simply the highest form of rationalism; a word that must always be said with a sneer. Metaphysics is synonymous with hubris, with the folly of man leaping over an open cliff with no real hope of reaching the other side.

A greater appreciation of history has helped me to see that Hume’s anti-metaphysics metaphysics, and the sorts of metaphysics it was aimed against, tend to run together. For every Plato and Aristotle there is a Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus, for every Hume there is a Kant—or more to the point, a Hegel.

Today, the echoes of the Hegelian and Marxist projects, as well as the anti-metaphysical positivist ones, are all we are left with. They have fallen into ruin, but their ghosts continue to haunt us as the most recent of such projects to be taken up. Behind them we see the long reach of their predecessors; the continental rationalists and the English-speaking empiricists.

But in this accounting we leave out a very different sort of project. We can see it in the phenomenological and hermeneutical schools in Germany, and in the “ordinary language” philosophy in England. Its most prominent figures are Heidegger, whose putrid prose and National Socialist politics left a foul odor on the enterprise, and Wittgenstein, who made his name through a cold formalism he subsequently abandoned for the enchantment of language.

These thinkers were not so much metaphysical or anti-metaphysical as mystical. Their critics would agree, for positivists, Hegelians, rationalists and empiricists alike can think of no higher insult to a thinker than the accusation of mysticism.

But mysticism is not here meant as an insult, but as an appreciation for ineradicable mystery. Heidegger’s forgetting of Being can be seen as the inevitable result of attempting such an eradication. In seeking to remove all mystery, we simply fence our attention into specific areas and soon forget that a whole world exists beyond them. As Wittgenstein put it:

It is as if someone were to say: “A game consists in moving objects about on a surface according to certain rules…”—and we replied: You seem to be thinking of board games, but there are others. You can make your definition correct by expressly restricting it to those games.

A serious commitment to truth accepts that unconcealing some aspect of it necessarily involves some other aspect falling back behind the veil. Total unconceilment, Hegel’s great promise, is not available to frail, finite beings such as ourselves.

And yet there is wisdom, there is truth—even moral truth—immanent in life. It is not really grasped through theory, though theory does play a partial but important role in the life of such truths. These truths are best approached cautiously, sketching them out as living phenomena rather than attempting to reduce them to some formula.

Poetry and storytelling are beyond compare as methods for approaching these truths. It is precisely their indirect, figurative, and suggestive nature that leaves them open to vastly more than direct examination allows. More than even poets and storytellers are capable of realizing they have captured.

I don’t think anyone has any trouble seeing and feeling this when they aren’t taking the stance of philosopher or scientist. As children, stories seem to have a simple meaning. As we age, we notice meanings in familiar stories that we had missed the first time. The danger is to suppose we have finally grasped all of the meanings, or that we are capable of doing so. True adulthood requires an acceptance of the multitudes forever beyond our reach. This acceptance must be paired with a faith that such multitudes exist at all.

Metaphysics, and even anti-metaphysics, has its place. But living in the world requires a deep seated belief in its enchantment. In practice, we are all mystics.

Melting Away

Insofar as Reformation theology relies on this principle in interpreting Scripture, it remains bound to a postulate that is itself based on a dogma, namely that the Bible is itself a unity.

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method

I have recently begun to read Jacobin Magazine, as a scout might enter the boundaries of an enemy encampment. A few days ago they posted a review of Marx’s Inferno, a book I had seen mentioned in my web community a few times. The central conceit of the book, apparently, is that Marx used the basic structure of Dante’s Inferno in the way he unfolded his arguments in the first volume of Capital.

The critic is charmed by this analysis, and thinks it’s pretty compelling, but believes the author makes a fundamental mistake:

My most serious objection is that Roberts isolates Volume 1 of Capital as a standalone text and seeks to interpret it by ignoring its relation to Marx’s other works. He does so on the shallow but convenient grounds that these other works were not prepared for publication and therefore not definitive. I suspect that the isolation of Volume 1 rests on the fact that the Inferno analogy simply doesn’t work with the content of the other two volumes of Capital.

The author responds:

[I]t is strange to say that you miss the point of Volume One if you read it on its own. Marx did, after all, publish Volume One, on its own. In fact, he did so three times – twice in German and once in French! He was preparing to publish it again – on its own – when he died. And he approved a Russian translation of Volume One – on its own – in 1872. Whatever aspiration he had for Volumes Two and Three, he clearly thought that Volume One could be read and understood “as a standalone treatise.”

He locates their difference of interpretation in their model of Marx. The critic views Marx as an “explainer” who is distilling his findings to a broader audience.

My Marx, by contrast, is an arguer. He doesn’t have a fully-worked out theory in his back pocket. Instead, he is oriented by a set of disagreements with the classical political economists, and with his fellow socialists, and is working out, in Capital, as full-fledged a response to those disagreements as he can. The literary form of his intervention is not a costume he dresses his theory up in; it is the form of the theory itself. His audience knows very well what he is talking about, because he is not descending upon them from the mountaintop, but responding to on-going arguments and controversies within the socialist and workers’ movements. The metaphorics of Marx’s text – the vampires and werewolves, Lazarus and Moses and the prophets, machine-gods and automata – are commonplaces. They show up again and again in socialist tracts from both sides of the Channel. What is unique to Marx is the use to which these commonplaces are put, and the elaborate interconnections among them.

One of the crucial questions in phenomenology and hermeneutics is what the relevant horizon of meaning is, within which some specific text is given its sense. The critic argues that Marx’s entire body of work, published and unpublished, trumps any one work standing on its own. The author, by contrast, argues that the public field into which volume 1 was published provides the most appropriate context.

“Horizon” refers to boundaries, but like the horizons of vision they do not bound all that could be seen. Marx’s other works are connected to yet others; ones that are directly mentioned in the texts as well as ones that were influential but did not get mentioned. And those texts, of course, were influenced by yet others, many of which Marx never read himself. And out and out.

The same holds for the disagreements and controversies he was responding to. If you had asked Marx to set out and draw a circle around the participants in these scholarly and political conversations, he could not have. He may have drawn it around the people he himself had read, or at some arbitrary point beyond them. But any participant would form a link to others, who formed links to others, going back to before any of the current participants were alive. If you look too hard, the “conversation” disappears into history itself.

The speech act theorist J. L. Austin described how the words “I now pronounce you husband and wife” have, beyond their locutionary effect or semantic meaning, a perlocutionary effect; they are “doing something” rather than just “saying something.” They are effecting a change in status, from single to married, with all that entails within the specific speech act community. But it can go wrong—what if it turns out the officiant was lying about being licensed? Or if the couple never filed for a wedding license? In order to know whether the speech act took effect, “it is important to take the speech-situation as a whole.”

But how can we do this? What is the whole speech-situation? Jacques Derrida replied that because context is boundless, we cannot possibly know enough of it to determine if we have learned all of the relevant context. The speech-situation is too large, the relevant details too hidden behind the horde of irrelevant ones. If you stare at the speech-situation too long, it too melts away, deconstructed without mercy.

What are we to do? If we need the whole to interpret the part, and the whole is either infinite or in any case too large for human comprehension, then can we interpret anything?

We can, but in doing so we are walking on air. Like Marx we do not have a “fully-worked out” framework in our “back pocket.” Nor is our horizon of meaning made up solely of the specific texts we have read and conversations we have had. The authors of the texts we have read, the interlocutors in the conversations we have had, and we ourselves, have what Gadamer referred to as “historically-effected consciousness.”

We bring our prejudices to the texts we read and the conversations we have. These prejudices are shaped most directly by “our place within a historical series of persons” with whom we have already interacted. But these people are, as mentioned, influenced in turn, and under scrutiny the influence ultimately melts into the many currents of history. The currents are fluid, but we, with our prejudices in this moment, are concrete. We take concrete actions, come to concrete understandings and establish concrete relations. We engage in concrete practices that form the basis of concrete communities.

Or so it feels to us, and so it must for us to carry on. We’re aware that there are peripheries to these communities, we may even be aware how vague and porous they are. But many imagine they could find reasonable boundaries, if they had the time and inclination to perform a systematic study of the matter. They are wrong, but that hardly matters. They recognize the game, they recognize and are recognized by the players, and that is enough—enough for books to be written and read and understood, enough for men and women to marry, “putting to rest all anxieties with respect to legitimacy, and ushering in new anxieties.” Enough to be active in the community of scholars, of gamers, of young mothers in the neighborhood.

Except for when people do attempt a systematic study. Our understanding of social space is implicit, similar to our understanding of how to navigate a familiar neighborhood without a map. But unlike physical geography, attempts to map our implicit social space influence the very thing under study. And so those theorists who approach the study of community with the prejudice that there is an essential, rational meaning of the word, and that each community is discrete and can be mapped, may end up doing a lot of damage along the way. That, in any case, is the story of the 20th century’s great tragedies, perpetuated by men who imagined themselves to be social engineers and scientists.

When you approach the question of community as an engineer or scientist, the experience of community melts away entirely. Cold, logical axioms are all that remain, taking the place of authentic understanding.

It’s Academic

Recognition is performed. Its meaning is determined by the context of the performance. This gives it an elusive quality, difficult to generalize out of particular settings.

Consider the academic department. Wallace Stanley Sayre famously said that “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” As a student in an MA program in economics, I had a very small window into it. Mostly through the gossip of the PhD students, for whom it was a practical concern. It amazed me how a few dozen people could organize into so many factions.

The games that were played were largely determined by larger communities than the particular department—academia and the field of economics. You published papers and you taught students, some of whom you took under your wing. My school was a bit unusual in the degree to which blogging and writing books for popular audiences were recognized as legitimate work, rather than sideshows. A popular book that made a big splash could elevate a professor’s status in the department, which I have been led to believe is not the norm.

A lot of the moves that professors made in these games were characteristic of the department rather than the larger communities. Ronald Coase, F. A. Hayek, and Gordon Tullock were recognized as authorities whose work could lend strength to your argument, for example. But a lot of moves were recognizable signs that you belonged to a specific faction.

One of the factions was extremely tightly knit compared to the rest. Their canonical texts were more uniformly selected, their shared scholarly language distinct. They rotated around a single central Sun, who had a handful of former students within the department in the closest orbit. An alumni who was not of this particular faction joked that to gain the career benefits from it, you had to burn their brand onto your forehead. The members went out of their way to make themselves recognizable, not only as members of the department but members of their faction first and foremost.

Repeated failure to recognize the moves, or even the games, that someone is playing, will eventually lead to lack of recognition of membership in the community. Tenure complicates that equation. One tenured professor was playing games so clearly different from his colleagues that he was out in the wilderness, as far as the community was concerned. He did not participate in their games and they did not participate in his. Nevertheless, all recognized his claims to a salary and an office, as well as his responsibility to teach classes.

Context is key. The department is a particular community, but so is the field of economics, as well as the vocation of university professor. Economics professors in different factions or employed at different universities would recognize one another as fellow travelers at a wedding where neither knew any of the guests. An economics professor and an English professor would probably find something to commiserate about in that situation as well.

In the specific setting of a given department, economists who seem quite close together from an outsider’s perspective may refuse to recognize one another as fellows. You’re one of them, the ones taking the department down the wrong path. At the wedding, the same person is someone who can talk about something actually interesting, and they are recognized as such.

I originally approached the question of recognition to get at a different question: just what is a community? My tentative reply was: a community is a group of people who recognize one another as players in a set of games which they also recognize, and are capable of recognizing the potential moves in those games.

Recognition and community exist, then, in a hermeneutic circle: community cannot exist without recognition, but recognition lacks sense without the context provided by community. Whether you’re in the department with one group of people, or at a wedding with another, bounds what you’re capable of recognizing and gives meaning to the recognition you do, in fact, perform.

Recognition is performed in communities which are created by recognition.


In a little suburban neighborhood, the children play on the sidewalk. The parents, standing together to watch, play a different game. This game takes the form of a conversation.

The moves in this game may include telling a story about your child that the other parents will appreciate, or talking about the sport you know another parent also enjoys. The potential moves are too many to list, and the boundary around them is vague and indistinct. You know you’ve made a legitimate move only when your conversation partners recognize it as such. You know you’re a member of the same community when the group of you are capable of sustaining a series of mutually recognized moves in familiar games.

Our membership is always incomplete. More crucially, the game is always in the process of being developed. So we will all make moves that are not recognized by anyone. This lack of recognition is isolating; it highlights the existential gulf that exists even between the closest of friends in the most tight nit of communities.

This lack of recognition is akin to what Gadamer called the hermeneutic problem: we begin to think about the discipline, as opposed to the everyday practice, of interpretation, only when something has gone wrong. When we come up against the otherness, the opacity of a text. We seek the fusion of horizons between text and reader to overcome that otherness, to the extent we historical, finite creatures can do such a thing. And communities form and fuse the horizons of their members as they continually seek to overcome the isolation of unrecognized moves and even unrecognized games.

There is another aspect of recognition which is also a crucial feature of communities. Its absence does not have its origin in misunderstanding; it is driven by a desire to exclude. A clique may form among the sidewalk parent group, and they may refuse to recognize one of their neighbors as a member of their little community. So merely knowing how to play the games is no guarantee of membership in a community.

Conversation and Text in Community

An individual is continuous with their communities in ways that are so taken for granted, we are prone to overlook them. A lobotomy is less mentally crippling than living without community. Yet the image of the individual rationalist arriving at truth through the lonely and disciplined application of reason lives on. Our ability to learn from books seems to be the strongest case for that particular picture. Sure, we need communities to learn language and literacy. But once we’re there, haven’t we got the tools to go the rest of the way on our own? Especially if enough books exist on a wealth of subject matter.

In what follows, we will explore the ways in which both individuals and texts are embedded within communities. What will emerge is that written text creates more possibilities for their readers and commentators, even when those texts are grossly misunderstood.

Continue reading

An Econ Grad Discovers Poetry

We call it “imposter syndrome.” It’s the feeling that you don’t belong, that you’ve somehow tricked everyone into hiring you, marrying you, letting you be a parent. In reality, it isn’t a syndrome at all; it is merely the lingering sense, felt most acutely in childhood, that everyone else knows what they’re supposed to do. Accepting that no one does is the first step to true adulthood, and the soil on which wisdom may one day grow.

I was a reductive materialist. I believed that everything which exists could be captured in plain, concise, direct description. Indirect speech could convey nothing which could not in principle be translated into direct speech. Analytic philosophers who wrote relatively simply were far superior to continentals who were deliberately obscure. Economists, with their elegant theoretical models, were to be prized over the more fuzzy sociologists and anthropologists. And poetry was not even on my radar.

Let’s say I had encountered Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”:

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

I would probably have summarized this as saying “Life is short, get married before you get old and die.”

And how succinct, how direct, how to the point that is! So much more efficient at conveying the message than the poem itself. The remainder is merely ornamental; pretty-sounding language that takes forever to get to the bottom line. At best it creates a pleasant feeling. Or so I might have said.

Over the last six years I have read some two hundred books, mostly nonfiction, predominantly philosophy. Yet far greater than all of the philosophy books that I read combined was one unpublished work—an expansive novel by one John David Duke, Jr., the proprietor of this little stretch of the web. This novel said more about the nature of politics, family, parenthood, and war—to name but a few subjects—than a work of philosophy is capable of saying. It said it by not saying it.

That is the power of art.

Since my reductive days, I have had many great teachers. Dave is among the greatest of them, of course. But other friends, as well as authors whose books I’ve had the privilege to read, have helped me to see that “direct” speech is in many ways an imagined quality. We are always pointing to much more indirectly than we are capable of saying. The greatest depth is to be found in speech that embraces its indirectness and polyvalence. Art does just that, mirroring our unarticulated practices and containing multitudes beyond what we are capable of doing justice to with our articulations. Never mind our specifically reductive articulations.

Among my many shortcomings, as I mentioned, was an absolute ignorance of poetry. Poetry, for me as with most of my generation, is something you gloss over in English class and never think about again. At most, you devote some thought to the meaning of song lyrics. As a teenager, I was very excited when I thought I had cracked the meaning of “Paint It Black”.

But I have lately fallen completely in love with poetry, and can scarcely think of anything else.

It is often observed that the language itself is more central to poetry than to prose. Whatever the merit of this observation, it must be said that the language itself does more work than simply conveying the message summarized by the reductionist, or even “creating a pleasant feeling”. Just as different soundtracks can change the meaning of a scene, so too can different sorts of poetic language.

But I am no literary critic. I find it very hard to explain or convey what it is about indirectness and polyvalence that are capable of containing more than can be said directly. But that’s the point, I suppose—you cannot truly explain it, at least not by walking right up to the matter and starting to describe it like you would begin an instruction manual.

So rather than trying, I will flex my atrophied poetic muscles and say:

The boy sees the men
who know what to do
and dreams of when he will too.
One day he’s a man
and still
does not get
what he expects
all others get.

He’s playing a part
without any script
why did no one
teach him his lines?

Scientists promise answers
and their words
are true
but hollow
insight without life.

Poetry explains
by not explaining
tells what can’t be told
by not telling.
Circling the
that makes us human.

I like to think that I have taken a big step forward by embracing the poetic, the indirect, the wisdom that cannot be properly articulated. But sometimes I think that I have actually gone back to where I began, before my reductive materialism, and simply brought something with me from the journey.