Practice and Difference

In “Epilogue: Prolegomenon to Future Feminist Philosophies of Religion,” Marilyn Thie argues that traditional philosophy of religion is a profoundly patriarchal institution badly in need of methodological renewal and reinvigoration. Thie explains that feminist philosophies of religion “begin with hermeneutical suspicion, an intellectual wariness, that patriarchal patterns of thinking and methods of identifying topics or sources skew traditional philosophical approaches to religion” (230). Thie argues that traditional philosophy of religion is problematic not only in the way it remains fixed on a specific set of questions, but also in the abstract and uncritical way it deals with the questions it poses. Feminist philosophies of religion are “rooted in the assumption that philosophies and religions […] emerge from specific historical, cultural, social, and political contexts which must be taken seriously in any attempts to move toward generalized insights” (230). Thie therefore argues that traditional philosophy of religion fails as an intellectual enterprise to account for the evolving historical and cultural context of the phenomena it pretends to investigate. It follows that traditional philosophy of religion, by ignoring historical and cultural variables that are relevant to its enterprise, is deliberately perpetuating an established world view which, according to Thie, is very much a Western Christian, patriarchal one. Thie emphasizes the practical dimension of religious phenomena, insisting that “the practical  political and social implications of every position [feminists] examine should be part of what it means to do philosophy of religion” (231).

Thie is certainly right to point out the voluntary blindness of traditional philosophy of religion towards context and practice and to suggest a possible hidden political agenda within such an enterprise. Indeed, it seems quite reasonable to ask whose interests are being served by the deliberate exclusion of historical and social perspectives from an otherwise legitimate intellectual undertaking. At a fundamental level, Thie questions how it is that philosophy of religion (or any area of philosophy for that matter) should not be willing to test its own general theories against the variables of culture and history, or even be prepared to admit that elaborating unbiased theories of religion that truly apply to all cultures and stand the test of time may not be a realistic objective to begin with.

Thie counters the ahistorical posture of traditional philosophy of religion, believed to be one of its shortcomings, with an approach that emphasizes both practice and difference. As Thie explains, “unless the specific differences among peoples’ lives, religions, and spiritualities are brought to the fore in our work, we will be perpetuating traditional shortcomings” (232). However, it is worth pointing out that one significant disadvantage of this approach is that it tends to give up on general theories of religion right from the start. In as much as the traditional approach to philosophy of religion devalues historical and practical elements in favor of that which transcends history and the world, the purely historicist, feminist perspective will tend to reject metaphysical explanations of religious phenomena in favor of explanations which emphasize power dynamics and political context. If religion is really as socially and historically determined as these feminists seem to think, then relations of power are all that we can ultimately hope to uncover in our analysis of religious phenomena. Hence, as part of this investigation one either still seeks to find, with the traditionalists, the characteristics of a possible religious essence or, siding with the feminists, deeply ingrained power inequalities, typically involving the oppression of one group of individuals by another. This is not to suggest that one approach is better than the other, but rather to highlight that both are looking for completely different kinds of explanations for the same phenomena.

Still, Thie is right to insist that the traditionalists shouldn’t avoid the practical aspects of religion, as this weakens the overall credibility of their analysis. On the other hand, we should be mindful of swinging too far to the other side of the pendulum with the feminists who, perhaps as a result of their own victim-hood, might be inclined to reduce religion to a mere tool of social oppression. Western Christianity with its patriarchal disposition has undoubtedly had a very powerful, and to some extent unhealthy, influence on the philosophy of religion, spanning from its inception to the present day. But it does not follow that all truth pertaining to religion is historically determined by power relations between various actors and institutions. The feminist perspective is helpful to the philosophy of religion since it seeks to expose certain biases that may have led the discipline astray; but it should not be forgotten that the discipline in spite of its imperfections has successfully evolved to the point where it presently stands, which proves that the questions it poses have lasting power and are still relevant. Feminists with their acute historicist lens will admittedly find within their analysis of the historical evolution of the philosophy of religion itself, undoubtedly among other less glorious artifacts, the circumstances for the inception of their own movement and reason for being.

Works Cited:

Thie, M. (1994), Epilogue: Prolegomenon To Future Feminist* Philosophies of Religions. Hypatia, 9: 229–239. doi:10.1111/j.1527-2001.1994.tb00657.x


Comparative Philosophy

According to Daya Krishna in “Comparative Philosophy: What it Is and What it Ought to Be,” as a result of their rise in political and economic power over the last three hundred years, Western European countries have come to dictate the conceptual framework and methodological orientations of comparative studies on their own terms. As Kirshna explains, “the so-called comparative studies were primarily a search for facts or a reporting of data in terms of a conceptual structure already formulated in the West. The questions to which answers were being sought were already predetermined in the light of the relationships that were regarded as significant or the theories that were to be tested” (72). Due to these political and economic factors, “it is only the West that has arrogated itself the status of subjecthood in the cognitive enterprise, reducing all others to the status of objects” (78). Furthermore, the intellectuals of these observed cultures “have themselves internalized the western categories and standards of intelligibility so that they observe, understand, and compare their own cultures in terms given to them by the West” (77). Finally, Krishna concedes that in any case “the problem of the self-identity of an intellectual tradition within a cultural area runs against the claim to universality that all truth professes” (79), but counters that “the cognitive enterprise is as unending as any other enterprise, and that though the truth claim must inevitably be made, it is equally certain that it shall remain unresolved in time” (81).

Krishna’s point about the effect of power relations favoring the West within the cognitive enterprise is well taken. With Krishna and other Foucauldian thinkers there tends to be an easy conflation between a) the West as an economic and political entity, and b) the methods privileged by Western research, but Krishna is careful to point out that this Western intellectual domination takes place discreetly deep within the conceptual structures themselves, not via some brute, forceful imposition of predetermined Western notions and ideas onto non-Western cultures. Still, Krishna suggests that the existence of a deep Western methodological bias performs a fundamental disservice to non-Western cultures by effectively concealing or invalidating alternative theories or explanations. While the domination of Western scientific thinking in the human and social sciences may not be the result of a plot purposely conceived by a group of like-minded Westerners to repress non-Westerners, the language used by Krishna suggests that the effect of this domination still consists of a sort of implicit political repression of non-Westerners by intellectual means. A proper genealogical analysis of any specific discipline or realm of inquiry should expose the force relations involved in the production of knowledge in that particular realm as well as the movement or evolution of those force relations over a specific historical period. Krishna is right to point out the discrepancy between the claim to universality that all truths profess and the inability of any particular truth claim to ultimately stand the test of time, but still the large task of actually dissecting the force relations at work, some but not all of which involving Western conceptual structures, remains before us. Krishna affirms, reasonably, that the Western scientific framework inherently legitimizes certain types of explanations at the expense of other, less conventional ones, but mere affirmations of this kind will lack any degree of real substance until the related genealogical analysis is actually undertaken, including a carefully delimitation of the specific area of focus and the historical period under review, followed by a detailed analysis of the available recorded data. Furthermore, what ensues from this is not a clear-cut proof of one cultural group’s interests being undercut by another’s in every conceivable way, but rather the unveiling of a complex system of force relations involving individuals and institutions of all kinds, each with their own specific interests and agendas within a larger scheme.

Krishna cites the relegation of Indian philosophy to departments of Indology and “its effective segregation from all active philosophical concerns of the day” (74) as an instance of the current domination of Western conceptual structures. Indian philosophy, it seems, with its “questionable” relationship to moksa, finds itself on the losing end of the force relations governing the production of knowledge within modern Western philosophy. Ben-Ami Scharfstein in “The Three Philosophical Traditions” elaborates on the fundamental differences between Eastern and Western philosophy, explaining that “Eastern philosophy is spiritual and integral with life, while Western philosophy is abstract, materialistic or positivistic, and split off from life” (42). Then, seemingly taking position with Krishna, he continues to explain that “modern Western philosophy … represents the triumph of the objective or outward attitude, which, however helpful morally and politically, must be balanced by truly religious consciousness, which is the deeper, inward, Indian one” (42). In genealogical terms, Krishna and Scharfstein are both essentially pointing out the unfavorable present configuration of force relations affecting Indian philosophy resulting from the persistent exclusion of inward, religious perspectives from Western philosophy over time. Still in genealogical terms, what has come to define modern Western philosophy is precisely its opposition to matters of religious consciousness. Yet the cognitive enterprise continues along its unending path, inevitable making truth claims that “shall remain unresolved in time.”

Works Cited:

Krishna, D., Bhushan, N., Garfield, J. L., & Raveh, D. (2011). Contrary thinking: selected essays of Daya Krishna. New York: Oxford University Press.

Scharfstein, B. (1998). A comparative history of world philosophy: from the Upanishads to Kant. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Anonymous Christians

In his Theological Investigations Karl Rahner explains that “pluralism is a greater threat and a reason for greater unrest for Christianity than for any other religion. For no other religion – not even Islam – maintains so absolutely that it is the religion, the one and only valid revelation of the one living God, as does the Christian religion” (POR, 607). Pluralism is a force of opposition working against Christianity and is therefore not something Christianity can reconcile with. There is not a way for Christianity to acknowledge the legitimacy of other religious worldviews while also maintaining its own identity as God’s exclusive revelation to mankind. In response to the fact of pluralism in today’s world, Rahner’s proposes a so –called form of inclusivism called “Open Catholicism” whereby Christianity is seen as the “higher unity” of the opposition between Christians and non-Christians. Rahner acknowledges that there are “supernatural, grace-filled elements” in non-Christian religions, but for Rahner these supernatural elements arise “out of the grace which is given to men as a gratuitous gift on account of Christ” (POR, 609). Hence, to the extent that any person, at any point in history, encounters the supernatural, this experience, according to Rahner, is obviously and necessarily of Christian origin.

Does it not occur to Rahner that such a position constitutes an affront to the intelligence of the average non-Christian? It is of course within Rahner’s right to make such a claim, but the argument itself is no more effective than that put forth by the Christian fanatic who shouts biblical verses to indifferent passersby on the street corner while holding a sign which says “Jesus is Savior.” Furthermore, Rahner, in a statement that reveals a profoundly judgmental attitude, puts forth that “we will not hold it impossible that grace is at work, and is even being accepted, in the spiritual, personal life of the individual, no matter how primitive, unenlightened, apathetic, and earth-bound such a life may at first sight appear to be” (emphasis mine) (POR, 610). Rahner, blinded by his own conceptual framework, seems to ignore the derogatory nature of this characterization of the spiritual lives of non-Christians.  After all, it is only from a Christian standpoint that such other lives can be deemed primitive, unenlightened and apathetic.

Rahner furthermore speaks of the “gratuitous influences of properly Christian supernatural grace” to convey the utter generosity of Christians who, having appropriated supernatural grace for themselves, subsequently redistribute it to the rest of mankind. Again, this line of thinking is strictly unintelligible to the rational mind. How is it in any way reasonable to suppose (even at a strictly theoretical level) that the supernatural, in all its worldly forms, is ultimately an expression of Christian grace?

Finally, Rahner will have us believe that the world is filled with “anonymous Christians,” that is to say spiritual, non-Christian beings who are merely waiting to be reached by the Church’s message. According to this line of thinking, without even realizing it these anonymous Christians are already well on their way to the self-realization of the Christianity demanded by their being (POR, 613). To this Rahner adds that “the individual who grasps Christianity in a clearer, purer and more reflective way has, other things being equal, a still greater chance of salvation than someone who is merely an anonymous Christian” (POR, 613). While these notions may find support among Christian missionaries and other interested parties, there is very little here that a rational outside observer is likely to find convincing. Rahner himself admits that non-Christians “may think it presumption for the Christian to regard the non-Christian as a Christian who has yet to come to himself reflectively” (POR, 613).

While it is fair to assume that a certain level of spiritual openness is necessary for an individual to become a professing Christian, it is far less obvious that the human spiritual impetus seen everywhere in all its various social forms is Christianity in some under-developed form. Finally, it seems unreasonable to assume on the one hand that anonymous Christians already have within themselves the potential for salvation in the form of the Christianity demanded by their being, while on the other hand to adopt the position that salvation is ultimately dependent on objective reflection and the outward profession of faith through the social form of the Church.

Works Cited:

Rahner, K. (1961). Theological Investigations. Baltimore: Helicon Press.

Religious Experience

In The Varieties of Relgious Experience William James identifies a “noetic quality” as one of the defining characteristics of mystical experience. For James, mystical states are “states of insight into the depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain” (POR, 45). James’ use of the term “noetic” in this context is intended to convey the notion that despite their ineffability, mystical experiences do comprise states of knowledge which are not fundamentally different from those associated with conventional reason. That is to say, the mystical experience comprises an epistemological element, a logical operation which imparts a degree of knowledge onto the subject of the experience, not unlike the epistemological processes associated with ordinary perception. As James explains, “our own ‘rational’ beliefs are based on evidence exactly similar in nature to that which mystics quote for theirs. Our senses, names, have assured us of certain states of fact; but mystical experiences are as direct perceptions of fact for those who have them as any sensation ever were for us” (POR, 48). James stands very much in defense of the legitimacy of mystical perception, at least from the subject’s perspective. For James, it is no more “rational” to derive knowledge from normal sensatory experience than it is do so from mystical states, arguing that “the existence of mystical states absolutely overthrows the pretension of non-mystical states to be the sole and ultimate dictators of what we may believe” (POR, 49). James even goes so far as to suggest that mystical states might be “windows through which the mind looks out upon a more extensive and inclusive world” (POR, 49), “indispensable stages in our approach to the final fullness of the truth,” and “the truest of insights into the meaning of this life” (POR, 50).

But how is it that religious experiences occur in the first place? In Religious Experience Wayne Proudfoot points out that the noetic quality of religious experience referred to by James is the same epistemic component found in ordinary perceptual judgments. As Proudfoot explains, “a perceptual judgment includes an embedded claim about the cause or origin of the perceptual experience,” and “if James is correct in saying that the noetic quality and the authority of religious experience are analogous to that of sense perception, then a similar assumption about the cause of the experience may be embedded in report of religious experience” (POR, 61). In other words, the noetic quality of the religious experience is such that the origin or cause of the experience from the subject’s point of view must in some sense involve religious beliefs. Or as Proudfoot puts it, “if the distinguishing mark of the religious is that it is assumed to elude natural explanation, then the labeling of the experience as religious by the subject includes the belief that it cannot be exhaustively explained in naturalistic terms“(POR, 64).

In short, the particular conceptual framework of the believer allows for the possibility of the religious experience. Yet as Proudfoot effectively demonstrates with the example of the mirror image of the tree, perceptual judgment can in some cases prove unreliable, which reinforces the notion that a perception of any kind (including religious experience) is merely an inference based on certain assumptions.  Hence, with respect to religious experiences, our attention should, according to Proudfoot, properly be focused on the concepts and beliefs available in a particular culture such that we may obtain access to the variety of experiences available to persons in that culture (POR, 64).

While James welcomes the possibility that mystical experience may constitute a window to a more extensive world, Proudfoot goes in the opposite direction, seeking explanations for religious experience within the commitments and contextual conditions of those who experience them.  While James speaks freely of illuminations and revelations, Proudfoot objects to the usage of religious terms such as numinous, holy and sacred as descriptive or analytical tools. According to Proudfoot, these terms “function to preclude explanation and evoke a sense of mystery and awe. They are used to persuade the reader that the distinguishing mark of the religious is some quality that eludes description and analysis in nonreligious terms” (POR, 65). While James defends the “rationality” of beliefs based on the “evidence” or mystical experience (POR, 48), Proudfoot objects to the reverse justification of religious beliefs through appeal to religious experiences and practices (POR, 66).

Works Cited:

James, W. (2008). The varieties of religious experience a study in human nature. Waiheke Island: Floating Press.

Proudfoot, W. (1985). Religious experience. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rationality and Religion

In Rationality and Religion, Roger Trigg points out that the social scientific approach to the study religion emphasizes the fact of belief rather than the beliefs themselves and that this approach implies a certain distance between the observer and the observed. For Trigg, the scientific formula separates the observer from the observed to such an extent that we scarcely notice how the scientific and empirical perspective of the observer overrules the spiritual and religious perspective of the observed in the search for truth: “The very fact that we stand back from beliefs, and refuse to examine their truth, will have the result that scientific explanations of such belief will have to dismiss any idea that a belief is held because it is true…” By adopting the social scientific approach to the study of religion, researchers are already concluding that religion is first and foremost a man-made response to social or psychological forces. Explanations of religious behavior involving possible connections to the supernatural are ignored because they cannot meet the strict criteria of empirical verifiability dictated by the scientific approach. Hence, anything to do with the supernatural does not qualify as valid explanation to a scientific observer.

However, as Trigg rightfully points out, while their respective methods may differ, both scientific observer and religious believer are engaged in the same fundamental activity, which is the search for truth: “Social scientists cannot claim validity for their discipline without allowing that it is motivated by the very same search for truth that they wish to suggest in others is merely the expression of social or psychological conditions.  Dangers of self-reference arise when truth is reduced to issues about the causes of belief.” It would not seem reasonable to just assume, as the social scientists do, that their search is for a valid truth whereas the believer’s endeavor is fictional. Ultimately, the scientist and the believer are merely pulling on opposite ends the same rope; each is attempting to explain the world, but on their own terms. Science cannot dismiss the validity claims of religion without in some sense calling into question the validity of its own beliefs, those being in the power of human rationality over spirituality and faith.

Science and religion are to an extent contradictory but neither is absolute. In some sense they are both competitors in the business of explanation, each with a specific target audience in mind. By design, you cannot fully accept scientific truths without at the same time rejecting religious ones.  Trigg points out that the acceptance of a scientific truth claim implies the choosing of one set of explanatory principles over another, a kind of “belief” in the superior merits of science as a method of explanation: “The assumption that anthropological and other explanations will not only be forthcoming but will be wholly adequate to explain the origins and persistence of religion not only assumes the falsity of religious claims but also relies on the truth of anthropological ones.” Accepting an anthropological truth claim with respect to religion is mostly about excluding any other theory or explanation of the matter, be it religious or otherwise. An anthropological theory of religion represents merely a singular explanation among countless other possibilities, elevated to the status of truth in the name of science.

For Trigg, this belief in the superior merits of anthropology is arbitrary and should itself be subject to the same sort of scrutiny applied by anthropologists towards religious beliefs: “The very distinction between levels of belief, between religious belief and the study of it, indicates that truth cannot be arbitrarily claimed for one level and denied at the other. Once truth is denied at one level, the same form of argumentation may be repeated at the next.” If the belief in the explanatory merits of science involves the denial of non-scientific truth claims, it follows that non-scientific belief systems should as well have the ability to deny scientific claims. Hence, science cannot deny the legitimacy of unscientific theories without compromising the status of its own truth claims. For Trigg, a scientific theory of religion which is based on the assumption that all religious beliefs are mistaken is simply another form of religious belief.

Trigg, R. (1998). Rationality and religion: Does faith need reason? Oxford [England: Blackwell.

Universal Pragmatics

In Communication and Evolution of Society Jurgen Habernas distinguishes between linguistic analysis concerned with sentences and pragmatic analysis concerned with utterances or “speech acts.” For Habernas, linguistically oriented theories of meaning do not put sufficient emphasis on the pragmatic dimension; as he explains, “the use theory of meaning developed from the work of Wittgenstein has shown that the meaning of linguistic expressions can be identified only with reference to situations of possible employment” (Habernas, 30). For Habernas, a sentence on its own can be analyzed linguistically but as soon as it is uttered it enters into relations with reality and is therefore subject to specific conditions of validity. As Habernas explains, “a consistent analysis of meaning is not possible without reference to some situations of possible use” (Habernas, 46).  While acknowledging that grammatical correctness is a prerequisite for intelligibility, Habernas’ hermeneutics emphasize the specific dynamics associated with the situations of possible use of grammatical formations.

In a general sense, the goal of reconstructive language analysis (or universal pragmatics) “is an explicit description of the rules that a competent speaker must master in order to form grammatical sentences and to utter them in an acceptable way” (Habernas, 26). Habernas uses an approach similar to linguistic analysis to produce a general theory of speech actions; that is to say he develops a system of rules for the successful employment of sentences in utterances. As Habernas explains, “the production of sentences according to the rules of grammar is something other than the use of sentences in accordance with pragmatic rules that shape the infrastructure of speech situations in general” (Habernas, 27). The condition of validity of a grammatical sentence is that it should obey the established rules of grammar and should therefore be comprehensible, but the meaning of the sentence once it is uttered or expressed takes on a whole new form. A successful utterance is not merely a grammatically correct sentence; it is the expression of a pragmatic function with several other claims to validity. As Habernas explains, “whereas a grammatical sentence fulfills the claim to comprehensibility, a successful utterance must satisfy three additional validity claims: it must count as true for the participants insofar as it represents something in the world; it must count as truthful insofar as it expresses something intended by the speaker; and it must count as right insofar as it conforms to socially recognized expectations” (Habernas, 28). The first validity claim, “truth,” has to do with the hearer’s belief that the speaker is saying is actually true. Therefore, when the hearer questions the truth of the speaker’s utterance, the relation to reality represented by this claim is broken. The second validity claim, “truthfulness,” is the hearer’s belief that what the speaker is saying corresponds to what the speaker is intending to say. If the speaker’s communicative abilities are such that one may question whether or not the speech act aligns with the reality of the intended thought behind it, then the second validity claim is not met. Finally, the third validity claim, “rightness,” has to do with the sharing of values between speaker and hearer. For Habernas, successful communication establishes a legitimate interpersonal relationship between the speaker and the hearer; for this to occur, the speaker’s utterance must align with the hearer’s self-image. If the utterance offends the hearer’s value system, such as may be the case for instance when two individuals from separate religious backgrounds discuss matters of faith, the speech act does not relate to the hearer’s normative context and is therefore not validated by the hearer as something which relates to reality.

Universal-pragmatic analysis measures the fulfillment of the three general pragmatic functions described above – representation, expression, and establishing legitimate interpersonal relations – against the validity conditions of truth, truthfulness, and rightness. For Habernas, these are the criteria according to which we may assess the communicative competence of the speaker and the communicative successfulness of a speech action. It is by way of the evaluation of these general pragmatic functions that we may perform an analysis of the meaning of sentences as speech acts; it is how we evolve from linguistics (rules for generating sentences) to pragmatics (rules for using sentences in utterances).


Works cited:

Habermas, J. (1979). Communication and the evolution of society. Boston: Beacon Press.

Reader-Response Hermeneutics

In The Responsibility of Hermeneutics[i], Anthony C. Thiselton, in considering the work of J. Arthur Baird on audience criticism in biblical studies, describes the audience as a “hermeneutical factor of first importance” (Thiselton, 91). Thiselton further explains that “meaning is always potential in terms of the text, but actual in relation to the reader. No meaning is already ‘there’ in some objectivist sense, apart from a horizon of expectations brought to a text by the reader (…) the reader’s response is not to the meaning; it is the meaning” (Thiselton, 94). The use of the term “horizon” here recalls Gadamer’s “fusion of horizons” whereby the interpreter’s perspective mergers with that of the author to elevate understanding to another level. But according to reader-response hermeneutics, the text does not have its own objective meaning; rather, it is the individual reader who assigns meaning to the text based on the questions and expectations prompted by that reader’s particular social and institutional circumstances.  Here we are reminded of Gadamer’s “historically effected consciousness” whereby our history “determines in advance both what seems to us worth inquiring about and what will appear as an object of investigation” (Gadamer, 350).  Similarly, according to reader-response hermeneutics the reader brings to a given text not a completely open mind but rather a certain set of assumptions and interpretive principles which in a sense delimit the realm of possible meanings that the text can have for that reader. That is to say, there are potentially quite a few interpretive possibilities of a given text that are not entertained by a given reader because those possibilities simply don’t qualify as meaning for that particular interpreter. Hence, interpretation involves not the discovery of new interpretive possibilities but the validation of pre-established notions through the rediscovery of these notions within the text.

The interpretive limitations dictated by the interpreter’s intellectual community in reader-response hermeneutics contrast sharply with Ricoeur’s hermeneutic phenomenology whereby “to understand is to understand oneself in front of the text. It is not a question of imposing upon the text our finite capacity for understanding, but of exposing ourselves to the text and receiving from it an enlarged self” (Ricoeur, 84). Whereas the text in Ricoeur’s hermeneutic phenomenology is a point of departure for further intellectual expansion, in the reader-response view interpretation is limited to the mere validation of preconceived notions.

The use of facts or “units of sense” is instrumental to the production of meaning according to reader-response hermeneutics. As Thiselton explains, “units of sense generated by the text ‘do not lie innocently in the world; rather, they are themselves constituted by an interpretive act. The facts are still there but only as a consequence of the interpretive (man-made) model that has called them into being’” (Thiselton, 94). Hayden White quite effectively puts forth a similar idea in Tropics of Discourse:

It is not the case that a fact is one thing and its interpretation another. The fact is presented where and how it is in the discourse in order to sanction the interpretation to which it is meant to contribute. And the interpretation derives its force of plausibility from the order and manner in which the facts are presented in the discourse (White, 107).

Both Thiselton and White seem to be suggesting that objective knowledge is always suspect. However, White exposes a certain complicity between fact and interpretation while maintaining a real distinction between them, whereas Thiselton seems to deny this distinction, suggesting that facts themselves are merely disguised interpretations. For White, facts are more or less objective units that can be strategically included or excluded from discourse to send the reader down a specific interpretive path. For Thiselton, facts are “themselves constituted by an interpretive act;” that is to say, what constitutes a fact is itself a matter of interpretation.

Regarding the interpretation of the Parables of Jesus, Thiselton argues that an action-theory model is needed to

bring into focus the multilevel functions of speech-acts without committing us to the anarchy of radically polyvalent meaning. A speech-act, or series of speech-acts, may be able simultaneously to project narrative-worlds and assert states of affairs and transform the perceptions of readers (Thiselton, 100).

But if we are going to consider the Parables as speech acts, then perhaps we should evaluate to what extent the Parables meet the conditions of validity stipulated in Habermas’ universal pragmatics, the criteria according to which we may assess the communicative competence of the speaker and the communicative successfulness of a speech action. For Habernas,

a successful utterance must satisfy three additional validity claims: it must count as true for the participants insofar as it represents something in the world; it must count as truthful insofar as it expresses something intended by the speaker; and it must count as right insofar as it conforms to socially recognized expectations (Habernas, 28).

Hence, we should evaluate the extent to which the Parables actually represent something in the world, the extent to which Jesus and his disciples are deemed truthful speakers and whether the Parables conform to recognized ethical norms. We must conclude that the religious nature of the Parables is such that the validity conditions of truth, truthfulness, and rightness might be met for Christian audiences but not necessarily for other types of audiences.

Works Cited:

Gadamer, H., & Weinsheimer, J. (2004). Truth and method (2nd, rev. ed.). London: Continuum.

Habermas, J. (1979). Communication and the evolution of society. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lundin, R., & Thiselton, A. (1985). The responsibility of hermeneutics. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans.

Ricoeur, P., & Blamey, K. (2008). From text to action essays in hermeneutics, II. London: Continuum.

White, H. (1978). Tropics of discourse: Essays in cultural criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.