Explanation & Understanding

In From Text to Action,[1] Paul Ricoeur struggles with the Gadamerian opposition between truth and method. Ricoeur describes this opposition as an antinomy because “either we adopt the methodological attitude and lose the ontological density of the reality we study, or we adopt the attitude of truth and must then renounce the objectivity of the human sciences” (Ricoeur, 72). For Ricoeur, the element of distanciation which is implicit to the objective nature of the human sciences does not limit our ability to grasp the ontological status of historical events by destroying our primordial relation to them – rather, this distanciation is the very condition of possibility for understanding those events. For Ricoeur, “interpretation is the reply to the fundamental distanciation constituted by the objectification of man in works of discourse” (Ricoeur, 79). This distanciation therefore provides the window of opportunity as well as the impetus to engage in the interpretive endeavor. Interpretation, for Ricoeur, is not so much about revealing concealed meanings, but instead about exposing ourselves to new ones. As Ricoeur explains, “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).

Ricoeur describes the “hermeneutical circle” in terms of a correlation between explanation and understanding. The first part of the bidirectional process – the movement from understanding to explanation – involves guesswork and validation. An understanding is a “presumption of a certain kind of whole” which we arrive at by an act of guessing the relative importance of the parts which constitute the whole. As Ricoeur explains, “there is no necessity and no evidence concerning what is important and what is unimportant, what is essential and what is unessential. The judgement of importance is a guess” (Ricoeur, 154). Then, the presumed whole, the understanding, is subject to a process of validation called explanation. As Ricoeur explains, “there are no rules for making good guesses. But there are methods for validating guesses” (Ricoeur, 153). The process of validation involves assessing the likelihood of the proposed interpretation using the objective criteria associated with the scientific method. As Ricoeur explains, “an interpretation must be not only probable but more probable than another. There are criteria of relative superiority which may easily be derived from the logic of subjective probability” (Ricoeur, 155). Furthermore, the process of validation constitutes “judicial reasoning” such that an interpretation is, after all, merely an argumentative situation. As Ricoeur explains, “the intermediary function of juridical reasoning clearly shows that the procedures of validation have a polemical character. In front of the court, the plurivocity common to texts and to actions is exhibited in the form of a conflict of interpretations, and the final interpretation appears as a verdict to which it is possible to make appeal” (Ricoeur, 157).

Ricoeur equates the term “explanation” with objective meaning which is separate and distinct from the subjective intention of the author. For Ricoeur, “the text’s career escapes the finite horizon lived by its author. What the text says now matters more than what the author meant to say, and every exegesis unfolds its procedures within the circumference of a meaning that has broken its moorings to the psychology of the author” (Ricoeur, 144). This freedom from the psychology of the author, this explosion of the dialogical relation between author and reader as a result of the act of writing, opens up a new world of interpretive possibilities which constitutes, as Ricoeur describes it, the spirituality of discourse. The second part of the bidirectional hermeneutical process alluded to above – the opposite movement from explanation to understanding – constitutes a departure from the initial discourse towards more meaningful ones. In regards to this deeper interpretation or these “depth semantics” of the text, Ricoeur explains: “What has to be understood is not the initial situation of discourse but what points toward a possible world. Understanding has less than ever to do with the author and his or her situation. It wants to grasp the proposed worlds opened up by the references of the text. To understand a text is to follow its movement from sense to reference, from what it says to what it talks about” (Ricoeur, 160).  Following the circular nature of the hermeneutical process, once arrived at these deeper understandings are in turn subject to the same method of argumentative validation.

[1] Ricoeur, P., Blamey, K., & Thompson, J. (2008). From Text to Action. London: Continuum.


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