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Hermeneutics and the Half Empty Glass

The new year has arrived and I suspect most people are hoping 2016 will be better than 2015, while some believe it actually will be (they probably can’t help themselves). However, those of us whose glasses are always half empty, while not without hope, are nonetheless doubtful any major redemption in prospects will occur.

Whenever I’m asked if my glass is half empty or half full I say, "Glass! What glass? Where the hell did you get a glass?"

My wife’s glass isn’t half full, it’s always overflowing, so you can imagine it took some time for us to come to terms with our contrasting perspectives. Peace was accomplished when we, after extended negotiation, came to the agreement that neither perspective is entirely wrong or entirely right. Both have their merits.

Whether it was the cause of nature or nurture, or both, ever since I can remember there has always been a “but” in my life.[1] My mom says, “It’s a beautiful morning,” and I respond, “But it might rain this afternoon.” My wife says, “The Paris climate change accord is a great step forward,” and I respond, “But it all depends on follow through, which is doubtful.” I say to myself, “I have a wonderful home,” and respond to myself, “But millions of people are living in abject poverty.”

I realize that this “but” and my half empty glass can be quite annoying to some people. I suspect more than a few people have unfriended me on Facebook! However, my interpretation of experience leads me to believe it is a sensible technique for maneuvering my way through life. It dawned on me a long time ago that my “but” and my glass are not signs of negativity but evidence that I embrace a hermeneutic of suspicion and always have.

The term “hermeneutic of suspicion” was first coined by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur in his work on interpreting texts. In general “hermeneutics” is the theory of interpretation and began with the interpretation of biblical texts. Since the nineteenth century the term and methodology have been expanded to include the interpretation of all texts, including literary fiction, pop songs, legal documents, etc.

Ricoeur was uncomfortable with, indeed suspicious of, the notion that we the reader are capable of discerning the intentions of the author, especially if the author has been dead for some time. He thus wanted to ground his interpretation in objectivity, rather than in a subjective reading of an author’s intentions. In other words, he wanted to ground his understanding in the text itself, not in the author’s mind. He believed that the text will guide us to its correct truth, though it is imperative to appreciate that “the truth” could include a range of possible understandings. However, while there may be many true interpretations of the text, there is not an unlimited number of valid interpretations. And because there may be a range of possible truths, but not an unlimited number of truths, it is important to proceed with a healthy dose of suspicion. Ricoeur argued that we had to remain open to what the text is saying to us, which he believed could and would lead us to its truth. He wrote, "Hermeneutics seems to me to be animated by this double motivation: willingness to suspect, willingness to listen; vow of rigor, vow of obedience."[2] In a nutshell: be suspicious and be open; remain disciplined and respectful.

As the term and methodology moved from biblical texts to all texts, it has also moved from textual analysis to the areas of cultural, social, anthropological, feminist, theological studies, etc.[3] In cultural and perhaps particularly in feminist interpretations, the methodology demands we are suspicious of the dominant culture, politics, status quo. A theological hermeneutic of suspicion states that all aspects of God’s good creation can become bad, to put it extremely simply.[4] So, borrowing from Ricoeur’s textual methodology, we must be suspicious of human thought, practice, traditions, behaviors and be open to what they can tell us. We must be disciplined and, as far as possible, objective, while at the same time resepecting, again as much as possible, that which we study. In other words, always have a "but" ready and never trust that the glass is full. It may just be a matter of perspective which hides a deeper meaning and truth.

I had no way of knowing it, but as a child I embraced a hermeneutic of suspicion. It’s the “but.” It’s the half empty glass. It’s the best way I can survive the journey of life. It is not negativity or negation. It’s suspicion. It is not hopelessness. It is suspicion. It’s not the denial of sunshine. It’s the steadfast refusal not to forget or ignore that dark clouds have gathered somewhere.

Admittedly, an all embracing hermeneutic of suspicion is a challenge to maintaining a steady state of happiness. Still, I’m comfortable with who I am. Those who find me unbearable can always unfriend me, though I bet they wouldn’t mind having me around if those dark clouds are gathering around themselves.

Copyright © 2016 Dale Rominger

[1] Years ago my father told me that my mother endured hours of labor during my birth. At one point the doctor came to him and asked him to choose either his wife or his unborn child. He became angry and demanded both, for which I am extremely grateful. I do wonder, however, if my reluctance to enter this world has something to do with my glass perspective. It is worth noting that even though I began life reluctantly I am not eager to leave it.

[2] Ricoeur, Paul, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 27.

[3] Often people utilizing a hermeneutic of suspicion treat the cultural, social, or theological area of study as if it were a text.

[4] Even love if an obsession becomes a negative.

Reader Comments (1)

My outlook is similar to yours, and I came to attribute it to my New England heritage. I don't know whether it's attributable to the climate (it may be summer now but you'd be foolish to think that winter isn't going to come), the Calvinist outlook of my ancestors some generations back (you might be saved, but you might not, and you have no way of knowing), or the fact that for years it was well known that the Boston Red Sox might do well during the season, or perhaps even go to the World Series, but they would never win the series (this has been overturned in recent years, although the first year that it happened, I just knew that Massachusetts senator John Kerry would therefore not win the presidential election a few weeks later). This attitude just felt so natural when I lived there that I never thought about it until I moved to Seattle.

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBarb Miller

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