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Wednesday
Sep262018

The Great Philosophical Question about Half Filled Glasses

I often say this to people:

When someone asks me if my glass is half empty or half full I say: ‘Glass? What glass? Where the hell did you get a glass?’

Of course I mean it as a joke, an exaggeration. Still, while it implies that sometimes my glass is way worse than half empty, it certainly does state that within the parameters of the question, my glass is always half empty.

I suspect it is generally thought that having a glass half full is better than having one half empty, and the implication of that is that people with half full glasses are better off than people with glasses half empty. After all, being an optimist must be better than being a pessimist. Optimist are happy, pessimists are unhappy. Right?

I googled like crazy to discover the etymology of the idiom, but could find no consensus. However, I did find two references. The first claims the first recorded citation of the words came in 1985 from a Ronald Reagan quote in the New York Times: “you can say it’s like the glass half full or half empty…” I confess it’s hard for me to believe that a great psychological and philosophical tool came from Ronald Reagan, but as we know Trump is making all past Republican presidents look great.

The second reference claims that the expression is part of a proverb that originated in the first half of the 1900s. The proverb asks whether a glass that contains 50% water and 50% air is half full or half empty. Obviously in the proverb the glass is always full, so if you say the glass is half empty you have a negative worldview and if you say it is half full you have a positive world view.

There are, of course, two ways to ask the glass question: Is your glass half empty or half full; and, is the glass half empty or half full. The first is psychological and the second philosophical. The first can be seen as a kind of litmus test to determine a person’s psychology and/or worldview. The second indicates that a particular situation can be seen in different ways, both positive and negative.  

I’ve often found that half full people don’t appreciate my half empty perspective, and on occasion get downright annoyed with me—for God’s sake quit all your bitching. Here’s the thing:

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. 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.”

Somewhere along the way I realize that this “but” and my half empty glass area 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 of 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 had 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 interpretation in the text itself, not in the author’s mind. He believed that the text itself will guide us to its correct truth, though it is imperative to appreciate that “the truth” included a range of possible understandings. But, while there may be many interpretation of the truth of a text, there is not an unlimited number of valid interpretations. 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. Ricoeur wrote, "Hermeneutics seems to me to be animated by this double motivation: willingness to suspect, willingness to listen; vow of rigor, vow of obedience."[1] In a nutshell: be suspicious and be open; remain disciplined and meticulousness.

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, and theological studies.[2] In cultural, and particularly feminist interpretations, the methodology demands we are suspicious of the dominant culture, politics, status quo. A theologically a hermeneutic of suspicion states that all aspects of God’s good creation can become bad.[3] 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 in our study.

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 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 them.

I do wonder from time to time what I would say about the glass if it were half filled with red wine and air.


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

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

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

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