Wednesday, May 01, 2019

The hermeneutic circle

Unlike criticism and aesthetic valuation, which are always synchronic (Aristotle’s ‘Oedipus’ is not negated or made obsolete by Holderlin’s, Hoderlin’s is neither improved nor cancelled out by Freud’s), the process of textual interpretation is cumulative. Our readings become better informed, evidence progresses, substantiation grows. Ideally—though not, to be sure, in actual practice—the corpus of lexical knowledge, of grammatical analysis, of semantic and contextual matter, of historical and biographical fact, will finally suffice to arrive at a demonstrable determination of what the passage means. This determination need not claim exhaustiveness; it will know itself to be susceptible to amendment, to revision, even to rejection as fresh knowledge becomes available, as linguistic or stylistic insights are sharpened. But at any given point in the long history of disciplined understanding, a decision as to the better reading, as to the more plausible paraphrase, as to the more reasonable grasp of the author’s purpose, will be a rational and demonstrable one. At the end of the philological road, now or tomorrow, there is a best reading, there is a meaning or constellation of meanings to be perceived, analysed and chosen over others. In its authentic sense, philology is, indeed, the working passage, via the arts of scrupulous observance and trust (philein) from the uncertainties of the Word to the stability of the Logos.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, pages 27–28

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