On Meaning

On Meaning, this little animal growing up inside until it eats us up or runs away

26 January 2016

There is something deeply alive and partly independent about meaning – and the way it occurs in our life – which never ceases to amaze me. And the idea that we can have theories on it, which we can construct, defend, apply and revise, seems as naïve as it is arrogant and unnecessary, for – if we do make sense of things, artworks, texts, and the world, then why would we need a theory for? And if we don’t, how is a theory going to help us?

That is why I’ve always resisted referring to hermeneutics as a ‘theory’ of interpretation or a set of theories about meaning. I prefer to see it as a practice, which one can be interested in and get better at by doing it, the same way one is interested in carpentry or philosophy, not out of conviction that one would learn a theory and how to successfully apply it.

Last year at a conference in Perth, I spoke about the role of the transformational experience which occurs in genuine hermeneutical events, involving the full-bodied self, with all its fears, memories and desires. I started by looking at existing views concerning the relation between interpreter and meaning, discussing whether any of them succeeds in capturing how understanding actually occurs, and what happens when we make sense of things. Then, I suggested an alternative to these views, in the form of a transformative account of the hermeneutical event mentioned above. Heidegger’s ‘hermeneutical circle’ and Kierkegaard’s ‘recollection’ were some of the concepts I mentioned, in support of this ‘view’ of hermeneutics as practice, rather than theory. But mostly I spoke about the myth of Actaeon, as an illustration of any genuine (and therefore transformational) hermeneutical event. That proved more genuine – as a philosophical exercise – and promising, in terms of its potential to lead to suggestions concerning the role of such transformative events in everyday life, both public and private, than most of my previous – rather more theoretical – attempts on the subject.