From Heidelberg to Vatican and Auschwitz: hermeneutical pathways

August 2022

As I’m preparing this talk for the ‘Vocation and Scholarship’ series at Wycliffe, I realize, I’m trying to play down my own view of the role of journeys in our life (and thinking). I see this as purely idiosyncratic, and try to replace it with ‘objective’, well-justified arguments for links between stages in one’s life of the mind.

But that is deeply inauthentic. There would be no (or very little) rational consistency between the stages of my own thinking, without the experiences occasioned by the significant places where I lived, worked, or simply visited. If I am truly honest, I ought to admit that my journey from metaphysics to hermeneutics would not be the same without my visit to Heidelberg and, more importantly, my encountering Gadamer and Vattimo. Similarly, my move from metaphysics to pragmatism – and back – would most certainly have been very different, had I not spent those few months in New York, talking to Richard Bernstein and listening to jazz. (What is the connection, you will ask. And that puzzlement – that idiosyncrasy, if you like – is very much part of the point I’m trying to make). “My” Auschwitz would not have been the same had it not come after my visit to the Vatican.

But it’s not easy to convey such meanings, in lines of argument that are more (or less) than purely objective, devoid of personal ‘baggage’. And yet, I find it is worth a try. And students are one of the more receptive audiences to this kind of experiments. They are not (yet) programmed to just ask for the argument. (Just the analytical argument, that is). They are (still) open to surprises.

It’s also not easy to explain ‘hermeneutics’, for it is more than one thing. And the fact that it doesn’t feature on the curriculum (or in the final papers) makes it both easier and more difficult. Who said freedom was supposed to be easy? Certainly not me – neither before, nor after the Revolution!