Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Objective Truth

This is my second post on the book Discerning the Mystery, by Andrew Louth. The first post can be found here.

In his second chapter Louth investigates further the difference between science and the humanities, and how the Enlightenment has affected relations between them. This difference can be observed, among other ways, by the fact that there is a clear sense of progress in the sciences, while progress is much harder to define in the humanities. This perceived lack of progress has come to be seen as a failure, a challenge for the humanities to somehow achieve successes similar to those of the sciences by becoming more like them—the "fallacy of imitative form" mentioned in the last chapter. However, there has long been another current of thought that has resisted any assimilation of the humanities to the sciences, and it is to several representative voices of this resistance that Louth turns.

The first such voice he describes is that of Giambattista Vico, who highlighted the difference to protest the attempts of Enlightenment thinkers to make the character of the sciences paradigmatic for all knowledge—the sentiment that in order to be true, knowledge must be "scientific". He brings in the idea that one can only understand fully what one has made. In his view, mathematics is not something discovered so much as invented, hence why we are able to understand it so clearly and precisely. Yet nature is not manmade, and so mathematics is not always a good fit to it; the spectrum of "hardness" in the sciences can be seen as a scale of how well different fields of study can be described by mathematics. Yet human history, human deeds are obviously also manmade; they can be known from within, not simply as external objects of study like the natural world. How strange it is, then, to try to apply the methods of science to understand human history! Instead Vico points to the importance of metaphor and imagination in helping us to understand history; metaphors are seen as windows to the thought world or "common sense" of not just individuals but past communities.

Wilhelm Dilthey later elaborated on this distinction between science and the humanities. He calls attention to their difference in subject matter: the natural sciences study physical objects which can be analyzed and experimented on in detail, while the humanities are concerned with human minds which do not submit to this kind of study. Yet they are accessible to us in a more fundamental way, because they are not other but "connatural" to us. Dilthey describes the understanding of minds (ours or others') as the sympathetic understanding of their "expressions" of experiences. Our capacity to in some sense share in the experiences of others is what gives us access to other minds, guided by our shared understanding of human nature. Interpretation, according to Dilthey, is an attempt to reflect in the mind the experiences of another, which he calls "indwelling" (23). It is a movement back and forth between text and context, from parts to whole; "This circle is logically unbreakable, but we break it in practice every time we understand." (24) This way of interpretation is not purely or even primarily a logical process; it is more guided by sympathy and intuition; it is an attempt to (in Schleiermacher's words, "[understand] the author better than he understands himself."

Similarities between Vico and Dilthey readily become apparent. Both emphasize our ability to understand other minds "from the inside" via sympathetic imagining, made possible by our common human nature, as opposed to the purely external, more logical study of the natural world. Yet this difference in the kinds of knowledge dealt with by the sciences and humanities still seems to concede "truth" to science, and claims something else for the humanities. Is this an inevitable side-effect of seeking to understand the humanities as radically different than science? Louth thinks not. He points to some presuppositions: the very notion of "objective" and "subjective" kinds of truth, and the attitude of the sciences toward the present.

As regards objective and subjective truth, the common definition is that objective truth is detached from the subjectivity of the observer (i.e. equally true for everyone, in all contexts), while subjective truth cannot be detached from the observer, and is "true for me", for a particular subject in a particular situation; it cannot be expressed in such a way that it is true for everyone. Expressed this way, Louth argues, it seems obvious that objective truth is "real" truth and subjective truth is somehow lesser. Against this, he describes objectivity and subjectivity as a spectrum, not a dichotomy. On one side is purely objective truth, but between it and purely subjective truth (which would simply be a collection of personal impressions lacking any engagement with the external world) lies truth that is objective in that it engages with truths that are "real", but does not do so in a detached, purely observational way. As Kierkegaard put it, "real" truth is that which a man would lay down his life for; purely objective truth is mere information that concerns "everyone and no one." (27) "What is important is engagement with reality, not simply the discerning of reality: and if it is reality, then it has a certain objectivity, it cannot simply be a reflection of my subjective apprehensions." Louth here introduces an idea which will continue to bear fruit for the rest of the book.

He also questions the "canonization of the present" as a way to measure the past. This approach tends to treat the understanding of the present (or rather, the recent past) as unproblematic, as a way to understand the (more distant) past, yet this seems hard to believe. By ignoring the problem of the present, which contains the subject seeking to understand, it becomes easier to imagine that our knowledge of the past can be "objective". What can we make of the past if that subjectivity is not removable?

Louth next turns to the approach of Hans-Georg Gadamer toward the difference between the sciences and the humanities, a self-confessing effort to show "how little the traditions in which we stand are weakened by modern historical consciousness". Gadamer calls out the influence of Steiner's "fallacy of imitative form" on the humanities, considering it mistaken for two reasons. First is the search for a single, objective, "original meaning" to a text by seeking to situate ourselves in the author's context until we understand him, maybe even better than he understands himself. Gadamer considers this an unrealistic expectation because it ignores the context of the interpreter; it is an impossible quest to understand not just what is written but the author himself. Even were it possible, such an understanding would be a "dead meaning" (30) for the reasons just raised by Kierkegaard; real meaning emerges in the engagement between author and reader, and so is not limited by either.

The second error Gadamer points out is the corresponding attempt to eliminate the subjectivity of the interpreter, the ideal of "presuppositionless understanding" which removes the reader from the equation to allow the "original meaning" of the author to shine through. As in science the ideal is "objectivity", the elimination of "prejudice". In response Gadamer asks: does being situated in various traditions limit one's freedom and make one subject to prejudices? Or is such limitation simply a part of being human, the particular space in which we find our freedom? A truer theory of interpretation sets the interpreter himself and his engagement with the past within tradition. The hermeneutical circle does not vanish when we attain to perfect understanding it is itself understanding. The discovery of the "true meaning" of a text is never finished; "it is rather an infinite process whereby tradition is handed on." (33) This does not mean that understanding is impossible, but rather than it is never exhausted or completed.

Thus Gadamer rejects any antithesis between tradition and reason or knowledge. Tradition is not what keeps us from true understanding, but (at least in the humanities) that by which, through which, and within which we can truly understand. "Tradition is the context in which one can be free, it is not something that constrains us and prevents us from being free." (35) Growth and understanding within tradition is likened to a process of "undeception", in which we do not grow in knowledge so much as we are freed from that which keeps us from being open to new experience, to understanding. We do not simply question such-and-such text; we understand the questions it is answering and allow them to question us.

Gadamer draws an analogy between ways of engagement with an author and forms of conversation. The first kind of engagement does not really allow a conversation to develop at all; it is simply the observation of an object, and the "conversation" is the context within which we observe him and try to draw conclusions; this is analogous to trying to apply a rigorously scientific methodology to the humanities which treats people as objects of study, subject to laws to be discovered. Another kind is a real conversation, but one in which I am not interested in what someone is saying as in how he "really" thinks and feels—trying to peer beneath the surface understand him better than he understands himself. This is similar to the relationship between a psychiatrist and a client, but without the therapeutic motive. Finally, I can engage in a conversation where I not only recognize the other's personhood, but also his "claim over me" and what he has to say to me. I am not trying to gain an "objective" understanding of him, but only of what he has to say; I am open to learning from him, not merely about him.

Finally Gadamer proposes, as an alternative to the Enlightenment goal of seeking a method which will lead to truth if applied properly, the German concept of bildung, or the Greek word paideia—which roughly translates to "childhood", "formation", or "growing up" (reminiscent of James K.A. Smith's proposal in Desiring the Kingdom). In his understanding, initiation into the humanities is not initiation into any technique so much as it is an initiation into the tradition with which we are concerned. The goal is not objectivity, but the right kind of subjectivity, a "sensitivity to our historical situation and all that has contributed to it," the experience and wisdom that allows us to benefit as fully as possible from our situation instead of transcending it. Rather than denying our prejudices, bildung initiates us into them—or more sympathetically, into a perspective by which we can truly know the moral world.

This chapter is where Louth really starts to unpack the big ideas of the book. His critique of the simple dichotomy between "objective" and "subjective", and suggestion of a spectrum from detached, universal truth to purely subjective impression immediately struck me as insightful, a way of thinking I hadn't encountered before that makes a lot of sense and explains much. I expressed something remotely like this in my own search for answers.
I believe truth is intrinsically bound up in reality itself, not something separate and neutral we use to describe it. If truth is a body of rational statements, we have privileged access to it as rational beings. But it truth is tied into reality, then we have access to it inasmuch as we are 'native'/at home in the world. (2013-7-12)
What I was missing when I wrote this is that the ultimate truth we seek to know is the Word himself, and we know him not just through the quasi-abstraction of "reality" but through the particularity of tradition, as Louth explains. I was also using the newer, more narrow meaning of "rational" as meaning something like "propositional and logic-based", when in its original meaning it denoted the human ability and calling to know God, as Fr. Stephen Freeman explains. But I was dead-on right that authentically knowing truth is not a detached affair of "objective" perception, but active engagement with the object of our knowing. There is no distance between our knowing and its object.

Thus the goal of theology is not to seek "objective" truth or knowledge. The word "objective", as it is commonly used, denotes not so much a positive quality as the lack of something: personal, subjective engagement with the reality known (pure subjectivity also denotes a lack of something: an external reality to know and engage with). In the sciences this lack of subjectivity denotes repeatability and universality and is arguably a good thing; not so in the humanities, Louth argues, least of all theology.

In lay-level Bible study, it is common to designate interpretation and application as the two major steps in biblical interpretation. This division of labor assumes that interpretation is separable, both logically and chronologically, from application, from engagement with the truth glimpsed through interpretation. We first figure out "what it meant then", then turn to "what it means now". We expect to somehow interpret in detachment, as objectively as possible, and then reattach ourselves to apply what we have learned to our own lives. Gadamer would disagree; he instead wrote that such "objective" detachment is unrealistic and undesirable.

Louth argues that interpretation and engagement are inseparable, cyclically linked in the "hermeneutical circle", from text to context and back in perpetuity. I still feel a residual tinge of unease over the suggestion that interpretation could be a never-ending process insofar as it seems to set the meaning of Scripture outside our grasp. Louth is not claiming this, but that we can never exhaust the meaning of Spirit-breathed Scripture, to the point where we have nothing left to learn from it, no further way to grow in it. In this never-completed cycle of interpretation, we find that tradition is not a barrier to true understanding, but the medium in which we are able to come by it. What we need to interpret rightly is not subjectless objectivity, the freedom from presuppositions and traditions, but the right tradition. This is what I always try to emphasize to Christians who claim to have found (or at least to be seeking) the "objective" or "original" meaning of Scripture, apart from "human tradition". As Louth will argue in the next chapter, tradition is inescapable, a part of our human condition; if you think that you are free from tradition and prejudices, it simply means you are unaware of their influence on you.

A common argument I hear fielded in support of the need to read (or at least attempt to read) a text like the Bible "objectively" is to imagine that you wrote something that someone else is reading (a letter, book, blog post, or whatever). Wouldn't you want them to read it in search of what you actually meant in your act of communication, and not to simply subjectively insert their own meaning, making your writing say whatever they want? Should we not extend this same respect, of actually caring what people mean when they communicate, to others? Yet this argument assumes the false dichotomy between objectivity and subjectivity Louth points out, where anything other than seeking the original meaning is thought to be pure invention on our part. I would argue we also do a text a disservice if we approach it with the detachment of a scientist in the laboratory, if we simply treat it like a puzzle to be solved where the only solution is to figure out exactly what the writer was thinking and meaning, with everything else extraneous. Imagine if you wrote a letter to someone else and they read it in this way, seeking to ground it in a reconstruction of your socio-historical background, worldview, cultural assumptions, etc., instead of simply reading it in the shared context of your friendship and knowledge of each other! In biblical interpretation, tradition occupies the role of that friendship; it is our living link with the individuals and the community from whom we have received the very text we are trying to interpret. And, as Christian tradition lives within the body of Christ indwelt by the Spirit, it makes possible something more important: subjective engagement with the ultimate objective, personal reality witnessed to by the text—not the Bible itself, but its Author.

From time to time I read pieces about the kind of legacy we are leaving behind as a civilization—what future generations will think when examining our artifacts, reading our writings, looking at our consumer goods and technology. This kind of thinking has always struck me as strange because for some reason it always assumes these these future humans remember absolutely nothing of our time, not even in a distorted fashion, so that they are only able to know our culture through archaeological guesswork, not simply as our descendants. This seems hard to believe when we think about all the ways, both obvious and invisible, that classical Greek culture continues to influence modern western society more than two millennia later. Such imaginings seem to bleakly assume that civilization will have collapsed and been forgotten in the interim, with no living memory passed on. By taking a scientific, "objective" approach to theology or the humanities in general, by seeking to escape from the traditions that have been passed down and then reconstruct them using historical criticism, we are being similarly forgetful.

No comments:

Post a Comment