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The Life of Understanding


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<P>In Gadamer’s hermeneutics, interpretation is inseparable from the broader concern of making one’s way in life. In this book, James Risser builds on this insight about the juxtaposition of human living and the act of understanding by tracing hermeneutics back to the basic experience of philosophy as defined by Plato. For Risser, Plato provides resources for new directions in hermeneutics and new possibilities for "the life of understanding" and "the understanding of life." Risser places Gadamer in dialogue with Plato, with the issue of memory as a conceptual focus. He develops themes pertaining to hermeneutics such as retrieval as a matter of convalescence, exile as a venture into the foreign, formation with respect to oneself and to life with others, the experience of language in hermeneutics, and the relationship between speaking and writing.</P>
<P>Acknowledgments<BR>Platonic Gestures<BR>1. Memory and Life: Hermeneutics as Convalescence<BR>2. Distressed Memory: Hermeneutics and the Venture of the Foreign<BR>3. Beyond Distress: Toward a Community of Memory<BR>4. The Fabric of Life: Dialectics, Discourse, and the Art of Weaving<BR>5. Severed Threads: The Incapacity of Language<BR>6. Reading beyond the Letter: On Memory and Writing<BR>7. The Flash of Beauty<BR>Notes<BR>Bibliography<BR>Index</P>



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Published 25 July 2012
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John Sallis, editor
Consulting Editors
Robert Bernasconi J. N. Mohanty
Rudolph Bernet Mary Rawlinson
John D. Caputo Tom Rockmore
David Carr Calvin O. Schrag
Edward S. Casey † Reiner Schürmann
Hubert Dreyfus Charles E. Scott
Don Ihde Thomas Sheehan
David Farrell Krell Robert Sokolowski
Lenore Langsdorf Bruce W. Wilshire
Alphonso Lingis David Wood
William L. McBride THE LIFE OF UNDERSTANDINGThis book is a publication of
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© 2012 by James Risser
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Risser, James, [date]
The life of understanding : a contemporary hermeneutics / James Risser.
p. cm. — (Studies in Continental thought)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-253-00214-3 (cloth : alk. paper)—ISBN 978-0-253-00219-8 (electronic) 1.
Hermeneutics. 2. Plato. 3. Gadamer, Hans-Georg, 1900–2002. I. Title.
BD241.R498 2012
1 2 3 4 5 17 16 15 14 13 12CONTENTS
Introduction: Platonic Gestures
ONE Memory and Life: Hermeneutics as Convalescence
TWO Distressed Memory: Hermeneutics and the Venture of the Foreign
THREE Beyond Distress: Toward a Community of Memory
FOUR The Fabric of Life: Dialectics, Discourse, and the Art of Weaving
FIVE Severed Threads: The Incapacity of Language
SIX Reading beyond the Letter: On Memory and Writing
SEVEN The Flash of Beauty
This book first took shape when I gave the André Schuwer Lecture at the annual meeting of the Society
for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (spep) in 2003. That lecture eventually became the first
chapter of this book. With that and with other occasions in subsequent years at various places to
present many of the ideas brought forward in this book, I was greatly aided by colleagues and friends
who heard this work and in their responses have contributed to its development. I want to especially
thank Walter Brogan, Pat Burke, Marylou Sena, Günter Figal, and Nicholas Davey. I also want to thank
John Sallis, Burt Hopkins, Charles Scott, Dennis Schmidt, and Donatella DiCesare, whose own work
has been an inspiration to me. Once again, I am deeply indebted to my wife Jean who continues to
abide the slowness of my work.
Earlier versions of several chapters have appeared elsewhere. “The Memory of Life: Hermeneutics
as Convalescence” was originally published under the title “On the Continuation of Philosophy:
Hermeneutics as Convalescence” in Weakening Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Gianni Vatimo, ed.
Santiago Zabala (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2007), 184–202. “The Fabric of Life:
Dialectics, Discourse, and the Art of Weaving” was originally published under the title “Discourse,
Dialectic, and the Art of Weaving” in Epoche: A Journal for the History of Philosophy, 13, no. 2
(Spring 2009): 291–98. “Severed Threads: The Incapacity of Language” was originally published
under the title “The Incapacity of Language” in The Journal for the British Society for
Phenomenology, 40 (2009): 300–11. “Reading Beyond the Letter: On Memory and Writing” was
originally published under the title “Ideality, Memory and the Written Word” in Internationale
Jahrbuch für Hermeneutik 2009, ed. Günter Figal (Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 2009), 27–40.THE LIFE OF UNDERSTANDINGIntroduction: Platonic Gestures
My aim in this book is to develop and enlarge the hermeneutic insight that understanding is inseparably
tied to the life situation. This is the insight that characterizes the scope of hermeneutics drawn from the
principal sources for this book, namely, the hermeneutics of Martin Heidegger and, more particularly,
Hans-Georg Gadamer. This is the hermeneutics that begins with Heidegger’s early formulation of
hermeneutics under the heading of a hermeneutics of facticity, in which philosophical research has as
its basic concern the interpretive movement occurring within factical life. Factical life, as the original
evidence situation of philosophy, is simply the existing historical situation in which an individual
always finds oneself and which requires interpretation as a way of continually gaining access to it.
This hermeneutics, which effectively recasts the character of the theoretical as it was conceived in the
early project of phenomenology and neo-Kantian philosophy, is furthered by Gadamer, who broadens it
into a more overt cultural and social context where the perspective of interpretation is indeed
inseparable from its basic relation not just to the historical aspect of historical life but to human living
in general. While it is true that Gadamer’s hermeneutics devotes considerable attention to the character
of textual interpretation, it is not, at bottom, a theory of textual interpretation in its classical sense. In
his philosophical hermeneutics the interpretation of texts is to be woven into the broader concern of
making one’s way in life such that the interpretation of texts is part of the communicative experience in
which the world in which we live opens up.
It is easy to see here that any amplification of the hermeneutic insight of the juxtaposition of life and
understanding must involve itself in a thoroughgoing way in the hermeneutics of Heidegger and
Gadamer, but my intent is not to present a critical exposition of their positions. Both positions have
already been extensively treated in the secondary literature. Rather, my intent is to move beyond their
stated positions, in effect to present something like a hermeneutics after Gadamer, by an amplification
that ties hermeneutics back to the basic experience of philosophy as defined by Plato. The
incorporation of Plato into the project of hermeneutics, by way of indications for its thematic
development, has the effect of broadening the scope of hermeneutics as philosophy and identifies more
properly what is at issue in this book. In moving back to Plato one can find resources for directions in
hermeneutics and for opening up new possibilities for the life of understanding.
With the introduction of Plato as a third figure for the further development of hermeneutics, the
thematic presentation is effectively entangled in and constantly moving between two sets of relations,
with Gadamer as the pivotal figure: Heidegger–Gadamer, and Gadamer– Plato. The first relation, as
noted, constitutes the scope of contemporary hermeneutics with respect to the life situation; but more
than this, this relation is the relation that is absolutely essential to consider for anyone interpreting
Gadamer’s hermeneutics. Gadamer does not just borrow from Heidegger the basic principles of a
hermeneutic phenomenology which he then applies in his own way to craft what he calls a
philosophical hermeneutics. Rather, his thought is fully informed by his lifelong association with
Heidegger’s work, so much so that the key to understanding the extent to which Gadamer extends the
range of hermeneutic philosophy in an original way lies in a careful appreciation of this association.
While clearly acknowledging in Truth and Method that he is taking over from Heidegger the notion of
interpretation and understanding that originates in a hermeneutics of facticity and is famously presented
in Being and Time, he also states in his autobiographical writings how important the later Heidegger’s
1work on language and art was for his own expanded sense of hermeneutics. In a sense, Gadamer’s
hermeneutics provides the link between the early and late Heidegger’s work, a link that Heidegger
himself acknowledges but fails to fully articulate.
If there is a natural affinity between Gadamer and Heidegger, the same can also be said to exist, for
different reasons, between Gadamer and Plato. Certainly the importance of Plato for Gadamer is well
2known and the subject of many commentaries. In Gadamer’s writings the reader is constantly directed
to Plato, not to provide examples for the point under discussion, but to inform the hermeneutical