Beyond Objectivism and Relativism:
Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis
by Richard J. Bernstein,

University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983

SPECTATOR 1: I think it was, "Blessèd are the cheese makers."

SPECTATOR 2: What's so special about the cheese makers?

SPECTATOR 3: Well, obviously it's not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.

[Monty Python's Life of Brian, Python (Monty) Pictures Ltd., 1979, Paramount Pictures, 1990]

Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis, by Richard J. Bernstein, is a good introduction to hermeneutic issues and, in general, a sensible response to the questions raised by hermeneutic considerations.

Although hermeneutics burst forth as a major trend in 20th century philosophy in about the last thirty years, after steadily building up to that during the entire century, the hermeneutic tradition is almost as old as philosophy itself. "Hermeneutics" is simply the Greek word hermêneutika, "things for interpreting" (from "interpret," hermêneuô). One of the most significant events in the history of interpretation may have come with Philo Judaeus (c.25 BC-50 AD), who set out to interpret Greek philosophy as consistent with, and indeed as derived from, Mosaic Judaism. Since there was nothing obvious about that, it brings home the truth that the meaning of something is not always obvious, and that very unobvious kinds of interpretations can be imposed on given texts. As time went on, the promulgation of esoteric interpretations of literature, especially religious literature, became very big business. Since traditional schools of philosophy, and especially religions, were frequently based on certain authoritative texts, the interpretation of those texts, and the project of updating the teaching of the school or the religion in contemporary terms, was important and urgent. Since philosophers or religious reformers with new ideas frequently did not want to be perceived as having new ideas, but merely as reviving "original," authoritative teachings, they needed to force their teachings into the form of interpretations of their texts.

In Late Antiquity, two significant hermeneutic projects were, (1) the Neoplatonists combining Plato and Aristotle into a single doctrine, which it was argued was there all along, and (2) the Christological controversies which offered sophisticated metaphysical interpretations of the nature of Jesus. Since Plato and Aristotle certainly disagreed about many things, the Neoplatonic project is a nice example of interpreting the obvious to mean the opposite. The Christological problem was a little different. The Gospel of John already seems to reflect sophisticated influences from Philo, but a full blown metaphysic for Jesus drags in all sorts of problems from Greek philosophy that the Evangelists certainly never considered. Thus, while the Neoplatonic project was evidently contradicted by its texts, the Christological interpretations were under-determined by theirs, i.e. the text apparently holds no clear answer for either side of certain disputes.

In Islâm, hermeneutic issues became central to the construction of Islâmic Law. The Caliphs of Orthodox Islâm possessed no doctrinal authority, and so Islâmic Law came to be regarded as established by the Consensus of Islâmic jurists. At first, as this process worked its way out, jurists were said to operate according to ijtihâd (literally "struggle") or "Independent Interpretation," where the use of authoritative texts, like the Qur'ân and the recorded Traditions of the Prophet, was supplemented by the reasoning of the jurist himself. Islâmic philosophers took advantage of that to read a virtually unchanged Neoplatonism into Islâm. As schools of jurisprudence developed, the principle was adopted that the jurists of a particular school did not practice ijtihâd but instead taqlîd ("imitation") or the "Observance of Precedent." Eventually, Orthodox jurisprudence shook down into four schools, (the madhâhib or "ways"), the Mâlikis, H[.]anâfis, Shâfi'is, and H[.]anbalis, with the Hanbali school representing the most literalistic or "fundamentalist" interpretations. These four schools came to recognize each other as equally orthodox but then also that the day of Independent Interpretation was over: The Bâbu-l'Ijtihâd, or "Gate" of Independent Interpretation, was closed. This led to al-Ghazâlî rejecting the philosophers as heretics and even apostates for doctrines like the eternity of the world, which for Ghazâlî squarely contradicted the creation of the world affirmed by the Qur'ân.

Meanwhile, a different system developed in Shi'ism, which came to be regarded as heterodox mainly because it would not itself accept the Orthodox schools. Shi'ism was founded on the notion that human interpretation alone could not uncover the meaning of the Qur'an and Islâm. Instead, a source of authoritative interpretation was needed in the person of the Imâm, a descendant of the Prophet who retained his divine and authoritative understanding. Shi'ism itself then experienced schisms over disputes about who the Imâm actually was, and after a while lines of descent from the Prophet also started to die out, leaving major Shi'ite sects without a person representing their own raison d'être. In Iraq and Irân, the last Imâm, the 12th in descent from the Prophet (hence "Twelvers" for such Shi'ites), was regarded as having gone into deathless seclusion, rather than died, to return in the Last Days. Twelver jurisprudence then developed in a manner similar to Orthodoxy: Shi'ite jurists were authoritative in that they claimed inspiration from the Hidden Imâm, but whether their individual claims should be honored came to depend, again, on Consensus.

Mediaeval Christianity was much more a clash of Authorities from the first. The Christian Roman Emperors had no religious office or authority, but it was the tradition that the Emperor was the one who called Church Councils, and Imperial Favor tended to determine which decisions of the Councils would be enforced. The Emperors in Constantinople were soon called "Equals of the Apostles," and were typically portrayed in Byzantine art with halos, like Saints. When the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, began to see himself as the preeminent interpreter of Church doctrine, and then began to drift away from the political control of the Emperors in Constantinople, the makings first of all of the Schism between Eastern and Western Churches, and then of Papal claims to absolute doctrinal, and even temporal, authority, were set in motion. The greatest embarrassment to the progress of such claims was the Great Schism (1378-1415), in which rival Popes ruled from Rome and Avignon (and briefly from Pisa too). The Council of Constance (1414-1418), called by the German Emperor Sigismund, elected a new, single Pope in 1417; but this Pope, Martin V, was determined that the authority just exercised by the Emperor and by the Council would not become a precedent that the Pope should otherwise share his power either with Emperors or with Church Councils.

Ultimately, the decisive check on the Pope's claims was the Protestant Reformation, which brings us within sight of modern philosophical hermeneutics: Much of 20th century hermeneutics in philosophy is of German inspiration (people like Gadamer, Heidegger, Kuhn, Feyerabend, and Habermas), and perhaps this is not surprising considering that a powerful dimension of German Protestantism was hermeneutic: The interpretation of the Bible, and so the content of Christianity, was a matter of individual study and conscience, without regard to the precedent or the authority of Church history and Church doctrine. Luther did not realize, and was greatly surprised and chagrined, when the practical effect of this doctrine was continuing schism and fragmentation. Since Luther took the words of Jesus literally, that the bread was his body and the wine his blood, and so accepted the traditional interpretation of the Eucharist, he couldn't believe it when John Calvin rejected the traditional meaning of the Eucharist. There was, indeed, nothing about transubstantiation in the Bible, or any kind of teaching that the Eucharist was the means of salvation. Not even the Catholic Church had really believed that--salvation had always been possible by repentance in articulo mortis, at the moment of death. If salvation is really by "faith alone," as Luther taught, then the Church's theory of the Eucharist could be so much empty Scholastic metaphysics.

What we see from this history, then, is that interpretation has always involved dispute, and clashes of authority. Such features are then represented in 20th century philosophical hermeneutics. No text completely determines its own interpretation. Meaning is not derived from a text but brought to it, and that initial meaning will in great measure determine the interpretation of the text, regardless of what the text might be thought to "obviously" mean to others. Since different interpretations then arise, these can often only be settled in a practical sense by some exercise of social pressure, or even political authority.

Unfortunately, much of 20th century hermeneutics uses the undoubted truths in these observations to promote an ancient agenda of relativism and a modern agenda of nihilism. Such a modern agenda also gives aid and comfort to the totalitarian ideologies that have stained the progress of modern life in the century. Such evil consequences arise from one simple question: Does the text (or reality) impose any limitations on the interpretations that may be supplied for it? If the basic answer is "No," then a text can mean anything. One consequence of that is that the original meaning of the author of a text is unrecoverable and irrelevant. Only the meaning attributed by the reader is significant, or possible. In a larger epistemological framework, this also means that the world (the ultimate text) has no meaning or nature in its own right. Reality is supplied by the interpretation of the one experiencing it. This eliminates, in effect, the independent existence of the world, as it eliminated the independence existence of the author of a text and, in every practical sense, the text itself. These results are characteristic of the kind of relativistic and nihilistic doctrine of deconstruction advocated by Jacques Derrida (b.1930), Michel Foucault (1926-1984), and Richard Rorty (b.1931).

If there is no text and, so in effect, no world, what determines an interpretation beyond the individual whim of the interpreter? The typical deconstructionist answer to that is that it is power. This can be a form of Nietzschean power, or Marxist power, or some combination of the two. Either way it has totalitarian overtones, shading over into Right or Left, Fascism or Communism, depending on the taste of the deconstructionist. While people like Rorty exhibit the stigmata of trendy Leftism, it did not escaped notice, when deconstruction came to public attention in the '80's, that Heidegger, the intellectual forbearer of Derrida and Rorty, had been an unrepentant member of the Nazi Party and an enthusiastic Party functionary at the University of Heidelberg, ejecting Jewish professors from the University and refusing to sign off on the dissertations of his own graduate students who turned out to be Jewish. When it then was discovered, after his death, that an American deconstructionist at Yale, Paul de Mann, had written anti-Semitic and pro-German articles for a newspaper in Belgium during the War, Derrida was forced to defend him with the ultimate deconstructionist interpretive weapon: Everything de Mann wrote meant the opposite of what it seemed to mean.

This kind of thing was too much for more conventional philosophers, like John Searle (b.1932). A critique from Searle elicited an interesting response from Derrida: That he has been misunderstood. Oh. But we thought that deconstructionist doctrine was that the meaning of the author of a text was unrecoverable and irrelevant? So how could Derrida, pray tell, be misunderstood? Of course, we can say that Derrida was misunderstood if we can use our power to make people believe (or at least publicly agree to) that, which brings us full circle. Deconstructionists, indeed, often seem perfectly willing to use the power of their position, often as academic professionals, to reward and punish people who do or do not agree with their favored interpretations of texts, of politics, or of anything. Just like Heidegger.

The irrationality, intellectual dishonesty, and wrongfulness of such views and practices is obvious to most people, but nevertheless is perpetuated through the secure academic or political positions in which such advocates can find themselves. They have no scruples about it, since they honestly practice the implications of their own theory, that "truth" is simply determined by power. Why educated, intelligent people often do not recognize the kinship of these ideas to the mass murders of the 20th century is astonishing. The factor of self-interest for a would-be Mandarinate is probably the key: As Marx himself saw, a bureaucratic class will promote its own interests. Now that is called "rent-seeking."

A weakness of Bernstein's book is the degree to which he seems unaware of these consequences, but then the book was written (1983) before the public debate erupted. Even so, we must say that Bernstein, even then, took the deconstructionist possibility too seriously and was far too willing to invoke Marxist categories like "praxis" himself. He is also too dismissive of the philosophical project begun by Descartes, referring to Descartes's desire to ground knowledge as the "Cartesian Anxiety," as though Descartes should have been complacent about his tradition of received knowledge. This involves a certain kind of double-think that can be characteristic of deconstruction: that on the one hand a tradition of knowledge involves a substantial achievement and cannot simply be tossed out and replaced by one individual. This is true enough, as has been appreciated by thinkers from Edmund Burke to F.A. Hayek. On the other hand, a relativistic version of hermeneutics provides us no reason why we should care about such received traditions. If "truth" is established by power, the power behind a received tradition may be that of some unworthy group, like dead white males. Which would mean that Descartes could have had very good, politically correct reasons for rejecting his received tradition. Of course, that couldn't save him from being a dead white male himself.

There is a more important sense, however, that disparagement of the "Cartesian Anxiety" is a rejection of philosophy itself (which is not uncommon for deconstructionists). Descartes' concerns were not so different from those of Socrates, who says in the Euthyphro:

Then let us again examine whether that is a sound statement, or do we let it pass, and if one of us, or someone else, merely says that something is so, do we accept that it is so? Or should we examine what the speaker means [says]? [9E, Plato, Five Dialogues, translated by G.M.A. Grube, Hackett, 1981, p. 14]

If we do not accept that something is so just because someone says that it is so, we have adopted the Socratic project of philosophy, and this is essentially identical to the "Cartesian Anxiety."

Despite burdening himself with such false concerns, Bernstein eventually strikes the right note: The hermeneutic cycle, by which interpretations of meaning are reinterpreted through new encounters with the text, is in fact constrained by reality, so that the range of interpretations is progressively narrowed as knowledge advances. Hamlet, consequently, may mean many things, but it is certainly not about Cajun cooking, a possibility that deconstruction would seem to allow. Bernstein's "Beyond Objectivism and Relativism" thus seeks to avoid the theoretical extremes of deconstructionist relativism and any sort of Rationalistic or positivistic dogmatism. This is a sensible and worthy approach, and Bernstein's overall point and theory may be well taken.

At the same time, Bernstein's preferred terminology does not seem appropriate. He argues that, in a practical sense, "objectivism" and "relativism" are opposites, which is why his theory solves the dilemma of the truth inherent in both by going "beyond" them (in some Hegelian dialectical sense). However, it is "absolutism" that is logically the opposite of relativism and "subjectivism" that is logically the opposite of objectivism. Bernstein rejects both as beyond the pale, with no truth at all inherent in them, as there is in "objectivism" and "relativism." But if relativism, as some claim that truth simply depends on a certain perspective, is false, which it is, then absolutism, in some sense, must be true. Bernstein cannot accept that because he uses some sort of Hegelian definition of "absolute" knowledge, which is unacceptable to him, as it would be to me. But we don't have to accept Hegelian absolute knowledge for absolutism to be true as the contradictory of a false relativism. Instead, we can define a Socratic Absolutism, which would simply assert that relativism is false, but does not claim that we possess, or can possess, any absolute knowledge. Absolutism is simply the assertion that there is one truth, regardless of whether we have it or not.

The contrast between objectivism and subjectivism is about something else. What is the ground of our knowledge? It is in the subject, in some irreducibly individual and "subjective" sense? Or is it in the object, in some external, public, and intersubjective domain, which means that different individuals have access to the same ground? The classic subjectivist was Hume, for whom there was no rational justification for the certainty of causation or for moral sentiments. The inappropriateness of Bernstein's distinctions should be evident when we reflect that Hume, while a subjectivist, was an absolutist, and that in more a Hegelian than a Socratic sense. Hume thus rules out, not just miracles, but also free will and even chance on the basis that all these things would violate natural law and causality. One might expect a "sceptic" to at least allow the possibility of chance and free will, even miracles, out of some sense of uncertainty or the limitations of human knowledge. But Hume was not that kind of sceptic. Kant understood all this much better than most disciples of Hume, who are often deceived that Hume's explanations about custom and habit imply some insult to the certainty of beliefs in causality, morals, etc. Indeed, Hume's celebrated distinction between "is" and "ought" means that conclusions about morality do not logically follow in any sense from factual observations about custom and habit.

Bernstein's theory is thus actually absolutist and objectivist. The distinction he is missing is the Friesian one between mediate and immediate knowledge. Immediate knowledge as the ground of absolute and objective knowledge is not the articulated representation of that knowledge in propositions. Such propositions are represented in mediate knowledge, which is subject to various imperfections and uncertainties and so it fallible and corrigible, which prevents it from being "absolute" knowledge in Bernstein's Hegelian sense. Mediate knowledge can never be more than relatively true, so long as it is contingent on the recognition of a relationship between synthetic propositions and their grounds. That such relationships can be recognized is what introduces the realistic and objective side into hermeneutic considerations. Hermeneutic theory shows us the dimension of meaning and understanding in knowledge, but the dimension of truth and knowledge as such still depends on a foundational, absolute, and objective aspect of reality.

Why the recognition of an objective ground in immediate knowledge can fail is a suitable subject for inquiry. Nothing in the history of interpretation is so interesting than the cases where a text (or reality) is interpreted to mean exactly the opposite of what it would seem to mean. A significant example would be the United States Supreme Court decision in the 1940's that a farmer raising and consuming grain on his own land is actually engaged in "interstate commerce." This is a decision that still stands, after more than fifty years, despite its patent sophistry and dishonesty. Thus, it is a good example for a deconstructionist claim that a text can mean anything. In a practical sense, that is certainly true. On the other hand, there is little pretense that the Supreme Court decision was an honest reading of the Constitution. The principle is now rather blatantly put forward that the Constitution means whatever the Supreme Court says it means. Apart from the slow process of appointing new Justices, there is actually little that can be done about that short of the nearly impossible process of Constitutional Amendment--and one wonders how to amend a document in order to affirm that it means what it says in the first place.

So we definitely have a case where the exercise of power enforces a paradoxical and even antinomian interpretation. The power, however, is not such much of the Court of but of the political culture that required the interpretation in the first place. The Court that handed the federal government absolute power to tell farmers what to grow on their own land was a Court that had been appointed by Franklin Roosevelt over the course of many years specifically for that purpose. Roosevelt had no scruple about violating the Constitution, and he felt that way and could get away with it precisely because most Americans, certainly most educated Americans, no longer believed in the principle of limited, enumerated powers upon which the Constitution was founded. The only problem then, politically, is how to effect the revolution. Going by the honest route of Constitutional amendment had the drawback of (1) taking some considerable time and (2) exposing to public debate the radical nature of the alterations required. Instead, a much easier route was perceived in that the Supreme Court had already assumed basically arbitrary and unaccountable powers of Constitutional interpretation.

So can the Constitution really be "interpreted" in a deconstructionist sense to give the federal government absolute power, or was there something else going on? Indeed, "interpretation" simply because a vehicle for dictatorial legislation. If "interstate commence" comes to mean "any economic activity," or "any activity that might indirectly affect economic activity," this will be accepted only if those who want that power already have the power to seize it anyway. No one needs to pretend that it is an honest "interpretation" of a text. So the deconstructionist interpretation fails because the process was not one of interpretation at all, but of what the Founding Fathers called "usurpation," the naked seizure of power. Sophistries had always been used to thinly disguise such things. When those who object can simply be ignored, or perhaps put in jail, then honest arguments are unnecessary. Since deconstructionist theory is really about nihilistic power, principally the power that deconstructionists would like to have to do and get what they want, and not about right or wrong in any substantive sense, it is not surprising that they would say "this is all there is": "Sophistry is Reason"--as previously George Orwell had anticipated that "slavery is freedom" and similar mottoes would be the principles of a totalitarian state.

Such political interpretations can stand only as long as no one, or no one with sufficient influence, cares about the original or the honest meaning. But this tells us nothing about the nature of knowledge. The dishonest interpretation of the Constitution can be made, indeed, only because people believe in different principles. Their truth claim is not about the Constitution, but about the principles embodied in the interpretations, whether or not they has anything to do with the Constitution. So, strangely enough, sophistry and dishonest can still conceal absolutist claims.

Such reflections, unfortunately, are not to be found in Bernstein's book, but that is perhaps because it is from an age of relative hermeneutic innocence. Bernstein, laudably, is basically interested in the truth and in how that is obtained. One hopes that he has had appropriate thoughts about the exercise of "politically correct" power by deconstructionists in subsequent years; but that does not detract of the value of Beyond Objectivism and Relativism.

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