Academic journal article The Comparatist

"Either a Hermeneutical Consciousness or a Critical Consciousness": Renegotiating Theories of the Germany-India Encounter

Academic journal article The Comparatist

"Either a Hermeneutical Consciousness or a Critical Consciousness": Renegotiating Theories of the Germany-India Encounter

Article excerpt

In his 1973 essay "Hermeneutics and the Critique of Ideology," Paul Ricoeur articulates the demands of the human sciences by recalling what he referred to as "the fundamental gesture of philosophy":

   Is this gesture an avowal of the historical conditions to which all
   human understanding is subsumed under the reign of finitude? Or
   rather is it, in the last analysis, an act of defiance, a critical
   gesture, relentlessly and indefinitely turned against "false
   consciousness," against the distortions of human communication
   which conceal the permanent exercise of domination and violence?
   ... What is at stake can be expressed in terms of an alternative:
   either a hermeneutical consciousness or a critical consciousness.
   (63)

Ricoeur identifies the first attitude, "hermeneutical consciousness," with Gadamer, who conceived tradition, context, and "prejudices" (qua "pre-judgments," or Vorurteilen) as the basic coordinates of human understanding. Instead of trying to escape these conditions, hermeneutical theory offers an "avowal" of "the reign of finitude." Understanding the Other (a text, a culture, the past, etc.) only occurs because we interpret from within a historical moment, from the standpoint of a particular tradition with its own construction of authority and meaning, and the practice of interpretation unfolds in dialogical fashion, allowing a gradual accumulation of ever-adjustable truths. Misapprehensions, it should be said, are affirmed as part of this dialogical process as the interpreter "reintegrate^] misunderstanding into understanding by the very movement of question and answer" (83).

In his essay Ricoeur associates the opposing view, the approach of "critical consciousness," with Habermas, though it surely evokes past modern masters of suspicions (Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud) and, by extension, more recent theorists such as Gramsci, Benj amin, and Foucault. According to Ricoeur, "critical consciousness" lodges a protest against the "reign of finitude," often in the cause of lifting the veil on "the permanent exercise of domination and violence." (1) The "tradition" that dictates the expanse of our hermeneutical circle is in fact the product of underlying forces, like economic interest, sexual drive, or the will to power; criticism has the power to unmask these "ideologically frozen" dependencies (82), which is a crucial step in freeing ourselves from the repression, injustice, and exploitation that they often enforce. As a consequence, "critical consciousness" insists--in contrast with the hermeneutical model--that distortions in communication and understanding are "always related to the repressive action of an authority and therefore to violence" (83).

Ricoeur's scheme illuminates dynamics that have been at work within the humanities and social sciences for several decades. His formulations are particularly helpful, however, when we consider recent work on the encounter between European intellectuals and the cultural artifacts (texts and data) of non-Western, largely colonized lands. Within this broader frame, the post-Enlightenment reception of South Asian culture, texts, and thought in German-speaking lands has emerged as a challenging area of investigation. And here too Ricoeur's observations identify a significant theoretical rift in the scholarship, one that I plan to trace in this article.

But I also aim to chart out some new territory. Indeed, by drawing bright lines between "hermeneutical consciousness" and "critical consciousness," I wish neither to over-simplify nor to call for an either/or decision in our historical investigation of India's place in the German imagination. In fact, Ricoeur himself questioned his categories almost as soon as he offered them: "Is it not the alternative itself which must be challenged? Is it possible to formulate a hermeneutics which would render justice to the critique of ideology, which would show the necessity of the latter at the very heart of its own concerns? …

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