Text Messages: Gadamer, Derrida and How We Read

By Benson, Bruce Ellis | The Christian Century, March 22, 2005 | Go to article overview

Text Messages: Gadamer, Derrida and How We Read


Benson, Bruce Ellis, The Christian Century


THE LITERARY PHENOMENON of "deconstruction" is regarded by many as an irresponsible fad that has now become pass& Fortunately, most of the wild, irresponsible readings of texts that went under the banner of "deconstruction" are passe. Yet in the same way that the historical performance movement has so deeply influenced classical music that it has become virtually the norm, the work of Jacques Derrida and HansGeorg Gadamer has so affected our ways of reading texts that we are no longer aware of it.

With the deaths of these two thinkers--Derrida in October at age 74 and Gadamer in 2002 at the remarkable age of 102--we are in a position to reflect on that influence.

My joining the two figures may strike some as odd, since Gadamer and Derrida are often portrayed as polar opposites. According to the usual account, Gadamer is the conservative upholder of the traditional way of reading and Derrida the deconstructer of all that is sacred. If you're for Gadamer, you must be against Derrida--and vice versa.

Yet the similarities in the way they've changed how we read and think about texts far outweigh their differences. Both, for example, stress the role of "play" in reading texts and the way in which we are controlled by (rather than in control of) history.

Derrida's early work is particularly marked by a kind of Nietzschean playfulness. In Of Grammatology, for example, he gives a playful yet exquisitely subtle reading of Rousseau that brings the complexity of writing to the fore. Derrida recognized that writing has both advantages and disadvantages, and that it cannot have the one without the other. On the one hand, writing can make an author's thought present even without the author's presence. On the other hand, the fact that in writing (unlike in speech) an author's presence is unnecessary means that the author is no longer able to control interpretation. Charitable interpreters often make appeals to "what the author really meant," but the absence of the author means that we are left with only the text. And texts can be understood in different ways.

For some early followers of Derrida, that recognition provided cover for sloppy ways of reading texts--as if a text could be read in any way. Derrida himself was an extremely careful, even scrupulous, reader of texts. That care is certainly evident in Derrida's own writing. I found it also amply demonstrated in the seminars that I was privileged to take with him and the many times I heard him speak. Although a central theme in his thought is that texts can be read in various ways and at multiple levels, the depiction of Derrida as not believing in the possibility of an author's ability to communicate by way of writing, or as giving license to readers to make texts mean whatever they want them to mean, is a caricature.

Not only did Derrida insist on the need for careful study of texts, using the appropriate "instruments of criticism," but he was annoyed with those he felt had "avoided reading me and trying to understand" and so ended up with an interpretation of his texts that he deemed "false" (Limited Inc).

Yet Derrida was well aware that "this indispensable guardrail has always only protected, it has never opened a reading" (Of Grammatology), and that even a careful commentary is already an interpretation.

The recognition that there are no "purely literal" interpretations is just as much a theme in Gadamer, who claimed that we always bring our prejudices to a text and so read it in light of our own experience. He went against the grain in thinking that prejudices are not necessarily bad; he went so far as to say that they are absolutely essential for there to be any understanding at all.

However, Gadamer never suggested that we could or should rest on our prejudices. Truly entering into a conversation with a text means that we put both ourselves and our prejudices at risk. The text may have something to say to us that overthrows our prejudices, so that we find ourselves "pulled up short by the text" (Truth and Method). …

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