There have been studies done with blind people who have regained their sight and the interesting reaction they have to a world they can now see with a part of their body they had not had access to before. “I don’t have the stats ready to hand, but the source is reliable (Mark Taverner of NLV88). The findings were startling. The subjects found it difficult to distinguish whether faces seen in pictures were right side up or upside down. They had a difficult time maneuvering around objects that they could clearly “see.” One man said that he even closed his eyes when he went to cross the street because it was easier for him to understand the intersection when he was blind as opposed to the confusion he felt with depth of field, speed, sounds, road texture, that he had to interpret with his eyes.
The results from this study provide an interesting commentary on what it means to interpret the world around us and the notion that what we see is what is. We often point to something we see and say, “there it is!” as if it is obvious to everyone because we think it is obvious to ourselves. This idea can be referred to as objectivity, where we are removed from an object and that there is a clear view of what that object is. That grilled cheese sandwich is a sandwich and that’s all. It is bread toasted and cheese melted, period.
The question is not whether a sandwich is a sandwich that’s the problem. The idea of “objective truth” becomes a problem when we talk about the nature of the sandwich. When we entertain concepts of larger consequence (I love sandwiches but they really don’t influence my world view to any significant degree), such as justice, meaning, relationships, the idea of an objective reality becomes problematic because it limits the ability for other ideas to enter into the conversation.
I experience these problems quite a bit when it comes to beliefs or world views and how these are often connected to textual interpretation. When someone says, “This is the right way to interpret what is written,” or “This is what the meaning of this is,” I want to respond with, “Well, that’s just your opinion.” It’s a bit rude and I should respond with questions probing deeper into why someone would believe a certain idea they had to be true. But “your opinion” really is at the heart of the matter.
Opinions are interesting things in themselves. Our opinions are what construct our vision of the world. Meaning is constantly deferred because our understanding of what things mean can change based on a number of factors in our lives. So rather than limit ourselves by concluding what something is, we can shift the way we understand the world around us and think of how our experience influence our ideas of what is.
A big word to describe this shift in understanding is Hermeneutics (now there’s a good work to throw around at parties to make yourself look smart!). A simple definition of hermeneutics is…well…there really is no simple definition because what would be the point of simplifying something that takes quite a bit of study to understand. George Hans Gadamer is considered the father of hermeneutics and his book Truth and Method is the best way to understand philosophical hermeneutics (good luck with that because the book is massive…and dense).
Here’s how I tend to think about it.
When I come at something that I am trying to interpret, be it a text, or a theory, or a discussion, I think about
- what do I already know about the topic by way of my own reading?
- what past experiences influence the way I approach the text or idea?
- where is the author or speaker coming from and what it his/her history?
- what do I want to get out of my interpretation of the subject matter?
- how can I listen for something different from the experience?
- what is there to critique in the idea? where is it “wrong”?
- and most importantly in light of this last point, how can I best defend my position and articulate my position as best I can by backing it up by other sources?
So what does this hermeneutic thing mean for daily living? Openness maybe? Increased kindness to others. A willingness to come at news ideas from a more humble position. I find I am more eager to engage with ideas that I don’t know much about because I want to learn something new even if it might shatter my preconceived notions of it.