Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Hermeneutics & Asynchronous Dialogue

A recent conversation with a colleague caused me to make a connection that I have not made (and in retrospect is obvious!) between the general project of understanding and the nature of dialogic involvement in the process of coming to an understanding. My assumption in characterizing "asynchronous dialogue" has been that we are attempting to have a dialogue across time and space via a computer mediated technology. What I failed to connect was that this is a process that is still at its most basic one of a person reading a text. And, if, as text it is open to the history and tradition implicit in hermeneutic interpretation and analysis then those techniques can be used in a typical discussion board asynchronous conversation.
And as I write this I am not sure if the systems are analogous. For example, if person A writes text "a" to person B. Person B writes back to Person A with text "b" there is in my view an implicit understanding that person A is anticipating what person B will say beyond their text "b". When I am reading (for example) the work of GH Mead I am reading the text "m" from person M but in this case person M is dead. What does this mean for my interpretation of "m"? In fact how should I understand my interpretation over and against my anticipated response?
If I am reading a post off of a discussion board from Person A who is alive if would seem to figure in my interpretation of text "a". My response to text "a" in this case will anticipate (perhaps) a response from Person A. Where is my anticipated response in the case of Mead and text "m"?  My textual response to text "m" is perhaps for other people (perhaps fans of person M)? So what's the difference? How does asynchronous dialogue as I have been interpreting it differ from textual hermeneutics?  I think I have been more interested in what my asynchronous interlocutor says (or will say) rather than fully engaging my understanding in what my reading adds to her writing of a specific text (e.g., message). 
In trying to figure this out I am thinking that Taylor (2002) has some helpful ideas. His view in contrasting knowledge with understanding or scientific knowing (Erklarung) from hermeneutic involvement (Verstehen) is that they differ fundamentally. Understanding (in direct contrast to knowing), according to Taylor, has three key methodological components. First, it is bilateral. Second, it is party dependent (or, as I read this situated), and third, it generally requires a revision of goals as the process goes on. This is because one's interlocutor "talks back". From Taylor's perspective this is true generally and covers the frozen or material objects of scientific investigation as well as the "text" in a normal or interpretive/hermeneutic reading. However this is where it gets confusing. How exactly does the frozen text take the place of a live interlocutor?
So now I am thinking of two related strands. First is the relationship between knowledge and understanding from the tradition of European philosophy with roots in German Idealism and second is the relationship between subject and object as interpreted by American pragmatists – particularly Dewey and Mead. 
Mead (1934) suggests that the development of the object is gradual and carried out in a long evolutionary process. His primary account of the “act” (Mead, 1938) indicates that the memory (how I roughly interpret Mead’s “attitude/perception” moment of the act) of the organism allows it to act such that “the later stages of the experience itself can be present in the immediate experience which influences them” (Mead,1934, p. 87). These “later stages of the experience” are the built up repertoire of possible responses to stimuli that have become generalized as an “attitude”. Mead (1934) tells us that “What is given at the outset is determined by the attitude to what is to come later” (p. 86).
What is interesting to me about this explanation of purposeful action (responding to a stimulus prospectively or anticipating the appropriate response prior to the response) is that it is logically consistent with the more elaborate and familiar characterization of communication via language. What I think Mead is getting at is that the ontological “object” of consciousness is present prior to the development of a particular consciousness of that object as a constituent part of an “act” performed by any organism in the ongoingness of its metabolism, living, moving, and/or communicating with its environment. So I see two things worth mentioning. First is the relative nature of our conception of an object of consciousness. It must be the result of a development or a “learning” and so is subject to the history and transactional consequences of that history. Second are the metaphysical or ontological implications – here it is clear that as I jump from myself as a knower (and as an object) to another knower (or object) the same restrictions that apply to me apply to the other. That is, the other is foreclosed from knowing any object outside of its own history of learning and constructing objects from experience. In other words existence is constrained by perspective. So what it is I am learning about the object is best characterized by the notion of knowledge (Erklarung) but my encounter with the object is always first/best mediated by my understanding (Verstehen) of it. Each encounter with an object of experience (either real or virtual – concrete or abstract) is braided with these two modes of knowing. How these braids are balanced seems significant. It appears that language/reflective consciousness is the primary vehicle for knowledge and perception/language for understanding. While language is implicated in both modes it is the primary carrier of knowledge and a secondary vehicle for understanding. 
The implications of this concerning dialogue in that the dialogic relationship can be conceived of apart from language and the constraints of reflective consciousness in expecting an “object” to manifest as an instance of linguistic categorization and meaningfulness. In other words I can observe dialogue in myself toward any object or in any object in relation to any other object. (Actually I should say I "encounter" dialogue - the word "observe" implies a subject/object relationship and I think as a "creature" I encounter the world (see Reed, 1996). I am seeing dialogue as an example of Mead’s sociality (Mead, 1932/2002) where a “novel event is in both the old order and the new which its advent heralds” (p. 75). If this is as true for flat worms as it is for human beings I think we have a different kind of responsibility toward the world than classical ethics would suggest.

In any case I am now thinking of knowledge/understanding in terms of sociality and dialogue. It seems that the dominant epistemological worldview that privileges knowledge as the source of understanding (and not the other way around) is patently not the case. Understanding as bilateral, situated, and dynamic is a much better place from which to begin.
“Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not to be believ’d” (73) “Proverbs of Hell” William Blake

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self, and society: From the standpoint of a social behaviorist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mead, G. H. (1932/2002). The philosophy of the present. Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Books.
Mead, G. H., (1938). The philosophy of the act. Chicago: Ill., University of Chicago Press.
Reed, E. S. (1996). Encountering the world: Toward an ecological psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Taylor, C. (2002). Understanding the other: A Gadamerian view on conceptual schemes. in Malpas, J. E., von Arnswald, U., & Kertscher, J. (Eds), Gadamer's century: Essays in honor of Hans-Georg Gadamer (pp. 279-297). Cambridge (Mass.): the MIT press.