Code: PD-7

A Pragmatic Hermeneutics: the role of interpretation in Dewey’s Philosophy

Pragmatism shares with other twentieth century ‘continental’ philosophies many things.  The dissolution of the chasm between subject and object, the emphasis on lived experience as the starting point and ending point of philosophical inquiry, the primacy of practical reason in this lived experience over and above the derivative character of speculative reason are certainly evident connections.  Likewise, what Charles Taylor has termed ‘overcoming epistemology’ is clearly another commonality that American pragmatism shares with these European counterparts such as Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, and others (especially in Dewey’s critique of the ‘spectator theory of knowledge’ or the fallacy of selective emphasis in taking the cognitive aspects as primary and even the totality of experience).  These connections are by now a commonplace observation.  The mundane character of these comments being the case it is curious to note how rarely married are the vocabularies of these respective traditions.

Hermeneutics, the theory of interpretation especially transformed at the hands of existential phenomenology in Gadamer and Heidegger, is a particularly striking area of connection.  The main purpose of the panel "A Pragmatic Hermeneutics: the role of interpretation in Dewey’s Philosophy" is to explore and articulate how John Dewey's pragmatic theory of interpretation is a vital and important contribution to the field of hermeneutics, and a necessary component in a pragmatic philosophy of understanding and criticism.

Rather than merely explore some associations with other hermeneutic theories however, this panel attempts to address more specific issues concerning the role of interpretation. This latter task will be done in good pragmatic fashion by encountering wider consequences than merely 'philosophical' ones. These include one of hermeneutics' most contested topics, that of the role of tradition in cultural life. The role of tradition is an especially important political question regarding its relation to Dewey’s goal of a more pragmatic culture. Three questions are at the heart of the panel in order :

'What is Dewey's theory of interpretation, how does it work?'

'How can we critically understand this pragmatic moment of interpretation in light of the larger project of Dewey's cultural naturalism?’


'How does this effect and relate to Dewey's understanding of tradition and his vision of the ultimate role of philosophy?’

Dewey writes in the preface of what is arguably his magnum opus:

The course of the ideas is determined by a desire to apply in the more general realm of philosophy the thought which is effective in dealing with any and every genuine question, from the elaborate problems of science to the practical deliberations of daily life, trivial or momentous. The constant task of such thought is to establish working connections between old and new subject-matters. We cannot lay hold of the new, we cannot even keep it before our minds, much less understand it, save by the use of ideas and knowledge we already possess. But just because the new is new it is not a mere repetition of something already had and mastered. The old takes on new color and meaning in being employed to grasp and interpret the new. The greater the gap, the disparity, between what has become a familiar possession and the traits presented in new subject-matter, the greater is the burden imposed upon reflection; the distance between old and new is the measure of the range and depth of the thought required. [EN, preface; lw.1.3-4]

Interrogating the notion of interpretation and meaning in Dewey's sense offers insight into what pragmatic philosophy can achieve in regard to understanding our historical tradition as well as the possibilities and limitations in encountering and understanding others outside of our inherited traditions.

The Memory of Tragedy and the Hope of Beauty: Pragmatic Hermeneutics 

Thomas Alexander, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale 

Pragmatism is often mischaracterized as emphasizing the needs of immediate action for an immanent future, neglectful of history and the complexity of contending voices in the interpretation of the meaning of existence. In this paper, I would like to develop the basis for a pragmatic hermeneutics that aims for a compassionate wisdom, a receptive understanding, and view of action motivated by the lure for beauty. This hermeneutic involves implications for education that stress development of our ability to remember suffering—to have tragic self-knowledge—and to seek the mystery of the religious.

The first part of this hermeneutic lies in the nebulous quality of the present, its "problematic" encounter as the locus of meaning and action. We emerge into the world of action in need of a mythic understanding of history that gives us a way of interpreting who we are, where we are, what we are doing and so on. Indeed, this offers a pragmatic interpretation of the nature of myth itself as it functions culturally. Action must construct itself as an enactment of myth. But the present exceeds any interpretation of it. Our mythic enactments, intended perhaps to be heroic, may be comic or tragic. Thus one of the facets of pragmatic wisdom lies in the humility of intelligence even when it is armed with its "methods": the meaning of our actions may be quite otherwise than we think.

This problematic nature of the present leads to a view of history, especially the role of victims in our understanding of history. The present, as experience, involves historical dimensions. To approach the present with intelligence requires historical wisdom, and this calls in particular for awareness of the tragedies of the past. A responsible hermeneutics is one that undertakes the burden of hearing the victims of the past—for this is the only redemption left to them. Their voices, remembered and heard, educate us against our own arrogance and teach us compassion in our dealings with others. The tragic is encountered, then, as a necessary responsibility. But the same can be said of the comic. The laughter of history also teaches us humility and disarms the dangerous pretensions of ideology and ruthlessness. Thus, one main function of a heremenutics of wisdom is to encounter the present with tragic and comic consciousness of its potential meanings. The present is heard compassionately.

The other aspect of a hermeneutics of wisdom lies in the mystery of experience to be religious—a consummation of meaning embodied in existence. Unlike the moral born of the nebulous quality of the present as potentially tragic or comic, the aesthetic-religious quality is the lure for the present to be a consummation. Intelligence becomes wisdom in its faith in the possibility of the godhood of experience. In this sense, "interpretation" must be open-ended toward the mystery of the future for the manifestation of the beautiful in which the Human Eros finds its incarnation of meaning.

The consequences of this approach for education are that we must teach stories that educate us in compassion, the ability to bear the tragedies of the past as well as the humor to see our follies. We must also teach the love of the beautiful—experience funded with meaning and value so that human life itself becomes luminous and, indeed, sacred in its enactment.

Toward a Pragmatic Hermenutics for Dialogues Across Differences.

James Garrison, Virignia Polytechnic University

Growth through freedom, creativity, and dialogue was, for Dewey, the all-inclusive ideal. This paper examines growth through dialogues across differences. I explore a hermeneutic theory of listening inspired by the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Dewey. Gadamer has an implicit hermeneutics of listening:
We cannot stick blindly to our own fore-meaning . . . if we want to understand the meaning of another. Of course, this does not mean that when we listen to someone or read a book we must forget all our fore-meanings concerning the content and all our own ideas. All that is asked is that we remain open to the meaning of the other person or text (268-69).

To listen requires risking parts of our own interpretive fore-structure. Yet, if we abandon all our interpretive fore-meaning interpretation is impossible. Remaining open is awkward; it requires living with confusion and uncertainty. Openness involves risk and vulnerability, but that is how we grow. The danger lies in the fact that openness in Gadamer's hermeneutics is ontological; it is about our being and that of others.

A pragmatic way to get at this ontology is to emphasize the interpretive role of habits along with the habits of culture, or customs. I propose naturalizing Gadamer's notion of forestructure using Dewey's notions of habit and custom. Habits are beliefs, which for Dewey are embodied disposition to act evincing emotions while cultural customs condition habits. Dewey's notion of habit adds an affective aspect to interpretation. I emphasize what Thomas Alexander (1993) calls "the human eros;" that is, the desire to live a life of expanding meaning and value. It is here that others different from us become especially valuable. For those who want to grow, listening in dialogues across difference provides alternative grammars and narrative structures allowing them to tell novel stories about their lives.

A Deweyan theory of interpretive listening emphasizes the creativity of understanding. For him, it is not necessary for interpretive agents coming from different backgrounds to understand each other as they are at the beginning of the dialogue; it is only necessary that they create a common understanding as a consequence of the dialogue. Interpretation is a forward-looking, pragmatic enterprise for Dewey (1925/1981) for whom, "Meanings are rules for using and interpreting things; interpretation being always an imputation of potentiality for some consequence (147). Dewey (1929/1984) insists:
Understanding means something intellectual, but it means something that is much more than intellectual . . . . [I]t signifies coming together, bringing things together; and when we say that human beings have come to an understanding, we mean that they have come to an agreement, that they . . . a common outlook from which they see the same things and feel the same way about them (396).
Two people understand each other when they impute the potentiality for the same consequences. I also believe that what is much more than intellectual in understanding is the human eros.

Alexander, T. (1993). The human eros In John J. Stuhr, (ed), Philosophy and the reconstruction of culture (203-222). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Dewey, J. (1929/1984). Understanding and Prejudice. In Jo Ann Boydston (ed.) John Dewey: The Later Works, Volume 5 (396-397). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg, (1993). Truth And Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York: Crossroads.

Imagination, Interpretation and a Pragmatic Hermeneutics

Brendan Hogan, Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science, The New School

I take as my stepping off point for the question concerning a pragmatic account of interpretation a rather banal pragmatic insight. I propose that an act of interpretation ought to be understood in a manner akin to the way concepts are in Peirce’s pragmatic maxim: an interpretation of an event, an other, or a text, only occurs when the meaning of such is understood in terms of practical import in coping with, and creatively adjusting to, the world for purposes of growth. Otherwise, it is not an interpretation but a mechanical reproduction, a willful misrepresentation, or habitual misidentification of others, an event, or a text due to habits and beliefs that are below a level of experience available for criticism.  These habits saturate any and all contexts and provide the background for all meaning, whether ideologically corrupt or not. As Dewey writes in Experience and Nature (hereafter EN):

Only [reconstructive] analysis shows that the ways in which we believe and expect have a tremendous effect upon what we believe and expect. We have discovered at last that these ways are set, almost abjectly so, by social factors, by tradition and the influence of education. Thus we discover that we believe many things not because the things are so, but because we have become habituated through the weight of authority, by imitation, prestige, instruction, the unconscious effect of language, etc. We learn, in short, that qualities which we attribute to objects ought to be imputed to our own ways of experiencing them, and that these in turn are due to the force of intercourse and custom. This discovery marks an emancipation; it purifies and remakes the objects of our direct or primary experience. (EN, lw.1.23, bracketed text is mine).

Thus, the practical and consequential import of interpretation is normatively inscribed within the concept of interpretation itself.  Just as importantly, interpretation is an activity necessary for communication, for understanding and for growth.  The imaginative work of reconstruction of the past, of tradition, and genesis of the present, as well as the imaginative projection of meanings as ends-in-view through the live potential of present contexts illuminates the nature of interpretation and a pragmatic hermeneutics.

Given this normative moment interpretation becomes a kind of praxis:  a self-correcting and thus creative activity that can be held to standards of better and worse given the purposes and meanings that arise out of the context of interpretation.  As a consequence of its always contextual and situational nature, however, interpretation in a pragmatic hermeneutics is an always ongoing rigorous process of self-clarification of just what the standards of interpretation are. Interpretation is a situation-immanent methodical process and not an extrinsically applied procedure. 

Interpreters who qualify as pragmatic are keenly aware of their limitations due to the subterranean forces at work in the production of their interpretations.  Interpreters are responsible when they engage in reconstructive work to illuminate as much of the relevant background as possible.  Hence, the imagination is essential to interpretation in a twofold sense, in terms of the work of understanding an other through opening up one’s sense of possibility to their habits of meaning, and in terms of the work of reconstructing one’s own and others contexts to see the causal forces at work in the constitution of meanings supplied in interpretations. Criticism of misinterpretations is impossible without this propaedeutic work. 


            Interpretation in this normative sense, pace Marx, by definition changes the situation, and the ‘world’. They do so by attending upon the empirical and natural genesis of contexts of action. This attention is a necessary condition for any situation to be understood.  Most importantly for a pragmatic account of interpretation is the inclusion of other centers of experience, interlocutors and agentive forces that constitute the situation, and that serve as potential forces of mutual transaction.  Part of this is achieved through the work of reconstruction through what Dewey calls in EN the genetic method of empirical naturalism.  Interpreting other humans, including and sometimes especially groups, involves reconstructing through our empathy, our emotions, and the power of our imaginations the narrative structures that inform and hence make intelligible their actions, their ends-in-view, and what is meaningful to them. 

            By offering a descriptive/normative account of interpretation we can see the function of imagination come into bold relief.  By relying on Dewey’s comments regarding the reconstructive method of empirical naturalism along with his more general understanding of philosophical inquiry, inquiry into inquiry, or the criticism of criticisms, we will see that Dewey’s notion of interpretation and his notion of criticism come dangerously close to one another.  A pragmatic hermeneutics must clarify this relationship if interpretation is to remain context-sensitive, and thus sensitive to the differences of others.

List of Confirmed Participants:

Thomas Alexander, Southern Illinois University    

James Garrison, Virginia Polytechnic University   

Brendan Hogan, Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science, The New School.