Michael Forster’s critique of key hermeneuticists

I’ve just read Michael Forster’s bitingly critical account of leading hermeneuticists, in The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy. You can download a pre-proof version here.

Forster downplays the importance, originality and/or quality of writers like Schleiermacher, Hegel, Dilthey, Heidegger and Gadamer, and praises the contributions of Ernesti, Herder, Schlegel, J.L. Austin, and Quentin Skinner.MichaelForster

Forster argues that much that is good in Schleiermacher’s writings isn’t new, and much that is new isn’t good. Hegel’s influential contributions are ‘dubious’ and, on closer inspection, ‘misguided’. Dilthey’s position is often ‘naive and unsatisfactory’. Heidegger’s contributions are largely ‘unoriginal’ and their value ‘greatly exaggerated’. What is distinctive in Gadamer is ‘misguided and indeed baneful’, and in places ‘woefully inadequate’.

Forster praises Ernesti’s Institutes, which ‘makes many points which can still be read with profit today’. Having now read Ernesti – who I’d never heard of – I agree with Forster. (You can read Ernesti here – also downloadable as a PDF.) For example, on pp. 63-4 Ernesti notes that if we are interpreting a text in another language, we should first try to grasp how that language was generally spoken, then consider the author’s own idioms – a standard idea in Cambridge-School interpretations in the history of political thought, which recognise that we need to understand the linguistic conventions of the day, but that we must also bear in mind that authors sometimes break with these conventions. That said, I don’t believe Forster is right that on pp. 70-1 of the Institutes, Ernesti says that the parts of a text must be interpreted in light of the whole text. (I have much more I could say about the desperately unclear idea of a hermeneutic circle, but I won’t get into that now.)

Forster supports J.L. Austin’s idea of ‘illocutionary force’, and Quentin Skinner’s application of it to textual interpretation. My own view is that there are better ways of capturing this idea, but Austin’s and Skinner’s basic points are legitimate and useful.

Foster is refreshingly blunt about what is good and bad in the hermeneutic literature. He really doesn’t hold back. In the early twentieth century, he writes,

real progress in hermeneutics more or less comes to an end in Germany, and indeed in continental Europe as a whole, it seems to me (in keeping with a precipitous decline in the quality of German philosophy generally at the time).

I wonder what kind of reception Forster got when he moved from Chicago to Bonn earlier this year! The above comment is something I won’t be quoting when I give a paper on ‘The Irrelevance of (Straussian) Hermeneutics’ at a conference on Leo Strauss at Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s old university, Marburg, on July 19.

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