Merold Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation? : Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009. 160 pages. ISBN 978-0-8010-3147-2
Merold Westphal is a well-respected scholar of both Hegel and Kierkegaard. He is also a respected churchman. He is the distinguished professor of philosophy at Fordham University where he has taught over twenty years. In Whose Community? Which Interpretation? He provides insight on what philosophical hermeneutics can provide to the Christian reader. This book is part of the series: The Church and Postmodern Culture.
Whose Community? Which Interpretation? can be divided into two parts. The first part introduces the reader to philosophical hermeneutics and the interpretation of scripture. The second part analyzes Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method. Westphal says this book is for three types of Christian theologians: Academic, pastoral, and lay. The idea is that every Christian is a theologian.
In chapter one the author refutes the idea that no interpretation is necessary in reading the Bible. Westphal notes, "an unwelcome interpretation of some Biblical text may be greeted by the response, 'Well, that might be your interpretation, but my Bible clearly says . . .' In other words, 'You interpret; I just see what is there" (18). The author goes on in the rest of the chapter to prove that everyone interprets. In chapter two, he discusses the history of "romantic hermeneutics" and the "hermeneutic circle." Some of the important people in this history are Friedrich Schleiermacher and William Dilthey. Schliermacher "sought to identify the general features of interpretation that were common" to various disciplines. Second, Schliermacher emphasized the hermenuetical circle. This is idea that the parts must be interpreted in regards to the whole and vice versa. The first circle refers to the text and the second to the author. In the second half of the chapter he describes romantic hermeneutics: pschologism and objectivism. One point of romantic hermeneutics is that the "goal of interpretation . . . is to reverse the process of writing, to work back from the outer experience to the inner experience, to reconstruct, re-create, refeel, reexperience, reliving that inner experience." (29-30). You can see why it is labeled psychologism because you are trying to re-create the thought processes of the author. Another feature of romantic hermeneutics is objectivism. Westphal says Dilthey is important in this history because he was "especially insistent that interpretation be scientific so that its findings may be 'objective' and rise to the level of 'universal validity' (31)." Dilthey stressed objectivism because of fear that "our embeddedness within historically particular and contingent worldviews and traditions implies 'the relativity of every kind of human apprehension of the totality of things" (31). Many want to say we have objectivism or total relativism. It seems that Westphal is arguing for a midle possition. There is no denying that we are finite, particular, human being embedded in a particular culture and tradition. There is no denying that this embeddedness influences our interpretation. Westphal thinks that the hermeneutical circle "signifies that we will always approach a text with presuppositions and preunderstandings that guide our readings" (33).
Chapters three through five completes Westphal's coverage of part one of the book. In chapter three he discusses arguments against romantic hermeneutics. In this chapter he discusses the arguments of Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur. The first point is that we "are always somewhere (socially, culturally, historically, linguistically) and never nowhere when we interpret" (35). The second argument is that we can "never escape from the hermeneutical circularity in which we find ourselves already locate" (35). This does not mean we cannot move from "circle to circle." Chapter four analyzes the objectivism of E. D. Hirsch. Westphal has four questions for Hirsch: 1. Who are the bad guys? 2. He suggests that Hirsch does not identify any persons who hold positions that "worries" him. He claims that those that hold relativistic versions of hermeneutics do not defend anything goes interpretation. Second question, What about unconscious meanings? Westphal notes, "Hirsch tells us that texts don't express all that their authors have in mind, and they say more than their authors are aware of." If this is true, how is there only one, determinate meaning? Does the author own the meaning of the text when he is not aware of all what is in the text? The third question is, Why the banishment and irrelevance of the reader? Does meaning belong to the author alone? Do we have to believe that our interpretation is the "only right one"? The last question, What are the implications of shared conventions? Hirsch assumes that when two people communicate, they "share an identical meaning." Westphal thinks this is my false. In my next part I will discuss Westphal's analysis of Gadamer's Truth and Method.