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Reviewed by:
  • Ancient and Modern Hermeneutics
  • David Halliburton
Ancient and Modern Hermeneutics, by Gerald L. Bruns; xii & 318 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992, $37.50.

Modern hermeneutics, Bruns explains, has mainly gone in two directions. One is toward the transcendental ground-swells of Husserl, who remains committed to idealities, as exemplified in geometry. The second direction, taken by Heidegger, Gadamer, and Bruns (not to mention Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and the Pragmatists) hews to the worldly rootedness of understanding; here each and all enjoy the capacity to comprehend—if not perfectly, at least perfectly well.

Bruns divides his admirable opus into two large sections. Part One, on the Ancients, consists of essays on Socrates, Thucydides, the Hebrew Bible, allegory, the Jewish Midrash, and what may be broadly viewed as a correlative Islamaic text. He argues that Socrates’ ironic inclinations are not forensic ploys but manifestations of an authentic ontological disposition. (This ontological motif sounds throughout Bruns’s text.) Bruns’s Socrates has but to carry out the phusis that he himself is—in the undertow of which he cannot but be ironic even as, in being ironic, he cannot but be, like phusis, elusive and even impenetrable: “The point about Socrates is that we never know how to take him” (p. 32).

Bruns handles ingeniously the problem of speeches that Thucydides “reported” but could not have heard. He argues that Thucydides provides a sort of simulacrum of the speeches. On this view, the historian does not attempt to report what the speakers actually said; instead he portrays implicitly the concrete historical situations (the modifiers are mine) in which orators orate: “the true author . . . would not be its original speaker nor its subsequent scribes but the situation that called for the speech to be made” (p. 58).

In his challenging chapter on allegory, especially in Philo, Bruns approaches the former’s mystical commentary on the cherubim by problematizing familiar, restrictive distinctions. “In this case there can be no easy or gross distinction between the exoteric and the esoteric, the literal-minded and the wise . . . .” To Philo “understanding is a form of recognition, of being turned toward and received into what before had been hidden or strange” (p. 102).

Part Two, on the Moderns, treats of hermeneutic issues raised by Wordsworth [End Page 158] but even more paradigmatically by Luther; the tragic concept of experience; the question of tradition; radical hermeneutics; and the quarrel between philosophy and poetry. The journey ends in Bruns’s attempt to hypostatize an originary concept of freedom.

To Bruns the liminal figure for modernity is Luther. It is a high hermeneutic moment that each of Luther’s students receives his own Bible with wide margins in which to copy the master’s—or conceivably his own—commentaries. Here Scripture is not merely grasped cognitively but is immediately, and, with full Deweyan and Diltheyan overtones, experienced. Luther for his part postulates that the text interprets itself. Concurring, and returning to the ontological motif noted above, Bruns proposes the one’s relation to a text “is ontological rather than simply exegetical. Luther’s distinction between law and gospel is a way of extending this ontological relation from the notion of a legal indictment to that of a spiritual one in which one’s self-understanding or self-identity is reconstituted by the text” (p. 146).

Later Bruns deftly contrasts Hegel’s Umkehrung, the “movement toward enlightenment and the self-certainty of absolute consciousness” (p. 157), with Heidegger’s resolute refusal to appropriate or manipulate the world into which he, with everyone else, has been thrown. This attitude is somewhat akin to negative capability or wise passiveness—no English word or phrase gets it right—and requires a kind of letting-be, or letting-go. Bruns puts the matter about as well as one can, in short compass: “Thinking . . . is not reasoning or questioning but listening; its goal is not conceptual representation by Gelassenheit, or a letting go, releasement, and ‘openness to the mystery’” (p. 158).

In his chapter on romantic hermeneutics, Bruns returns to Luther who, though stressing the empowerment of the individual reader, nonetheless regards the text as a vital force entering into and transforming the...

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