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The Critical Circle: Literature and History in Contemporary Hermeneutics (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 4, Number 2, Fall 1980
pp. 282-283 | 10.1353/phl.1980.0006

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282Philosophy and Literature bewilderment, or else, overtly or covertly, to reverse the enterprise and to use . . . the criticism as a gloss on, or as a key to, the philosophy." Freed concedes the bewilderment quite overtly: "The style conceals more than it reveals, and what it reveals is open to misconstruction" (p. 192). As to the second point, he has clearly discerned the problem (pp. 1 50-5 1) but has dismissed it too readily. While the literary (and philosophically trained) scholar who keeps Wollheim's warning in mind will be indebted to Freed for all his findings, I expect that on closing this book the less specialized reader would have been even more grateful if the author had offered a map to guide him through the labyrinth into which Eliot lures us. Universiteit AntwerpenHugo Roeffaers The Critical Circle: Literature and History in Contemporary Hermeneutics, by David Couzens Hoy; viii & 182 pp. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978, $12.95. Although it is not directed exclusively at problems of understanding poetry and fiction, the hermeneutic philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer has important implications for literary theory. In The Critical Circle, David Hoy presents a detailed, straightforward study of the bearing Gadamer's views have on the philosophy of literary interpretation. But beyond providing a guide to Gadamer's hermeneutic, Hoy cuts through the superficial polemics and posturing of much current debate in literary theory to reveal the substantial underlying issues which separate Gadamer from such thinkers as Hirsch, Barthes, Derrida, Ricoeur, and Habermas. Hoy begins with an exegesis of the critical theory of E. D. Hirsch, Jr. Hirsch's insistence on authorial intention as a standard for evaluating critical interpretations is shown by Hoy to fail for decisive reasons. Knowledge of an author's artistic intentions can, by Hirsch's own admission, be arrived at only by an examination of the text for which such knowledge was supposed to provide critical guidance. Moreover, absolute certainty that we have gained such knowledge, Hirsch again is willing to admit, seems unattainable. Hence, authorial intention is held out merely as an ideal criterion to be invoked in assessing competing interpretations; but this is hardly much help, since what we know about such intentions can be constructed only in the process of interpretation itself (p. 33). Hirsch and Gadamer may concur that a text must be treated by the critic as an historical product, but that is about as far as the agreement goes. For Gadamer, the work of art is not an object which possesses a single historically determined meaning, but is rather thought of as an historical creation which has its own continuing career. The critic is thus less a subject responding Shorter Reviews283 to an aesthetic object than he is someone engaged in a dialogue with the work of art. Each side of this critical dialogue represents a tradition which embodies a horizon of meaning. Hermeneutic understanding in the sense most favored by Gadamer sees interpretation as consisting to a large extent in questioning and recovering the presuppositions and prejudgments embedded in the traditions of both the critic and the work. The proper aim for criticism is to achieve a fusion of these two horizons of meaning, Gadamer's Horizontverschmelzung . The understanding of a work of art in terms of the historical conditions of its creation therefore goes hand-in-hand with the critic's grasp of his own historical situation. True hermeneutic understanding requires as much self-understanding as knowledge of an historical tradition. In situating Gadamer on the intellectual map through a series of comparisons with other theorists, Hoy is at pains to mount a defense against the accusation (made by Hirsch and Betti) that Gadamer's hermeneutic entails a radical relativism, a "babel of interpretations." Despite my sympathies with Hoy's view of the matter, it strikes me that his case here is less than compelling. He insists that Gadamer's stress on the situatedness of all art and criticism does not leave us with a "subjectivistic kind of relativism," whereby the meaning of a text can be only "what it means to me." Gadamer's contrasting position is characterized as a form of contextualism, according to...