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Criticism 44.1 (2002) 83-86
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The Challenge of Coleridge:
Ethics and Interpretation in Romanticism and Modern Philosophy
The Challenge of Coleridge: Ethics and Interpretation in Romanticism and Modern Philosophy by David P. Haney. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001. Pp. 328. $55.00 cloth.
Here's a book that took me back to my first year in graduate school. It was the early eighties, and I was waiting out the Reagan years in an English department not renowned for its progressive politics but pretty highly ranked nonetheless. I took a course in what was then called "literary theory," having no idea what to expect, but willing to learn. It was a challenge. We read philosophy, a serious subject that, by its own testimony and that of our professor, could explain things literature only dreamed of. There was Aristotle, and there was Hegel, and there was Saussure, and there was Lévi-Strauss, who was not really a philosopher but treated whole cultures as if they were concepts. And near the end of it all, with inscrutable pomp, loomed Heidegger, the most challenging and most serious of them all. I couldn't understand a word. I was out of my depth. I was from the midwest, where to be philosophical means [End Page 83] quietly to accept your misfortune. But lucky for me and my benighted peers our professor threw us a line to hang onto, something we could understand, or at least try to, before going under for the last time: "the hermeneutic circle." Thank God for the hermeneutic circle. It saved my career from foundering. It made literary theory suddenly intelligible and literature pertinent to the task of living.
Someone threw David P. Haney the same line, and he seems to have hung on to it with the same sense of saving grace. For the hermeneutic circle provides him a way of making the relationship between a reader and a text ethical. Drawing upon a distinguished if preferential array of recent writers on ethics (Gadamer, Levinas, Ricoeur, Vattima, Nussbaum, Williams), Haney wants to revive the hermeneutic tradition for contemporary literary interpretation. His gambit is simple: that hermeneutics connects interpretation to ethics. Coleridge is his test case not merely because Haney has a specialist's knowledge of British Romanticism, but more importantly because Coleridge was himself a master of the tradition of German Biblical interpretation that gives rise to modern hermeneutics. As Haney puts it, "eighteenth-century hermeneutics played an important role in the thought of Romantics such as Coleridge, influenced later nineteenth-century theories of history, was existentialized by Heidegger, and emerged in Gadamer, Ricoeur, and others as an important alternative to the methods of the natural sciences" (22). The Challenge of Coleridge both situates Coleridge in this tradition and records the "conversations" that ensue when contemporary practitioners of hermeneutics turn to face the challenge of one of their most powerful progenitors.
And that is where the hermeneutic circle turns ethical: in the encounter between past and present, or between contemporary reader and historical text. Haney relies upon two features of the hermeneutic circle to connect ethics to interpretation. First, it enforces in the interpreter a peculiar openness to a knowledge that exceeds her. She cannot know the whole of the text's meaning except by way of parts that communicate it, yet she cannot know what those parts communicate except by reference to the whole. The interpreter reads between the lines of total and partial knowledge, ever open to deeper understanding as it unfurls between them. Second, the hermeneutic circle conjures in the interpreter a keen awareness of her historicity. She cannot approach a text except by means of the interpretations it has produced. The interpreter reads through a history that makes her response possible, for as Haney insists, "our interpretations are always implicated in the interpretive history of which we are a part" (22). That is why Haney can describe, in good Gadamerian fashion, the encounter between reader and text in unabashedly human terms. That encounter "can be modeled on a...