restricted access 4. Literature, Prejudice, Historicity: The Philosophical Importance of Herder’s Shakespeare Studies
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91 c h a p t e r 4 Literature, Prejudice, Historicity: The Philosophical Importance of Herder’s Shakespeare Studies Kristin Gjesdal It is a commonly held that philosophical hermeneutics—hermeneutics as a theory of understanding and method of interpretation—develops as part of romantic philosophy and its reaction to the ahistorical thinking of the Enlightenment.1 In the following I take issue with this assumption. I suggest that hermeneutics, as a modern philosophical discipline, is solidly planted within the Enlightenment tradition in German eighteenth-century philosophy. This is particularly clear in the early work of Johann Gottfried Herder. In his early work, Herder articulates a hermeneutic theory that is based in a systematic discussion of reason’s situatedness in history. As such, he anticipates the most profound insights of romantic philosophy, showing , as it were, how romanticism is itself a continuation of the Enlightenment paradigm. Herder’s contribution to modern hermeneutics has not been adequately appreciated. This is partly because of a twin misunderstanding. First, it has been thought that Herder develops a critical hermeneutics, a set of systematic reflections on the historicity of thought and its impact on interpretation and human self-understanding, only in his later work (Another Philosophy of History and the more teleological writings such as the Letters on 92 Kristin Gjesdal Humanity).2 Second, it is assumed that the theory Herder develops in this period is fairly similar to the position later associated with Gadamer and the ontological turn.3 Both of these assumptions are wrong. Herder’s early work—as it develops in response to the Enlightenment and anticipates the later paradigm of romantic philosophy—is driven by a fundamental awareness of the historical conditionedness of the interpreter. Further, his hermeneutics, still far from the framework of post-Heideggerian philosophy , is oriented around an epistemic rather than ontological (or existential) agenda. While recognizing that prejudices make up enabling as well as limiting conditions of knowledge, understanding, in his view, is a problem of overcoming illegitimate and unreflected sets of beliefs. Herder’s hermeneutics does not give rise to a discussion of the authentic ways in which human self-understanding is realized through engagement with the great works of the tradition, but occasions a theorizing of the conditions under which the historically situated interpreter gains the reflective distance needed for self-critique and liberation from unsound prejudices and a more adequate understanding of the text or expression in question. In this context, Herder’s work on Shakespeare proves particularly important . Throughout the 1760s, Shakespeare’s theater was a topic of much discussion in Germany. Although some were fascinated by Shakespeare’s recently translated dramatic works, the critical audiences asked if these plays, clearly violating the dominant understanding of art, could pass as art. Thus the reference to Shakespeare provides all that Herder can hope for: It is an example that engages a broader, enlightened audience, concerns critics as well as philosophers, rests right at the heart of the newly developing discipline of aesthetics, and is an issue that invites systematic and critical reflection on the cultural-historical conditionedness of reason. It is with these concerns in mind that Herder turns to Shakespeare. And, further, it is through his work on Shakespeare that Herder develops the hermeneutic turn that has been hinted at, yet not fully brought out, in his earlier work on literature and taste.4 Herder’s essay on Shakespeare is available in two drafts as well as a final version. The availability of the drafts makes it possible to study the step-by-step development of Herder’s thought. In the years between 1770 and 1773, Herder does not change his assessment of Shakespeare—or, for that matter, of the reigning critique of Elizabethan drama. What changes, though, is Herder’s attempt at analyzing why Shakespeare’s tragedy has been misunderstood as well as his effort to carve out an alternative, more adequate theory of understanding.5 Herder’s work on Shakespeare—as it progresses from an emphasis on the singularity of the work (the first draft), Literature, Prejudice, Historicity: Herder’s Shakespeare Studies 93 through a focus on its historicity (the second draft), and all the way to the last version’s emphasis on the historicity of the interpreter—should not be read only as a literary aesthetics but also as a contribution to hermeneutics, indeed a contribution that can help us understand how the later debate about Shakespeare, such as we encounter it in A. W...