11. The Significance and Meaning of Others
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III  Cultural Affordances and Social Understanding 11  The Significance and Meaning of Others Shaun Gallagher In support of a pluralist approach to social cognition, I want to introduce a distinction found in debates about the nature of interpretation, namely, the distinction between meaning and significance. First I review the hermeneutical debates and several ways of thinking about the relation between significance and meaning. I then explore some implications of this distinction for contemporary debates in social cognition and defend the idea that even if different situations of social cognition may involve a variety of interpretive approaches, interpretive significance remains primary. 1  Meaning and Significance in Hermeneutics In the wake of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s magnum opus on philosophical hermeneutics, Truth and Method ([1960] 2004), several critics entered into debates with Gadamer concerning questions about objectivity. Emilio Betti, a legal historian, published his critical comments in Die Hermeneutik als allgemeine Methodik der Geisteswissenschaften (1962), and Gadamer responded to Betti in the foreword to the second edition of Truth and Method. The literary theorist E. D. Hirsch then joined the debate on the side of Betti and developed his own hermeneutical theory in two books, Validity in Interpretation (1967) and The Aims of Interpretation (1995). I focus on these authors, although I will briefly mention one other debate that has relevance: the well-known debate between Gadamer and Habermas. Gadamer ([1960] 2004) develops a dialectical or dialogical theory of hermeneutics. Our understanding of a text, for example, involves contributions from both the interpreter and the text as they enter into a dialogical relation. The interpreter, embedded in her own culture and historical period, as well as her own interests and prejudices, contributes to the resulting interpretation as much as the text does. “The real meaning of a text as it addresses itself to an interpreter … is always co-determined by the historical situation of the interpreter” ([1960] 2004, 280). Rather than thinking that the employment of a method designed to neutralize the interpreter’s personal horizon could lead directly to the truth of the text, interpretation involves a fusion of horizons (Horizontverschmelzung) and opens up new possibilities of 218 S. Gallagher meaning: “In the process of understanding there always occurs a true fusion of perspectives in which the projection of the historical perspective really brings about a sublation of the same” (290). This view reflects a dialogical conception of truth where truth and meaning, rather than residing inertly in the text, are generated in the process of interpretation. Betti (1962), drawing on the romantic hermeneutics of Schleiermacher and Dilthey, criticized Gadamer’s hermeneutics as being overly subjectivist. For Betti, careful hermeneutical method aims to eliminate biases in interpretation so as to arrive at an objective understanding and the truth that resides in the text, which is equated with the original intention of the author. What the author intended, or how the intended and contemporary audience understood the text, should be the ruling criterion. To get at the meaning of the text, one needs to do careful philological and historical research into the life and times of the author and the way that the text’s vocabulary was understood at the time of writing. The use of such hermeneutical rules, for example, is reflected clearly in originalist readings of the U.S. Constitution (e.g., Brest 1980). In this view, the meaning of the text is fixed and can be considered either as under the control of the author at the time of writing or as what a reasonable audience would understand by the text at that time. Gadamer’s response to this critique was to distinguish his own project from the kind of prescriptive hermeneutics that Betti was discussing. Gadamer argues that he is describing how interpretation happens, not how it ought to happen. His concern is philosophical, “not what we do or what we ought to do, but what happens to us over and above our wanting and doing” ([1960] 2004, xxvi). This position suggests that even if in hermeneutical practice we seek to attain objectivity or seek to find the truth of the mens auctoris, larger forces are at work that may undermine what we can accomplish. At least in part, the larger forces are the effects of history, which differentiate the horizon of the interpreter and the horizon of the original author or text. Gadamer addresses the question: How is understanding possible? The answer will have implications for what we consider valid hermeneutical method, and what can be accomplished...


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