Hermeneutics and the Framing of “Truth”

Are philosophical relativism and “post-truth” really the same?

Hermeneutics and the Framing of “Truth”

Being at Large by Santiago Zabala. McGill-Queen's University Press. 200 pages.

IN HIS 2018 BOOK Post-Truth, Lee McIntyre sums up what has become a mainstream warning about the complicity of so-called postmodern intellectuals in the rise of “post-truth” as the defining condition of today’s politics. He asks: “[C]an postmodernism be used by anyone who wants to attack science? Do the techniques work only for liberals […] or can they work for others also?” Citing plenty of evidence, in particular Robert Pennock’s convincing argument that intelligent design theory is “the bastard child of Christian fundamentalism and postmodernism,” McIntyre joins a small army of moderate, liberal voices in laying at least part of the blame on literary academics and their bewitchment by such continental thinkers as Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida.

Putting aside McIntyre’s astute-because-obvious prediction that “[s]ome will complain that the account just given is not sufficiently detailed or nuanced” (perhaps because, more than merely unnuanced, it’s flat-out incorrect), the real issue is the way McIntyre’s question, quoted above, misconstrues the philosophical tradition generalized under the misleading moniker of “postmodernism.” This tradition, existentialist and hermeneutic in orientation, is not a playbook of “techniques” to be randomly applied but rather a critical orientation that entails a thorough reformulation of Western thought. On the one hand, it moves away from the general presupposition of reality as a fixed, inert presence awaiting human appropriation; on the other hand, it embraces a suspicion that apparently neutral statements emerge from and promote positions that are themselves far from neutral, but rather rich in presuppositions, dependent on layers of context, and rife with vectors of power.

This background is particularly pertinent for a discussion of Santiago Zabala’s riveting and crucial new book, Being at Large: Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts, which analyzes the emergence of a political reality in which consensus around a basic set of facts seems alarmingly absent, in a way that portends catastrophic results for democracy itself. Zabala’s subtitle, with its reference to “alternative facts,” is a nod to Kellyanne Conway’s infamous defense of Donald Trump’s false claim regarding the size of the crowd at his inauguration. In defending the plurality of mutually contradictory “facts,” Conway has been joined by the president’s consiglieri, Rudolph Giuliani, who on Meet the Press in August 2018 defended counseling his client not to testify before the Mueller Russia probe because he might be accused of perjury if his account conflicted with those of his political enemies. When pressed by Chuck Todd that Trump could avoid perjury by simply telling the truth, this exchange ensued:

Giuliani: [W]hen you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well, that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth …

Todd: Truth is truth. I don’t mean to go like —

Giuliani: No, it isn’t truth. Truth isn’t truth …

Both Conway’s “alternative facts” and Giuliani’s “truth isn’t truth” have entered the political lexicon as decisive indicators of how far the nation’s discourse has slipped into a nihilistic relativism, with the president and others of his ilk benefiting from a media environment in which there are no common standards of truth. But while the president has shown himself to be a master at media manipulation, using rhetorical strategies that sow confusion and deflecting accusations of wrongdoing with denials, subject-changing, gaslighting, and whataboutism, the notion that the philosophical relativism of so-called postmodern intellectuals is somehow even partially responsible for any of this is a patent case of mistaking the diagnosis for the disease. Indeed, Richard Rorty, one of the purveyors of this brand of thought and a hero of Zabala’s, predicted and warned against Trump’s rise in a passage from his 1998 book Achieving Our Country that went viral shortly after Trump’s election.

At the same time, one of the basic aims involved in analyzing truth statements from the genealogical perspective of Foucault or the deconstructive viewpoint of Derrida is to reveal the performative power dynamics underlying supposedly declarative propositions. Thus, statements like those of Conway and Giuliani, far from being sly deployments of postmodern strategies, are exposed instead as ham-handed tells pointing to the accuracy of exactly such analyses. Zabala approvingly cites linguist George Lakoff to argue that Conway is partly right, even if in ways she doesn’t entirely grasp, since being a follower of Trump implies accepting a certain framework or way of understanding the world, and there is no such thing as a fact independent of any framework.

This point goes to the heart of Zabala’s book, as well as to the mistaken concerns about the hermeneutic tradition he defends. To say, with Zabala, that “there is no ‘neutral observation language’ that can erase human differences,” and that “these differences are not the source of our problems but rather the only possible route to their provisional solution,” is not to embrace or give succor to those making power grabs using bald assertions of “alternative facts,” but the very opposite. It is to say that “facts, information, and data by themselves do nothing. ‘Facts remain robust,’ as [philosopher of science Bruno] Latour says, ‘only when they are supported by a common culture, by institutions that can be trusted, by a more or less decent public life, by more or less reliable media.’” Let’s be quick to douse the realist canard that is sure to arise at this point — that relativist arguments are self-negating since, if all statements of fact are subject to cultural, historical, and institutional contexts, then so is this one — by stating the obvious: of course Zabala’s (and my) positions are subject to the same frame-dependency as anyone else’s, but this is no more self-refuting or paradoxical than to say that all truth statements are made in a natural language that not everyone understands, including this one.

Armed with a definitive history of hermeneutic thought, Zabala heads into the thick of this debate. He argues compellingly that the thinkers grouped under this conceptual rubric offer a way not only to comprehend (and defeat) the power grab implicit in Conway’s and Giuliani’s rhetoric, but also to defend against the realist “call to order” that underlies both such right-wing populism and its ostensible opposition in the mainstream, fact-based political world. The point of Zabala’s critique is that Trumpism, and its correlates around the world, far from being rejections of neoliberal corporate-capitalist democracy, are in fact extreme expressions of this very system, which is responsible for reproducing the devastating inequality that consumes the world today.

Building on arguments spanning Zabala’s oeuvre, including his co-authored book with Gianni Vattimo, Hermeneutic Communism (2011), Being At Large offers a compelling history of hermeneutics not as an academic subdiscipline but as the critical practice of a wide range of thinkers, artists, activists, and political movements. The book is organized into three compact sections, each detailing a conceptual core element or vector. The first section, “Being,” which focuses on Heidegger and his student, Hans-Georg Gadamer, as well as Gianni Vattimo and Jacques Derrida, seeks to “understand the meaning of Being after the deconstruction of metaphysics” and also to “identify the dominant and oppressive role that metaphysics has upon our interpretation of the world.”

In the second section, “Interpretation,” Zabala provides a fascinating reverse history of six important thinkers, several of whom would not normally be situated in the hermeneutic camp: Vattimo, Rorty, Freud, Nietzsche, Luther, and Augustine. In Zabala’s treatment, they are all leaders in a transgenerational conversation seeking to liberate thought from its subservience to truth, or what Rorty called the “mirroring notion”: “[H]ermeneutics for Rorty is not a method or discipline to deploy in order to achieve the results that epistemology and metaphysics always failed to reach but rather a demonstration of why we should no longer attempt to achieve them in the first place.”

Perhaps the most interesting and innovative intervention in this chapter is Zabala’s defense of Freud and the psychoanalytic tradition. Maligned by academic psychology and medical psychiatry perhaps even more than Rorty was by Anglo-American philosophical institutions, psychoanalysis’s great strength, in Zabala’s rendering, lies in Freud’s willingness to expand his notion of the human psyche even while firmly insisting on the scientific nature of his practice. In so doing, he was adroitly critiquing the implicit metaphysical framing of positivistic scientific discourse while at the same time experimenting with and benefiting from the insights of history, textual analysis, mythography, and the arts. In this way, he not only invented a new form of knowledge, he also invigorated and renewed the traditional practice of hermeneutics.

But as a mode of textual interpretation, in particular of biblical texts, hermeneutics was also conceived as a theory of knowledge whose insights exceed those of simple elucidation. This is probably why Freud felt authorized to coin the term “interpretative art” to refer to psychoanalysis. But as an “interpretative art,” psychoanalysis surpasses the boundaries of hermeneutics because of the radically different nature of its objects of investigation: neuroses, dreams, and unconscious conflicts.

Zabala, who interprets his object of study as broadly and creatively as Freud did, exposes the antagonism metaphysical thought bears toward hermeneutic thinkers and, conversely, explores the power their thought has to undermine unquestioned philosophical certainties. His recuperation of Augustine at the end of the second section is a repudiation of the notion that hermeneutic relativism abets reactionary politics, as representatives of philosophical realism allege. Zabala defends Augustine’s nuanced interpretative model, quoting approvingly from his theological treatise On Christian Doctrine:

In asserting rashly that which the author before him did not intend (“non sensit”), he may find many other passages which he cannot reconcile (“contexere”) with his interpretation. If he acknowledges these to be true and certain, his first interpretation cannot be true, and under these conditions it happens, I know not why, that, loving his own interpretation, he begins to become angrier with the Scriptures than he is with himself.

Certainly, it would be hard to find a textual method less conducive (and more threatening) to the kind of decontextualized assertions of truth that pass for political discourse today. By carefully reconstructing the history of hermeneutics, and at the same time creatively reinterpreting that history, Zabala sets the stage for a return to the problematic of truth and power in the book’s final section, “Emergency.”

Zabala begins this section with the most concise summary I have read of the debate around a vital concept in political theory: the “state of exception” or “state of emergency” (Ausnahmezustand). The term was originally theorized in a critical vein by Walter Benjamin in his influential 1921 essay “Critique of Violence” before becoming the subject of conservative political theorist Carl Schmitt’s 1928 book Political Theology, in which he defined the political sovereign as the one able to determine and impose a state of exception to constitutional rule. More recently, the term has become a central element in Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s work, as well as that of comparative literature scholar Emily Apter and many others. Zabala’s contribution to this debate is to point out that, in terms of logical if not chronological precedence, Heidegger’s Notlosigkeit (or “absence of emergency”) is the original condition underlying the generalized state of exception these other thinkers have analyzed. As Zabala writes,

But how must this shift — from “states of emergency” to “absence of emergency” — be interpreted? The problem is not only that the former “blocks the representation of what is unintelligible or resistant to political theorization,” as Emily Apter recently suggested, but also its inability to respond to an ongoing global call to order and return to “realism,” which Trump, together with other right-wing populists such as Marine Le Pen and Jair Bolsonaro, mobilizes as the defining political stance of current times.

To make this point, Zabala rigorously reviews the work of several thinkers regarding the state of exception and its ever-increasing generalization. The point of his intervention is ultimately to show how a deeper emergency underlies exceptional politics: precisely the lack of emergency imposed as a condition of Gestell (or “framing”) itself. As Zabala argues, “the foreclosure of any possibility of meaningful democratic politics is not the result of the sovereign’s declaration of a state of emergency but rather of our global framed order, which is meant to maintain the absence of emergency.” What the global framed order allows for and even requires, in other words, is a generalized, neutral state of affairs as the shared basis of reality. By positing this metaphysical plane as the ultimate ground, sovereign decisions can interpret any crisis, any conflict, any upheaval as sufficient reason to assert control, because the lack of emergency has already been incorporated into the frame as a basic standard of judgment. While the classic and obvious example of what Zabala calls “absent emergencies” is the crisis of climate change and the obliteration of biodiversity, he also spends significant time on two other categories he deems vital as well: right-wing populism and the persecution of whistleblowers.

Being At Large ends with a call for “projects of interpretation” that help us overcome the “impositions that reduce our possibilities of freedom.” In this light, he praises new movements like #MeToo, groups like Earth First!, and NGOs like Proactiva Open Arms, which “intervene within our global framed order” and thus thrust us “into emergencies that we are otherwise encouraged to ignore: social discrimination, ecological destruction, and the refugees crisis.” Another kind of interpretative project can be added to this list — namely, Zabala’s own work, with its urgent call for us to open our eyes and emerge from the frameworks that bind us.


William Egginton is Decker Professor in the Humanities and director of the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute at Johns Hopkins. His most recent book is The Splintering of the American Mind.

LARB Contributor

William Egginton directs the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute at the Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of The Splintering of the American Mind, from Bloomsbury.


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