The art of hermenutics
Updated: Oct 15, 2022
As any pianist would know, there are two boundaries within which any interpretation has to move. On the one hand, one is confronted with a music sheet that appears as independent from one’s own will, something which one has not composed or created (putting aside composers who are also pianists who interpret themselves). The music sheet, the text, is a given, something that calls for attention and wants to be deciphered, understood, and most of all, executed. On the other hand, the music is not in the music sheet, which is just a piece of paper covered by ink. The music has to be heard, reconstructed, enacted, in ways that go far beyond the music sheet as such; the music has to be played. The music sheet provides a direction, a guideline, which can be very precise or very sketchy, but in any case, it points at something that happens in a completely different realm (not in the realm of paper signs, but in the realm of sounds).
One might say that these two boundaries are analogous to the difference between word and meaning. A word is a certain sign constructed according to rules and convention of a certain language, and most likely embedded in a certain linguistic expression or creation. But the meaning of the word is not in the word, nor in the linguistic system. The meaning can only be found in the understanding of those who resonate with what the word is attempting to say, and somehow resuscitate the intentions and feelings and images that are buried in the word.
To indulge in poetic definitions, one might define hermeneutics as the art of traveling between these opposing boundaries, between signs and meaning, between texts and understanding. To some extent, human life demands some skillfulness in this art of interpreting and enacting meanings on the basis of signs. Such an art is operative at very basic and fundamental levels—in fact, it can be seen operative at the very core of any life-form. But as any other natural talent, this skill can be developed through training. This element of training is the key difference between nature and culture (thus, a difference in degree, not in kind).
One’s hermeneutic skills can fall into two traps. On the one hand, there is a ‘literalist’ approach, which hypostatizes the sign as if it could reveal any meaning by itself. On the other hand, there is a ‘spiritualist’ approach, which takes the meaning as something always transcendent and only accidentally connected with signs. Both approaches are traps because they forget what many philosophers, east and west (from Plato to Nietzsche, from the Vedas to Zen), have repeatedly remarked, namely, that there isn’t identity without difference, or difference without identity.
The literalist approach is afraid of moving away from the signs, which are tangible, concrete, and thus reassuring. But signs are always polysemous, ambiguous, underdetermined to some extent. To signify entails to jump into fuzziness, to mingle with silence. More importantly, signs can work and signify anything only in a certain context and under certain conditions, which are themselves subject to change and evolution. This doesn’t mean that signs can only work on the spot and never carry their message to the next moment; and yet it does make their functioning vulnerable to the accidents of history and time. The spiritualist approach, by contrast, sees signs are bare markers for something that is always beyond them, and thus avails itself for any sort of liberty in understanding what they might mean. Exploiting the original ambiguity of any sign, spiritualism always sees something more, something else, something different from what the sign witnesses. Perhaps afraid of what the signs are saying (first and foremost, perhaps, of their own fragility), spiritualism covers that up with all sorts of fancies and semblances.
A pianist who interprets a piece in a literal way will struggle to reproduce exactly what the composer intended to express. But the problem is that even if the composer themselves would execute the piece, they could not fix once and for all what they wanted to say, because the very act of meaningfully communicating something requires opening that communication to the possibility of saying something else, or something different. Why? Because communication is done for the sake of reaching towards others, and others are by definition beyond one’s reach, beyond one’s will and imagination (although most of the time they are reduced to what ‘I’ want or imagine others should be). Nothing will be ever enough to quench the literalist thirst. But the same applies also to more spiritually oriented interpreters. Taking up any piece, that will just be the pretext for saying something else, something different, for adding layers over layers of meanings or nuances and eventually making one’s performance an occasion for give expression to one’s own visions, meanings, fears, calls; ultimately running away from what the signs are pointing at.
Steering away from both extremes, a mature performer would navigate between these two boundaries. The text operates as a constraint on what can be meant by a certain piece, hence, on its meaning, while the intention of re-enacting a meaningful and intelligible thought operates as the ultimate end for the performer's interpretation. The goal becomes to play in such a way that what is played will make sense, based both on the performer’s and on the audience’s understanding, and within the limits set by the signs left by the composer.
Of course, this attempt is open to failures, derailments, mistakes, as anything else that usually works but sometimes doesn’t. However, the importance of hermeneutics, and the best way of developing it, has to be preliminary learned and developed; and it that cannot be derived from any of the specific objects of interpretation, since interpreting any of those objects actually presupposes a hermeneutic framework already in place, in virtue of which an object is recognized as something calling for interpretation in the first place. One’s hermeneutic skills are thus a prerequisite for any further hermeneutic activity, and they cannot be learned or derived from any specific source or object of interpretation. In a sense, hermeneutic skills are inherent in life and can be learned only in the same way in which one learns how to live. Then, through training, one can take these skills further, refine them, reflect upon them, discard solutions that appear worse off than others and so on. But in any case, one will have to negotiate between signs and meanings, one’s own situatedness and the sign's call that reaches there from somewhere else.
This is the context one should keep in mind when taking up the specific task of interpreting the discourses of the Buddha. As a (now written) body of signs and words, the discourses provide a certain context and a number of constraints on the meanings that can be derived from them. However, as any other body of signs and words, their meaning is partially underdetermined, open to interpretation, and awaiting to be conjugated in the present. Since nobody reading the discourses today is by definition living in the India of the fifth-century BCE, it is impossible to push the interpretation towards the literalist pole without encountering either scorn (failing to reproduce verbatim what is allegedly meant) or delusion (pretending that differences of historical context have no impact on what is meant by the same signs in the different contexts).
Nonetheless, it would also be awkward to overly emphasize this difference of context and exploiting it as an excuse to make the discourses just a pretext for deriving any other meaning from them. The discourses do speak of certain elements that are still recognizable components of today’s experience. It is on the sceptic to prove that they have no body, no feelings, no perceptions, no intentions, no consciousness, no thirst or craving, that they do not act, that they do not suffer, that they do not know what friendliness or violence mean. But these elements are like the roots or stems of verbs, they do not express any specific action, subject, or tense, they just point to the potential for an action. The action is discernible enough, but the way in which it is enacted and carried through is up for declension, namely, for interpretation. Without verging towards a spiritualist approach that would simply over-interpret what the discourses say, one has to pay heed to what they might mean now, here, in these conditions, given the general constraints they set up. The history of Buddhist thought is also a history of how this hermeneutic process has been carried through across space and time; and the process itself is up for interpretation, in terms of how it managed to keep the balance between literalism and spiritualism.
But in the end, this is not something that can be ‘solved’ once and for all, and surely not something that others can do instead of oneself. The ability of interpreting and understanding the meaning of what is calling one’s attention cannot be practiced by proxy. Hence, the ultimate meaning of what the discourses actually say will always be inevitably indexed to the understanding of those who attempt at honestly interpreting them (without literalism, without spiritualism). If these interpretations are authentic, they will share something and diverge on other points, and this will be a marker of the fact that people are still listening to what is being played.