“Hermeneutics and Ethics”

Third Symposium (DAAD-UA Cooperative Research Exchange Project)

University of Queensland, Brisbane: July 24-25, 2019


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Hermeneutics still awaits a proper reception in Anglophone countries. In the wake of post-structuralism, one could say that hermeneutics has fallen into disrepute even in continental Europe where it first came to prominence. While hermeneutics is rarely mentioned in current theoretical debates, the present crisis of communication (the dwindling sense of a public sphere in consequence of digitization, the rise of populism and “fake news”, the increasing attacks on free speech and academic freedom, etc.) indicates why it may now be necessary to reconsider the basic challenges confronting the task of understanding in today’s complex societies. While “interpretation theory” and “critical theory” cover some of the same ground as the term “hermeneutics”, they do not capture the significance of the intellectual shift in the late 18th century that led Friedrich Schleiermacher and his successors to develop hermeneutics into a distinctive methodology for the human sciences.  

Hermeneutics accomplished this shift in the wake of Kantian thought. Among the many aims of Kant’s philosophy was the service to Wissenschaft (or “knowledge”) it sought to provide. This service could only be rendered, according to Kant, if metaphysics was removed from the project of knowledge and the limits of both morality and science were properly delineated. The tripartite organization of Kant’s “critical philosophy” is drawn from these ambitions. An immediate casualty of this delimited framework for knowledge, however, was a series of paradoxical “separations” that later thinkers soon worried about: the separation of the order of nature from the order of culture, the removal of sensuality from the realm of morality, the schism between knowledge and belief, and so on. Hermeneutics arose in part as an attempt to reconcile these Kantian separations and to overcome the alienation that they appeared to impose on human life.

In this third and last meeting of our symposium, we direct attention to the recent literature of a procedurally immanent hermeneutics. The objects of immanent hermeneutics are to be found, we contend, in an ethically premised literature. The work of three authors with Australian affiliations seems to be particularly promising in this regard. J.M. Coetzee, Gerald Murnane and Claire Coleman all tackle core problems of an “immanent hermeneutics”. Two striking features of Coetzee’s literary enterprise may serve as an illustration of what we plan to focus on. The first is Coetzee’s constant attention to hermeneutic operations. Coetzee’s texts start with the ineluctable nature of the hermeneutic situation – the fact that an interpretative effort, usually of the most searching and intractable kind, is required to command a basic comprehension of the environments into which Coetzee’s subjects find themselves inserted. The second feature of Coetzee’s texts is equal attention to the non-negotiability of the ethical enterprise itself. To live at all, Coetzee appears to suggest, is to live with the imperative to exercise both the privilege and necessity of ethical understanding in a deeply personal ethical life-quest. To this extent, Coetzee’s fictional texts seem inseparable from a mystical dimension to which one might be tempted to attach, in the sheer insistence with which it is announced, religious significance. But this religious aspect – which Coetzee underscores in his recent Jesus project – is really only on a Derridean trace, a glimpse of a former existence in which life was once instinctively ethical, and no hermeneutic effort, beyond a strictly rudimentary one, was needed to render its manifestations palpable.

Contact: Prof. Tim Mehigan


The University of Queensland,
St Lucia Campus,
Advanced Engineering Boardroom (49-601)