The Hermeneutics of the Good Life
in a World of Competing Metanarratives
“Our first business will be to supervise the making of fables and legends,
rejecting all which are unsatisfactory; and we shall induce nurses and mothers
to tell their children only those which we have approved.”
— Socrates in Plato’s Republic
Modern humans, perhaps more than at any other time in human history, are caught up in a web of entangled narratives. Globalization and communication technologies have brought the world of differences into our living rooms, classrooms, and communities. People wage culture wars within and between our civilizations based on these narratives, which for the most part they do not even recognize as stories. What intellectual tools can help to mediate between these competing stories. People disagree about the good life; and in so doing, tend to demonize those with different visions of that life here at home and around the world.
Many contemporary thinkers have argued that there is a deep narrative structure of human thought (Taylor 1989), (Ricoeur 1984, 1985, 1986), (Smith 2003). Psychologist Jerome Bruner argues that “it is through narrative that we create and recreate selfhood, that self is a product of our telling and not some essence to be delved for in the recesses of subjectivity” (Bruner 2002, 13). Narratives are not just a matter of individuals creating their inner and social Self; narratives are also what bind societies and cultures together. Narratives are how we integrate events and actions through time into meaningful patterns. Narratives specify cause-and-effect relationships and organize these into coherent wholes. Narratives tell us which events and actions are significant and which can be ignored. The inter-relationship of events in our lives is explained by these narratives. Our sense of meaning and purpose, our values and motivations are based on these narratives. Humans are deeply storied creatures.
For generations, humans gathered around hearth and fire to tell and retell stories. Much of cultural transmission was in the form of storytelling. Today, people are more likely to gather around the cool glow of the television, but we are no less storied creatures. Some imaginary calculations of the amount of time and money spent on the entertainment, news, and publishing industries should give us pause to think about how central storytelling is to our humanity. To this add the everyday interactions with friends and families in which people recount events and share gossip. By my rough estimation, perhaps fifty percent or more of our waking hours is involved in storytelling. In the words of sociologist Christian Smith, humans are “animals who make stories but also animals who are made by our stories” (2003, 64).
Stories always have normative content, describing what is important, what is unimportant, what is better, what is worse, what is good, and what is bad. Charles Taylor argues that stories about self and society are how humans construct the “horizons of meaning” that form the critical background for social relations and life choices. Narratives always represent a kind of movement in moral space. Narratives are the way that humans have of constructing coherence and continuity in our lives. (Taylor 1989)
Moral reasoning is not so much a matter of propositional logic and rational choice, as some modern philosophers have tried to argue (Rawls 1971), rather we make moral judgments based on the analogical applications of powerful stories (Vitz 1990). Whether it is the story of the Ring of Gyges, the Good Samaritan, the Jataka Tales, or the story of our revered grandparent, we apply these mininarratives to new situations in the course of our life. If we do the right thing, it is generally not because of a lot of philosophical reflection and rational cost-benefit analyses. Mini-narratives are nested together into larger stories, stories within stories. It is stories, all the way down.
The most important stories that humans tell, retell, and reframe are the ones people do not generally recognize as stories at all. These are referred to as “metanarratives” (Ricoeur  1981). These master stories are the stuff of ideologies, religions, and cultures. People do not even recognize them as stories, but rather tend to take them as an unarticulated background, the taken-for-granted truth, the way things really are.
In discussing religion and politics with someone with very different assumptions and beliefs, the debates can quickly become heated. There is a profound gap between the partners in such debates, so much so that they often do not agree about the relevant facts, let alone interpretations of these facts. For instance, a fundamentalist Muslim will refer only to the Qu’ran, the Haddith, and his particular reading of world history as relevant background for the debate. A fundamentalist Christian would refer only to her particular understanding of the Bible. A communist approaches economics and world history with a very different set of assumptions than that of a free-market capitalist. Palestinians and Israelis have very different understandings of the relevant histories and facts. Here in Sri Lanka we have the tragic competing narratives of the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists and the Tamil separatist nationalists, each with their own reading of history and long list of grievances. In these moments of profound disagreement, both sides are confronted with incomprehensibility of the other’s worldview and assumptions. In such arguments, one has the distinct feeling of beating one’s head against a wall. “How could someone else be so stupid and stubborn”, one tells oneself. They, the Other, do not even recognize what is obvious to you. They must be irrational, evil, inhuman, and so with begins the escalating spiral of ideological violence.
Christian Smith explores these conflicts in his book Moral, Believing Animals (2003). In a chapter entitled “Living Narratives”, he offers a dozen examples of contemporary metanarratives, each presented in about two hundred words – the Christian narrative, the Militant Islamic Resurgence narrative, the American Experiment narrative, the Capitalist Prosperity narrative, the Progressive Socialism narrative, the Scientific Enlightenment narrative, the Expressive Romantic narrative, the Unity with Brahman narrative, the Liberal Progress narrative, the Ubiquitous Egoism narrative, and the Chance and Purposeless Narrative. Note that not only do explicitly political and religious movements have metanarratives, but even competing schools of thought in sociology, economics, and psychology also assume the form of metanarratives. These short statements of competing worldviews in Smith’s book make for an excellent seminar discussion or role-play for students. I imagine it would also a useful exercise for world religious and political leaders.
What one discovers very quickly is also disturbing on a deeper level. There is no simple way to adjudicate between these competing worldviews and world doings. Given a certain set of assumptions, any particular metanarrative becomes difficult, if not impossible to refute. Indeed, once captured by a particular worldview, it is possible to rationalize just about anything and everything within that worldview. Soon all facts seem to bolster one’s assumptions, because the facts-that-matter are dictated by the narrative. People tend to carefully select facts and the interpretation of those facts based on their metanarratives.
Christian Smith writes:
The problem with a narratological understanding of human persons – and probably an important reason modern people resist thinking of themselves as ultimately storytelling and believing and incarnating animals – is that it is difficult rationally to adjudicate between divergent stories. How do you tell which one is more deserving of assent and commitment than others? The American Experiment narrative will probably appeal to more readers of this book than the Militant Islamic Resurgence narrative. Why? Because objective, empirical evidence proves that it is a truer story? Not really. For what is evidence is itself largely made significant, if not constituted for us, by our narratives. (87)
Let’s examine one of the metanarratives from Christian Smith’s book in detail. This is the narrative of the Community Lost and it appears in different religious and cultural idioms:
Once upon a time, folk lived together in local, face-to-face communities where we knew and took care of each other. Life was simple and sometimes hard. But we lived in harmony with nature, laboring honestly at the plough and in handicraft. Life was securely woven in homespun fabrics of organic, integrated culture, faith, and tradition. We truly knew who we were and felt deeply for our land, our kin, our customs. But then a dreadful thing happened. Folk community was overrun by the barbarisms of modern industry, urbanization, rationality, science, fragmentation, anonymity, transience, and mass production. Faith began to erode, social trust dissipated, folk customs vanish. Work became alienating, authentic feeling repressed, neighbors strangers, and life standardized and rationalized. Those who knew the worth of simplicity, authentic feeling, nature, and custom resisted the vulgarities and uniformities of modernity. But all that remains today are tattered vestiges of a world we have lost. The task of those who see clearly now is to memorialize and celebrate folk community, mourn its ruin, and resist and denounce the depravities of modern, scientific rationalism that would kill the Human Spirit. (Smith, 2003, 85-86)
This is a nostalgic narrative of the tragedy of modernity, industrialization, and globalization. It offers a backwards-looking romantic view of history. In the Old Days, people were better, life was better, local communities mattered. The basic structure of this narrative is repeated by many Christians, Muslims, and Hindus, as well as in other cultural idioms. In Sri Lanka, we see this narrative functioning in romantic readings of theMahavamsa and the idealization of “tank, temple, and paddy”. There is also a potent contemporary ecological version of this narrative articulated by some in the environmental movement, who might have us all return to Neolithic village life (Berry 1992).
It is important to emphasize that humans can hold multiple narratives, sometimes mutually exclusive. We mix and match. The conservative Roman Catholic narrative is incompatible with the narrative of Liberal Democracy, but that does not prevent most conservative Roman Catholics from being enthusiastic supporters of Liberal Democracies. The Christian narrative appears incompatible with capitalist virtues, but that does not prevent Christians from living the bourgeois life. The eco-romantic narrative appears incompatible with much of modern technology, but that does not prevent environmentalists from using soon to be obsolete laptops and flying around the world to enjoy ecotourism. The Theravada Buddhist narrative is incompatible with Sinhalese nationalism and militarism, but of course that is just like samsara. Each generation reinterprets these narratives in different situations, even as each generation is also constituted by these received stories. People are not passive recipients of these narratives, but active reinterpreters.
The idealized past narrative above contrasts sharply with progressive, future oriented narratives, for instance the Scientific Enlightenment narrative or the Capitalist Prosperity narrative. This nostalgia narrative is woven into many of the fundamentalist religious movements today whether in the East or West, the North or South. One can argue with this nostalgia narrative, but evidence alone cannot compel someone to believe otherwise. Like all of the narratives listed and described by Christian Smith, it involves a certain reading of history and a certain set of assumptions about what really matters in life.
As historian Eric Hobsbawn reminds us “History is the raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologies… If there is no suitable past, it can always be invented… The past legitimizes. The past gives a more glorious background to a present that doesn’t have much to celebrate…” (Hobsbawn 1997). Of course, history is another form of storytelling, narrative in structure, always ideologically oriented towards some present reality and context in which the author lives, thinks, reads, and write. That is why the re-writing of history will never end. The past will always be reread and reinterpreted in new times and new situations. In a hundred years, people will still be writing new books about the American Civil War, the French Revolution, and the Anuradhapura kingdoms of ancient Sri Lanka offering new insights and interpretations for new times.
It seems that we are at a relativistic impasse. There appears to be no way to adjudicate between the narratives of Palestinians and Israelis, of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists and Tamil separatists, of Islamic militants and the West, the future utopic enthusiasts of progress and the nostalgic utopic conservationists of nature and tradition. If there is no possibility of mediating between these metanarratives, then we are left with the prospects of brute force being the last judge between ideologies, political parties, nations, and religions. If might makes right, then we will all be losers in the twenty-first century.
The question I want to explore in this essay, how does one intellectually adjudicate between competing metanarratives, understanding that these are then fundamental in structuring our thought and behavior in many profound ways, both political and personal. Which of these stories is worthy of our affirmation and support? Which narrative has the power to convince, convert, and transform? Which stories of self, society, and cosmos are we willing to risk all for when push comes to shove?
I turn to the field of hermeneutics to try to find a way out of the relativistic impasse. I believe the philosophy of interpretation offers us a way out and a path forward. In the end, I will advocate what I call intellectual nonviolence. This path is not without risk, but it offers the greatest promise for discovering truths that transcends our many varied stories. I also will argue for the possibility of a more all-encompassing metanarrative, in part by embracing the evolving scientific cosmology, which affirms but also transcends the many competing narratives mentioned above.
Hermeneutics is the philosophy of interpretation. Problems of interpretation are endemic in scriptural studies, translation, law, history, literature, and the social sciences. The word “hermeneutics” derives from the Greek god Hermes, who was the messenger god, mediating between the gods of Mount Olympus, the mortals, and the gods of the Underworld. Hermes is something of a trickster god, using his role as the messenger to confound and confuse. So the neutics of Hermes is not a simple matter. How one interprets sacred scripture, translates from a foreign language, applies case law, constructs history, and reads a work of literature can lead one in very different directions with some times contradictory results.
Interpretation is also central to political theory and social action. Interpretation is central to the narrative creation and recreation of self and society. Indeed, elsewhere I argue that interpretation is central to the natural sciences as well (Grassie 1994; Grassie 2003). In this essay, I will use the work of Paul Ricoeur on hermeneutics to develop these ideas, all with the view to developing a hermeneutic of our entangle narratives and competing visions of the good life.
Paul Ricoeur takes the philosophical debate between Hans-Georg Gadamer (1989) and Jürgen Habermas ((1981 German) 1984; (1981 German) 1987) as his point of departure. Gadamer rejects classical German hermeneutics by arguing that every reading of a text begins with a prejudgment. There is no possibility of objective interpretation, rather all readers begin with a set of assumptions and prejudices. The author’s original intention is no longer accessible and not necessarily all that important, in part because like the reader, the author is not transparent to himself. There are hidden meanings in a text about which the author himself may be unaware. Humans are not objective to themselves, not as writers and not as readers. Self-knowledge requires effort and is never absolute. Creative works of authors and artists have a life of their own separate from the intentions of the creator. Gadamer looks towards a “fusion of horizons” between the world of the author, the text itself as something now disconnected from the author and his world, and the life of the reader.
Habermas was critical of Gadamer’s subjectivization of hermeneutics, and its relativistic implications, and held out for a critical and objective reading of the text. Remember that the text is a stand in for much more than simply any old book. The text also refers to society, history, and culture. Habermas comes out of the German socialist tradition, so is committed to the possibility of social scientific theories of society that allow critical and objective judgments to be made. To give so much weight to the reader’s prejudice does not allow for the possibility of scientific objectivity in hermeneutics.
Always the creative synthesizer, Paul Ricoeur explores and expands the dialectic between Gadamer and Habermas. The hermeneutical circle, as expounded by Gadamer, moves in a three stages. It begins with the understanding that we already bring to the text, the prejudices of the reader in her particular historical and social context. Just to pick up a book already means that the reader has a background in reading, but whether that book is Plato’s Republic, the Gospel of John, Bhagavad Gita, Shakespeare’s Richard III, Dante’sInferno, or The Communist Manifesto is already determined by a cultural and historical situation which valorizes the text and orients the reader to its significance. Ricouer agrees with Gadamer that we cannot escape these prejudices and they need not be seen as simply negative.
The second stage of the hermeneutical circle involves explanation, the work of reading, comprehending, analyzing, and interrogating the text. Here critical theory can help, though which critical theory we use is also partially determined by our prejudgments. For instance, if we take a psychological approach to the text, we might choose from any number of competing theories – employing Freudian object-relation theory, Jungian archetypal theory, Frankel’s logo theory, or others.
This analytical stage then gives way to the third stage, which is our appropriation of the reading, a new interpretation based on the new data acquired and new relationships observed in a close, critical reading of the text. Through this increased familiarity with the text, we now end up with a deeper understanding. We have achieved what Gadamer refers to as “a fusion of horizons.” Should we read the text again, our understanding will be enriched by previous readings. Ricoeur refers to this third stage as the “second naiveté”, in which we form new prejudgments after all of the critical analysis. This then is the hermeneutical circle – understanding, explanation, and appropriation leading to deeper understandings as the world of the text and the world of the reader interrelate and inform each other.
Ricoeur recognizes along with Habermas that the hermeneutical process so described can become a vicious circle, in which the prejudices of the reader dictate certain dogmatic readings, over and over again. The explanation employed is pre-selected to pre-determine the appropriation. Such is the case for many in the reading of sacred scripture or ideologically informed readings of history. Ricoeur’s solution is to interject the possibility of a willful distanciation from one’s prejudices, a kind of temporary suspension of judgment. He renames the three stages as prejudgment, configuration, and refiguration.
As an example, imagine an aging English professor, who has taught Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice for over a decade now. Indeed, she wrote her dissertation on Jane Austin. She thinks she knows the text inside-out and has the correct interpretation. Having recently gone into therapy for marital problems, she has been exposed to certain existential problems in her life, as well as schools of psychoanalytic thought with which she was not familiar. Suddenly in re-reading Pride and Prejudice for tomorrow’s seminar, she sees new aspects of the text that she never thought of before. In the discussion with her students the next day, one of them also surprises her with his own original and compelling insight into the interpretation of the story. She falls in love with her job and this book all over again. These moments of discovery are what make it all worthwhile.
This little vignette is an example of the hermeneutical circle at work. This is the “fusion of horizons” which Gadamer and Ricouer both celebrate.
Ricoeur seeks in part to reverse the relationship between text and reader. Instead of reading a “passive” text, we should allow an “active” text to read us, informing and transforming our world with new insights and understandings. To do so, we must become expectant readers of active texts. Critical theory is very much part of this active process, but it will not give us simple objectivity. By all means, use French-Russian structuralist theories, Marxist critical theories, psychoanalytic theories, feminist theories, post-colonial theories, Foucaultian power-knowledge analyses, postmodernism, and so forth, just don’t cling to these theories dogmatically. When our critical theories begin to predetermine our interpretations, try something completely different with different ideological baggage and analytic possibilities. This suspension of judgment and shifting of standpoint is the key to opening up the hermeneutical process into a hermeneutical spiral. Chart 1 below is a schematic presentation of this dynamic.
Returning to the challenge of entangled narratives in our global civilization, we can see that the hermeneutical process is involved here too. The Christian metanarrative, for instance, can be a closed, fundamentalist circle, in which each reading of the Bible and the tradition simply reinforces the prejudgments and prejudices with which we began. On the other hand, Ricouer holds out the possibility that the Bible can also “read” us and offer new critical and transformative insights into the text and the world. Any sacred scripture or great work of literature offers up both possibilities. That’s what makes them enduring texts.
. . . [I]t is not true that all interpretations are equal. The text presents a limited field of possible constructions. The logic of validation allows us to move between the two limits of dogmatism and skepticism. It is always possible to argue for or against an interpretation, to confront interpretations, to arbitrate between them and to seek agreement, even if this agreement remains beyond our immediate reach (Ricoeur 1976, 79).
Even within a closed culture or dogmatic ideology, the sacred stories and guiding metanarratives are open to competing interpretations, some better, some worse, some more probable, and some highly improbable. The hermeneutical circle need not be a vicious circle. The text can “read” us and transform our lives with new insights. Religious fundamentalism, it has been argued, is never really closed. Religious fundamentalism insists on intratextuality, to be sure. This focus on a single text, however, does not mean that all fundamentalists agree with each other. Among Christian fundamentalists, for instance, there are lots of disagreements about the correct reading of the Bible. Nor do all Muslim fundamentalists agree with each other. While the Bible or the Qu’ran can be read as the infallible word of God, the reader does not have an infallible mind. Nor is the meaning of the sacred scripture necessarily to be found in its plain meaning. Orthodox Rabbis, for instance, affirm that there are at least seventy correct readings of every verse of the Torah. What characterizes fundamentalists is their insistence that “their disagreements would be bounded by the final arbiter, the text, as interpreted by the principles of intratextuality” (Hood 2005, 8).
In a sense, we are all fundamentalists, though we may not be as clear about what specific text is relevant to solving our disagreements. We hold certain metanarratives to be true and rarely do we question these fundamental assumptions. They structure how we think, our motivations, meanings, and values. We feel strongly about these metanarratives and derive our sense of purpose and self-worth inside of these entangled stories. If we operate within the framework of a single story, whether it be religious or ideological, then we are as intratextual as the fundamentalist Christian or Muslim. But even here, we should not expect uniformity. Think for a moment about all of the sects that have been spawned by Communism over the years, even though they share most basic assumptions about dialectical materialism, class struggle, and world history.
Our challenge today, however, is so much more complicated than the intratexual hermeneutics of a single sacred tradition. We live in this global civilization and are confronted with many different entangled narratives. These entangled narratives are not just global, they are local, as I observe everyday on the campus of the University of Peradeniya with Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and JVP students coexisting, and only sometimes actually interacting in three different languages. Often we inhabit multiple and conflicting narratives of self, society, and cosmos. Where should our allegiances be? How do we mediate between conflicting narratives? The exploration of narrative social-psychology and philosophical hermeneutics may give us more insights into how these processes work, but are we any closer to adjudicating between these different worldviews?
Here, I return to the work of Paul Ricoeur and his seminal book Lectures on Ideology and Utopia (Ricoeur 1986), in order to find a partial solution and way forward. As Ricoeur emphasizes the words, ideology and utopia in common usage have negative connotations. Ideologies are always false ideologies. The use of the term is normally pejorative. Utopias are unattainable fantasies. Indeed, it can be argued that some of the worst tragedies in human history have been committed promoting ideologies and pursuing utopias.
The negative connotations of these words were first popularized by orthodox Marxists. Ideologies were contrasted with the “science” of Marxism. Utopias, like religion, were denounced as “the opium of the masses.” False ideologies and false consciousness were contrasted with the true “science” of dialectical materialism.
As typologies, ideology and utopia would appear to be distinctly unrelated. Ideologies tend to be authorless, the content of which is extracted from many sources. They present a picture of reality, trying to mirror and reproduce a social order as “natural.” Ideologies function to legitimate “what is” in a particular social group. Ideologies are the mechanism by which societies integrate its members around a certain set of values, beliefs, and traditions. Ideologies are societies’ way of controlling and programming social harmony and change. The term “ideology” is always polemical. It is always someone else’s ideology that is denounced. “We” are not ideological.
Utopias, on the other hand, are rather different. They seek to re-describe “what is” in a way that disrupts the existing order. Utopias seek to transfigure society in a way that highlights the gap between ideals and the existing reality from the perspective of “nowhere”, and thus produce a vision and motivation to change society or abandon it. Utopias are presented as fictions by acknowledged authors. The term was coined by Sir Thomas More to title his book Utopia (1516) about a fictional island with the perfect society. We can list a number of works and authors in this genre: Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933), B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two (1948), Aldous Huxley’s Island (1962), Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966). While the word “utopia” also has a some times pejorative association, the inclusion of popular modern science fiction books in this list should alert us that the genre also has some popular appeal. Indeed, from a broader perspective, all religions promote some kind of utopic possibility – eternal life in heaven, a blissful end to suffering, complete wisdom and knowledge. The hope and promise of religions are always utopic in some fundamental sense.
Ricoeur is only too aware of these distinctions – ideology as a dysfunctional distortion of reality and utopia as an escapist fantasy to an alternate reality. He argues, however, that both terms also have a positive, integrative function in the realm of social transformations and cultural imagination. Ricoeur writes that “[t]he organizing hypothesis is that the very conjunction of these two opposite sides or complementary functions typifies what could be called social and cultural imagination” (Ricoeur 1986, 2.) He builds this argument by exploring the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883), Louis Althusser (1918-1990), Karl Mannheim (1893-1947), and Clifford Geertz (1926-2006). Ricoeur constructs a three-stage correlation of ideology and utopia, moving from negative to positive understandings.
In the first stage, both appear in their negative form – ideology as a distortion of reality and utopia as a fantasy incapable of dealing with reality. In the second stage, ideology serves to legitimate the status quo precisely because the political system falls short of its claims of legitimacy due to internal contradictions. For instance, the president of the United States, or Sri Lanka for that matter, uses the “war on terrorism” as its justification, but to many it seems more like a ploy to consolidate political power and enrich themselves and their allies. We will come back to this example latter. In this second stage, utopia can be seen as an attempt to expose this contradiction, to show that “what is” could be otherwise, indeed much, much better. In the third stage, drawing on the work of Clifford Geertz, Ricoeur argues that ideology is always necessary and serves the positive role of integrating humans within social groups. There is no ideologically free way to look at the world. By virtue of being social and symbolic creatures, we need powerful meaning systems to bind us together in functional groups. In this third stage, utopia functions as a form of social imagination that allows societies to imagine alternate futures, to critique the present, and thus to open up the hermeneutical circle into a progressive spiral. Ricoeur’s correlation of ideology and utopia is presented in the chart 2.
The Correlation of Ideology and Utopia
1) Ideology as distortion of real social life
2) Ideology as legitimation of status quo to fill the gap between the claims for andbelief in the legitimacy of a system of power
3) Ideology as positive and necessary integration of individuals within cultural groupings
1) Utopia as escapist, pathological inability to deal with real social life
2) Utopia as challenge to authority and power in an attempt to unmask the gap in thesurplus-value of meaning claimed by ideology
3) Utopia as social imagination that opens up the possibility of a critique of status quo from “nowhere,” which turns the hermeneutical circle into a dynamic spiral
It is helpful to consider an example of this process, so we can see the role of ideology asdistortion, legitimation, and integration, along with the reciprocal role of utopic thought as escapist, oppositional, and imaginative. This interplay between ideology and utopia is directly linked to vision of the good life and the good society, whether it be in preserving or transforming some status quo. In varying degrees, we should expect all ideologies and all utopias to manifest all of these aspects, both positive and negative.
In the United States, the “war on terror” is the ideological justification for an Imperial presidency, the abrogation of many constitutional principles, the use of torture, militarism, and an ill-considered invasion of Iraq on what turned out to be specious grounds. Note that the “war on terror” was also used at home to reward political allies, demonize critics, and consolidate political power. The rationale for invading Iraq changed over time during the Bush administration. Denying Hussein weapons of mass destruction turned into liberating the people from a dictatorship and bringing democracy to the region. These noble principles might just as well been invoked for invading Tibet or Zimbabwe, but there are no particular national interests in Tibet or Zimbabwe, unlike the huge oil reserves in Iraq. So there is a gap between the claims of the government to the people when asking for their support. Here, we see the use of ideology as both distortion of reality and gap in legitimation.
The positive function of ideology as integration is perhaps most easily seen in the days and weeks following the September 11, 2001 attacks. The country was united in common cause, indeed united with the sympathies of the entire world, in ways we have rarely experienced. Unfortunately, there is nothing like a threat from outside to unite a people with common purpose. The symbols and ideals of the United States, our flag, and our “way of life” were and continue to be evoked to serve the function of integration, binding a people together in common purpose, indeed asking soldiers to make the ultimate sacrifice for the group. No society will long persist without some ideology of identity that integrates individuals within a common culture and shared motivations.
Utopic processes were running parallel to these ideological processes. We were asked not just to fight a war against terrorism in self-defense, we were asked to fight a war of liberation that would bring democracy to Iraq and its neighbors. The idea of implanting Jeffersonian Democracy in Iraq can be seen in retrospect as a fantasy disconnected from history and context, a pathological dream in its inability to deal with profound social realities and history of that country. The vision of democratic reforms of governments in the Middle East was certainly oppositional to many decades of U.S. foreign policy in the region, which had been in support of these very dictatorships, including the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein over many decades. The vision from “no-where” of Iraq and the Middle East transformed into liberal democracies is certainly inspiring social imagination. Why should the peoples of the region not enjoy better government, the same kind of government that we enjoy, based on fundamental human rights, the balance of power, impartial rule of law, and the concept of social contracts. It was and remains a noble vision.
We could spell out in similar details how ideology and utopia correlate and function in contemporary Iran, Sri Lanka, or elsewhere, but I will leave that to others. The point is that all political movements exhibit both ideological and utopic dimensions. The same could be said about our personal lives. I have a set of stories about my life journey, some of which may be more distortions and legitimations of flaws and failures, but without these stories there would be no integration of self. These stories are also part of my own utopic vision of my good life, a life that I strive to realize involving hoped for career successes and fulfilling personal relationships.
It is important to note that dystopia, a negative story, fills the same function as utopia in this correlation with ideology. George Orwell’s 1984 was a powerful critique of totalitarian governments rendered through a work of fiction. Other examples could be listed. I am perhaps more naturally pessimistic about the world, so I often project very negative scenarios for the future of the planet, of my country, or my life. Perhaps it has something to do with experiencing air-raid drills for nuclear war in elementary school. Perhaps it has to do with the negativity bias of the media or my reading of human history. Perhaps it is my natural disposition to be pessimistic, albeit hopefully pessimistic. Whatever the reasons, a dystopia, say of the impact of global warming or a clash of civilizations, can also function as critique of the business-as-usual and a form social imagination for an alternative future. Dystopic novels play a prophetic role in the critique of ideology and the status quo.
As an exercise, I imagine writing two different stories about the future of Sri Lanka, a utopic and a dystopic vision of the future. Both would serve as critiques of the status quo and forms of social imagination. Both would be correlated to different ideological projects in the society today. Making these visions explicit would actually help clarify what is at stake in the contemporary debates about good governance, the hoped for end of the civil conflict, the issues of cultural identity, economic development, environmental protection, and how to motivate and pursue the good life. Indeed, what I fear most for this country after so many years of conflict and corruption is that there is growing learned helplessness. In the end, whatever ideological program that can present a positive and hopefully realistic scenario for the future is most likely to succeed in winning public support. Our visions of the future, both personal and political, are partially self-fulfilling prophecies, because without the vision, it is difficult to create the motivations and sacrifices necessary for transformations.
So far, we have postulated the centrality of narratives to human self-understanding on both individual and societal levels. We have explored a hermeneutical framework for thinking about these stories involving prefiguration, configuration, and refiguration, along with the possibility of open-ended and evolving readings of these foundational stories. We have considered the correlation between ideology and utopia, looking at both positive and negative dimensions of each, and their roles as distortion/escapism, legitimation/critique, integration/imagination. The guiding question is how this analysis might helped us in our central task in the twenty-first century of judging between the many conflicting, entangled narratives – religious, ideological, and social scientific – which compete for our loyalty and commitment.
There will be no simple resolution of this conflict. One possibility is to re-narrate someone else’s metanarrative within a broader framework, showing how it fits within larger context, and thereby redefining its significance within a different political and moral paradigm. This is what Alasdair MacIntyre attempts in his book Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (1990). He begins by giving a fair and thorough presentation of the three competing schools of thought about moral nature – scientific, postmodern, and traditional. He himself ends by advocating the Catholic Thomist tradition drawing on both Platonic notions of transcendence and Aristotelian notions of natural dispositions. He asks:
Is there any way in which one of these rival might prevail over the other? One possible answer was supplied by Dante: that narrative prevails over its rivals which is able to include its rivals within it, not only to retell their stories as episodes within its story, but to tell the story of the telling of their stories as such episodes. (MacIntyre 1990, 81)
This is a standard movement in apologetics in which one projects commonality with an opponent, shows what is wrong with the other’s position, and then projects a solution within one’s own ideology by showing how one’s religion, politics, or psychology can explain the failings of the Other. In its crass form, this mode of argument involves psychologizing the Other. Because of their false consciousness or their ignorance of the real story, they do not understand the truth that you are privileged to have and patient enough to share with them. Too often, apologetics is more about convincing oneself of one’s own righteousness, than about honestly seeking to understand and convert another, let alone risk the chance that you yourself might be converted in turn. The dialogue of apologetics gives rise to an arms race of each side trying to relativize the other through ever expanding analyses.
Still a dialogue of apologetics is better than knocking heads together, i.e., using brute force to compel submission, if not ascension. In the process, there is always the possibility that new insights will emerge, that the Other may be recognized as partially right, that relationships will evolve, and that the hermeneutics will spiral out to something new and unexpected for both parties. After all sometimes the missionary does go native, without every setting out to do so.
Speaking of brute force, it is important that we realize that all of our entangled narratives are not all competing on equal footing. There are real power disparities in the world that empower certain stories and marginalize others. One option advocated is the notion of a “preferential option for the poor” (Gutiérrez (1971)1973). Originally formulated as part of Liberation Theology in South America, it has become an important part of Catholic social teaching, but need not be seen only within a Christian framework. Because the poor are downtrodden and oppressed, lacking dignity and even the basics of subsistence, lacking also a voice in political and economic decision-making, our social and political hermeneutics should always begin with their wellbeing and betterment as our point of departure.
There are other versions of this interpretative approach in which other oppressed groups are hermeneutically privileged, even as they are socio-economically disadvantaged. Women, post-colonial societies, and ethnic minority groups all can claim special insights into the interpretation of social, political, economic, and cultural issues, precisely because from their standpoint on the margins of power. In the “master-slave” relationship, notes G.F.W. Hegel, the slave has a better understanding of the social reality than the master (Hegel (1807) 1977). Standpoint epistemology argues that the marginalized and oppressed have a better understand the true nature of social relationships than the privileged and the powerful. Feminist philosopher Sandra Harding equates “standpoint epistemology” with “strong objectivity” (Harding 1986).
While this might be a useful heuristic for considering our entangled narratives, it turns out to be a bit more complicated. Is an African American woman from the ghetto more oppressed by being a woman, by being black, or by being poor? A poor white man in West Virginia laid off from his job is also oppressed, but what if he beats his kids and was himself abused as a child? The white woman of privilege and education in New York City, who experiences sexual violence or workplace discrimination is also oppressed. And none of these oppressed Americans have it quite so tough as a family living off the garbage dumps in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Pretty soon our standpoint epistemology degenerates into a calculus of comparative oppressions and runaway identity politics. Nor is it the least bit clear who is authorized to speak on behalf of these multiple oppressed identities and what privileges thereby ensue in the name of fighting for the oppressed. In practice we are soon back to ideology as a mask used to claim and justify political power. Nor are the powerful really hegemonic or the oppressed simply innocent. Finally, we cannot say for certainty, which metanarrative will actually deliver the most betterment in the lives of the oppressed. Global capitalism, for instance, can be seen as “the rich get richer, while the poor get poorer” or as an engine for economic growth and new technologies, which have dramatically increased life expectancy and standards of living throughout the world. Good things happen for bad reasons; bad things happen for good reasons.
Following the work of Hayden White, we also note that all historiographies, indeed all metanarratives, employ modes of emplotment. He lists romance, comedy, tragedy, and satire as the four basic tropes employed by historians, indeed by all storytellers (White 1978). Our utopic stories about the future tend to be romantic, painting a picture of something with which we should fall in love. Nostalgic stories that idealize the past are also romantic stories. Perhaps not enough has been done with comedic renderings of history and the future, but comedies and tragedies are really two sides of the same structure. Both comedies and tragedies involve conflicts, one ends the synthesis of opposites, i.e., a marriage, the other leads to the elimination of an opposite, i.e., a death. In the West and in the Academe we have grown more cynical and are more likely to use satire and irony as the plot structure of metanarratives. Certainly, existentialist and stoic readings of history and life tend towards the ironic. Postmodernism despairs of telling grand narratives, so its deconstructions become endless ironic readings of life (Rorty 1989). Part of what makes adjudicating between our entangled and conflicting metanarratives today difficult is that we do not know how it all turns out in the future. We cannot prove historical predestination, even though metanarratives assume some inevitable future outcomes, good or bad, based on current choices. The choice of emplotment, White argues, is an arbitrary, free choice of the historian, though the basic facts remain the same. How convincingly historians weave their emploted story is another matter.
Presumably the adjudication of competing, entangle narratives is a matter of knowing truth, goodness, and beauty, knowing which story or set of stories is most worthy of our support. If our goal is to know truth, at least as much truth as any one human might acquire in a lifetime, then we need to adopt a hermeneutics of nonviolence. I call this “intellectual nonviolence”, in order to distinguish from political nonviolence or pacifism. These are not necessarily the same, as we will see below.
Intellectual nonviolence can be defined as non-coercive habits of thought. It recognizes that the most reliable truths are more likely to be found outside of oneself, in interpersonal, cultural, biophysical, and historical networks. Truth is found more outside in the complex distributed systems of God, culture, and nature, much more than is found inside the 1.3 kilograms of any single human mind. We need a new kind of intra- and inter-textuality that embraces multiple metanarratives, that explores many situated knowledges of culture, class, gender, ethnicity, ideologies, and utopias. It is less about converting others and more about oneself being converted over and over by an appreciation and appropriation of the metanarratives of others.
The greatest untruths will always be the unconscious lies that we tell ourselves, the mistaking of our own limited perspectives with the Absolute. Reinhold Niebuhr summed it up, when he quipped “The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of Christianity” (Niebuhr 1941). To avoid sin, we should be humble, rigorous, courageous, and creative in pursuing truth (and beauty and goodness), wherever it leads. And the goal of intellectual nonviolence is to set out in as many different directions as possible, to be multiply converted to diverse metanarratives, inhabiting their truths, forgiving their failures, taking the best, and leaving the rest.
Whatever God (or the God’s eye view of truth) might be, we humans are neither omnipotent, nor omniscient, neither reliably compassionate, nor unfailingly merciful. Human identities, norms, and actions are forged through the confluence of different stories, powerful symbols, causal patterns, divergent reasons, universal passions, existential terror, and transcendent hopes. New insights are often gained from unexpected sources. Even in the pathos and tragic maladaptations of inhumane extremes, there are important truths to be learned. There but for the grace of God (or Circumstance), go I. Thus the central tenant of intellectual nonviolence is that it is never permissible to demonize the other, especially those we find the most repugnant and threatening. In the words of Princeton’s Jeffery Stout, we must resist our tendencies “to block the path of moral inquiry and social criticism… by narrowing one’s focus too quickly, reducing one’s ability to recognize complexity and ambiguity or to experience moral ambivalence” (Stout 2004, 287-288).
For these reasons, intellectual non-violence sits uneasily with different forms of political correctness. Too often, people become captive to taken-for-granted metanarratives. Ideology and power politics substitute for authentic spirituality, penetrating philosophy, and compassionate curiosity. We all tend to fall back on our own patterns of dogmatic thought, manifested in political correctness, insularity, and lack of rigor. The real adventure in the hermeneutics of truth is to inhabit as many different metanarratives as possible, while recognizing one’s own inevitable partiality.
“Civilization,” write Reinhold Niebuhr, “depends upon vigorous pursuit of the highest values by people who are intelligent enough to know that their values are qualified by their interests and corrupted by their prejudices” (Niebuhr (1932)1960). Civilization then depends on pursuing the highest values by temporarily by-passing one’s prejudices and ignoring one’s self-interest to see the world from another’s perspective. Indeed, ascertaining what these “highest values” are also requires this kind of hermeneutic.
Intellectual non-violence is not the same as political non-violence. The pacifists can be as captivated by their own insular, self-righteous metanarrative, just as much as the next person. Their utopia can be an escapist fantasy. Intellectual nonviolence does not rule out the use of violence, though it would do so with a very different attitude. When other options are exhausted, there will always be situations necessitating the use of force, including physical and lethal violence. The trouble is that state-organized violence tends to presuppose, indeed is always preceded by ideological violence and epistemic distortions. In war, as the saying goes, truth is the first casualty. By the hermeneutic proposed here, one must resist the tendency to demonize and dehumanize. One must always seek the humanity in one’s foe and in oneself, in order to embrace both the tragic and ambiguous in all conflicts. This is perhaps the practical implication of the understanding of universal sin and postmodern finitude. None of our metanarratives alone are adequate; all of our entangled narratives woven together provide the most complete picture. This weaving of different perspectives into a richer, more encompassing life metanarrative is analogous to the distributed wisdom of economic markets. Indeed, it is analogous to the distributed creativity of life itself.
Nations and individuals will continue to be faced with the need to kill in self-defense, overthrow tyranny, prevent tragedies, promote greater goods, but we do not need to commit intellectual violence. Prolonging individual lives and postponing death is always a relational value presupposing some greater purposes in human life that transcends mere longevity. What might those greater purposes be? How much risk are we willing to take? How much risk can we avoid? How can we most effectively promote noble purposes? What are these noble purposes? How can we pursue these together to our mutual benefit? In order for this vision of story-weaving and truth-seeking to be realized, it is necessary to temporarily suspend disagreements and inhabit someone else’s metanarrative, entering into their intratextuality of their one-true story, to see what might be gleaned in the hopes of building more vectors of transcendent truth.
Intellectual non-violence is about epistemology, not sentimentality. It is about maximizing our potential for knowing truth in our short lifetimes, perhaps even transcendent truths. It is a hermeneutics for reading, debating, learning. It requires rigor and reciprocity. It is not passive. Paradoxically, it also requires intolerance and arguments, but also honesty, principles, pragmatics, and always the real risk of conversions. These are virtues and values, I believe central to the mission of higher education, excellent philosophy, and authentic religion.
In all probability, power will continue to be the mediator and adjudicator between our entangled narratives in the 21st century. In that respect, better to get clear about what you believe and be pugnacious in arguing its validity. Single-minded advocacy gets the job done, although there is no guarantee here either that one is in fact right or will achieve one’s aims. It does seem like the self-certain narratives have the upper hand, while the less, self-certain of us are more paralyzed with options and analyses. As William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) observed:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand…(Yeats 1919)
Ricoeur notes the same dilemma in prose form. The hermeneutic of suspicion in the modern academe has rendered us paralyzed, unable to take effective action. He advocates a “second naiveté” after all the critical analyses are done, when we refigure and re-appropriate our understanding of the text.
This process of suspicion which started several centuries ago has already changed us. We are more cautious about our beliefs, sometimes even to the point of lacking courage; we profess to be only critical and not committed. I would say that people are now more paralyzed than blind (Ricoeur 1986, 313).
Is it better to commit blindly to a single, “true” story and therein find both conviction and courage? Not if we also want to commit to an actually true story, for the truth is found in a transcendent fusion of horizons that we can approach but never reach. We are left then with multiple and evolving convictions, but with no less need for courage, because the on-going adjudication of our competing, entangled narratives is not without risk. The practice of intellectual nonviolence can be ineffective. It can be easily shouted out and down, drowned in the din of media amplified extremes. True, understanding from whence this “passionate intensity” arises, as well as this “lack of conviction” may make us more effective agents of truth and transformation, but we cannot escape the dangers. These are not just any risks; these are existential risks. Ricoeur warns us:
It is too simple a response, though, to say that we must keep the dialectic running. My more ultimate answer is that we must let ourselves be drawn into the circle and then must try to make the circle a spiral. We cannot eliminate from a social ethics the element of risk. We wager on a certain set of values and then try to be consistent with them; verification is therefore a question of our whole life. No one can escape this. Anyone who claims to proceed in a value-free way will find nothing (Ricoeur 1986, 312.)
In trying to weave together the many entangled narratives we encounter, inhabiting as many different perspectives and truths as possible with our limited intellect and lifespan, it is important to realize that we do now have a loom on which to weave the many pieces of truth and goodness that we discover along the way. That loom is the history of our species over the last million plus years, the evolution of life and our planet over the last four billion years, and the evolution of the universe over some thirteen billion years. This is the story that science has discovered over the last few decades and centuries, though it really represents the achievement of all of humanity over the millennia. Few of us have explored what it would mean to integrate this new story of the universe into our own special metanarrative. One of the greatest challenges today is to integrate this new, remarkable, and evolving scientific story of the cosmos, society, and self into our diverse, traditional narratives.
Intellectual nonviolence is also how science works, when it is at its best. Science should not impose its preconceptions on the phenomena, rather it should let the experiments and observations tell their own story, which hypotheses are right or wrong, better or worse. Scientists need to get out of the way of the phenomena, as they enter their own hermeneutical circle, such that new and often unexpected readings of the “Book of Nature” can emerge. Good science then is altruistic fidelity to the phenomena. It does not impose itself on reality, but makes a space for many different realities of nature to tell their own authentic stories. Scientists then carefully translate the languages of particles, proteins, and people in the manner most authentic to the phenomena.
All stories of history and self involve facts. All texts are limited fields of interpretation, a specified construct of sentences, characters, and plot. Texts, histories, and self are open to multiple interpretations constrained by the specificity of facticity. Science has discovered a new set of facts that encompass all of our different stories and thus provide a new context for interpreting our entangled narratives.
The grand scientific metanarrative is quite new and still evolving, so much so that we do not really have an adequate interpretative tradition surrounding it. In brief outline, this omnicentric universe began some 13 billion years ago as infinite heat, infinite density, and total symmetry. The universe expanded and evolved into more differentiated and complex structures – forces, quarks, hydrogen, helium, galaxies, stars, heavier elements, complex chemistry, planetary systems. Some 3.5 billion years ago, in a small second or third generation solar system, the intricate processes called “life” began on at least one small planet. Animate matter-energy on Earth presented itself as a marvelous new intensification of the creative dynamic at work in the universe. Then some 2 million years ago, as if yesterday in the enormous timescales of the universe, proto-humans emerged on the savanna of Africa with their enormously heightened capacities for conscious self-reflection, language, and tool making. And this unfolding leads us all the way to today, to this collection of atoms in this particular room, all of us recycled stardust become conscious beings, engaged in this global conversation about our entangled and competing worldviews, brought to use by ephemeral electrons cascading through the Internet and bouncing off of satellites.
This too is part of our entangled world of stories, but it is a story in which all of our separate stories necessarily must find their home and their partial validity. It is a story that includes many tragedies, too immense to even comprehend; but it is also a story of cosmic and comic improbabilities resulting in many fortuitous new possibilities. It is a story with irony, for instance, foisted upon us by our biology and our brains. It is an ironic story also because none of the scientists involved in piecing this puzzle together really understood that the collaborative results would be a fantastic and evolving creation story of stunning complexity and grandeur. Science has done the work of continuing revelation in the 20th century. Finally, it is a story with a great deal of romantic appeal for all its majesty and beauty.
This new story of the universe necessarily includes humans, contrary to the abstractions of the scientists. All of our subjective experiences are part of this new objective story of the cosmos. It is a story in which all the different narratives told by humans around the world have their place within the unfolding plot, all within their appropriate context. Some say that the story of the universe and humans within it is meaningless, employing Hayden White’s ironic trope. The emplotment of this new universe story, however, is a free choice, first because the data can be read in multiple ways and second because the story itself has not ended. The emplotment can be Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Secular, etc. That is a free choice, though the skill of the synthesizer and storyteller will need to be convincing and accurate to the science. Remember, Ricoeur warns us, even though we have the same text, not all interpretations are plausible, not all interpretations are equal.
In the end, our entangled narratives must somehow incorporate and answer to the unfolding discoveries of the scientific, evolutionary cosmology. Triumph or tragedy, it is certainly an epic story, an epic of evolution. I note that Hayden White neglected to include epic as a possible trope, assuming that the category is subsumed by one of the other four tropes, but this need not be so. An epic need only be a story that never ends, that has many twists and turns, but it just goes on and on.
Every time we use a cell phone, pump 200 million year-old rainforests into the gas tanks of our cars, or travel across the continents in an airplane or via the Internet, we affirm the reality of this new scientific, evolutionary cosmology in deed, if not in thought. With this common cosmology as a basis, a hermeneutical foundation that also happens to be progressively true, our global civilization would be much better situated to solve the great religious and ideological debates of our time. Of course, we would not all have the same interpretations of this evolutionary cosmology, but we would have a common conversation and a better possibility for a future “fusion of horizons”. This story of the universe, and all of our separate metanarratives within it, are woven together on a cosmic loom, each of us a thread in a greater tapestry of unfolding truth. If we listen carefully to each other and to nature, adopting a hermeneutics of intellectual nonviolence, then our common future may also be a self-transcending process leading to greater truth, beauty, and goodness.
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