Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

The Hermeneutical Invasion | Mises Institute

Posted by M. C. on November 15, 2021

The greatest success of the hermeneutical movement has been achieved in recent decades, beginning in the closely related movement of “deconstructionism” in literary criticism. Headed by the French theorists Michel Foucault, Paul Ricoeur, and Jacques Derrida, deconstructionism in the Western Hemisphere is led by the formidable Department at Yale University, from which it has spread to conquer most of the English-literature departments in the United States and Canada.

Murray N. Rothbard

In recent years, economists have invaded other intellectual disciplines and, in the dubious name of “science,” have employed staggeringly oversimplified assumptions in order to make sweeping and provocative conclusions about fields they know very little about. This is a modern form of “economic imperialism” in the realm of the intellect. Almost always, the bias of this economic imperialism has been quantitative and implicitly Benthamite, in which poetry and pushpin are reduced to a single level, and which amply justifies the gibe of Oscar Wilde about cynics, that they (economists) know the price of everything and the value of nothing. The results of this economic imperialism have been particularly ludicrous in the fields of sex, the family, and education.

So why then does the present author, not a Benthamite, now have the temerity to tackle a field as arcane, abstruse, metaphysical, and seemingly unrelated to economics as hermeneutics? Here my plea is the always legitimate one of self-defense. Discipline after discipline, from literature to political theory to philosophy to history, have been invaded by an arrogant band of hermeneuticians, and now even economics is under assault. Hence, this article is in the nature of a counterattack.

To begin, the dictionary definition of hermeneutics is the age-old discipline of interpreting the Bible. Until the 1920s or 1930s, indeed, hermeneutics was confined to theologians and departments of religion. But things changed with the advent of the murky German doctrines of Martin Heidegger, the founder of modern hermeneutics. With the death of Heidegger, the apostolic succession of head of the hermeneutical movement fell upon his student, Hans-Georg Gadamer, who still wears this mantle.

The greatest success of the hermeneutical movement has been achieved in recent decades, beginning in the closely related movement of “deconstructionism” in literary criticism. Headed by the French theorists Michel Foucault, Paul Ricoeur, and Jacques Derrida, deconstructionism in the Western Hemisphere is led by the formidable Department at Yale University, from which it has spread to conquer most of the English-literature departments in the United States and Canada. The essential message of deconstructionism and hermeneutics can be variously summed up as nihilism, relativism, and solipsism. That is, either there is no objective truth or, if there is, we can never discover it. With each person being bound to his own subjective views, feelings, history, and so on, there is no method of discovering objective truth. In literature, the most elemental procedure of literary criticism (that is, trying to figure out what a given author meant to say) becomes impossible. Communication between writer and reader similarly becomes hopeless; furthermore, not only can no reader ever figure out what an author meant to say, but even the author does not know or understand what he himself meant to say, so fragmented, confused, and driven is each particular individual. So, since it is impossible to figure out what Shakespeare, Conrad, Plato, Aristotle, or Machiavelli meant, what becomes the point of either reading or writing literary or philosophical criticism?

It is an interesting question, one that the deconstructionists and other hermeneuticians have of course not been able to answer. By their own avowed declaration, it is impossible for deconstructionists to understand literary texts or, for example, for Gadamer to understand Aristotle, upon whom he has nevertheless written at enormous length. As the English philosopher Jonathan Barnes has pointed out in his brilliant and witty critique of hermeneutics, Gadamer, not having anything to say about Aristotle or his works, is reduced to reporting his own subjective musings—a sort of lengthy account of “what Aristotle means to me.”1 Setting aside the hermeneutical problem of whether or not Gadamer can know even what Aristotle means to him, we push back the problem another notch. Namely, why in the world should anyone but Gadamer, except possibly his mother or wife, be in the least interested in the question of what Aristotle means to him? And even in the improbable event that we were interested in this earth-shattering question, we would in any case be prevented on hermeneutical principles from understanding Gadamer’s answer.

Deconstruction and hermeneutics are clearly self-refuting on many levels. If we cannot understand the meaning of any texts, then why are we bothering with trying to understand or to take seriously the works or doctrines of authors who aggressively proclaim their own incomprehensibility?


Indeed, a crucial point about the hermeneuticians is that, for them, incomprehensibility is a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a colleague of mine ruefully told me: “I have read everything on hermeneutics I can lay my hands on, and I understand no more about it than I did when I first started.” Even in a profession—philosophy—not exactly famous for its sparkle or lucidity, one of the most remarkable qualities of the hermeneuticians is their horrendous and incomparably murky style. Stalactites and stalagmites of jargon words are piled upon each other in a veritable kitchen midden of stupefying and meaningless prose. Hermeneuticians seem to be incapable of writing a clear English, or indeed a clear German sentence. Critics of hermeneutics—such as Jonathan Barnes or David Gordon2—are understandably moved to satire, to stating or quoting hermeneutical tracts and then “translating” them into simple English, where invariably they are revealed as either banal or idiotic.

At first, I thought that these German hermeneuticians were simply ill-served by their translators into English. But my German friends assure me that Heidegger, Gadamer, et al. are equally unintelligible in the original. Indeed, in a recently translated essay, Eric Voegelin, a philosopher not normally given to scintillating wit, was moved to ridicule Heidegger’s language. Referring to Heidegger’s master work, Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), Voegelin refers to the meaningless but insistent repetition of a veritable philosophical dictionary of phrases as the Anwesen des Answesenden (“the presence of that which is present”), the Dingen des Dings (“the thinging of the thing”), the Nichten des Nichts (“the nothinging of the nothing”), and finally to the zeigenden Zeichen des Zeigzeugs (“the Pointing sign of the pointing implement”), all of which is designed, says Voegelin, to whip up the reader “into a reality-withdrawing state of linguistic delirium.”3

On Gadamer and the hermeneuticians, Jonathan Barnes writes:

What, then, are the characteristic features of hermeneutical philosophy? Its enemies will wade in with adjectives like empty, vapid, dreamy, woolly, rhetorical. Gadamer himself tells an uncharacteristic story. At the end of a seminar on Cajetan, Heidegger once startled his devoted audience by posing the question: “What is being?” “We sat there staring and shaking our heads over the absurdity of the question.” Quite right too, say the enemies of hermeneutics: the question is perfectly absurd. But Gadamer has only a frail sense of the absurd, and his own readers ought to react as he once—but alas, only once—reacted to Heidegger.

Barnes goes on to say that Gadamer admits “that his thought has sometimes been less than pellucid.” He further quotes Gadamer as saying:

Certainly I sometimes spoke over my pupils’ heads and put too many complications into my train of thought. Even earlier my friends had invented a new scientific measure, the “Gad,” which designated a settled measure of unnecessary complications.

Barnes adds that:

Some may prefer to this self-congratulatory little story a remark which Gadarner makes of his younger self: “Despite my title of doctor, I was still a 22-year old boy who thought rather murky thinking, and who still did not really know what was going on.”

Barnes adds: “Did the boy ever grow up?”4

See the rest here


Murray N. Rothbard

Murray N. Rothbard made major contributions to economics, history, political philosophy, and legal theory. He combined Austrian economics with a fervent commitment to individual liberty.

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