Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Hermeneutic Charity: A Tip

I've been part of an ongoing conversation at An und fur sich about "meritocracy," that has become another case in point about "having conversations on the internet." Whether I am reading the situation rightly or not, I would like to propose a particular technique for performing hermeneutic charity, and I hope that perform it near as often as I believe I do.

When having a controversial conversation with someone, try to propose what inference you are imputing to your interlocutor before you assert the conclusion upon them. In that way, you approach the conversation by indicating all these implicit conclusions that your interlocutor may or may not be aware of, and I will admit that this is dicey in practice, but I think at least approaching the conversation from the perspective is beneficial.

In the case of the recent conversation at An und fur sich, I was met with so many asserted conclusions that implied premises that I did not hold, that my end of the conversation collapsed under the weight. Trying to recover probably just wasted people's time, and I should likely have stepped out, but then if we backed out of every such conversation we would rarely speak of controversial things.

I have run into this problem before in a much bigger way when I used to discuss cross-tradition metaphysics on this blog. In those cases, I sketched out such large arguments--hoping and then telling my interlocutor that I was trying to figure out what might be true for their position to work--that I was accused of being pedantic and not listening. I offer that as an example of how my suggested tip for hermeneutic charity can fail miserably, as I tried to propose what I thought an interlocutor doing, and my proposal did not match the person's self-understanding.


  1. There's a paper here I often thought about writing: expanding Davidson's principle of charity to include principles of hermeneutic charity. The former is about construing philosophy as an exchange of arguments, but neglects the latter since in abstracting content into arguments forgets about the background assumptions that give rise to the content in the first place.

  2. To be fair to my interlocutors at the website, it has been asserted that I used a "loaded term" (meritocracy) with bad connotations and have not been answering their charges. Most of the interlocutors are just being direct and not unkind, but a pile-on has been occurring. In my defense, I didn't know the term was so loaded. Aside, I often find myself speaking for a person who is getting piled-on in an argument, even if I'm not in agreement.

    Hackett, that is precisely what I've been doing since I read Davidson's article on in as an undergrad. I think the article has already been written--I think I've seen it somewhere--but its worth repeating.

  3. I've been thinking about this a lot, because I'm trying to articulate what recurring problem occurred in this instance. I finally have it. Be mindful of what premises you (whoever "you" are) attribute to your interlocutor when interpreting that person's words. Because, if you attribute various negative premises to them in order to make sense of their words, you are implicitly being a hostile interlocutor. So, in this case, many jumped onto the idea that I was for elitism, the politics of power, etc., because I was for meritocracy. I spent so much time reacting to the negative attributions that I in fact failed to say anything substantive, and my interlocutors refused to give me the benefit of the doubt once the negative attributions were imputed. Well into the mess, my principle interlocutor said that I couldn't have meant so-and-so, because that was obvious. Yet, that was in fact what I meant.

    But, as I've noted elsewhere, sometimes my attempts to make public what premises I am attributing to another--done for the purposes of allowing for their disavowal--can hurt rather than help the situation.