Sunday, November 20, 2011

Hermeneutic and Preferential Circles

Is there a preferential circle as there is a hermeneutic circle? The hermeneutic circle describes how we interpret a text through the circular feedback of parts and wholes. We start with the first word (a part) and a sense of what this text we are about to read is about (and so the whole of the text), and then we interpret each succeeding part using our conception of the whole. In turn we alter our understanding of the whole by the understanding we make of each new part. So this is a continual, circular process by which interpretation occurs. At the end of the text our conception of the whole, the meaning of the text, has changed, and it has changed through the reading of the parts which got their interpretation through the then current understanding of the whole, which they, the parts, in turn, continually altered as we read.

So I had the idea that there is another circular process occurring which I call the preferential or, more awkwardly, tendentious circle. While the hermeneutic process is occurring another process is occurring which is the continual adjustment of our liking and disliking of the text. Each successive part rubs us one way or another – actually three ways: liking, disliking and neutral – and changes our feeling about the whole. And each feeling about the whole affects our experience of each successive part. At the end we have our disposition towards the piece: we liked it, didn’t like it or are mixed. This preferential reaction could then be examined more closely.

As I think about it, there is also the involvement of our previously accumulated likes and dislikes which inform the way we react to the piece. But this must also be true of the hermeneutic dimension. To interpret a piece we must use the whole of our understanding, placing it within the context of our larger understanding of things. (This is Gadamer's horizon of understanding.)

The preferential circle occurs with differing degrees of self-consciousness. Most people watch movies with very little consciousness of their reaction to it. And, at the lowest level, all they can say is “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” But we can increase our consciousness of our reaction to the film. Good film critics are reacting to the film and simultaneously or in retrospect recovering their reactions and the reasons for their reactions. (Pauline Kael was a master of this.) Generally this is described as an aesthetic reaction, but it has a personal/psychological dimension that usually goes unexplored. But it can be explored, as I do in the psychology of belief.


Howard Johnson said...

Hi Jeff;
Your preferential circles reminds me of Bakhtin's idea that words have a taste of our dialogic (personal and cultural) history of use. While hermeneutics is still important to my thinking, I do find that it now also has the taste of pragmatism, dialogism, and a Wittgensteinian instrumentalism associated with it.

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

Oh, I don't know Bhakhtin. I'll have to look.