Hermeneutics

Sat Aug 23 18:51:40 2008
Michael Bentley, in his article “Herbert Butterfield and the Ethics of Historiography” (History and Theory, February 2005), mentions the similarity between Herbert Butterfield’s approach to history and Dilthey’s hermeneutics. I think that this is both a strength and weakness for Butterfield. It provides a solid foundation for his book, The Whig Interpretation of History, where he argues against seeing the past as line of progress to our current present—taking those things that remind us of ourselves as steps in the struggle of past peoples in their attempt to become us. It helped him to see that “if history can do anything it is to remind us that all our judgments are merely relative to time and circumstance” and to deride “the most useless and unproductive of all forms of reflection–the dispensation of moral judgments upon people or upon actions in retrospect.”

Yet, like Dilthey, Butterfield seems unable or unwilling to understand that this applies to his own position as well as the past. In Truth and Method (1960), Hans Georg Gadamer criticized Dilthey’s hermeneutics for its inability to consider that the interpreter was not outside of culture and tradition but was also bound within a particular temporal horizon. Gadamer’s hermeneutic views history, at best, as a conversation between the past and present. The historian would serve as a facilitator or translator rather than as judge or final arbiter of some ultimate truth or reality. Each successive generation will need their own translators, as each generation has a new temporal horizon of tradition and ontology. Butterfield’s weakness is that he does not see the ultimate implications of his epistemology and ethics and that he believes the “historian becomes closer to God and makes judgments designed to reveal connections and reconciliations beyond the perception of his contemporaries.”

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~ by severalfourmany on August 23, 2008.

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