Disrupting and Creating Meaning

We, humans, are remarkably flexible beings. Sometimes, we surprise even ourselves if we pay attention.

For example, take Jacques Derrida’s idea of deconstruction. As a way of thinking, it takes a settled meaning we accept as true and dismantles it to show how inherently arbitrary any one such interpretation is. In other words, its opposite could also be true. Then, if we think about it, we find the disruption of meaning… well, meaningful.

Or let’s take Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics of understanding. Seemingly the opposite of deconstruction, it focuses on understanding how we understand. By interpreting any new meanings from within our current outlook, we integrate them into our horizon, thereby changing it and the way we will interpret future encounters with new meanings. In this case, we find the ever-progressing, open-ended creation of meaning meaningful, just as we did with the disruption of meaning a moment ago.

If this stirs feelings of confusion, we are in good company (and, you know, welcome to the club of fellow human beings where it is never boring!). While the Derrida-Gadamer debate continues today, both philosophers found a way to reconcile their views during their lifetimes. To me, this is a hopeful example of the possibility of mutual understanding growing out of initial disagreement. Of course, such a possibility only exists when our quest is for truth, not for control.

In an interview towards the end of his life, Gadamer believed to have convinced Derrida that hermeneutic understanding is a transformative experience that does not assimilate another’s meaning but allows for the constant revision of meaning. In 2003, Derrida himself, in a moving speech in Heidelberg, commemorating Gadamer’s death, conceded that deconstruction as the disruption of sense and hermeneutics as the seeking of meaning are two equally needed sides in our human quest for truth.

Jens Zimmermann in “Hermeneutics: A Very Short Introduction”

keep exploring!

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