McKeon on the Difference between Post-Structuralist and Marxist Attitudes towards the Hermeneutic Circle

[Once again, half of Michael’s posted comments in our exchange were consumed by cyber-gremlins today, so I have reunited them and put them up here for easier reading–DM]

Dave,

Although I can see there may be some basic disagreements between us about historical method, I’ll first try to be clearer about what my method aims to do.

By the distinction between seeing the past in its own terms and seeing it in terms other than its own I mean something simpler–more methodological or structural and less epistemologically-“truth” oriented–than you take me to mean. For me the distinction doesn’t entail opposing determinate contents–the initial categories are epistemologically-speaking arbitrary–but is rather the engine that sets in motion the process of understanding by which the discovery of determinate contents will be achieved. That motion is dialectical in the sense that the nature of the “internal” and “external” viewpoints it works with is defined by an interaction, like that between particular facts or bits of evidence and a general hypothesis, whereby the two enter into a back-and-forth process of reciprocal revision until a point is reached at which what seems a satisfactory correspondence between the two has been found–i.e., at which the hypothesis seems adequately responsive to the data and the data seem adequately contained by the hypothesis.

This isn’t to “idealize” the act of historical understanding but to acknowledge its possibility, and to suggest a “realistic” way of going about it. By the criteria of the “satisfactory” and the “adequate” I mean the sorts of probabilistic standards that govern empirical analysis, although the “rules of evidence” that apply in this sort of study are more like those that operate in a court of law than like those involved in scientific method. The problem I have with poststructuralism in this regard is that the absoluteness of its epistemological skepticism, at least on paper, makes this kind of judgment impossible. If the choice is between either the accessibility or the inaccessibility of the past, the choice becomes a dichotomous opposition between absolutes for neither of which methodological decisions about the adequacy of evidence to a particular hypothesis have any interest. This is the choice between the positivism of “a privileged access to the past” and “some fixed point of historical truth” on the one hand and the relativism or aestheticism of “valuable insights” on the other. If the value of insights is assessed rhetorically, i.e., by the degree to which they speak to or satisfy the needs or expectations of a contemporary audience, there’s no way of judging between the value of insights that, relatively speaking, are equally attuned to their respective publics. (Nor, to return to the defense of a “master narrative,” is there any middle ground where the epistemological value of taking into account a little evidence or a lot, or of doing it “well” or “badly,” might be assessed.)

If these were really the principles on which literary critics and historians operated, their investment in either activity would seem inexplicable. I include criticism here because I think reading a text is liable to the same sorts of epistemological caveats as is “reading” the past. Adducing a text’s “own” terms is no less problematic than adducing those of the past, yet the ambition to do this probabilistically–“privileged” not a priori but by virtue of the way one construes the meaning(s) of a text on the evidentiary basis of the language in which it’s written–is one we’re happy to shoulder, as teachers and writers, on a daily basis.

As I understand it, the difference between poststructuralist and Marxist method, at least on the theoretical level, can be expressed as the difference between two distinct attitudes toward the hermeneutic circle. To analyze the nature of the parts on the basis of our knowledge of the whole presupposes a knowledge of the parts as that which gives the whole its wholeness; to begin at the level of the parts presupposes a knowledge of the whole on the basis of which their partial nature is predicated. For poststructuralist theory, this is a contradiction that precludes knowledge. For Marxist theory it’s a contradiction–between parts and whole, between own terms and other terms, between interpretation and explanation–that inaugurates the process of coming to knowledge.

Michael McKeon

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