Archaeology of Criticism



"The form of the Platonic dialogue was quite certainly created by a historical fact--the fact that Socrates taught by question and answer. He held that form of dialogue to be the original pattern of philosophic thought, and the only way for two people to reach an understanding on any subject." [Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture 19 (New York: Oxford University Press pb, 1986)(vol. 2)]

"The achievement is universally conceded to him [Socrates]: that by his questioning he leads his pupils to confess their ignorance and thus cuts through the roots of their dogmatism. This result, which indeed cannot be forced in any other way, discloses the significance of the dialogue as an instrument of instruction." [Leonard Nelson, Socratic Method and Critical Philosophy 15 (New York: Dover ed., 1965)(Thomas K. Brown III trans.)]

"A a student of Plato, I particularly love those scenes in which Socrates gets into a dispute with the Sophist virtuosi and drives them to despair by his questions. Eventually they can endure his questions no longer and claim for themselves the apparently preferable role of the questioner. And what happens? They can think of nothing at all to ask. Nothing at all occurs to them that is worth while going into and trying to answer. I draw the following inference from this observation. The real power of hermeneutical consciousness is our ability to see what is questionable." [Hans-George Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics 13 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977)(Daniel E. Longe ed.)]

"Philosophy possesses the wonderful ability and courage to pose childish questions: ‘What is that?' ‘What is that for?' ‘Why is that like that?' ‘Why must that be like that?' What purpose has that?' ‘Why must that be done like that?' ‘Why can no one act like that?'" [Agnes Heller, Radical Philosophy 17 (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1984)]

"Disregard for truly substantive questions translates into disdain for the uniquely philosophical minds that are drawn to them." [Robert Grudin, The Grace of Great Things: Creativity and Innovation 170 (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1990)]

"Language can on occasion function informatively--but only because it first of all functions interrogatively, imperatively, emotionally, and performatively. After all, precisely the driest statement of fact becomes meaningful only in terms of some question which it answers, some need which it fulfills...." [Cyril Welch, "Speaking and Bespeaking," in James M. Edie (ed.), New Essays in Phenomenology: Studies in the Philosophy of Experience 72-82, at 81 (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1969)]

"One of the more fertile insights of modern hermeneutics is that every statement has to be seen as a response to a question and that the only way to understand a statement is to get hold of the question to which the statement is an answer. This prior question has its own direction of meaning and is by no means to be gotten hold of through a network of background motivations but rather in reaching out to the broader contexts of meaning encompassed by the question and deposited in the statement. What has to be held up as a first determination that will do justice to modern hermeneutics in contrast to the traditional kind is this notion that a philosophical hermeneutics is more interested in the questions than the answers--or better, that it interprets statements as answers to questions that it is its role to understand. That is not all. Where does our effort to understand begin? What are we interested in understanding a text or some experience of the world, including our doubts about patent self-interpretations? . . . . [I]t will always be the case that we have to ask ourselves why a text stirs our interest. The answer will never be that it communicates some neutral fact to us. On the contrary, we have to get behind such putative facts in order to awaken our interest in them or to make ourselves expressly aware of such interests. We encounter facts in statements. All statements are answers. But that is not all. The question to which each statement is an answer is itself motivated in turn, and so in a certain sense every question is itself an answer again. It responds to a challenge. Without an inner tension between our anticipations of meaning and the all-pervasive opinions, and without a critical interest in the generally prevailing opinions, there would be no questions at all.

The first step of hermeneutic endeavor, especially the requirement of going back to the motivating questions when understanding statements, is not a particularly artificial procedure. On the contrary, it is or normal practice. If we have to answer a question and we cannot understand the question correctly (but we do know what the other wants to know), then we obviously have to understand better the sense of the question. And so we ask in return why someone would ask us that. Only when I have first understood the motivating meaning of the question can I even begin to look for an answer. It is not artificial in the least to reflect upon the presuppositions implicit in our questions. On the contrary, it is artificial not to reflect upon these presuppositions. It is quite artificial to imagine that statements fall down from heaven and that they can be subjected to analytic labor without once bringing into consideration why they were stated and in what way they are responses to something. That is the first, basic, and infinitely far-reaching demand called for in any hermeneutical undertaking.

* * * *

Understanding is an adventure and, like any other adventure, is dangerous. Just because it is not satisfied with simply wanting to register what is there or is said there but goes back to our guiding interests and questions, one has to concede that the hermeneutical experience has a far smaller degree of certainty than that attained by the methods of the natural sciences. But when one realizes that understanding is an adventure, this implies that it affords unique opportunities as well. It is capable of contributing in a special way to the broadening of our human experiences, our self-knowledge, and our horizon, for everything understanding mediates is mediated along with ourselves." [Hans-George Gadamer, "Hermeneutics as Practical Philosophy," in Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman & Thomas McCarthy (eds.), After Philosophy: End or Transformation? 325-338, at 332-334, 336 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987)]

"Teaching that begins with questions is both a moral and a pedagogical choice. A teacher teaches with questions because she or he believes that it is a better way to teach, and a better way to be a teacher. Yet to succeed at this, the questions must be real questions: questions that puzzle, confuse, and interest." [Nicholas C. Burbles, "Aporia: Webs, Passages, Getting Lost, and Learning to Go On," < burbules.html> (visited April 21, 2001)]

"It is a singularly good thing, I think, that law students, and even some lawyers and law professors, are questioning with increasing frequency and intensity whether 'professionalism' is incompatible with human decency--asking, that is, whether one can be a good lawyer and a good person at the same time." [Monroe H. Freedman, Personal Responsibility in a Professional System, 27 Cath. U. L. Rev. 191, 192 (1978)]

"The reason that our conversations are not great, and that we have no real community, is that we steadfastly refuse to ask the big questions, to try to seek answers to them in common. Instead we ask the little questions, the questions that keep our daily work going in its prescribed ruts, the questions that look out for tomorrow by automatically following the routine of the day, by accepting uncritically the world as we find it, and by not caring too strongly what we are really doing in it, or are supposed to be doing. The big concerns and the big designs pass us by, as we keep each to his own narrow game." [Ernest Becker, Beyond Alienation 14-15 (New York: George Braziller, 1967)]


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