Wednesday, October 6, 2010

To be great is to be misunderstood

Matt Yglesias gamely tries to explain terribly written great books:

I actually think this is a pretty general problem with “great books,” for reasons that are explained in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions which is, itself, a great book that suffers from the very same problem. Obviously part of the issue is simply that there’s no guarantee that conceptual innovators will be good writers. But the deeper Kuhnian issue is that great game-changing thinkers end up altering the conceptual terrain in a way that renders their original works obsolete-sounding and confusing. Meanwhile, a whole discipline grows up in the shadow of the great book and its practitioners develop a nice clear reconstruction of the framework.
I rather think Kuhn was an admirably lucid writer given his subject matter, but opinions vary, and ready examples abound. Take Hans Gadamer:
A person trying to understand something will not resign himself from the start to relying on his own accidental fore-meanings, ignoring as consistently and stubbornly as possible the actual meaning of the text until latter becomes so persistently audible that it breaks through what the interpreter imagines it to be. Rather, a person trying to understand a text is prepared for it to tell him something. That is what a hermeneutically trained consciousness must be, from the start, sensitive to the text’s alterity. But this kind of sensitivity involved neither ‘neutrality’ with respect to content nor the extinction of one’s self, but the foregounding and appropriation of one’s own fore-meanings and prejudices. The important things is to be aware of one’s own bias, so that the text can present itself in all its otherness and thus assert is own truth against one’s own fore-meanings.
That's not even an especially dense passage -- it rolls along pretty smoothly until "alterity," which isn't among the twelve words most frequently overheard on mass transit, and the two sentences following it are the kind that demand a slower pace of reading.

When encountering a difficult book, the important things is to be aware of one's own bias, so that the text can present itself in all its otherness and thus assert is own truth against one's own fore-meanings. Only then can one come to a considered judgment on whether it has been worth the time and effort to slow down and take it in.

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