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Hermeneutics of Suspicion

April 14, 2009

Someone recently commented about my apparent lack of respect for the texts I study as a scholar of religion. It was suggested that rather than leaping to point out apparent contradictions I should seek ways to reconcile them.

This is the much touted “hermeneutic of generosity” or “hermeneutic of charity”: be generous toward the traditions you study!

I really do want to be a generous guy; the problem is that my generosity overflows and is directed toward multiple parties at once. I want to be generous to:

  1. this particular text
  2. the community that created this text
  3. other texts that disagree with this text
  4. the communities that created those other texts
  5. people who may have been abused or exploited because of particular interpretations of this text

Sorting out these multiple commitments requires employing a hermeneutic of suspicion—the suspicion is cast not by me but by the competing texts, competing communities, etc.

A judge can’t be generous to both the defendent and the plaintiff at the same time, and has no grounds to arbitrarily choose to be generous to one and suspicious of the other. The two parties’ competing claims require the judge to employ a hermeneutic of suspicion toward both.

Also—although this is not always the case—I often find that many people who push this point want me to be charitable to their tradition and their texts, whereas they have no problem with me utilizing a hermeneutic of suspicion when investigating the traditions or texts of others.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. N. T. Wrong permalink
    April 15, 2009 5:28 pm

    Ha! I quite like your answer – especially your mention of how your charity in fact overflows.

    The people who mention this ‘principle of charity’ thing seem to forget that it’s strictly a prima facie principle of approaching any ancient text. But don’t they realise that this Bible thing has been given the benefit of the doubt for some millennia now, and been found more than a little wanting.

    I behave fairly pleasantly to people I meet, when I first get introduced to them. But if one turns out to be a complete cunt, they soon lose the benefit of the doubt. While the Bible can’t be generalised as a complete cunt, it does have some awfully cunty parts in it – parts that certainly no longer deserve an excessive amount of ‘charity’.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 16, 2009 7:12 am

    this Bible thing has been given the benefit of the doubt for some millennia now, and been found more than a little wanting


  3. Elizabeth permalink
    July 19, 2010 3:51 pm

    I would like to cite or quote your point about the range of groups one needs to consider in her or his generosity (i.e. not just the text and author of the text, but also, and particularly #5). That said, of course, I can’t cite a pseudonymous blog in my paper. Any thoughts on if this has been said by others in a similar way or could you direct me to a more quotable place where you have said this elsewhere? Feel free to email. Thanks! Elizabeth

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 20, 2010 10:07 am

    I haven’t said this in print, so I can’t point you there, unfortunately. I’ll have to think about it. The only thing that comes to mind at the moment—and this is only marginally close to the issue—is Russell McCutcheon’s JAAR essay from a few years back called “It’s a Lie. There’s No Truth in It! It’s a Sin!” In that essay McCutcheon considers how some “phenomenologists” treat groups they like differently from groups they do not. I’ll keep thinking though!

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