Book Review: The Fall of Interpretation – By James K. A. Smith

The Fall of Interpretation James KA Smith

Letter WWhile there has been much scholarship written in the realm of hermeneutics, these discussions on the whole tend to limit themselves on how to go about hermeneutics; they generally confine themselves to discussing how to apply interpretational models, rather than looking at interpretation itself. Furthermore, those scholars who have taken up the task of addressing the more meta aspects of hermeneutics and interpretation have historically gone about this in one of two ways, two traditions which James K.A. Smith here refers to as ‘The Fall of Hermeneutics’ and ‘A Hermeneutics of Fallenness’.

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Respectively, these traditions view hermeneutics as either “a postlapsarian phenomenon, coming upon the scene after Eden… [and thus] an evil to be overcome” or else “an inescapable, violent state of affairs.” In his book The Fall of Interpretation, Smith seeks to analyze these two leading traditions, and then to offer an alternative, a so-called ‘Creational Hermeneutic’. In this Smith disagrees with the first tradition, in that he does not view hermeneutics as a result of the fall, but an aspect of the original creation; he therefore both agrees and disagrees with the second tradition, agreeing that interpretation is inescapable, but arguing that it is good rather than necessarily violent. Thus: “Interpretation, as I will argue, is creational; it is an inescapable state of affairs that accompanies the finitude of creaturehood and, since it is an aspect of creation, is ‘good'” (p.24).

The book is divided into three primary sections, each focusing on one of these approaches to hermeneutics. In discussing the view that hermeneutics is a result of the Fall, Smith engages with scholars Richard Lints and Rex Koivisto. This discussion is almost wholly negative; in refuting the views of Lints & co., Smith seeks to demonstrate not only that interpretation is original and not postlapsarian (and in turn, good), but he also seeks to demonstrate that the view presented by Lints (the view that interpretation can be overcome either in this life or the next) ultimately falls into the Platonic trap of seeking to raise mankind to the level of gods. It is thus argued that “if interpretation is a constitutive aspect of human experience and be-ing, then it is impossible to overcome (without our becoming gods); and further, the desire to escape the finitude of human existence itself marks the essence of the Fall, the quest to ‘be like God.’ The grasping of the forbidden fruit, rather than initiating the history of hermenuetics, was an attempt to overcome such mediation and to ‘know’ as God does, sans courier”(p.90). One of the more interesting ways Smith goes about arguing this is through his re-reading of the tower of Babel narrative, arguing that “The hermeneutical structure of creation is good; it produces goods: a plurality of interpretations and a diversity of readings. The sin of Babel was its quest for unity – one interpretation, one reading, one people – which was an abandonment of creational diversity and plurality in favor of exclusion and violence; and ‘the ravages of hatred have an ominous sameness'” (p.32).

While Smith is primarily antagonistic to the view exemplified by Lints, he is much more sympathetic towards that of Heidegger and Derrida. From these two thinkers – and his own reading of Genesis – Smith fortifies his argument as regards the inescapability of hermeneutics from a more epistemological perspective, and then argues for the fundamental goodness of interpretation (as opposed to the inherent violence posited by Heidegger and Derrida).

Finally Smith moves on toward his Creational Hermeneutic. Here Smith develops his argument through discussion of Augustine, through the human place in time & space (and thus our situationality and human be-ing), and the inherent risk of communication. The heart of this discussion may perhaps be best summarized in the Smith’s argument that: “[I]f interpretation is part of being human, then its analogue is a creational diversity: a multitude of ways to ‘read’ the world. This is not to give up the notion of truth, but it does abandon a certain understanding of truth; further, to say that everything is a matter of interpretation is not to abandon criteria, but it does require a reconsideration and reformulation of what those criteria will be”(p.168).

With this Smith proceeds into a discussion of this understanding of truth, and how it relates to the hermeneutical endeavor. Thus, Smith argues that “While the ubiquity of interpretation does require a rethinking of truth, it by no means signals the abandonment of truth; that is, to say that everything is interpretation is not to say that all is arbitrary. Or in other words, to emphasize that understanding is relative to one’s situationality is not to espouse a relativism… This doesn’t preclude identifying, and even privileging, certain interpretations as normative; it just means that any normative interpretation remains an interpretation not a pristine, objective delivery of ‘the way things are'” (p.175); and to continue: “…interpretation is not merely a subjective appropriation: it is a subjective construal of an objective reality… Interpretation is indeed the only game in town, but there are rules to the game – not rules concocted by a council and printed in a rule book but a rule as simple as this: you have to play on the field, staying within the boundaries. And it is the same field for all of us”(p.187).

A final summation may be given that “Given the phenomenological constraint of the world (what is interpreted) and the pneumatological criterion in the fundamental guidance of the Spirit as rooted in a primordial trust, a hermenteutical space is opened that invites our creation, that beckons us to heed the call and accept the gift and risk of human be-ing in its creatureliness, refusing both the metaphysical dream of immediacy and the differential narrative of violence”(p.197).

All in all, Smith argues well for the incapability of interpretation, and for the goodness of that fact; that it is not something that we should hope to escape from. In doing so he urges the reader on toward a somewhat different understanding of truth than what was triumphed by the Enlightenment, yet at the same time pushes back against the notion that this different understanding necessarily leads to relativism; rather, there are constraints on interpretation – it may not be possible to posit one authoritative interpretation, but it is possible to rule out bad interpretations.

Even if one disagrees with Smith’s conclusions, he does offer a lucid explanation of many terms which are often used but generally misunderstood by those who discuss postmodernism (to include ‘postmodernism’ itself) and also offers a clear explanation of the thought of Heidegger and Derrida. Finally, Smith offers much insight into the current epistemological and hermeneutical that presently exists within philosophy, and so this book is an excellent resource if for nothing else than becoming aware of the present philosophical climate from somebody who understands both sides of the issues.


Memorable Quotes:

“The secret life of the soul can never be fully present in language.”-146

“To be human is to interpret – to negotiate understanding between two or more finite entities.”-159

“Every act of reading or listening is an act of translation: a negotiation between two (or more) universes of discourse, two (or more) traditionalities, two (or more) ways of understanding the world.”-160

“Rather than indicating a historical epoch, postmodernism refers to a gestalt: grounded in a recognition of the historical and contextual determination of thought, postmodernity signals the collapse of any myth of either reason or religion as a universal guarantor of truth.”-177

“[N]ot every interpretation is a good interpretation.”-37

“Questioning – the heart and soul of suspicion – does not have the last word, precisely because it does not have the first word, because it is itself grounded in trusting a promise.”-193

“Only a hermeneutic that recognizes the creational nature of faith can truly recognize the all-the-way-downness of undecidability. Thus instead of undecitability’s making it impossible to choose between the two, it is precisely undecidabiliy that requires that we choose, in spite of the fact that our decision of faith is haunted by undecidability. Undecidability means we can’t put all of the data and options into a computer ad let it generate a decision; we do not have time to wait for the machine to tabulate all the data, nor could the machine ever be supplied with ‘all’ the data. But we must decide.”-173

Some other, more in-depth quotes:
“What I am suggesting is that we give up certain criterion for interpretation: namely that inasmuch as it is finite, it is a violation. Instead, and following Derrida, we might understand the ‘as-structure’ of interpretation as a structure of respect, as a way of doing justice to the other by recognizing that it exceeds our finite comprehension… Following from such a construal, interpretation is not a violation of purity but rather a way of connection, a way of being-with that is essential to be(com)ing human. Rather than being the first violence, to be named is to be loved, is to be part of a community.”-p.133

“[T]o deny that there is one normative interpretation is not to deny that there are interpretive norms. Every assertion or articulation of truth functions within very specific conditions of human finitude; that is, every truth claim is an interpretation, and it is conditioned by the situationality and traditionality of the interpreter, meaning that the interpreter cannot transcend space and time. Therefore, an interpretation cannot be ‘objective’ and legitimated in a universal or all-encompassing sense – the one, true interpretation. However, what is interpreted remains a norm for every interpretation; there is something or someone who stands before all of our interpretations and is binding upon every construal. This interpretive norm, which stands before (or even ‘outside of’) interpretation, constitutes the phenomenological criterion of every construal; there are universals that are binding upon interpretation. But these universals are better understood as empirical transcendantals than a priori transcendent criteria. By ’empirical transcendentals’ I simply mean worldly states of affairs – the world as given and experienced… As ‘outside’ of me, or transcendent, the tree is not ‘mine’ to be manipulated. As such it imposes upon me limits for its interpretations; bad interpretations will be precisely those construals that transgress those limits.”-p.181

“But the limits placed upon interpretation do not prescribe a single ‘correct’ interpretation but only preclude an infinite number of interpretations… Truth, then, is not something uncovered; it is instead the process of uncovering. Truth happens; it is itself the uncovering that discloses something to us, something of a world that is given. But it must also be recognized that it is the interpreter (Dasein) that does the uncovering; thus, in a radical sense, truth is ‘subjective.’ That is, it is dependent on the uncovering role of Dasein.”-182

“[In Derrida] At root, what is at stake are the conditions of possibility of communication, not the possibility of communication… but in fact Derrida’s claim is that language is posse non commincare, able not to communicate, but also able to communicate.”-206



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