HERMENEUTICAL REFLECTION AS A PHILOSOPHICAL METHOD
author: Hristo Todorov.
title: Work on Concepts.
Sofia: New Bulgarian University, 2011, 267 pp.
Work on Concepts covers a significant period of scientific work (the thirteen articles that make up this book were written from 1996 to 2010; one of them, ‘Work on Concepts’, is published here for the first time). In this book Hristo Todorov addresses a wide range of issues related to the central thematic motif: elucidating the uses of concepts in politics, science, and philosophy. The book is clearly structured, presenting the articles not in chronological but in thematic order (moving consecutively from issues of conceptual history to problems from the field of analytic philosophy).
Such structuring – which, by the way, makes consecutive reading the most appropriate approach to the book – helps trace the creative trajectory in which the two above-mentioned methodological traditions are invited to share a common horizon. This last, I believe – while taking the liberty of noting the existence of a closer connection than the declared by the author ‘thematic unity’ of the collected articles – is one of the important messages of the book as it provides a key to overcoming the emblematic of twentieth-century philosophy conflict between the ‘continental’ and ‘analytic’ traditions of thinking. Such a division had better be abandoned if we want to keep an open mind in our effort to understand the complex and ambiguous intertwinement of conceptual uses and the live fabric of experience. Hristo Todorov aspires precisely towards such a comprehensive reflexive understanding when he defines his work as hermeneutic philosophy whose central task is ‘by understanding, to make understanding its major concern’ (p. 8). It is not enough to say that this type of reflection is relevant today when, ‘having been sobered by the numerous waves of critique – of metaphysics, of knowledge, of the subject, of language … philosophy can be practised only with an alert consciousness of its own historicity.’ To my mind, another important merit of the book is that it offers a solution to the question of how to orient ourselves in the boundless realm of this historicity. Since the position from which this solution is proposed cannot, by definition, be presented in the static form of a fundamental theory, neither can the proposed attitude towards the concepts we use and mostly rely on in philosophical work be such. That is why I would say that the methodological postulate followed in this book is the requirement regarding incessant reflection through constant contextualization and revision of the use of concepts as a condition for their theoretical adequacy and functionality.
The reader will find such an understanding in the separate chapters of the book realized, on the one hand, in a methodical investigation of the historicity of reflection on concepts (four of the chapters are united by this theme, while the chapter titled ‘Who Reworks the Past, When, and How’ offers an insightful analysis of the approaches in reflection on Bulgarian history in the period of the country’s ‘transition’ to democracy after 1989). On the other hand, this understanding is realized through an analysis of particular concepts that are of key importance in elucidating the historical and political fabric of the contemporary world. Such concepts are globalization, secularization, tolerance and recognition, authority, political promise, event and action. The last two themes, together with that of weakness of will, end the book, bringing to the fore another main aspect of the hermeneutical approach followed by Hristo Todorov, where hermeneutical interpretation involves ‘placing language at the centre of philosophical reflection … in elucidating the situational and contextual nature of meanings’ in late analytic philosophy. Thus, the historical contextualization of concepts in the first four chapters is related primarily to the theories of Ritter, Koselleck, Dilthey, and Gadamer. It is followed by four essays on key historical and political concepts, while the study in the last three chapters refers above all to the work of the later Wittgenstein, building also on Austin, Strawson, Searle, and Tugendhat, among others.
The above-mentioned two aspects of hermeneutical work concentrated on language and language use outline a web of considerations in the reflection on concepts and necessitate a radical revision of the claim to the universal explanatory power of the theoretical instruments of philosophy. Such, for example, is the consideration that concepts – and especially social-historical concepts – do not give us sovereign power over events, they are merely our answer to the events we find ourselves involved in (p. 88). Those concepts are, furthermore, deprived of the possibility to describe social-historical processes independently from the temporal horizon of the attitudes and expectations of the actors, and they therefore cannot claim to be fully cognitive in nature; and to the extent that they become separated from the real processes to which they owe their emergence, they lose their transparency.
In opposition to the instrumentalization of concepts, Hristo Todorov defends the thesis that the hermeneutical potential in doing conceptual history is to be found beyond the conflict – which accompanies the use of concepts and leads to deficit of language (p. 92) – between the concreteness of concepts that is determined by reflection on their historical origin and the requirement regarding applicability to other contexts and events. This potential consists in keeping alert the consciousness of the historical determination of our own interpretations, in the creation of conditions for communicability of historical experience, and in recognition of our personal responsibility which is invariably connected with our freedom to interpret the world we live in (p. 96).
A more different approach is required by the understanding of the actual use of concepts in everyday life, in the moral and political spheres, and in philosophical reflections. Here the challenge to reflection on concepts comes less from their historical changeability and impenetrability than from semantic unclarity and its consequences: such as, for example, destruction of the conditions for dialogue, avoidance of public responsibility, and failure to analyze evident phenomena of everyday life. In such focusing, we observe – despite the postulate, valid for the whole book, that ‘concepts have a history’ (p. 10) – an association of understanding not with historical events but with action. Here a new stake is added to understanding: clarity as to the personal and public responsibility assumed through our commitment to a given opinion or action. Together with this stake, the clear limits of the concepts we use become crucial.
This last consideration is, in my opinion, an important challenge to Hristo Todorov’s hermeneutical approach. Firstly, because it is not easy to connect the delineation of clear limits with the idea that ‘it is impossible to indicate an established “correct” use’ (p. 38). Secondly, here the basic assumption that all concepts have a history cannot be unconditionally applied to notions that are inseparably connected with the analysis of action, such as free choice, responsibility, decision, or grounds. If our understanding of them is posited as being unconditionally dependent upon the hermeneutical reflection on their use, then this would weaken their normative role. If, on the other hand, they are viewed beyond the assumption of the historicity of concepts, then this calls into question the significance of this assumption for their understanding and its universal applicability (whereby the requirement regarding a different elucidation of those concepts also becomes pertinent).
On the whole, this dilemma is resolved by accepting that the moral universality of definite social-historical concepts is a fact facing philosophical reflection. Such, for example, are the ‘postulates’ regarding the human dignity and free self-realization of the individual which, despite the consciousness of their contextual emergence in the modern era and in western civilization, have become ‘the supreme moral regulator’ of this era (p. 105). Accepting such a distinction in the web of concepts is undoubtedly an important signpost in understanding the world we live in. But it also has another consequence. In the chapter devoted to tolerance and recognition, this last becomes visible through the attitude towards the basic institutions of the contemporary liberal state where doubt as to the normative potential of the recognition concept comes above all from its inability to be universalized (p. 195). This position is taken on the basis of a presumption – namely, that what cannot be represented as being subject to universalization does not require anything more than being tolerated. Such a presumption detaches the process of contingent social interaction from the universal political values and the institutions founded upon them, thereby failing to take into account the circumstance that the claims to recognition ultimately aim not at changes related to legal institutions but at transformation into the normatively valid understandings in society dictated by the dominant social groups.
Another question related to the hermeneutical approach is raised by the elucidation of the weakness of will concept. It seems to me that in the last chapter of the book the problem facing reflection points beyond the two hermeneutical approaches to concepts. This reflection is not hermeneutical in the narrow historicizing sense – for the understandings of the reviewed thinkers (mainly Plato, Aristotle, and Davidson), including that of the author, are precisely transparent vis-à-vis one another; nor is it hermeneutical in the analytic sense for the difficulty in elucidating the concept does not come from the question of its uses but – as the author himself notes – from the need for the phenomenon itself ‘to be grasped in concepts’ (p. 249). The distinction between ‘phenomenon’ and ‘concept’ that is implicit in this quote manifests, in my opinion, the principled difficulty that follows from an approach which identifies the meaning with the use of concepts: when, as a result of such an approach, we dispense with the question of ‘the phenomenon itself’ in defining the meaning, reflexive ‘production’ of the phenomenon becomes admissible. This applies at least to everyday concepts such as the above one where, in the process of reflection, it seems we can assume that a given phenomenon exists based solely on the existence and use of the relevant phrase in everyday life. But this constitutes a separate problem in elucidating concepts and it is not among the explicit tasks the authors sets himself in this book. That is why from this point on I will leave it to the reader to further explore Work on Concepts which, with its insightful analyses and brilliant argumentation, offers original solutions to a series of topical philosophical questions while at the same time countering our inclination to look for the correctness of concepts in their complete form.
- Hristo Gyoshev
- Hristo Todorov – Work on Concepts