Stanley Rosen, Hermeneutics as Politics, Second Edition, With a Foreword by Robert B. Pippin, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2003


Review by Costică Brădăţan


The first edition of Stanley Rosen's Hermeneutics as Politics appeared in 1987 from Oxford University Press and, soon after that, established itself as a distinct voice in the -- already at that time -- hot debate over post-modernism. The second edition of the book has just come out from Yale University Press, with an enthusiastic Foreword by Robert B. Pippin. As Pippin rightly notices, Hermeneutics as Politics -- setting aside any other purposes -- also serves as a "fine introduction to the philosophical world of Stanley Rosen" (vii). In agreement with Pippin's remark, this short review is not so much a presentation of Rosen's book (no presentation, however faithful or detailed, would succeed in conveying the sense of "richness" one gets on actually reading this book), as an attempt to say a few things about the specific "flavor" of Rosen's "philosophical world," as it reveals itself in Hermeneutics as Politics.

The book is a collection of five studies unified by two "closely related themes":

First: the cluster of contemporary movements which we are now accustomed to call "postmodernist," although they understand themselves as an attack on the eighteenth century Enlightenment, are in fact a continuation of that Enlightenment. Second: hermeneutics, the characteristic obsession of postmodernism, has an intrinsically political nature, which, especially in the United States, is rapidly being concealed by an encrustation of scholasticism and technophilia." (p. 3)

The first chapter ("Transcendental Ambiguity: The Rhetoric of the Enlightenment") is mainly a discussion of Kant's complex (and often ambiguous) role in the formation of our image about the Enlightenment. The second chapter ("Platonic Reconstruction") offers a critical -- and, I would add, supremely ironical and humorous -- reading of Derrida's reading of Plato. Then, the third chapter ("Hermeneutics as Politics") is a comparative study of Alexander Kojève and Leo Strauss. The forth chapter ("Theory and Interpretation") is a historical study into the complex relationship between hermeneia and theoria. Finally, the fifth chapter ("Conversation and Tragedy") is a (very) critical discussion of Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and of some of Michel Foucault's ideas about power and truth.


An invaluable key to understanding properly Rosen's approach is to be found, I suggest, in the following note he drops somewhere towards the end of the book: "My own 'deconstructions' of some contemporary doctrines have been undertaken not as part of a return to the past but in the service of philosophia perennis." (p. 181) To be "in the service" of a perennial tradition of wisdom is to understand one's own philosophical enterprise simply as a link within a long "golden chain" of great thinkers and systems of thought, a chain connecting one's individual thinking to the most remote beginnings, that is, to a set of archetypal truths and immemorial meanings, of which one has to be a faithful pursuer. What does it all begin with? With the gods, of course.  Seen in this light, Rosen's mysterious remark in the Introduction certainly makes more sense: "We do not wish to achieve notoriety among humans at the expense of being excluded from the company of the gods." (p. 18) In other words, philosophy should not be about (insignificant) things of our time, because we live in corrupted epochs: the true role of philosophizing is -- by a proper understanding of the tradition -- to get us connected to the ultimate roots of wisdom, as closer to the gods as possible. Surely, such a way of thinking is not a very common one in today's philosophical literature, but who says that Stanley Rosen is a common philosopher?

            As one who has access to the ultimate truths, the philosopher's task is certainly a tremendously important one. Among other responsibilities, the philosopher has to know not only what to say to the others (i.e., to the non-philosophers), but especially what not to say: "In order to save philosophy, one must remind the potential philosopher of its fearless and divinely mad nature, but one must also guard against 'maddening' the general populace, and in particular the 'intellectuals,' by encouraging them to believe that they are themselves divinely mad." (p. 137)

To put it differently, being a philosopher is vivere periculosamente to the highest degree. Thanks to his special relationship with the gods, the philosopher has to "translate" their commands into the recognizable language of a community or other. As such, philosophy is, properly speaking, the "divinely mad" art of putting the celestial into those forms that can be reasonably grasped by the common understanding of the non-philosophers. Moreover, in so doing, the philosopher's work inevitably acquires a political dimension:

divine commands either found or dissolve communities. The interpretation of a divine command is necessarily a political act. This link between hermeneutics and politics can be broken only by anarchy or silence, in which case the recipients of divine revelations are transformed form citizens into hermits, wondering in their respective private deserts, and so at the mercy of the adjacent political authorities. (p. 88)

As a consequence, one of the central notions in Rosen's book is that of the profoundly political character of philosophy. The whole Chapter Three is specifically about that, but -- in some form or other -- this notion is present virtually everywhere in Hermeneutics as Politics.  I do believe that one of the major merits of Rosen's book lies precisely in having developed this notion, and that some of its most interesting pages are those dedicated to the (Hegeliano-Kojèvian) idea of the homogeneous "world-state".

The view of a "golden chain" subtly pointing (and connecting us) to the ultimate roots of wisdom results in the complementary notion that history is necessarily a process of corruption and decay. As it were, the good things are always at the beginning. There is nothing good to be expected from the present, not to say anything about the future. As such, one of the recurrent themes of Rosen's book is that of decadence. Very much in agreement with Nietzsche (with whom, I think, he has profound affinities), Rosen traces the manifold presence of decadence in our current ways of thinking:  

The popularity of hermeneutics in our own time is …a sign not of our greater understanding but of the fact that we have lost our way… What we call freedom today is all too frequently the result of a failure to think through the corruption of finitude by history. This is why I called postmodernism an extreme form of decadence. As so decadent, we lack the self-confidence of Kant, which has been dissipated after the last great effort by Hegel into positivism on the one hand and existential ontology on the other. (p. 139)

The anatomy of decadence can be easily carried out in various fields of our social, intellectual and emotional life. This is, for example, how decadence works in the field of writing: "Writing becomes initially more exquisite, and the increased subtlety of language stimulates a corresponding increase in the subtlety of reading. By a gradual process of what looks like an increase in sophistication but is in fact a narrowing of range and loss of creative impetus, writing becomes more and more like reading: art deteriorates into criticism." (p. 143-4)

A characteristic form of manifestation of decadence is, for Rosen, through hermeneutics. Art deteriorating into criticism actually means "the advent of hermeneutics" (p. 144). In the chapter titled "Theory and Interpretation," Rosen describes with extreme acuity how it has become increasingly more difficult to distinguish between theory and interpretation, to the extent that, finally, there is no difference left between the two ("Amidst the plethora of hermeneutical theories, what it means to be a theory is a matter of interpretation." [p. 160]). With magisterial and compelling stylistic force, Rosen depicts the process through which hermeneutics has turned from a theological discipline into a terrestrial and prosaic one, to the point of becoming a modern form of sophistry, incessantly offering explanations about everything and nothing:

The initial purpose of hermeneutics was to explain the word of God. This purpose was eventually expended into the attempt to regulate the process of explaining the word of man. In the nineteenth century we learned, first from Hegel and then more effectually from Nietzsche, that God is dead. In the twentieth century, Kojève and his students, like Foucault, have informed us that man is dead… As the scope of hermeneutics has expanded, then, the two original sources of hermeneutical meaning, God and man, have vanished, taking with them the cosmos or world and leaving us with nothing but our own garrulity, which we choose to call the philosophy of language, linguistic philosophy, or one of their synonyms. If nothing is real, the real is nothing; there is no difference between the written lines of a text and the blank spaces between them. (p. 161)

I am not saying that Rosen is "right." At any rate, it would take much more than a book review to prove that he is "wrong." What I am observing, instead, is that he is one of the most interesting philosophers living today, and -- certainly -- one of the last embodiments of a long and fruitful tradition of Platonic thinking, according to which the good things occurred sometime "in the beginning," closer to the gods, and that, if we are to do something meaningful with our lives, we have to look for them in the right place.


Although Stanley Rosen refuses any methodological commitment, arguing constantly (and "methodically," I was about to say) against the "obsession with method" (p. 145), he nevertheless has a "method" to which he resorts again and again in his book: his method is irony. There is a sense of supreme, compelling and overwhelming irony in Hermeneutics as Politics. Irony is, I would say, the driving force behind Rosen's approach, and certainly it is what gives this book one of its unmistakable flavors. In a definitely Platonic spirit, Rosen puts irony at the very heart of his philosophical enterprise: being ironical is a matter of sanity of the philosophical discourse, and the capacity of ironical thinking is a sign that one is on the right track. Nothing escapes the ironist's merciless gaze -- as it were, through his eyes one can see things as they really are, and have instant access to their actual worth. For example, in this book one can come across devastating passages like this one: "Derrida, who apparently identifies the self with the modern doctrine of subjectivity, which he believes himself to have deconstructed, has on his account, no self. As a consequence, he has no knowledge." (p. 56) Or: "If the world is a text written by difference, it is a tale by an idiot, a nonsubjective subjectivity or idiot savant, hence a tale full of sound and furry, signifying nothing." (p. 66) In a similar vein, Rosen suggests that post-modernism -- for all its outstanding merits -- has a major defect, namely, its very existence: "despite my criticism of postmodernist thinkers, I feel the force of their enterprise, and recognize the sense in which I am one of them. I ask them only to grant me that the distinction between postmodernism and modernism is absurd." (p. 17) He talks about "the subtle fantasies of contemporary philosophers of modal logic" (p. 130), the "seriously playing theologians" (p. 17), and about Plato being "entirely too evasive for Derrida's net." (p. 61) He notices that "what looks like subtlety on Derrida's part is in fact a misunderstanding" (p. 85), and makes innocent comments like this one: "Despite his [Derrida's] often extraordinary eye for the significant detail, not to mention his exorbitant taste for the superfluous complexity…" (p. 57) Above all, the author of Hermeneutics as Politics proves to be a world-class polemicist and a philosopher who has not only the gift of style (which is not a small thing in an age that praises unintelligibility and empty formalism alike as good philosophical writing), but also the courage to defend what is -- by most current standards -- undefendable: "Philological sobriety is a very admirable quality, but it pales into historical insignificance in the face of philosophical madness, and by this last expression, I mean, of course, genuinely philosophical madness, not the idiosyncrasies of café intellectuals." (p. 94)

Stanley Rosen's style is witty without being affecté, and concise in the good tradition of the French moralists: "Despite his lectures at the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes, Kojève was not a professor. It is not easy to say exactly what he was, although he preferred the term 'god.'" (p. 92). To conclude, Rosen's stylistic mastery allows him to drop -- en passant, as it were -- brief remarks (like the following one) that are able to faithfully capture the essence, as well as the functioning rules, of our whole way of (academic) life: "[Leo] Strauss was an extraordinary scholar who knew so much more than his colleagues that they regarded him as incompetent." (p. 108)

this text was published in Metapsychology                                


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