[Buddha-l] Re: [exegesis vs hermeneutics [was: Karma and ethics [was: angels]

Christian Coseru christian.coseru at anu.edu.au
Sun May 29 03:27:32 MDT 2005

On 29 May 2005, at 2:58 AM, Richard P. Hayes wrote:
> The fact that Buddhist thinking continues has no bearing at all on the
> question of what it meant historically. Here it might be useful to be
> reminded of the distinction between exegesis and hermeneutics. The
> former is the study of what documents meant at the time they were
> written, the later is the discussion of what those documents can mean
> now. If one is striving to be historically accurate--if one is doing
> exegesis--then it is misleading to read into old texts what we would 
> now
> like them to mean.

I thought the strong distinction between exegesis and hermeneutics has 
been criticized long time ago by Gadamer.  If I understand him right, 
Gadamer argued that we cannot simply determine what a text meant when 
it was written because understanding a text and inferring the intention 
of its author is inextricably linked to the interpreter's own 
intentionality and self-understanding.

While Gadamer did not exclude the possibility that we can reconstruct 
the historical context and accurately represent the meaning of a text, 
to claim that this process of explanation and interpretation (exegesis 
covers both meanings) can in some way capture the actual intention of 
the original author is highly contentious.

It is true that the Buddhist tradition has evolved its own 
hermeneutics, concerned, not surprisingly, with distinguishing between 
the apparent and ultimate meaning of its burgeoning canonical 
literature. But this indigenous hermeneutics does not share the 
historicist bias of modern Western exegesis. This historicist bias has 
less to do with acknowledging the temporal distance between the 
original text and its modern exegesis and more with the claim of 
objectivity and authenticity that is peculiar to the exegetical 
enterprise as a whole. It is a strong claim and one that aims to turn 
the modern exegete into an authority outside the traditional channels 
of authoritative interpretation: the lineage holders of various 
Buddhist schools and traditions.

Besides, it is rather indulgent to claim that we can read fourth or 
fifth century Buddhist texts as they were read by those for whom these 
texts were written: fourth and fifth century Buddhists.

Christian Coseru

Christian Coseru
Centre for Asian Societies and Histories
Faculty of Asian Studies
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The Australian National University
Canberra ACT 0200 Australia

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