[Buddha-l] Re: exegesis vs hermeneutics

Richard Hayes rhayes at unm.edu
Tue May 31 16:09:31 MDT 2005

Christian Coseru says: "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."

It could be said to be indulgent to try to run 100 meters 
in zero seconds, but if you think about it, that's what 
everyone who runs a race is trying to do. Everyone fails, 
of course, but whoever comes closest to the impossible 
goal is the winner of the race.

Similarly, it goes without saying that it is impossible to 
read a text exactly as it was understood by its author. 
This is, nevertheless, the idea of a translator. Of course 
a translator fails, but that does not mean that no one 
should try his or her best to come as close humanly 
possible to understand a text as its author meant it to be 
understood. It takes, as you well know, a lot of very 
difficult work, and the rewards of doing a good job are 
mostly intangible. The main reward is probably the 
enjoyment of doing something challenging.

Having said that, I think we can say that some 
translations are objectively better than others, 
demonstrably more accurate and palpably less imperfect. No 
one ever meets the ideal of a translation, which is to 
recreate exactly the meaning of the original author, but 
some scholars fails more dramatically than others. The 
goal of any exegete is to fail somewhat less dramatically 
than others have done.

It may astonish you and Herr Hoogscarpel that I can still 
say such seemingly naive things even after reading 
Sophisticated Germans like Gadamer and Nietzsche. If so, 
enjoy your astonishment to your heart's content. For 
myself, my joy comes in doing exegesis as well as my 
limitations make possible and then turning to a bit of 
hermeneutics for sport. If anyone else benefits from what 
I do, fine. If not, tant pis.

Richard Hayes
Department of Philosophy
University of New Mexico

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