12 June 2015


‘Hermeneutics and Social Identity' by Georgia Warnke

 in (2014) 45(4) New Literary History 575-594 comments
During at least the last four decades, the relationship between hermeneutics and politics has received a significant amount of attention.  Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer, and others look to the understanding of meanings that hermeneutics explores and, specifically, to the understanding of the meanings that social goods, cultural activities, and past histories have for those who share them. The questions they ask concern how we are to understand our political traditions, their contents, and ourselves, and what consequences follow these understandings. Thus Taylor examines the large structures of thought that orient secularism in the West. Among other projects, Walzer looks to the different meanings different goods hold for different communities and argues that the answer to the question of how to distribute those goods must follow from those meanings.   
Yet while theorists such as Walzer and Taylor have explored the relation between hermeneutics and political theory, few have explored that between hermeneutics and social identity.  I want to try to contribute to this exploration here. The relation seems intuitively clear: social identities such as race and gender are interpretations or ways of understanding who we and others are. Hence, identities should be subject to the conditions of understanding that hermeneutics studies. At the same time, the argument I will make may seem counterintuitive. In examining the conditions of understanding, many hermeneutic theorists emphasize the openness those conditions establish or, in other words, the extent to which no interpretation of meaning can ever be definitive. However, I shall place equal emphasis on the ways in which interpretations, including our interpretations of one another, can fail. Specifically, I want to argue that understandings of who we are are not always legible in the terms race, gender, or other social identities provide. 
Because hermeneutics has its original home in the understanding of texts, I begin by looking at the way we understand the identities of characters in novels. I then ask how the results of this study can help us think about social identities and particularly about the discrimination and marginalization certain individuals and groups suffer on the basis of their social identities. Finally, I turn to an account of social identity that is currently prominent in feminist theory: namely, intersectional theory. Intersectional theory stresses the extent to which social identities such as race and gender interlock—we are never simply women but always white women or women of color, for example—and how these intersections subject certain individuals and groups to additional forms of discrimination and marginalization. Nevertheless, I shall claim that the hermeneutic conditions that apply to social identities suggest the need to disentangle our various identities, and that doing so is important to efforts to combat the discrimination and marginalization with which intersectional theorists are concerned.