At first glance, rhetoric and hermeneutics are quite different things.1 Rhetoric deals with argument and persuasion, hermeneutics with examination and understanding. But, if we look more closely, they comingle in a way that makes them inseparable.
To begin, both rhetorical and hermeneutical reflection take the form of considering existing practice (21).2 Already in the earliest surviving rhetorical theory from Plato and Aristotle, the theoretical discussion takes the form of reflection on rhetorical practice (21–22). Similarly, the Sophists and Socrates both manifest a concern for an “art of understanding,” even if this is not a full-fledged hermeneutical theory in its own right (22).
In addition, “the theoretical tools of the art of interpretation (hermeneutics) have been to a large extent borrowed from rhetoric” (24). Characteristically, rhetoric “defends the probable” and refuses to admit for acceptance only what can be fully proven empirically (24). And such too is the nature of interpretation.
Rhetoric is everywhere and even directs empiricism, as when science finds in “usefulness” a reason for taking up a particular line of research (24).3 And “no less universal is the function of hermeneutics” because “everything … is included in the realm of ‘understandings’ and understandability in which we move” (24–25).
In this way,
the rhetorical and hermeneutical aspects of human linguisticality completely interpenetrate each other. There would be no speaker and no art of speaking if understanding and consent were not in question, were not underlying elements; there would be no hermeneutical task if there were no understanding that has been disturbed and that those involved in a conversation must search for and find again together. (25)
Understanding comes about by dialog, even if it is only a dialog among oneself, a text, and the tradition that mediates between these two. Even here, as we seek to move past disruptions in this dialog and explain well what we observe, we expose a fundamentally rhetorical character of that dialog.
Page numbers by themselves indicate citations from H.-G. Gadamer, “On the Scope and Function of Hermeneutical Reflection,” in Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. and ed. David E. Linge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 18–43. ↩
In the introduction to the second edition of Cornelius Van Til’s Christian Apologetics, Bill Edgar helpfully summarizes Van Til’s perspective on “brute facts”:
For Van Til . . . there could never be isolated self-evident arguments or brute facts, because everything comes in a framework. That is why he calls his approach the “indirect method.” One cannot go directly to the facts, as though they were self-evident. First, one must recognize the foundation and go on from there. . . . This is resolutely not a denial of the use of evidences. Everything proclaims God’s truth. Only there are no brute facts, or data in a vacuum. (5, 8; emphasis original)
From this perspective, Van Til comments:
It is these notions [of brute fact in metaphysics and the autonomy of the human mind in epistemology] that determine the construction that the natural man puts upon everything that is presented to him. They are the colored glasses through which he sees all the facts. . . . (193)
The method of reasoning by presupposition may be said to be direct rather than indirect. The issue between believers and non-believers in Christian theism cannot be settled by a direct appeal to “facts” or “laws” whose nature and significance is already agreed upon by both parties to [the] debate. The question is rather as to what is the final reference point required to make the “facts” and “laws” intelligible. The question s as to what the “facts” and “laws” really are. (129)
Of course, for Van Til,
There is one system of reality of which all that exists forms a part. And any individual fact of this system is what it is primarily because of its relation to this system. It is therefore a contradiction to speak in terms of presenting certain facts to men unless one presents them as parts of this system. The very factness of any individual fact of history is precisely what it is because God is what he is. It is God’s counsel that is the principle of individuation for the Christian man. God makes the facts to be what they are. (193–94)
In some ways, Van Til’s perspective much resembles Thomas Kuhn’s arguments about the natural sciences. Yet, one major difference is that, where Kuhn has ever-mutable paradigms, Van Til has, on the Christian’s side of things, a perception of ever-knowing, reality-constituting mind of God.
Seen according to the new paradigm, the old one appears mistaken (Kuhn, Scientific Revolutions 115; cf. Thiselton 712), for the community’s new paradigm directs the community to interpret observations differently than it had done before (Hung 8–9, 63; Kuhn, Scientific Revolutions 206). Thus, in very close parallel to the classic gestalt switch, scientists who resolve a crisis by changing their paradigmatic allegiances come to view the same data from a different perspective and have, therefore, a different explanatory context for that data (Kuhn, Scientific Revolutions 84–85). In this way, the scientists who experience this switch reconceptualize their fields, objects of inquiry, and validation standards so radically that, for them, the hermeneutical world that they inhabit after the paradigm shift fundamentally differs from the one that they had previously inhabited (Kuhn, Scientific Revolutions 102–103, 109, 111–12, 118, 128–29; see also Grandy).1
Three routes exist for crisis resolution within a normal scientific community. First, the community may forestall the crisis by proposing an adjustment to the received paradigm, provided that this adjustment is plausible enough to decrease the severity of the paradigm’s perceived inadequacies. Second, the community may, after repeated failures to explain the crisis-inducing problem(s) satisfactorily, defer this problem(s) indefinitely to future, scientific research. In both these cases, the crisis finds its resolution, however tenuously, in fresh reaffirmation of the received paradigm (Kuhn 84–85).
Yet, most radically, the community may adopt a third response in which they allow the crisis to create “extraordinary science,” which exhibits “a willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent [with the received paradigm], [and the] recourse to philosophy and . . . debate over fundamentals” (Kuhn 91). Extraordinary science’s openness to abandon old paradigms provides an occasion for “scientific revolutions,” or major changes in these reigning paradigms (Kuhn 34, 90). Still, beyond the simple occasions for revolutions that extraordinary science provides, for revolutions to occur, viable alternatives must exist for whatever paradigm may potentially be rejected. For, only in these alternative paradigms are extraordinary science’s occasions for revolution met with positive invitations to changes of paradigmatic allegiance (Kuhn 76–77; cf. Carson 88).
Normal scientific endeavor can suggest beneficial refinements to a given paradigm, but because the paradigm defines normal science itself, the paradigm’s essential components stand beyond normal science’s refining the influence (Kuhn 46–47, 66, 73, 128–29). In other words, although normal science may suggest refinements of the reigning paradigm that account for the observed difficulties, these refinements, by definition, can only be ad hoc accretions rather than systemic revisions (Kuhn 68–71, 75, 78, 86–87; cf. Hung 78–79).
To provoke a change in a paradigm under which normal science operates, a crisis that demonstrates a “pronounced failure” of the previously accepted paradigm is required (Kuhn 67, 74–75, 77, 92, 97–98; cf. Thiselton 711). A crisis usually follows persistent failure to resolve sufficiently problematic difficulties that a current paradigm raises on that paradigm’s own terms (Kuhn 67–68; cf. Ricoeur 271). Alternatively, when a body of ad hoc problem solutions becomes too substantial to ignore, a crisis still occurs, and this crisis may symptomatically produce several different articulations of the current paradigm that struggle to salvage the paradigm in the context of the necessary body of qualifications (Kuhn 70–71, 83–84).
Therefore, difficulties with a given paradigm by themselves do not necessarily induce a crisis; rather, to induce a crisis these difficulties must be perceived as assaulting the paradigm’s essential components or as having too great a practical significance to ignore (Kuhn 81–82; cf. Hung 16–18).1 Although a new paradigm may be foreshadowed in normal scientific work performed under an old paradigm, this foreshadowing may well be ignored in the absence of a crisis that provides scientists with sufficient motivation to reject the old system and adopt a new one (Kuhn 75, 86).
1 Kuhn also suggests that additional, normal scientific research may aggravate previously small problems until they become too problematic to resolve, but this manner in which difficulties with a paradigm may cause a crisis appears to have its crisis-causing effect because it constitutes a subset of one of these other two categories (Kuhn 81).
While normal science does not necessarily require a full set of rules to function (Kuhn 44), normal scientific investigation can continue without rules “only so long as the relevant scientific community accepts without question the particular problem-solutions already achieved. Rules . . . therefore become important and the characteristic unconcern about them . . . vanish[es] whenever paradigms or models are felt to be insecure” (Kuhn 47). Debates about rules frequently occur in the pre-paradigm period, but they also typically recur when reigning paradigms come under attack from suggested inadequacies and proposed changes (Kuhn 47–48). When a paradigm reigns unchallenged, however, the scientific community that it constitutes need not attempt to rationalize the paradigm (Kuhn 49). Moreover, any apparent difficulties with the paradigm that cannot be resolved are typically held to result from the inadequacy of the research conducted rather than the inadequacy of the paradigm that suggests the difficulties (Kuhn 80).