Black Elk:

You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. In the old days when we were a strong and happy people, all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation, and so long as the hoop was unbroken, the people flourished. The flowering tree was the living center of the hoop, and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The east gave peace and light, the south gave warmth, the west gave rain, and the north with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance. This knowledge came to us from the outer world with our religion. Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our tepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children.



We recall the hermeneutical rule that we must understand the whole in terms of the detail and the detail in terms of the whole. This principle stems from ancient rhetoric, and modern hermeneutics has transferred it to the art of understanding. It is a circular relationship in both cases. The anticipation of meaning in which the whole is envisaged becomes actual understanding when the parts that are determined by the whole themselves also determine this whole.

Nineteenth-century hermeneutic theory often discussed the circular structure of understanding, but always within the framework of a formal relation between part and whole — or its subjective reflex, the intuitive anticipation of the whole and its subsequent articulation in the parts. According to this theory, the circular movement of understanding runs backward and forward along the text, and ceases when the text is perfectly understood. This view of understanding came to its logical culmination in Schleiermacher’s theory of the divinatory act, by means of which one places oneself entirely within the writer’s mind and from there resolves all that is strange and alien about the text. In contrast to this approach, Heidegger describes the circle in such a way that the understanding of the text remains permanently determined by the anticipatory movement of foreunderstanding.

The circle of whole and part is not dissolved in perfect understanding but, on the contrary, is most fully realized. The circle, then, is not formal in nature. It is neither subjective nor objective, but describes understanding as the interplay of the movement of tradition and the movement of the interpreter. The anticipation of meaning that governs our understanding of a text is not an act of subjectivity, but proceeds from the commonality that binds us to the tradition. But this commonality is constantly being formed in our relation to tradition. Tradition is not simply a permanent precondition; rather, we produce it ourselves inasmuch as we understand, participate in the evolution of tradition, and hence further determine it ourselves. Thus the circle of understanding is not a “methodological” circle, but describes an element of the ontological structure of understanding.

The circle, which is fundamental to all understanding, has a further hermeneutic implication which I call the “fore-conception of completeness.” But this, too, is obviously a formal condition of all understanding. It states that only what really constitutes a unity of meaning is intelligible. So when we read a text we always assume its completeness, and only when this assumption proves mistaken — i.e., the text is not intelligible — do we begin to suspect the text and try to discover how it can be remedied. The rules of such textual criticism can be left aside, for the important thing to note is that applying them properly depends on understanding the content.

The fore-conception of completeness that guides all our understanding is, then, always determined by the specific content. Not only does the reader assume an immanent unity of meaning, but his understanding is likewise guided by the constant transcendent expectations of meaning that proceed from the relation to the truth of what is being said. Just as the recipient of a letter understands the news that it contains and first sees things with the eyes of the person who wrote the letter — i.e., considers what he writes as true, and is not trying to understand the writer’s peculiar opinions as such — so also do we understand traditionary texts on the basis of expectations of meaning drawn from our own prior relation to the subject matter. And just as we believe the news reported by a correspondent because he was present or is better informed, so too are we fundamentally open to the possibility that the writer of a transmitted text is better informed than we are, with our prior opinion. It is only when the attempt to accept what is said as true fails that we try to “understand” the text, psychologically or historically, as another’s opinion. The prejudice of completeness, then, implies not only this formal element — that a text should completely express its meaning — but also that what it says should be the complete truth.

Here again we see that understanding means, primarily, to understand the content of what is said, and only secondarily to isolate and understand another’s meaning as such. Hence the most basic of all hermeneutic preconditions remains one’s own fore-understanding, which comes from being concerned with the same subject. This is what determines what can be realized as unified meaning and thus determines how the foreconception of completeness is applied.

Thus the meaning of “belonging” — i.e., the element of tradition in our historical-hermeneutical activity — is fulfilled in the commonality of fundamental, enabling prejudices. Hermeneutics must start from the position that a person seeking to understand something has a bond to the subject matter that comes into language through the traditionary text and has, or acquires, a connection with the tradition from which the text speaks. On the other hand, hermeneutical consciousness is aware that its bond to this subject matter does not consist in some self-evident, unquestioned unanimity, as is the case with the unbroken stream of tradition. Hermeneutic work is based on a polarity of familiarity and strangeness; but this polarity is not to be regarded psychologically, with Schleiermacher, as the range that covers the mystery of individuality, but truly hermeneutically — i.e., in regard to what has been said: the language in which the text addresses us, the story that it tells us. Here too there is a tension. It is in the play between the traditionary text’s strangeness and familiarity to us, between being a historically intended, distanced object and belonging to a tradition. The true locus of hermeneutics is this in-between.


Try this out: What if the formerly-much-jabbered-about (* see note)  “Post-Modern Condition” is essentially the widespread breakdown of any “fore-conception of completeness” possessed at any level by our society. Because of our passive stance toward meaning (that it is to be discovered, not made, as if these two constitute some kind of absolute dichotomy!) since there’s no truth to be discovered, we resign ourselves to utter intellectual and practical fragmentation.

My view: the point of understanding is not to form an adequate picture of the “truth out there.” The purpose of understanding — of synesis, that twofold together — is to, by way of coming to (authentic) agreement on what is “out there” we create meaningful social solidarity: culture.

We seek truth for the sake of truth, in the same way we have sex to have sex. Babies are the side-effect of our intentions and the hidden telos.

Truth is social, and for precisely that reason, we must take truth seriously, which means to be rigorously non-reductive. By that I mean we cannot continue to identify truth with “objectivity”. It’s killing us.


For your listening enjoyment: “Circles” by the Who and by Camper Van Beethoven.


* Note: If we’ve stopped talking about postmodern fragmentation and disorientation it’s for the same reason we’ve stopped talking about modernist themes of alienation, nihilism, loss of faith — we no longer have any sense that a non-alienated, non-nihilistic, faithful might be possible, let alone preferable. We’ve never experienced having to contrast with not-having, so not-having is indistinguishable from reality itself.

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