In Conversation With
By Josh Herring
Interpreting old texts lies at the heart of classical education. Can a form of "play" help us to do so better?
At Thales Academy, students use the phrase “bouncing off the last comment” to introduce a new thought during a Socratic seminar. In a similar vein, I want to bounce off an excellent essay written by Travis Copeland, entitled “Classical Education as Play.” Copeland considers “play” in the sense that a musician plays an instrument: “the freedom of the music is shaped by years of often-tedious practice, as well as by the intrinsic boundaries of note and method. It is thus that classical education is play, shaped by the virtues of careful reading, lively thought, and constant practice.” Just as the boredom of practice gives rise to new levels of application, so do academic exercises. “Reading closely and deeply becomes natural; conjugating Latin verbs turns into reading Latin literature. The results are play … in the sense of a free-flowing pleasure earned through intellectual maturity. A mind that has been patiently honed like an instrument can, in the end, play at will.” A classically educated individual can move from idea to idea, applying his knowledge and skill to each new situation, just as the skilled musician approaches each piece of music with the accumulated skill of all previous practice and play.
Copeland does an excellent job analyzing how classical education prepares students for a lifetime of play, and how play in this sense is far more complex than students mean when they ask “Are we doing something fun today?” There remains more to this term “play” that can benefit the discussion in the classical renewal movement. Philosopher and phenomenologist Hans-Georg Gadamer makes much of “play” in his Truth and Method; by pairing Gadamer’s sense of play with a key passage from Carl Trueman’s Triumph of the Modern Self, the task of the classical educator becomes more clear.
Gadamer explores the concept of “play” as a description of movement between fixed points. Suspension bridges experience a certain amount of “play” as the bridge hangs and sways; language itself, for him, exists in a perpetual state of movement between the past and the present. Each text was written at a certain moment in time, but when we read that text from a different moment, the interpretation, Gadamer suggests, is “in play.” It is in this sense that he permits multiple readings and interpretations. It’s not that one reading of Aristotle is necessarily right or wrong—rather, the texts are being read from different points (which he terms “horizons”) on a spectrum from strong to weak interpretations.
This view of hermeneutics may strike the conservative reader as a move towards moral relativism, but Gadamer contends that he is not a relativist. Instead, he applies the Aristotelian doctrine of the mean to the task of interpretation. Where Aristotle identified an extreme overabundance (foolhardiness) and an extreme deficiency (cowardice), he contended that virtue lies in the mean (courage). So too for interpretation: interpreting a text involves mediating the past and present horizons as the text is “in play.” For Gadamer, reading requires answering the question of meaning, elevating reading to an art of interpretation. To interpret the text rightly, the reader must comprehend the fixed points of both the author’s horizon and his own, and perceive the “play” between those points. When the reader’s interpretation lands within that “play,” he offers a plausible interpretation.
Gadamer is a fascinating author for the patient reader. His analysis, philosophy, and broad reading support a Burkean conservatism which is yet sympathetic to parts of the postmodern project. In Gadamer, one finds a thinker who is both deeply steeped in the classics and trained in modern linguistics and philosophy. He spent his career addressing the question of meaning: what does it mean to interpret a text? In what sense is the human person an interpreting creature? How do we resolve competing interpretations? In what sense must a recognition of the text’s existence after publication complicate an authorial hermeneutic? In his attempts to answer these questions, Gadamer offers a realist hermeneutics that equips his readers to better interpret the world around them. His concept of “play” is such a contribution, one that helps explain an existing tension within classical education.
The classical renewal movement is a complex conversation between faculty, administration, colleges, students, and parents; tension can arise between the desire for a fixed canon of texts to study and fixed standards to achieve. Classical education is not a rigid approach that, if properly mapped and annotated, could be delivered wholesale to new initiates to practice. Instead, it exists in its own state of Gadamerian play between fixed points.
Josh Herring, M. Div., is Dean of Students, Head of Debate, and a Humanities Instructor for Thales Academy Rolesville JH/HS. In his spare time, he is working on a PhD in Humanities through Faulkner University’s Great Books Honors College. He also co-hosts What’s the Res?, a podcast for the high school debate community. He and his wife Jennifer live in Wendell, NC.