Hermeneutics Podcast: Why Does Hermeneutics Matter?

Todd Mei at Living Philosophy has recently produced another excellent podcast that will definitely be of interest to our readers. Here’s a description of the podcast entitled “Why Does Hermeneutics Matter?” You can listen to it here.  Enjoy!

“We see it every day—the problem of misunderstanding and misreading meaning and intentions. It can be the cause of frustration, hurt, and even violence. Hermeneutics is the branch of philosophy interested in how the interpretation of language, symbols, texts, and even the nature of existence requires a nuanced and open-minded approach. It can potentially help us to resolve a lot of the problems of miscommunication. Listen to three experts—Andreea Deciu Ritivoi (Carnegie Mellon University, USA), David Utsler (North Central Texas College, USA), and Nicholas Davey (University of Dundee, UK)—reflect on the importance of hermeneutics and why it matters to our everyday lives.” (From Living Philosophy).

Carnal Hermeneutics in a World of Social Distancing, Pt 3: Narrative Bodies Refigured

David Utsler, PhD, is currently part-time faculty in philosophy for Texas Woman’s University and North Central Texas College. He is co-editor of Interpreting Nature: The Emerging Field of Environmental Hermeneutics (Fordham 2014) along with Forrest Clingerman, Brian Treanor and Martin Drenthen. He is also co-author with Cynthia R. Nielsen of “Fricker, Gadamer, and Honneth: Testimonial Injustice, Prejudice, and Social Esteem” in Recognition Theory and Epistemic Justice, eds. Paul Giladi and Nicola McMillan, forthcoming 2021 from Routledge.

I           Narrative: Stories We Tell

We are following therefore the destiny of a prefigured time that becomes a refigured time through the mediation of a configured time” (Paul Ricoeur. 1984, 54). Paul Ricoeur explains narrative as a three-fold mimesis (imitation of action). At the risk of oversimplification, Ricoeur’s narrative philosophy starts with the time we are in (prefigured), how we narrate the prefigured world, configuring it into a meaningful plot, and finally we refigure our lives with the passage of time. Narrative is never static. We never come to the end of the story. The passage of time, age, life experience, and events constantly create a new “plot twists” by which we narrate who we are and project who we wish to be forward in time. Another way Ricoeur refers to three-fold mimesis is the process to “describe, narrate, prescribe” (Ricoeur. 1992, 114). Description is where we find ourselves. Narration brings together disparate elements into a meaningful story. Prescription then asks how should we then live?

II          Discordances that disrupt the story

Sometimes, things take place that Ricoeur calls discordances, those “reversals of fortune” that disrupt the ordered plot of our lives that even “threaten [our] identity” (Ricoeur. 1992, 141). Ricoeur places discordances within mimesis₂, configuration. Ricoeur sees discordances as plot twists, which we then must work into the narrative stage. I would further argue that discordances mediate between configuration and mimesis₃, refiguration. Such turns of events force us refigure our identity and to conceive of new possible worlds that, as Ricoeur would say, unfold in front of the text. When configuration is forced to take in plot elements that disrupt the flow of the narrative that we were comfortable with, then we are likewise forced to refigure who we are as the future becomes the present. Brian Treanor puts it succinctly: “Herein lies the real power of narrative of our purposes: the power to refigure our lives” (Treanor. 2014, 116). Treanor here is speaking of the power of reading stories and how we can see things from different perspectives and learn to think of ourselves and our world in new ways. But I would argue that discordances have the same effect, often unwelcome, but by which we can think and imagine new worlds on the other side of the disruption.

III         After Social Distancing

COVID-19 can easily be understood as a discordance, a reversal of fortune that has deeply affected the story. Daily life is for the foreseeable future dramatically changed. The economy is on hold, lives are being deeply affected by sickness or the loss of jobs, and our freedom to interact is being governed and determined by the threat COVID-19 poses. In light of carnal hermeneutics, interpretation that goes “all the way down,” is it possible to reconfigure who we are and possible worlds in which we would like to dwell. Of course it is possible. Allow me to interject some cynicism in that with a global capitalist social order where the world is framed and determined by the will of the very few, I have little hope of great change. At least in America, I am painfully aware of our remarkable capacity to forget things that just happened in our rush to return to the status quo. On social media, I have read those who say that in our desire to get back to “normal” we should consider what we want to be normal and what was normal that we ought to set aside. But when the time comes that society can return to some semblance of normal, how much of a change will we really set ourselves to make?

My cynicism aside, the point of narrative as three-fold mimesis is that we are constantly refiguring our lives and even a very unwelcome global discordance can have positive outcomes. Several reports have indicated a great decrease in global pollution, for example. As people have been forced to do their work from home, could it be that economic life can be conceived of in such a way that does not require the travel to and from work that had been unquestioned in the past? I am hardly in a position or have the expertise to make projections or answer that question.

As someone who has for some time been greatly interested in Kearney’s and Treanor’s project of hermeneutics as carnal, I immediately began to think of the ramification of the global pandemic in this light. It seems to me what COVID-19, social distancing, and shelter-in-place shows is that interpretation is embodied and the body is integral to interpretation. Indeed, every other consequence and ramification of this pandemic is because of effect it has on bodies: how bodies are placed, the health and well-being of bodies, etc. There is not an economic consequence or any other seemingly non-carnal aspect of this pandemic that is not inextricably tied to flesh.

May future interpretations of our shared world, that is how we understand how we are to “be” and how we refigure shared life, be informed and guided a by good “sense.”


Ricoeur, P. (1984) Time and Narrative, Volume 1. Translated by Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1992) Oneself as Another. Translated by Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Treanor, B. (2014) Emplotting Virtue: A Narrative Approach to Environmental Virtue Ethics. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Carnal Hermeneutics in a World of Social Distancing, Pt 2: Bodies in Place

Pt 2: Bodies in Place: Confinement and Displacement

David Utsler, PhD, is currently part-time faculty in philosophy for Texas Woman’s University and North Central Texas College. He is co-editor of Interpreting Nature: The Emerging Field of Environmental Hermeneutics (Fordham 2014) along with Forrest Clingerman, Brian Treanor and Martin Drenthen. He is also co-author with Cynthia R. Nielsen of “Fricker, Gadamer, and Honneth: Testimonial Injustice, Prejudice, and Social Esteem” in Recognition Theory and Epistemic Justice, eds. Paul Giladi and Nicola McMillan, forthcoming 2021 from Routledge.

I .  Getting a sense of sense

In the first installment, I noted that carnal hermeneutics refers to the body as interpretation. While “touching” primarily on touch, I highlighted that Kearney and Treanor insist on an “equiprimordial redistribution of the senses” as a necessary aspect of carnal hermeneutics in order to understand how we, through the body, interact with other bodies and make sense of the world. Interpretation of our world begins and is carried through within our senses.

So if we make sense of the world through the senses, Richard Kearney asks how we make sense of sense (Kearney. 2015, 15). He explains three senses of sense that, I take, are all weaved together in the interpretation of the world through our embodiment. The first is the five senses themselves. The second refers to meaning as in “getting a sense” of what someone is communicating. The third is expressed in the etymology of the word “sense” as direction or orientation. This last refers to how we “place” ourselves in the world. Our embodied place, our position, is an orientation to the world through which we make sense and understand meaning in the world.

There is no doubt that a world of social distancing has “re-placed” our bodies. The way that we orient ourselves to those around us has changed. The way we work has changed as many who went to the office now work from home, while others have been “dis-placed” as working non-essential jobs now have no job. Social distancing, for the most part, has “dis-placed” us from one another except to those in our immediate household. On a positive note, as I take walks in my neighborhood I am witnessing far more people that what is typical out and about themselves. A change of place often means a change of pace: what we do with our bodies (how we live) is in direct relation to where our bodies are placed.

II .   The confinement of social distancing

In his contribution to Carnal Hermeneutics (“Skin Deep: Bodies Edging into Place”), Edward S. Casey writes: “Some places are hard to bear—to bear bodily” (Casey. 2015, 159). Casey writes of the specific example of solitary confinement and the devastating effects such can have on a human being. Now, while I would not think to equate being confined in the comfort of our own homes with prisoners in solitary confinement. But there are some comparisons alongside the differences, the differences being different to an extreme order and degree.

Consider the language that has entered our discourse. Shelter-in-place. In other words, stay where you are and do not come out. Whereas a prisoner is placed is solitary as a punishment, we are asked to “place” ourselves at home for our own safety and the safety of others. Yet, what many experience is still a kind of confinement. As Casey says of the prisoner, he has nowhere to go (Casey, 160). While the prisoner is limited by walls, many feel limited by the walls created by COVID-19. Our ordinary lifeworld has been re-oriented such that we have limitations on where we can go. Places we went at will at now no longer available to us. To varying degrees from mere frustration to fear of losing property (losing place), how we dwell has been destabilized and we are forced to re-orient ourselves in place by externalities outside of our control. To cite Casey in this context, “one’s coherent, customary world” (Casey, 159) has been, for an unknown length of time, upended. It no longer coheres the same and our customary way of being in the world is, for now, gone. In both “social distancing” and “shelter-in-place,” how we orient ourselves toward others and in place is altered requiring that we “make sense” of the world in new ways. This can have devastating effects on the human psyche and devastating effects socially. Yet, we can be hopeful for more positive outcomes.

III.  Displacement within place

I speak of “displacement” in two senses. People can be physically displaced by war, natural disaster, or other means where they are forced to leave one place and go to another. There is another form of displacement, what I call “displaced in place” where a familiar place has been altered to the extent that our orientation to that physical space is forever destroyed. For example, in the context of environmental justice, there are seemingly a limitless amount of cases that one could cite where due to the environmental effects of the actions of others, entire ways of life of a people have been lost.

Casey writes of implacement and displacement in his book Getting Place Into Place. He writes: “The power of a place such as a mere room possesses determines not only where I am in the limited sense of cartographic location but how I am together with others (i.e., how I commingle and communicate with them) and even who we shall become together” (Casey. 2009, 23). In this single profound sentence, Casey has shown that a place is not merely a physical space but, to put it in the terms of carnal hermeneutics, is an embodied interpretation determined by our orientation to the place itself and to others with whom it is shared, effecting our very identities, both individual and communal. Certainly, social distancing and shelter-in-place orders have determined how we “commingle and communicate” with others and, I would add, the places wherein we have a sense of self. The loss of place (displacement) can occur even within the same material space. As hermeneutics in both Gadamer and Ricoeur have repeatedly communicated, interpretation always implies an interpretation of self. Identity is always bound up with understanding.

The current “landscape” in which we now dwell has been altered by COVID-19. How we are within the places where we are and who we are with one another has, even if only temporarily, changed. The question now becomes, “how shall we respond?” The discordance and disruption created by COVID-19 also creates the imperative that we must reorient ourselves bodily (refigure) the world to which we had become accustomed (prefigured and configured). In the final installment, I will reflect on this imperative in light of the narrative hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur, particularly on his explication of threefold mimesis.


Kearney, R. (2015) “The Wager of Carnal Hermeneutics.” In Richard Kearney & Brian Treanor, eds. Carnal Hermeneutics, pp. 15 – 56. New York: Fordham University Press.

Casey, Edward S. (2015) “Skin Deep: Edging into Place.” In Richard Kearney & Brian Treanor, eds. Carnal Hermeneutics, pp. 159 – 172. New York: Fordham University Press.

Casey, Edward. S. (1993, 2009) Getting Back into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World. 2nd Edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Carnal Hermeneutics in a World of Social Distancing

David Utsler, PhD, is currently part-time faculty in philosophy for Texas Woman’s University and North Central Texas College. He is co-editor of Interpreting Nature: The Emerging Field of Environmental Hermeneutics (Fordham 2014) along with Forrest Clingerman, Brian Treanor and Martin Drenthen. He is also co-author with Cynthia R. Nielsen of “Fricker, Gadamer, and Honneth: Testimonial Injustice, Prejudice, and Social Esteem” in Recognition Theory and Epistemic Justice, eds. Paul Giladi and Nicola McMillan, forthcoming 2021 from Routledge.

I.  Introductory Remark

In the midst of the global health crisis posed by COVID-19, the language of “social distancing” has entered our shared global lexicon. The words of Paul Ricoeur came to mind where he wrote, with reference to touch, that “…one’s own body is revealed to be the mediator between the intimacy of the self and the externality of the world” (Ricoeur, 1992, 321 – 22). While the body is more than touch as there are four additional senses, touch (and also taste) require physical proximity the other senses do not. With social distancing, we are being directed specifically to avoid the sensation of touch. Wash your hands. Do not touch others. Stay 6 feet apart so that the microscopic body of COVID-19 does not touch your body or from you the body of another. Touch is considered an expression of care in numerous ways (the touch of lovers, a hand on a shoulder in reassurance or comfort, and so on). But in response to COVID-19, care is expressed through refraining to touch. 

To my mind, this raises several questions in the context of how social distancing is understood in the light of carnal hermeneutics (see Kearney and Treanor, 2015). Carnal hermeneutics is essentially about the body as interpretation. What role does the interpreting body play in a world of social distancing? What does the intentional avoidance of touch mean in the relationship of self and other in the social sphere? What sorts of trauma and suffering may follow in the wake of social distancing, even if social distancing is necessary in response to the danger posed by COVID-19? 

II.   What is “social distancing”?

I want to define “social distancing” as I see it as the term itself can be understood in different ways. For example, I have seen where some have suggested substituting the term “physical distancing” for “social distancing.” I understand the thinking behind this suggestion. To be sure, we are being asked to remain physically distant, not give up interacting with one another. This understanding seems to say that “social distancing” means being disconnected, similar to how we might refer to a person as being emotionally distant. But I see certain shortcomings. “Physical distancing” does not imply that I interact with or engage others at all. It only bids me to stay away from them. This terminology does not retain the sociality it seeks to preserve. Further, a social context already existed that gave rise to the direction to “practice social distancing.” Speaking of “social distancing” makes no sense if there is not already the fact of shared spaces. If we are in a shared physical space, we practice social distancing by remaining at least 6 feet apart. If we are in a virtual space, we are social distancing by practicing sociality in a virtual rather than physical space. 

I will define “social distancing” as practicing sociality in (implied) physically distant ways. I am not being asked to distance myself socially from others, but to practice social life with distance between myself and others with whom I share social space.

III.  Carnal Hermeneutics

In the introduction to their book, Carnal Hermeneutics, editors Richard Kearney and Brian Treanor list as one of their basic principles a redistribution of the senses. What they mean is that rather than the classic privileging of sight, hearing, and smell over taste and touch, there should be an “equiprimordial redistribution of the senses” in order to show how any and all sensate experience is an interpretation. As interpretation, the five senses are not merely conduits of information to the mind that then understands. Rather the senses are actively engaged in the creation of meaning. This is true of all the senses. Kearney and Treanor are right to note that carnal hermeneutics is not simply a reversal of the hierarchy of the senses, ascribing a place of privilege to touch and taste, making sight, sound, and smell subordinate. To the contrary, the equiprimordial redistribution of the senses, not bound to Platonic or Cartesian dualisms of mind and body, reveals that all the senses are equally carnal and all the senses equally “speak” to the mind.

That said, given the long neglect of touch and taste in Western philosophy, it is not surprising that touch and taste are given more of a spotlight in Carnal Hermeneutics. And although carnal hermeneutics maintains an equality of the senses in the body as interpretation, we can also acknowledge difference side by side with equality. For example, sight is a function of the body, the flesh (indeed, the eye itself is flesh), yet two bodies engaged in seeing the other do not experience the same resistance such as in touch. In terms of spreading a virus, sight does not have the capability to transmit a virus, but touch does. So it is especially with regard to touch, or at least bodies sharing space in proximity, that I want to reflect on social distancing.

IV.  Reorienting the body as interpretation

When we must go out, how we interact with others is changed by COVID-19. Most wear masks. Passing in the aisle of a grocery store, we create as much of a gap as space will allow. When we cannot physically meet with family or colleagues, we enter virtual spaces to at least see one another. Just as a person deprived of sight relies on the other senses to interpret the world, when we are deprived of touch and physical proximity in shared space, we use virtual spaces and webcams just so we can see each other. At the least, we make use of audio to hear one another. What we cannot have with regard to one sense, we make up for with others.

Social distancing has modified in the present circumstance the way the body interprets the world in which it dwells. For those who are sick, they must isolate from even the closest of family and friends. For those who succumb to the virus and die, they are forced to die alone, not sharing space with their loved ones. How many obituaries include the line that the deceased passed “in the presence of family and friends by her side.” COVID-19 has deprived the dying of this comfort. To the living who remain, they are deprived of being present to the last. Hands are not held. Foreheads are not kissed. These extremes being no doubt the saddest, social distancing even for the well and healthy impacts the body as interpretation, as being-in-the-world. 

To conclude this introductory installment, from the point of view of carnal hermeneutics, social distancing both creates and demands a reorientation of the body as interpretation. Specifically, interpretation as narrative here has experienced what Ricoeur would refer to as a discordance that disrupts the narrative unity of life. In short, COVID-19 and subsequent social distancing has changed our story. In the remaining two installments, I will look at the body in relation to place in a world of social distancing with particular reference to Edward Casey’s chapter in Carnal Hermeneutics and, finally, how the disruptive nature of social distancing can be understood in light of the threefold mimesis in the work of Paul Ricoeur. 


Kearney, R. & Brian Treanor (2015). Carnal Hermeneutics. New York: Fordham University Press. 

Ricoeur, P. (1992) Oneself as Another. Translated by Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.