Philosophical Roots Of Phenomenological And Structuralist Literary Criticism -- By: Vern Sheridan Poythress

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 41:1 (Fall 1978)
Article: Philosophical Roots Of Phenomenological And Structuralist Literary Criticism
Author: Vern Sheridan Poythress


Philosophical Roots Of Phenomenological And Structuralist Literary Criticism

Vern Sheridan Poythress

The hermeneutical crisis in biblical studies, as well as the current climate in secularist humanities and social sciences, is promoting more hermeneutical self-consciousness in exegesis. In particular, we are seeing exegesis with self-conscious appeal to phenomenological and structuralist hermeneutical principles. The future is likely to bring more of the kind. More exegetes will recognize their “presuppositions.” But, lest Van Tilians rejoice, I should say that this is no guarantee that the presuppositions involved will be biblical. People will indeed claim, circularly, that their presuppositions are biblical. They will be able to do so because the phenomenological and structuralist methods are each powerful enough to succeed, in a quite plausible manner, in reading their own presuppositions out of almost any literary material that falls into their hands. We have already seen this happen with Bultmann’s demythologizing and with the new hermeneutic, both of which are but specialized forms of phenomenological literary criticism.1 Similar things are happening to a degree using structuralist approaches, in the hands of Güttgemanns, Crossan, Marin, Via, and others.2

Exegetes with a phenomenological or structuralist bent speak quite frankly about their hermeneutical precommitment to a given method of approaching the text. For example, Bultmann speaks of the pre-understanding of human existence in terms of which he questions the New Testament text.3 Thus, hermeneutical presuppositions become overt. On the other hand, metaphysical and religious presuppositions are likely to remain more covert, for reasons bound up with the genius of phenomenology and structuralism. (Bultmann is here more overt than most.)4 Evangelicals in general and Van Tilians in particular will want to assess the nature of these deeper presuppositions and the extent of their effect on exegesis.

I propose, then, to give a sketchy summary of what I see to be the philosophical presuppositions and tendencies of phenomenology and structuralism. Any such summary will inevitably run into over- simplification in trying to capture the Hydra-headed movements of phenomenology and structuralism. I shall have to concentrate on the main-stream, ignoring minor eddies and piecemeal uses of the movements.5 An over-simplification may still be useful—more useful, in some respects, than a more ponderou...

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