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Hermeneutical Power

Hermeneutical power is the attribution of power imbalances to a lack of understanding of both the nature of the implications and the essence of the agreements or documents embodying such agreements. Based on understanding and interpretation of text, hermeneutical power places the groups proposing the agreements at an advantageous position. Arguably, it is insightful to note that those who propose the agreements and conceive the documents establishing such agreements know better the language of the documents as well as the essence and the implications of the agreements. They know what they seek through these agreements and “know” the spirit of the document. That is, they perceive the intrinsic and extrinsic meaning and implications of the given agreement or document.

The “knowledge” of the spirit of the agreement penetrates deeper than the text per se to the sources evoked in the text, i.e., classical authors with theoretical, epistemological, ontological, and axiological kinship to those who propose the agreements. The theoretical, epistemological, ontological, and axiological proximity of a particular party and distance of the other, to the classical sources of knowledge inspiring the agreements is essential to the concern with power dynamics since the hardest hermeneutical (interpretational) task is to establish authorial intent. Thus, degrees of closeness (that is, proximity and distance) to the author’s thought process constitute the measure of mastery of textual content and, in turn, mastery of textual content signifies an ability to manipulate content by unearthing the subtleties concealing essential meanings.

Inherent in the nuances of hermeneutical power is also the fact that closeness and distance leads to mediation between the core, i.e., the institutions or parties who originate the agreements, and the periphery entities, i.e., African institutions to whom the agreements are presented. Since mediators are not from neutral entities, rather personnel from core entities (e.g., consultants, retired or former officials, former government officials in countries where the institution is based, etc.), mediation results in the preservation of hermeneutical power in that it does nothing to change the text or the content of negotiations, but ultimately enhances the center’s understanding of the periphery. Thus, mediation becomes a tool to preserve hermeneutical power.

This preservation of power through mediation resonates with the inverted allegory of the cave thesis in Wa Thiong’o (1998) regarding the role of the interpreter. Wa Thiong’o borrowed from Socrates’ allegory of the cave where Socrates portrayed the philosopher as one whose knowledge of both the cave and the outer world illuminated the residents of the cave by interpreting the essence of the shadows that they saw in the cave as mere reflections of what was actually happening in the world outside.[i] Wa Thiong’o argued that the interpreter ought to be sensitive to the reality of those in the cave when attempting to interpret the reality found outside the cave. I argue, however, that this instance of my use of ‘mediator as interpreter’ is the reverse of the allegory of the cave thesis because while in Wa Thiong’o the interpreter aims at converting the cavers’ perspective into that of the outer world, the aim of international mediators is not to convert non-African institutions, but to help these institutions understand how to adapt their strategies for effectiveness in dealing with Africa.

In summary, hermeneutical power plays an important role in the fairness of negotiations. To reiterate, the closer a party is to the spirit of the text establishing the terms of an agreement, the more likely they are to catch the nuances and implications of such agreement.


[i]For additional readings on the Allegory of the Cave see Allan (1940); Aristotle (1938); Loeb Classical Library (1982); Loeb Classical Library (1987); and, Oxford Classical Texts (1992).

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