What is Hermeneutics?

Posted by NikH

I have always wondered about this word, Hermeneutics, and the Hermeneutic Circle. Here is a lecture I found which will explain the word.

Hermeneutics is basically the art and principles of interpretation. The origin of Hermeneutics began with the interpretation of spiritual texts.

The History of Hermeneutics

Treatises on interpretation began already in history. A systematic study on how we interpret things.

Protestation Reformation gave rise to Hermeneutics

  • meaning becomes important,
  • ascertainment of meaning becomes difficult

if scripture works for you, you wouldn’t have needed to learn what it means until… there is a problem.

Literature: as 18th Century wears on, emergence of romanticism… cult of genius… more appreciation of the genius of the work… secularization during the course of enlightenment.

The meaning of literature becomes more difficult because it no longer engaged in shared values.

Literature is central figure of hermeneutics.

Fredrich Schleiermacher 1768-1834

The Hermeneutic Circle


hermeneutic circleThe relationship between a reader and text. relationship between a reader and an author. to understand the intention of the author. text is a mediatory document.

Heidegger– reader and a text. relationship between part and a whole. I read a phrase and make meaning of the part, and make sense of what the whole. the sense of a whole changes as I read more and more parts.

For merging historical horizons

The relationship between the present and the past.., my historical horizon, in relation to what I am reading, in relationship to what I know, to what the past text speaks. past-present gulf.

For merging social, cultural and interpersonal horizons

Also takes place accross a social and cultural gulf. I have to understand what you are saying, I refer to what I want to say, and there is mutual undrstanding of what we are talking about. … conversation across cultures.

Hermeneutic circles  reference back and forth…

Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) Truth and method

The reader projects before himself a meaning for the text as a whole as soon as some initial meaning emerges in the text. the latter (sense of the initial meaning of the text) emerges only because he is reading the text with particular expectations in regard to a certain meaning .the working out of fore-project ( a sense of what we have in advance) which is constantly revised in terms of what emerges as he penetrates into the meaning is understood as what is there… “die Sache” the subject matter.

On Prejudice

Can one view this thing objectively? Are we hopelessly prejudiced?

our preliminary conceptions… but the circle does not need to be a “vicious” circle. The way into the circle can also be constructive.

Heidegger 1889-1976:

“In an interpretation, the way  in which the entity we are interpreting is  be conceived can be drawn from the entity itself  or the interpretation can force the entity in the concepts to which it is opposed in its matter of being.”

There is useful vs. useless preconception based on a interpretive act.

Gadamer says, “Truth ad method: the great objection of Gadamer, to other people’s way of doing hermeneutics,  is the belief that there is a methodology of interpretation”.— especially historicism (not the new historicism).

Historicism and “Historicality”

Historicism : the belief that you can set aside preconception completely… that you can completely enter into the mind of the other. Gadamer says you cannot do this.

The only way is to recognize that you are doing this. YOu try to bridge your horizon with another horizon, and find common ground, find a way … Horizon merger. Horizontverschmelzung. Effective History… useful, it can work for us, and not distance from us.

Something immoral about historicism. Historism condescends towards the past, treats the past as a repository of information… and never supposes that if we merge with the past, we may be able to learn something from the past.

Heidegger (Being and Time)

When we have to do with anything, the mere seeing of the things which are closest to us bears in iteslf the structure of intepretation and in so primodal a manner that just to grasp something free as it were, of the as, requires a certain adjustment.

We bring a million preconceptions to everything before us. it is impossible to have no preconceptions. it is derivative act of the mind to see something and “not know” what you know about the thing.

Prejudice and Tradition

We cannot help understanding something, it is a kind of imprisonment to not be able to understand.

We must work with pre conception.

Prejudice, pre-judgment. Prejudice is bad… how we vindicate it? overcome this…

Gadamer , classicism or tradition, we cant merge horizons effectively unless we have a v broad and extensive common ground with what we are reading. Tradition is something we can share. it speaks for all time, speaks to us… the classical can do that…

But.. . bad side of prejudice sneaks in… slavery was acceptable in classical culture…

E. D. Hirsch‘s Argument

The dignity and nobility of Gadamer is that is involves being interested in something true… in hoping that there is an intimate relationship of (arriving at) meaning and what we consider to speak to us as true…

Gadamer: “The text that is understood historically is forced to abandon  its claim that it is uttering something true.     we think we understand when we see the past from a historical standpoint, i.e. place ourselves in a historical situation and seek to reconstruct the historical horizon… in fact however we have given up the claim to find in the past any truth valid and intelligible in ourselves. thus this acknowledgement of the otherness of the other,  which makes him the object of objective knowledge involves the fundamental suspension to his claim to truth.”

Implicit in the notion of objectivity, is an abandonment of the possibility of learning form the object, of learning form the otherness… knowing the object in for itself its own terms, we dont learn from it… of being spoken to by it.

Hirsch evoking a different kind of dignity…

“Kant held it to be a foundation of moral action, that man should be conceived as instruments of himself and not instruments of other men this imperative is transferable to the words of men because speech is an extension and expression of men in the social domain and also because when we fail to conjoin a man’s intention to his words we lose the soul of speech which is to convey meaning and to understand what is intended to be conveyed.”

Hirsh is not saying anything about truth, even though he is talking about meaning…

To Gadamer it is important that the meaning be true… There is always something of me in my interpretation…