A Brief History of Hermeneutics
What is Hermeneutics?
‘Hermeneutics’ is an ancient topic whose philosophical outlines have evolved through time. In a broad sense, hermeneutics can be defined simply as ‘interpretation,’ ‘the art of interpreting,’ or ‘the study of interpretation.’ These definitions, however, beg the question: ‘what is interpretation?’ To answer this question, we must first understand the origins of hermeneutics and the many forms it has taken throughout history. In other words, we must look at the different interpretations of what ‘interpretation’ is. If this seems like a circular endeavour, we need not be concerned, for as we shall see, that is the very nature of interpretation. Here, I will present an overview of the history of hermeneutics, including where it came from, what it means, and how different thinkers have conceived it.
Hermeneutics can be traced all the way back to Greek antiquity. ‘Interpretation,’ as a disciplinary practice, was important to Hellenistic education, as practiced at the School of Alexandria, and afterwards had a major role in the theology of the Middle Ages and Christian culture.
If we look at its etymological roots, we can see that the name ‘hermeneutics’ comes from the Greek word hermeneuein (which means ‘to interpret’) and the noun hermeneia (interpretation).
“Traced back to their earliest known root words in Greek, the origins of the modern words ‘hermeneutics’ and ‘hermeneutical’ suggest the process of ‘bringing to understanding,’ especially as this process involves language, since language is the medium par excellence in the process.” (Palmer, 1969, p.13).
These and other related terms appear in ancient texts by Aristotle, Plato, Xenophon, Plutarch, Euripides, Epicurus, Lucretius, and Longinus, and are closely associated with the messenger-god Hermes, whose function as the translator of the gods was that “of transmuting what is beyond human understanding into a form that human intelligence can grasp.” (Palmer, 1969, p.13).
As Palmer (1969) points out, the process of hermeneia, of “rendering comprehensible,” can be said to have three different, but closely related meanings:
Hermeneuein as an “announcing” function – saying, expressing, affirming, proclaiming. “Even simply saying, asserting, or proclaiming is an important act of ‘interpretation’” (p.15).
Hermeneuein as explanation – “points to the explanatory rather than expressive dimensions of interpretation.” (p.20). Words clarify and explain something, and this should be recognized as an interpretive act as well.
And finally, hermeneuein as translation – as a way of bringing “what is foreign, strange, or unintelligible into the medium of one’s own language. Like the god Hermes, the translator mediates between one world and another” (p.27). However, just as translation is not simply the mechanical matching of different languages, hermeneutics is a multidimensional enterprise, full of ambiguities, challenges, and complexities, to which we now turn our attention.
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Beyond its origins in Greek antiquity, hermeneutics was established in the Middle Ages with the primary purpose of comprehending the most important text of the period: the Bible. For centuries, the church and its authorities were in charge of the exclusive and dogmatic interpretation of the sacred scriptures.
“The Bible was the church’s sacred book and as such was constantly read, but the understanding of it was determined and – as the reformers insisted – obscured, by the dogmatic tradition of the church” (Gadamer, 2013, p.182).
The Protestant reformation, in reaction to the Catholic church’s dogmatism, asserted the sacred scriptures' self-sufficiency, allowing for novel readings and interpretations. This posed novel and significant issues for sacred text interpretation, as the meanings of the writings ceased to be set and enforced by a single authority. Furthermore, in order for individuals to be able to read the Bible and the classical texts that had been absorbed into Christianity, it became necessary to learn the languages in which they were written, such as Greek, Latin, and Hebrew; and thus, the humanistic tradition and the reformation came together with Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Philip Melancton (1497-1560) (Gadamer, 2013, p.182). With the liberation of the scriptures from the chains of traditional authorities, interpretation of the Bible became itself a central and explicit concern.
The issues raised by these historical changes were expressed and resolved in various ways. For Luther, for example, it was not necessary to resort to tradition in order to interpret the scripture: its meaning could be derived from the text – the ‘senses literalus.' According to the theologian, in instances where the literal meaning of the text was unclear, meaning should be obtained from the work’s overall sense, much as the sense of the whole could only be reached through the sum of its parts, thereby reclaiming the circular metaphor of ancient rhetoric (Gadamer, 2013, p.132-3). Interpretation of the unity of the religious texts was thus thought to be dependent on the comprehension of its constitutive parts, just as the meaning of the parts hinged on the meaning of the whole. An ‘interpretive method’ that would mark the history of hermeneutics was thus established: what later came to be known as “the hermeneutic circle.”
Dogma, however, is a difficult thing to overcome. As Gadamer points out, to the extent that reformist theology relied on this principle to interpret scripture, it still rested, in a sense, on dogmatic premises, namely, the view that the Bible was a unitary text with a unitary meaning. Reformist theology was also dogmatic in the sense that it precluded any truly individual and idiosyncratic interpretation of the Bible – its meaning was thought to be fixed and emanated solely from the text itself. Since it was generally considered impossible to have multiple interpretations of the Bible, the result was the advent of numerous discussions about the ‘correct’ interpretation of scripture and thus discussions about the practice of interpreting and interpretation itself.
During the second half of the seventeenth century, the term ‘hermeneutics’ seems to have gained some traction, particularly in German Protestant circles who, without resorting to church authority, developed techniques and manuals of interpretation to aid the exegesis of the scriptures. By the end of the century, the first modern general theory of philology emerged, with Jean Le Clerc’s Ars Critica (‘The Art of Criticism,’ 1697), which established methodological axioms of textual philology and highlighted the profound sense of estrangement between antiquity and modernity (Turner, 2014, p.62). Humanities scholars continued to develop this ‘ars critica,' producing further sets of philological methods that aimed to establish the authenticity of certain texts through the reconstruction of their ‘original’ or ‘correct’ meanings (Mueller-Vollmer, 2006).
As an explicit concern with interpretation was growing, with the Enlightenment and the formal and systematic aspirations that characterized its philosophers, hermeneutics was finally formalized as a branch of philosophy. According to Sherratt (2006, p.52), there were at least three decisive factors allowing for the constitution of this discipline during the Enlightenment:
Following the biblical hermeneutical tradition, it was assumed that a text had ‘true content.’
Following the reformist trend, the ‘objective’ interpretation of a text was not subject to tradition or doctrine, but to reason. Through reason one could have access to the ‘true content’ of the text.
Finally, the ascendancy of science and logic permeated the humanities, including hermeneutics, leading to the assumption that interpretation, like natural scientific disciplines, was subject to universal norms and principles.
On this last point, Aristotle, who had examined the problems of logic in his treatise ‘On Interpretation’ (Peri Hermeneias), was a decisive influence. In effect, Enlightenment thinkers regarded hermeneutics as a branch of logic:
“Their contention was that like logic itself hermeneutics rested on certain generally applicable rules and principles which were valid for all those fields of knowledge which relied on interpretation” (Mueller-Vollmer, 2006, p.3).
Generally, the most influential and prominent Enlightenment thinkers who thought and wrote about interpretation followed this paradigm. Christian Wolff (1679-1754), for example, who wrote about interpretation, also made some of his most important philosophical contributions in the realm of logic.
Born in Breslau, Silesia (today Wrocław, Poland), and profoundly influenced by Leibniz, Wolff’s Rationalist and Enlightenment tendencies were clearly reflected in his thoughts on hermeneutics. According to Wolff, a distinction should be drawn between historical and dogmatic texts: historical texts, on the one hand, should describe the past “completely,” “truthfully,” and “sincerely,” whereas dogmatic texts should be judged based on the quality and strength of their arguments, as well as the author’s knowledge of the subject matter in question.
The question of authorship – the “intention” (Absicht) of the author – was fundamental for Wolff, but it should not be understood in psychological or idiosyncratic terms, as it came to be formulated later by Schleiermacher and other Romantic thinkers. For Wolff, the “intention” had to do with the genre and style of writing, “particular discoursive forms in which this knowledge should be presented” (Mueller-Vollmer, 2006, p.4). Indeed, according to this philosopher, judging a text through the intentions of its author had to do with the appropriateness of a certain genre chosen to write about some topic, not subjective experience or personal temperament. Indeed, for most thinkers of this time, accessing the meaning of a text would never truly be a problem, because “insofar as the author of the text had expressed congruent ideas in language appropriate to them, any reader could bring them into his own thoughts” (Verde, 2009, p.41).
Christian Wolff’s successor, Johann Martin Chladenius (1710-1759), inherited and maintained this Enlightenment paradigm, writing the first comprehensive and systematic book on interpretation in German in 1742: ‘Introduction to the Correct Interpretation of Reasonable Discourses and Writings.’
With similar proclivities, Chladenius aimed to arrive at a general theory of interpretation, a set of rules and practices based on rational principles, which could allow one to interpret anything ‘correctly.’ Chladenius believed that ‘perfect understanding’ depended on two criteria: the author’s intention (again, his choice in the genre of discourse, not his singular personality or subjective feelings), and the clarity and coherence of the argument according to the “rules of reason” (Sherratt, 2006, p.55).
Just as they were for Wolff, “the rules of reason were considered unchangeable by Chladenius and guaranteed the stability of meaning and the possibility of its objective transfer through verbal expressions” (Mueller-Vollmer, 2006, p.7). Nonetheless, Chladenius left his own original mark on hermeneutics, with an idea that became of central importance to historical methodology and the social sciences: the idea of the “point-of-view” (Sehepunkte) (which Chladenius owes to Leibniz’s optics; Gadamer, 2013, p.189). This was not to say that Chladenius was a relativist – on the contrary, he believed that the ‘objectivity’ of a given account was not in question because, although each observer had their own perspective (their own ‘point-of-view’), they were all observing the same phenomenon. This contribution had far-reaching consequences for eighteenth-century hermeneutics that Chladenius could not have predicted, consequences that have in turn affected modern philosophy, epistemology, and the social sciences in general.
Nevertheless, Chladenius should not be seen as a forerunner of historical methodology since, for him, understanding is not a fundamental problem. In contrast to how modern hermeneutics has come to be defined, most Enlightenment philosophers saw interpretation as a means of removing ambiguities and obstacles that might develop in the classroom and impede pupils from obtaining “full understanding.” (Gadamer, 2013, p.189).
Interpretation, for Chladenius, is not the same thing as understanding, but something that arises when we encounter difficulties in understanding. It is nonetheless worth noting that, at a time when “self-evident understanding” was facing a historical decline, Chladenius recognized the rising necessity of being skilled in the “art of interpreting” (Gadamer, 2013, p. 190). As a result, Chladenius arrived at an intriguing and timely conclusion:
“…that to understand an author was not the same thing as understanding writing and speech perfectly. The norm for understanding a book is not the author’s meaning. For, ‘since men cannot be aware of everything, their words, speech, and writing can mean something that they themselves did not intend to say or write.'” (Gadamer, 2013, p.190).
A lucid and compelling statement that, by two centuries, foreshadowed Roland Barthe’s central considerations in ‘The Death of the Author’ (1967).
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Romanticism is frequently thought of as an antagonistic reaction to the Enlightenment. And although this is true to a certain extent, as the two movements are profoundly divergent in significant ways, they also share many of the same fundamental principles and presuppositions. There are important strands of influence and continuity between Romanticism and the Enlightenment. It may thus “be more accurate, as Gellner (1991) suggests, to see the two movements as parallel flows, at times diverging or competing, at times intersecting and binding together” (cited by Eriksen and Nielsen, 2013, p.15). In hermeneutics, one of these intersections or continuities can be found in the question of the possibility and legitimacy of producing knowledge and reaching understanding. Nonetheless, Romantic hermeneutics dramatically impacted the direction of the study of interpretation, setting the foundations for its present constitution, by introducing several original and deeply influential ideas.
The German Reformed theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who is considered the father of modern hermeneutics, is in many ways the inverse of Chladenius. Gadamer (2013, p.191) identifies some fundamental differences in Schleiermacher’s thought from the general Enlightenment premises, namely, that failures and difficulties in understanding were no longer considered sporadic events but a constant danger that had to be actively avoided. Transcending occasional necessity, interpretation became an independent, universal procedure, which Schleiermacher wanted to make explicit: “[with Schleiermacher] it is no longer a matter of understanding this or that part of the text, but rather of questioning what in general makes understanding possible” (Verde, 2009, p.46). Romanticism thus radicalized hermeneutics, making it reflect back upon itself and its conditions to an unprecedented degree.
Unlike his Reformist and Enlightenment precursors, Schleiermacher was concerned neither with doctrine nor with reason, but rather, like a good Romantic, with the uniqueness of individual expression, with particularities, and with idiosyncrasies. When it came to ‘interpreting’ and ‘interpretation,’ he took his aim to be to understand the author in his most particular sense: his thoughts, his experiences, and most importantly, his intentions. For Schleiermacher, whether the content of what had been said or written was true or not was not important. His goal was to reveal what the author had meant. Indeed, in addition to the grammatical element of interpretation, there was also a psychological or technical element – the goal was to gain access to the author’s intentions and meaning; his inner psychological experience. And, for this, the German theologian conceived of a method that consisted of the reconstruction of the author’s past, context, thoughts, and even creative moments. It was “ultimately,” as Gadamer put it, “a divinatory process” (2013, p.193).
Schleiermacher was following Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) ideas on aesthetics, assuming that objects of interpretation should be judged as aesthetic constructs (subjective in nature) and not according to their subject matter, or ‘objective’ characteristics – “a free construct that is not tied to being” (Gadamer, 2013, p.193). Ignoring content and truth, Schleiermacher considered objects of interpretation to be purely expressive and subjective phenomena. He, therefore, considered the act of interpretation to be an act of reconstruction, the mirror image of the act of creating, and thus took hermeneutics to be a kind of inversion of the act of speaking or writing (Gadamer, 2013, p.194).
For Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), as for Schleiermacher, ‘understanding’ was grounded in language. It depended on linguistic competence (Sprachkraft). As a good Romantic as well, Humboldt rejected teleological views of history, claiming that truths were to be found in particularities and individual phenomena, and thus advanced the notion of language as energeia (process), which would come to deeply influence twentieth-century social sciences, and in particular, anthropology.
But perhaps his most important contribution for hermeneutics was the recognition that, for there to be understanding (Begreifen) there had to be a prior and common ground, something analogous between ‘what is understood’ and ‘who understands,’ which he called, among other things, a “preexisting basis for understanding” – “what is effective (wirksam) in world history is also active within man himself” (Mueller-Vollmer, 2006, p.16-17).
Other Romantic authors were instrumental in the development of hermeneutics and the historical and social sciences in general, such as Johann Gustav Droysen (1808-1884) and Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911). Droysen believed that history could never be an objective science – the historian’s task was not to explain but to interpret (Sherratt, 2006, p.37). The influence of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) and his famous dictum “Verum esse ipsum factum” is noticeable here. What he meant was that, since history is a human activity, only there can ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ coincide, for humans can only fully comprehend history (and never nature). In Droysen’s own words: “understanding is the most perfect knowledge that is attainable for us humans” (quoted in Mueller-Vollmer, 2006, p.17).
Under Kant’s influence, Dilthey sought an epistemological basis that would provide a foundation for the human sciences in a similar way to what The Critique of Pure Reason had done for the natural sciences. Dilthey was thus determined to make a Critique of Historical Reason, dealing with reason in the human world and its social, historical, and cultural aspects. Although Dilthey intended to overcome the subjectivity inherent in the points of view from which history could be accessed through a methodology that would obtain objective historical knowledge (Gadamer, 2013, p.238), this “would not simply depend on the direct transposition and application of the method of the natural sciences to history or, in general, to the human sciences” (Verde, 2009, p.48).
For this ambitious philosophical enterprise, Dilthey relied on three ideas:
The continuity between historical actors and the historian allowed the latter to have real historical knowledge – thus echoing the ideas of Vico and Droysen;
Experience could be distinguished between two forms: ordinary, neutral experience (Erfahrung) and lived, evaluative experience (Erlebnis);
Finally, the belief that there is always a correspondence between how the meaning of an individual’s life and the meaning of history is apprehended.
Indeed, the way in which the historian or the humanist apprehends history is a manifestation of human life, the “life-expression” (Lebensäusserung) (Mueller-Vollmer, 2006, p.25).
Dilthey (who was Schleiermacher’s biographer and scholar) recovered the idea that interpretation required both a ‘grammatical’ and a ‘psychological’ aspect – meaning that, in part, to understand the past, one had to reconstruct, relive, and ‘divine’ it. Dilthey’s project was faced with fundamental problems which he himself never managed to overcome, although he belatedly acknowledged and addressed them when confronted with the ideas advanced by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938).
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The Twentieth Century – Phenomenological, Ontological and Dialectical Hermeneutics
Although Husserl is generally not considered a hermeneutic philosopher, since he was not primarily concerned with ‘interpretation,’ his philosophical contributions came to be fundamental for the development of twentieth-century hermeneutics. His phenomenology was decisive and shaped the thinking of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and, later, Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), and it is thus difficult to avoid Husserl in order to understand both of these philosophers and contemporary hermeneutics.
Reacting to the forgetfulness of the experienced world caused by the growing importance of a scientific view of the world, Husserl intended to turn philosophy into a precise science, having for that purpose developed a method that aimed to examine phenomena as they present themselves to us: phenomenology. In his famous motto: “We must go back to the things themselves”.
Husserl named this method “bracketing” (epoché), which consisted in suspending any assumptions regarding the existence of an external world and dedicating oneself exclusively to observing and describing the phenomena of experience. Therefore, by ‘things’ Husserl did not mean the things in the physical world, ‘out there,’ independent of the observer, as Kant had defined them. On the contrary, he was referring to the things of experience as they are given to us. But, maintaining that even the “lived-world” could be traced back to the most essential structures of consciousness – “that the meaning of facticity is itself an eidos, and that it therefore belongs to the eidetic sphere of ‘universality of essence’” (Gadamer, 2013, p.256) – Husserl never managed to overcome the problematic nature of his argument which culminated the Cartesian tradition into a kind of transcendental solipsism.
Husserl’s most famous student and intellectual successor developed the conceptual tools that would allow him to surpass his teacher, but also the hermeneutics of Romanticism, reconceiving them for a much broader existential purpose. With Martin Heidegger, phenomenology became hermeneutical: that is, for Heidegger, phenomenology had to start from the interpretation of our very being-in-the-world and from our factical existence. “Phenomenology”, writes Gadamer (2013, p.255), “should be ontologically based on the facticity of Dasein, existence, which cannot be based on or derived from anything else, and not on the pure cogito as the essential constitution of typical universality”. If for Husserl, who sought to radicalize the Cartesian position, philosophy had to become a rigorous science, with Heidegger, philosophy becomes historical: a form of interpretation given in time.
As is suggested by the title of his most famous work – ‘Being and Time’ (1962, originally published in 1927) – Heidegger was concerned with the questions of being and time. Heidegger considered that the question of being had been forgotten by Western philosophy, beginning with Socrates and Plato, and he, therefore, aimed to recover it. His project of a fundamental ontology, in fact, led him to the conclusion that being was determined within the horizon of time – “the structure of temporality appeared as ontologically definitive of subjectivity. But it was more than that. Heidegger’s thesis was that being was time itself” (Gadamer, 2013, p.257).
In Heidegger’s words (1962, p.40): “the central problematic of all ontology is rooted in the phenomenon of time” – the very way that being has to uncover itself resides in its “temporal character”. This brought history, or rather historicity (Geschichtlichkeit) to the forefront of hermeneutics.
With Heidegger, ‘understanding’ and ‘interpretation’ are no longer methodological concepts or procedures for the reconstitution of meaning, but the very essential and original characteristic of Dasein (Heidegger’s word for our distinctive mode of being as humans, which can be translated as ‘being-there’). As such, ‘understanding’ is no longer “conceived as a subjective process of man over and against an object but the way of being of man himself; hermeneutics is not defined as a general help discipline for the humanities but as a philosophical effort to account for understanding as an ontological – the ontological – process in man” (Palmer, 1969, p.163).
In a way, Heidegger’s philosophical contribution reverses the usual assumption that one must interpret something in order to comprehend it, by positing ‘understanding’ as the most fundamental element of Dasein. In fact, according to Heidegger, it is not possible to pose a question without somehow understanding what it is we are questioning; without the question being meaningfully available, and its contents somehow open to us. We can thus only interpret what we already (at least partially) understand. And this has to do with the fact that Dasein is always-already inserted, implicated, and involved in a world – a tacit, lived world. Any act of understanding, therefore, always operates within a set of already interpreted relations: in a relational whole (Bewandtnisganzheit). From this point of view, understanding is not something one can possess; rather, it is a mode of being, or, in Gadamer’s (2013, p.260) words: “Understanding is the original characteristic of the being of human life itself.” This, of course, means that all understanding culminates in, and ultimately is, self-understanding (Schmidt, 2006, p.99).
In his later works, Heidegger develops his thought around language and its relation to existence. For this German philosopher, it is language and words that bring things into being, in the sense of revealing them as what they are. Language, according to Heidegger, posits and reveals things insofar as they fit into the relational totality that comprises them. It brings beings out into the open realm of intelligibility, bringing beings into presence by showing them as what they are. It is in this sense that Heidegger famously proclaims that “language is the house of being” (Heidegger 1998, 293). Language, and therefore interpretation, establishes beings as the things they are at any given moment, in any given context.
The historical context in which things can appear as such is extremely important for Heidegger because “an interpretation is never a presuppositionless apprehending of something presented to us” (Heidegger, 1962, pp.191-192). With Heidegger, and later with Gadamer, the hermeneutic circle is no longer simply restricted to the relation between ‘whole’ and ‘parts,’ but by the fact that ‘interpretation’ is given in time and history, it is also always necessarily comprised of ‘prejudices’ or ‘pre-understandings.’ It is prejudices and preconceptions that fundamentally allow for further and better understanding: what Heidegger called the “fore-structure of understanding.” Since understanding always starts with the projection of meaning and works through anticipatory structures to which new understanding must make reference, the full extent and the implications of the circular nature of hermeneutics reveal themselves:
“[The hermeneutic circle] is not to be reduced to the level of a vicious circle, or even of a circle which is merely tolerated. In the circle is hidden a positive possibility of the most primordial kind of knowing” (Heidegger 1962, p. 195).
Deeply influenced by these ideas, having even been a student of Heidegger’s, it was Hans-Georg Gadamer who developed in greater detail and depth the notions of the linguistic nature of ‘understanding’ and the conditions for the possibility of ‘understanding.’ Indeed, the publication of his masterpiece, Truth and Method (1960) inaugurated a new era for hermeneutics. Divided into three parts, it begins with a critique of aesthetic consciousness, moves on to a critique of historical interpretation, and ends with questions of language, dialogue, and ‘understanding.’ It remains a work of extreme relevance to this day for philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities in general.
In his works, Gadamer opposes modern conceptions of the human sciences that take inspiration from the natural sciences to constitute their method, and thus, unlike some of his predecessors, he does not conceive of hermeneutics as the methodological basis for attaining knowledge in the human sciences.
Rather, Gadamer brings into question the very status of ‘method’ as a valid procedure for attaining knowledge in the social and historical sciences. Consequently, Gadamer is not concerned with reconstructing the past and accessing the author’s intention, but rather, on the one hand, with understanding the content of a text, and on the other, and more fundamentally, with the very possibility of ‘understanding’ itself – that is, with how any kind of understanding is possible at all.
His aim is, therefore, not to formulate interpretive principles, guides, or procedures for interpretation, but to clarify the phenomenon of ‘understanding’ itself.
“For him, the purpose of hermeneutics is not to put forward rules for ‘objectively valid’ understanding but to conceive understanding itself as comprehensively as possible” (Palmer, 1969, p.215).
Gadamer does this by retrieving and developing Heidegger’s views on being, historicity, and language.
Unlike traditional views of history, Gadamer believes that the past is not objectifiable. It is a flux in which we move and participate, not a set of facts that may be brought to consciousness. Indeed, human beings’ basic existence is based on history, which each and every one of us is inevitably a part of. It is always from this historical perspective that it is possible to arrive at any kind of understanding. In other words, the historicity of being is the very condition that allows for the possibility of ‘understanding.’ More specifically, to the extent that any interpretative act always departs from its particular time and place, the interpreter is always guided by his or her prejudices (Vor-urteil) (Mueller- Vollmer, op. cit., p.38).
Hans-Georg Gadamer: Truth and Method. The landmark book that started modern philosophical hermeneutics.
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As Gadamer argues in Truth and Method, it is only with the advent of the Enlightenment that the ideas of prejudice and tradition acquire their negative connotation. He proceeds by explaining that, in fact, “prejudice” only means a judgment made before all the conditions are met that allow the final evaluation of a situation (Gadamer, 2013, p.283) – it is, in essence, neither positive nor negative.
The “Enlightenment doctrine of prejudice” distinguished between prejudices of “overhastiness” and prejudices of authority: the former happened by misuse of reason, leading to errors, and the latter by virtue of not using reason at all. In this way, the Enlightenment defined the division between authority and reason as mutually exclusive terms (Gadamer, 2013, p.289). The authority of tradition was thus not only relegated to a second plane but became subject to the court of reason – “it is not tradition but reason that constitutes the ultimate source of all authority” (Gadamer, 2013, p.285). However ironic, the prejudice against prejudice itself, which denies and empties tradition of its power, is the great prejudice of the Enlightenment. And this is one of those elements shared by both the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Insofar as Romanticism and its fascination with the past partly arose from the Enlightenment, it was still subject to its effects, only reversing the order of values, perpetuating the contrast between myth and reason. The historical thought that emerged from the Romantic tradition materialized as the last step of the Enlightenment, seeking to free itself from dogma through ‘objective’ knowledge of history.
“Thus the romantic critique of the Enlightenment itself ends in Enlightenment, for it evolves as historical science and draws everything into the orbit of historicism” (Gadamer, 2013, p.288).
The quintessential prejudice of the Enlightenment – the prejudice against prejudice itself, and the subjugation of the authority of the past to ‘reason’ – had further consequences. Gadamer claims that the very concept of authority was distorted in this process, having been equated with “blind obedience.” By itself, the Enlightenment’s distinction between faith in authority and the use of reason is legitimate, especially if the prestige of authority goes against one’s own judgment. “But this does not preclude its being a source of truth, and that is what the Enlightenment failed to see when it denigrated all authority” (Gadamer, 2013, p.291). Gadamer thus restores the power of authority by demonstrating that authority is not the abandonment of ‘reason,’ but rather the recognition of the superiority of the knowledge that comes from it.
“Thus, acknowledging authority is always connected with the idea that what the authority says is not irrational and arbitrary but can, in principle, be discovered to be true” (Gadamer, 2013, p.292).
If the Enlightenment, with its rationalist, empiricist, and objectivist proclivities, had taken prejudices to be inherently negative, Gadamer takes them as a starting point and as the very condition for the possibility of ‘understanding’ and ‘interpretation.’ Echoing Heidegger, Gadamer makes the explicit point that there can be no interpretation without ‘presuppositions.’ What Gadamer realized was that it is through history and tradition that presuppositions are constituted, and these, in turn, allow thought and understanding to take place. They not only shape the questions we pose but also determine which questions are worth posing in the first place.
Moreover, it is not possible to bring the totality of tradition to our thought and conscious awareness (as if it were an object of reflection) because it is the very horizon within which ‘understanding’ and ‘interpretation’ can happen. This horizon – which is the hermeneutic situation of the self, the set of prejudices inherited from the past – Gadamer called the “principle of effective history” (Wirkungsgeschichte).
Consequently, consciousness is always affected by history – “historically effected consciousness (wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein)” – and even if one does not know or recognize it oneself, history and historical prejudices are always a part of the process of understanding (Gadamer, 2013, p. 312). In Gadamer’s words, “Understanding is, essentially, a historically effected event” (Gadamer, 2013, p. 10). The idea of consciousness affected by history and language is thus the mark of the limits and inherent finitude of understanding, but also of its very possibility.
Deeply influenced by Plato, Gadamer considered any act of understanding to always be a dialectical process. Understanding arises from the hermeneutic circle, in which the interpreter moves between the meaning of the ‘whole’ and the ‘parts’ that compose what is to be understood, returning again to the whole (and so forth). However, according to Gadamer, the process of interpretation is circular in yet another way: since our history, our tradition, and our acquired prejudices are the conditions on which the possibility of understanding is founded (since interpretation is never ‘presuppositionless’), whenever we understand something new and strange, we have to do it with reference to the old and familiar.
In other words, whenever we interpret and understand something, we must do it from within our current hermeneutical horizon, which conditions and shapes the possible interpretative paths that can be taken. Although in the past the hermeneutic circle had already been recognized, it was not fully historically dialectical, in the sense that it attempted to understand the text or the author only in reference to its supposed isolated own terms.
Gadamer, on the other hand, recognized the role historicity plays in the ‘understanding subject,’ while paying attention to the content of what is under interpretation and its historical significance. To do so, it is necessary to assume that the text does have a unity of meaning, “an immanent unity of meaning,” and that its interpretation is guided by the previous relations one has had with the content of that text (Gadamer, 2013, p.305).
Therefore, not only do prejudices guide the interpretative process, but they allow one to enter the hermeneutic circle through the projection of an anticipated signification that Gadamer too calls the ‘forestructure of understanding.’
Again, it is imperative to point out here that this anticipation of meaning is not based on subjectivity but derives from the shared space of tradition. That is to say that the reference point on which to anchor interpretation is not the subjectivity of the author, nor that of the reader, but the historical significance of the subject matter at hand. Or, in other words, the significance that what is to be interpreted has (and can have) for us situated in the present.
But this also means that our participation in, and constitution of tradition is constantly evolving, and is not a static pre-condition. The hermeneutic circle is therefore not a “methodological circle” but “an element of the ontological structure of understanding” (Gadamer, 2013, p.305). To provide an example, consider how different the interpretation of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth would have been for someone in the early nineteenth century from someone in the twentieth century who was familiar with Freud’s ideas. Or how differently Greek tragedies have been interpreted by ancient Greeks and nineteenth-century Romantics. When we interpret something, we allow it to become “present to [us], contemporaneous (gleichzeitig)” (Palmer, 1969, p.185), and it is through the present situation that the subject matter makes itself relevant (or not).
Insofar as a text or a work presents itself with a content (to which we provisionally grant the status of meaningfulness or relevance), two aspects must be emphasized: (1) the hermeneutic circle will “correct” any false or wrong presuppositions, because through these it will not be possible to achieve the unity of meaning (Sherratt, 2006, p.92); (2) the text brings with it its own horizon (even if it is projected), which is confronted with ours, thus calling into question our preconceptions and leading to a new understanding in which the two horizons merge. Understanding, in Gadamer’s terms, is thus always “the fusion of these horizons supposedly existing by themselves” (Gadamer, 2013, p.317).
With this in mind, the dialectical nature of Gadamer’s hermeneutics becomes finally clear. For him, the whole act of true understanding takes place in the relationship between question and answer – “the hermeneutic phenomenon (…) implies the primacy of dialogue and the structure of question and answer” (Gadamer, 2013, p.378). It is not about the reconstruction of the past or accessing the intentions of an author.
Rather, it is about a reciprocal conversation, a dialogue between the interpreter and the interpreted, depending on the space that is opened by the question and the subject in question. “To reach an understanding in a dialogue is not merely a matter of putting oneself forward and successfully asserting one’s own point of view, but being transformed into a communion in which we do not remain what we were” (Gadamer, 2013, p.387).
After Gadamer, hermeneutics was taken up and developed by other philosophers. Richard Rorty (1931-2007), for instance, tried to combine hermeneutics with American pragmatism and deployed the term “hermeneutics” to refer to his anti-epistemological and anti-foundationalist position (Rorty, 1979); while Gianni Vattimo (1936-) similarly developed the idea of ‘hermeneutical nihilism’ as the only plausible alternative to the overcoming of traditional metaphysics.
During the 1970s and 1980s, hermeneutics also started to deeply permeate the social sciences and the humanities, and anthropology in particular, for its emphasis on understanding different cultures and worldviews, and the problems posed by this endeavor.
The most representative authors of this approach – which came to be known as ‘hermeneutic’ or ‘interpretative anthropology’ – were Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) and Paul Rabinow (1944-2021). Both were deeply influenced by Gadamer and another famous hermeneutic philosopher, Paul Ricœur (1913-2005).
Geertz, for example, famously defined ‘culture’ as “an ensemble of texts, themselves ensembles, which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong” (Geertz, 1973, p.452), in a clear instance of what it meant to think of anthropology in hermeneutical terms.
In an era marked by an abundance of information, where fake news and deep-fake multimedia are pressing and increasing concerns, the ‘art of interpretation’ faces unprecedented challenges and a newfound relevance. Hermeneutics becomes more crucial as discernment gets more difficult. The next few decades will undoubtedly influence the future of hermeneutics as a discipline, and if we are fortunate enough to be able to learn from the past, hermeneutics will in turn impact the future of our world as well.
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Guilherme Figueiredo is a doctoral student in Anthropology at the University of Oxford and an associated researcher at CRIA (Centre for Research in Anthropology) in Lisbon, Portugal. He has co-organized and lectured seminars and courses about art, anthropology, religion, and philosophy. He has devoted his research to philosophical and theoretical aspects of anthropology, namely, to issues related to intercultural translation, ethnocentrism, objectivity, and relativism, drawing on three philosophical traditions (pragmatism, hermeneutics, and phenomenology). Currently, he is researching notions of place and space, religion, and secularism in Japan.
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Guilherme Figueiredo on Daily Philosophy:
Barthes, Roland, 1967, The Death of the Author.
Eriksen, Thomas Hylland, and Finn Sivert Nielsen, 2013, A History of Anthropology. London, U.K.: Pluto Press.
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Mueller-Vollmer, Kurt, 2006 (original 1989). The Hermeneutics reader: texts of the German tradition from the Enlightenment to the present. New York, U.S.A., Continuum.
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Palmer, Richard E. 1969. Hermeneutics; interpretation in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Rorty, Richard, 1979. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
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Sherratt, Yvonne, 2006. Continental Philosophy of Social Science: Hermeneutics, Genealogy, and Critical Theory from Greece to the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge University Press.
Turner, James, 2014. Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.
Verde, Filipe, 2009. Explicação e Hermenêutica. Angelus Novus.
Cover image by Ben Sweet on Unsplash.