HERMENEUTICS:

THE PHILOSOPHY OF INTERPRETATION


F.P.A. Demeterio III

WHAT IS HERMENEUTICS?

 

The word hermeneutics is derived from the Greek word ermhneuein (hermeneuein), meaning to interpret, and its derivative ermhneia (hermeneia) meaning interpretation.  In its barest sense, hermeneutics can be understood as:

 

a theory, methodology and praxis of interpretation that is geared towards the recapturing of meaning of a text, or a text-analogue, that is temporally or culturally distant, or obscured by ideology and false consciousness. 

 

Hermeneutics presupposes that texts and text-analogues that are distant in time and culture, or that are blanketed by ideology and false consciousness, would necessarily appear chaotic, incomplete, contradictory and distorted, and that they need to be systematically interpreted to unveil their underlying coherence or sense.  

 

The main reason why hermeneutics seemed to be a very complicated idea is that it has indeed become complex due to the inter-twining of its multiple layers of meanings and concerns.  The first step, therefore, in understanding it is to untangle its multiple layers.  As our definition suggests, hermeneutics has three different layers of meanings and concerns, namely:

 

1)       theory, which is concerned about the epistemological validity and possibility of interpretation;

2)       methodology, which is concerned about the formulation of reliable systems of interpretation; and

3)       praxis, which is concerned about the actual process of interpreting specific texts. 

 

Hermeneutics, as a praxis of interpretation, emerged very early in the history of civilizations.  The great cultures of the antiquity generally had their share of sacred literature that need to be interpreted and re-interpreted by their priestly and royal classes.  Thus, hermeneutics had been practiced by ancient people long before philosophy ever though of it as a discipline belonging to its own province.  In late antiquity, the Greeks, the Jews and the Christians had been reading and re-reading their vital texts, namely the Homeric epics, the  Torah, Talmud and Midrashim, and the Holy Bible, respectively.  In the process of their textual labor, these people revised their own idiosyncratic sets of rules for doing interpretation: thus, hermeneutics, as methodology of interpretation, started to evolve from hermeneutics, as praxis of interpretation.

 

The full development of hermeneutics, as methodology of interpretation, however, happened some more centuries later during the Renaissance period.  This development was triggered by a heightened need for hermeneutic praxis that transformed the once purely practical operation into a self-conscious procedure.  This heightened need for praxis in return had been catalyzed by two landmark historical phenomena: the protestant reformation and the renaissance’s fascination for classical Greek and Roman texts.  The protestant reformation had spawned a whole process of debate regarding the Christian’s relationship with the sacred scriptures.   Whereas the Catholic church re-asserted, during 1546 the Council of Trent, its age-old position that it is its own authority which is the ultimate norm of interpreting the Holy Bible, the protestants insisted on the principles of perspicuity—the need for a keenness of the interpreter’s discernment—and self sufficiency of the sacred scriptures.      Freed from the blanketing dogma of the Catholic Church, the protestant theologians and scripturists, led by Matthias Flacius Illyricus (1520-1575), have to rely on more self-conscious hermeneutic systems.  The Renaissance’s fascination with the classical Greek and Roman texts, as the second catalyst, had already generated a whole arsenal of interpretive methodologies, collectively known as Ars Critica, that are useful in establishing the authenticity of the texts as well as in reconstructing the text’s most original and correct version.  Side by side with this purely humanist concern, Renaissance jurists were also struggling to re-interpret the Roman Law, specifically, the Justinian Code of AD 533.    Hermeneutics as methodology of interpretation, therefore, did not only fully develop during the renaissance period, it proliferated into a collection of contradicting, incoherent and confusing systems.

 

From the chaotic presence of hermeneutic systems, as methodologies of interpretation, there appeared a need for a more critical and foundational evaluation of interpretation itself, an epistemology into its validity and possibility.  It was Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834), a German protestant theologian and philologist, who initiated philosophy’s focusing on the problems of interpretation and the need for a unified systematic method of hermeneutics.  Thus, hermeneutics, as a theory, or epistemology, of interpretation materialized.  

 

Placed in a crucible of intense philosophical analysis and further theorization, hermeneutics emerged as a more powerful system suitable not only for religion, and humanism, but also for the steadily growing social sciences.    The spread of hermeneutics from the world of religious and humanist textuality to the social sciences’ sphere of human action, behavior and culture had been facilitated by the expansion of the meaning of textuality itself.  What was traditionally understood as something that refers only to things that are or can be written has been stretched to cover almost anything that has something to do with man and culture.  Today, not only documents, literary texts and scriptures can be called texts, but also symbols, rituals, practices and customs, myths, structures of power, kinship and social set-ups, and many more besides.

 

The following sections present an overview of the modern and contemporary developments of the hermeneutic theory and method as proposed by some of the leading thinkers and philosophers who devoted their attention to the philosophy of interpretation.

  

FRIEDRICH DANIEL ERNST SCHLEIERMACHER

 

Schleiermacher is not only a protestant theologian and philologist, but a biblical scholar as well.  From his encounters with ancient texts, he became aware of the vagueness, and apparent incompleteness of such texts.  He theorized that the primary reason why texts from ancient times are vague and apparently incomplete is because these texts have been removed from their original historical and cultural contexts.  A love letter of an 18th century Manileñ̃o student, for example, would be difficult for us to fully understand due to the fact that it comes from a different historical context; just as a 20th century South African short story would be difficult for us to fully understand due to the fact that it comes from a different cultural context.   Schleiermacher believed that texts contain implicit references to its original historical and cultural contexts, such that when they are separated from these contexts, vagueness and incompleteness would necessarily confront the interpreter.   

 

Consequently, hermeneutics should start with the reconstruction of a given text’s original historical and cultural contexts.   Thus, to understand fully the love letter of an 18th century Manileñ̃o student, we have to thoroughly understand first the historical context of 18th century Manila; just as to understand fully the 20th century South African short story, we have to thoroughly understand first the cultural context of 20th century South Africa.  

 

More specifically, Schleiermacher proposed three reconstructive strategies for his hermeneutic method.  The first of these is the grammatical reconstruction, where the original language and the idiom of a given text is systematically mastered by the interpreter.   The second of these is the historical reconstruction, where the historical and cultural contexts of a given text are thoroughly studied by the interpreter.  The third of these is the comparative reconstruction where a given text is studied side by side with its contemporary texts. 

 

WILHELM DILTHEY

 

Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911), a German philosopher of culture, and epistemologist, is Schleiermacher’s biographer and intellectual heir, who elaborated the latter’s idea on the necessity of the cultural and historical contexts in interpretation.  Dilthey did this by theorizing on the existence of a collective consciousness, which he called the ojbjectiver Geist (literally, objective mind), the sum total of the intersubjective products and human creations, or the solidification of all and every life-expression of a given culture in a given time.  For him, this objectiver Geist is the ultimate context of all texts and human actions in any given period and place, and understanding it is key for any interpretation.   For Dilthey, reconstructive interpretation means reconstructing the specific objectiver Geist of a given text.

 

But Schleiermacher’s reconstructive interpretation had in fact encountered a huge theoretical problem.  He realized that the reconstruction of a given text’s cultural and historical contexts are in themselves hermeneutic tasks that required a preliminary batch of cultural and historical reconstruction that are again hermeneutic tasks that required another preliminary batch of cultural and historical reconstruction, and so on and so forth.  In other words, Schleiermacher’s reconstructive interpretation would logically force any interpreter to regress infinitely towards the past, tracking an endless trail of contexts.   To save his hermeneutic theory and methodology, he proposed another type of reconstruction: the divinatory reconstruction, or the process through which “one seeks to understand the writer immediately to the point that one transforms oneself into the other.”   

 

Dilthey’s most significant contribution to hermeneutic theory consists of his rational clarification and elaboration of Schleiermacher’s problematic procedure of divinatory reconstruction.  Dilthey did this by theorizing on another category: the Erlebnis.  For him, Erlebnisse are experiences that are vibrating with life, like love, anger, oppression, revolution, beauty, pain, ambition, frustration and friendship.   Dilthey argued that Erlebnisse are understandable by all men of all times, based on the fact that all men of all times can experience them in one way or another.  Thus, instead of following Schleiermacher’s mystical leap into the text’s otherness, Dilthey used these   Erlebnisse as his stepping stones towards a more rational entry into the same textual otherness.   Dilthey says: “interpretation would be impossible if the expressions of life were totally alien.  It would be unnecessary if there were nothing alien in them.”  Because of Erlebnis, the interpreter and the text share something in common to start with.  He believed that the highest form of understanding happens with the reader’s empathic reliving and recreating of the text’s life experiences.

 

EDMUND HUSSERL

 

The German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), fully agreed with the Schleiermacherian idea that in order to fully understand a text, a proper context is necessary.  But instead of considering the external historical and cultural contexts, Husserl believed that a text can reflect its own proper context, making it unnecessary to go outside the parameters of the same text. 

 

Thus, for him, interpretation should start with a methodic isolation of a given text from all extraneous things, including the interpreter’s biases and presuppositions, in order to allow the text to communicate its meaning to the interpreter.   He talked about the process of bracketing which is the systematic purification of the mind from all the biases and presuppositions before approaching a given text, so that the meaning of the text will not be contaminated by the same biases and presuppositions from the interpreter’s mind.

 

For example, in the Old Testament, we can read the story of King Solomon, the Jewish king who is renowned for his wealth, power and wisdom.  We can also read that King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 mistresses.  This knowledge could easily shock us to think that King Solomon was in fact a degenerate womanizer and adulterer.  But the shock comes from the fact that we are assessing King Solomon from the perspective of our present day monogamous standards.   The Old Testament, on the contrary presents the King’s multiple marriage and affairs as a normal practice of powerful leaders during those times.   Following Husserl, we have to prevent our present day monogamous standards from muddling our reading of the greatness, power and wisdom of King Solomon.  Instead, we have to understand him in the context of the same Old Testament.

 

FRIEDRICH WILHELM NIETZSCHE 

 

The German philosopher and philologist, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900), conceptualized two important ideas that exerted so much influence on the development of contemporary hermeneutic theories, particularly the postmodern ones.  These two ideas are the perspectivist theory of knowledge, and the genealogical method of interpretation.

 

Nietzsche’s perspectivist theory of knowledge stands contrary to the desire of Husserl to purify understanding from the biases and presuppositions of the interpreter’s mind.  The perspectivist theory of knowledge, instead, looks at knowledge and understanding as things that are inevitably formed by the biases and presuppositions of the interpreter’s mind.  Nietzsche argued that there is no such thing as pure knowledge and pure understanding, for the reason that all knowledges and understandings are subjectively produced from the perspective of the interpreter’s biases and presuppositions.   His perspectivist theory knowledge challenged the dominant idea that a text has an objective meaning that is independent from the subjective interpretations of the interpreter.  This challenge consequently ushered in the thought that a text can be open to several subjective interpretations.

 

Nietzsche’s genealogical method of interpretation, on the other hand, stands contrary to what was once the dominant way of writing history as conceptualized by the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831).  For Hegel, history follows the evolutionary plot of development, where civilizations march towards progress along the arrow of time.  In the Hegelian historical plot, the past and the present are essentially the same, and are only different in the sense that the past is cruder, less developed, and less matured compared to the present.   The evolutionary scheme of the Hegelian historical plot makes the present enduring, natural and legitimate.  Nietzsche’s genealogical method of interpretation, instead, seeks to separate the past from the present, by highlighting the idea that the past is in fact radically different from the present.  By breaking the evolutionary connection from the past to the present, the present’s status of being enduring, natural and legitimate becomes questionable.  

 

Nietzsche’s most famous use of his genealogical method of interpretation is found in his critique of Christian morality.  What we see today as an enduring, natural and legitimate moral system, Christianity, has, Nietzsche claimed, an arbitrary, unnatural, and illegitimate origin.   For Nietzsche, Christian morality started from the early Christians who were mostly underprivileged people and slaves, and who were dominated, persecuted and ridiculed by such powerful people as the Romans.  Being underprivileged and powerless, these early Christians could not externally retaliate against their oppressors.  Instead they repressed their resentment and feelings of hostility in their hearts and re-channeled and sublimated them by formulating the Christian code of behavior that is characterized by its emphasis on humility, submissiveness, timidity, and self-denial.  According to Nietzsche, Christian morality is a herd morality that attracts and generates people who are pessimistic, dull, static and conformist, who would only hamper the full development of the human power and potential.  Thus, by demonstrating how the past is radically different from the present, the genealogical method of interpretation questioned the commonly assumed endurance, naturalness and legitimacy of Christian morality.

 

MARTIN HEIDEGGER

 

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), a German philologist and philosopher, started as a student and follower of Husserl.   But Heidegger was not convinced that it is actually possible to bracket the interpreter’s biases and presuppositions, as proposed by Husserl.    On the contrary, Heidegger followed the lead of Nietzsche’s perspectivist theory of knowledge, and proposed that the interpreter has a mind and being that are totally immersed in his/her life-world, such that understanding and interpretation would always proceed from the point of view of this life-world.   The interpreter is in fact formed by the biases and presuppositions of his/her life-world making him/her incapable of attaining full self-consciousness and objective knowledge. 

 

Heidegger argued that instead of hypocritically claiming to scrap these biases and presuppositions, the interpreter could make a better use of them by employing them as the starting point in understanding a given text.   For him, understanding and interpretation are like fishing with nets, where the fisherman should first have a net, should second cast the net into the water, and should third draw back the net, in order to catch some fish.   The fisherman here is the interpreter, the net is the biases and presuppositions in the interpreter’s mind, the water is the text, and the fish is the meaning of the text.   For heidegger, it is the biases and presuppositions of the interpreter that would actually capture the meaning of a text.   By scrapping them, we will end up with a fisherman who is without his net.

 

We can experience the force of Heidegger’s hermeneutic theory every time we are asked to read a totally new and unfamiliar text.  The reason why it is difficult for us to capture the meaning of such a totally new and unfamiliar text is that we do not have the necessary biases and presuppositions that would help us in grasping the same meaning.  In such a case we are reduced into a fisherman who is without his net.  But the moment we start reading some simpler introductory materials about the same text, we begin to accumulate the necessary biases and presuppositions, such that when we approach the same assigned text again, it could appear more meaningful and understandable.

 

Hermeneutics for Heidegger means the conscious and systematic accumulation of useful and necessary biases and presuppositions before starting the actual process of interpretation.  The act of casting these biases and presuppositions upon the text, and the act of drawing back the meaning towards the interpreter constitute the Heideggerian hermeneutic circle.

 

HANS-GEORG GADAMER

 

The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) is a student and follower of Heidegger.  With his intention of elaborating further his master’s theory, Gadamer replaced the Heideggerian notion of biases and presuppositions with his idea of horizon, and the Heideggerian process of hermeneutic circle with his schema of fusion of horizons.

 

For Gadamer, a horizon is the subjective and experiential life-world that is constituted by the biases, presuppositions, experiences, knowledge and emotions, of any given person.   The horizon is our premise to any interaction, conversation and understanding.  We do things, see things, talk about things, and understand things, always from the perspective of our own personal horizon.    Gadamer emphasized that a horizon is not a changeless bubble that imprisons the person, but a living framework that can be modified primarily through exposure to other horizons. 

 

Gadamer focused his attention on what happens during an interaction of two different horizons.  During a dialogue, or conversation, or interaction, the two person’s different horizons, interact with each other, and modify each other.  This situation can be seen, for instance, in the life of two friends.  At the outset of their friendship, the two persons can be so different from each other: one may like rock concerts, while the other the orchestra; one may prefer reading magazines, while the other novels; one may like Italian cuisine, while the other Chinese, and so on.  But due to the fact that they are friends and are constantly interacting with each other, their distinct horizons can modify each other, such that after quite some time, we can perhaps see them both going to a rock concert, or reading novels, or dining in a Chinese cuisine, and so on.  Friendship is not only a matter of interaction, but also a matter of negotiation of what the two friends like and dislike.  More importantly, friendship is about the mutual modification of the friends’ respective horizons.    This is what Gadamer calls the “fusion of horizons.”

 

Gadamerian hermeneutics is modeled after this same dialogue, and is aimed towards the fusion of horizons.    But an obvious question confronts us at this point: how can we talk of a dialogue between an interpreter and a text?    How can a dialogue ensue between a person and a non-person?    Gadamer insists that hermeneutics is indeed a dialogue, though dialogue here must be taken in a broader sense.   Between the interpreter and the text, the dialogue takes place during the process of reading.    When the interpreter, with his/her given horizon, approaches the text, and its given horizon, the former can reflect on his/her own horizon and be able to attain a critical level of self-consciousness.  Along the process of struggle over meaning, the interpreter may repeatedly transcend and modify his/her own horizon while simultaneously pulling the text from its initial horizon until some sort of a fusion is achieved.     

  

JURGEN HABERMAS

 

Jurgen Habermas (born 1929), a German philosopher and sociologist, agreed with Gadamer on the value of the dialogical model of interpretation.   Yet Habermas noticed that not all dialogues can result into an authentic fusion of horizons.   Dialogues can easily be distorted by a given person’s strategic desire to dominate the other person.  More dangerous than this, dialogues can also be distorted by unconscious forces, such as ideology, that can warp the linguistic fabric of the persons’ horizons.   Habermas, then, proposed two ideas that can purify Gadamer’s dialogue from the distorting forces of strategic desire and ideology.  These two ideas are the theory of communicative action, and the theory of universal pragmatics.

 

The theory of communicative action made a distinction between communicative action and strategic action.  Communicative action corresponds to the purified version of the Gadamerian dialogue, a process of communicating with the another person that is motivated by the sole purpose of reaching a real consensus.  Strategic action, on the other hand, is a process of communication that is motivated by the desire to dominate, manipulate, and subjugate the other person.  Thus, the ideal Gadamerian dialogue should follow the pathway of communicative action.  But such an ideal is difficult to achieve, because persons usually indulge in strategic actions. 

 

The theory of universal pragmatics is formulated in order to filter strategic action, and eventually transform it into communicative action.  Habermas based his theory of universal pragmatics on the fact that ever since man has been obsessed with the criterion of truth.  Habermas believed that the criterion of truth, though very useful, is simply not enough, for the reason that are types of communications that cannot be evaluated as true or false.  To elaborate this point, Habermas borrowed from the thoughts of the German born British philosopher Sir Karl Raimund Popper (1902-1994), who theorized that a person simultaneously exists in three distinct worlds, namely: 1) the physical world of nature, 2) the internal world of ideas, thoughts, and emotions, and 3) the social world of inter-subjectivity.   Habermas, deduced the insight that if there are substantial distinctions between these three worlds, then there are substantial distinctions between the communications used with reference to, or within the context of, each of these worlds.  Since there are three Popperian worlds, and three different modes of communication, there must also be three different criteria used in evaluating communications.   Thus, aside from truth, Habermas proposed that the two other criteria must be sincerity and appropriateness.   For each and every communication we must ask the following questions:

 

1)       Is it true? (the truth criterion);

2)       Is the person speaking sincere? (the sincerity criterion); and

3)       Is the communication process appropriate? Or does the communication process build social relationships or inter-subjectivities? (the appropriateness criterion).

 

By subjecting each and every communication to this triple analysis, the interpreter can now determine whether the person performing the communication is making a communicative action or a strategic one.  Any communication that fails in just one of these three criteria immediately becomes a suspect of being a conduit of strategic elements, and ideological distortions.    Through this same triple analysis, the interpreter can likewise determine in what way does a person performing a strategic action distort the communication process.

 

Jean Paul Gustave  RICOEUR

 

            The French philosopher and theologian Paul Ricoeur (19213-2005), built his theory of interpretation in between the debate of Gadamer and Habermas.  On one side, there is the Gadamerian way of affirmation and willingness to listen and dialogue with a given text.   On the other side, there is the Habermasian way of suspicion and the drive to unveil the ideological contents of a given text.   Ricoeur trimmed down the universalistic scopes of both Gadamer and Habermas’ theories and highlighted their valuable insights by emphasizing that the Gadamerian attitude of listening can happen simultaneously with the Habermasian stance of suspicion.

 

            If Schleiermacher laments the text’s detachment from its original historical and cultural contexts, Ricoeur takes this condition as a matter of fact and never desired to reunite their severed ties.  On the contrary, Ricoeur makes this severed condition the premise in theorizing that a text contains endless possibilities of meaning.  Ricoeur accepted that a given text may harbor ideological elements that need to be purified, but he also pointed out the need to liberate its untapped potentialities of meanin

 

CONCLUSION

 

            After having these cursory views on the various modern and contemporary hermeneutic theories and methods a crucial question confronts us: which among these leading systems is the most powerful interpretive tool?  To address this question, we have to remember that there is really no best system.  Each of these systems has its   has its own advantages and disadvantages.  Thus, the question can only be answered in relation to the specific task at hand.  We, therefore, have to settle first what is it that we want to do, before looking for the most appropriate hermeneutic system to use.  There is no best hermeneutic system, there are only appropriate or suitable hermeneutic systems.

 

REFERENCES

 

Caputo, John D. Demythologizing Heidegger. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Demeterio, F.P.A. “Critical Hermeneutics.” Online Article from http://www .geocities.com/philodept/diwatao/index.htm.

Demeterio, F.P.A. “Dialectical Hermeneutics.” Online Article from http://www .geocities.com/philodept/diwatao/index.htm.

Demeterio, F.P.A. “Romanticist Hermeneutics.” Online Article from http://www .geocities.com/philodept/diwatao/index.htm.

Demeterio, F.P.A. “The Idea of Hermeneutics.” Online Article from http://www .geocities.com/philodept/diwatao/index.htm.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. London: Sheed & Ward, 1975.

Habermas, Jurgen. Lifeworld and System: a Critique of Functionalist Reason. Book 2 of The Theory of Communicative Action. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1989.

Habermas, Jurgen. Reason and the Rationalization of Society. Book 1 of The Theory of Communicative Action. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1984.

Magnus, Bernd & Higgins, Kathleen M., Eds. The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Ricoeur, Paul. Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Actions and Interpretations. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1989.

Thompson, John B., Ed. Critical Hermeneutics: a Study in the Thought of Paul Ricoeur and Jurgen Habermas. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1981.

White, Stephen K., Ed. The Cambridge Companion to Habermas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

 

 

May 2006, De La Salle University

Manila, Philippines

feorillodemeterio@gmail.com