F.P.A. Demeterio III


            The theological and philological activities of the Renaissance had added a whole array of idiosyncratic hermeneutic systems on the existing ancient models. Collectively, the result was far from encouraging. Instead of methodic certainty, the scholarly atmosphere was littered with inconsistencies and chaos. A dialectical overturning was about to happen. It was Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834), a German Protestant theologian, classical philologist, preacher, church statesman, and educator, who marked as the dialectical node in between hermeneutics as praxis and hermeneutics as theory. It was this intellectual who invited philosophy to focus its attention on the problems of interpretation and the need to formulate a unified systematic method of hermeneutics. His most important question was concerning the possibility of a unified hermeneutic method that can be applicable to any hermeneutic concern. Like the other practitioners of interpretation, Schleiermacher also looked for ways and means to methodize interpretation and understanding, but he went outside this rather parochial parameter. Instead of problematizing the interpretation of particular texts, he problematized the process of interpretation itself.

            Schleiermacher had faith in the possibility of method interpretation, a faith that is in fact almost fanatical. One can find the recurrent assertion in his writings that interpretation is geared towards the understanding of a text "at first as well as and then even better than its author." That is to say, through interpretation a reader can understand a text even better than the text's own author. What appears to us as a grandiose and exaggerated claim is for Schleiermacher a logically and firmly grounded conclusion. For him, whenever a text is produced, its author follows a set of unconscious, and semiconscious rules and conventions of his own language, time and culture. The reader, who most often belongs to a different language, time and culture have to reconstruct these unconscious and semiconscious rules and conventions and bring them into full consciousness first before undertaking any interpretive move. When such a reader approaches the text, therefore, he is on a better position compared to the author.

            Schleiermacher's career and training as a Protestant theologian, and classical philologist offered him a first hand experience with hermeneutic praxis. His background in philosophy affords him a critical perspective that is capable of reflecting on same hermeneutic praxis. It comes as no surprise, then, that when he undertakes his hermeneutic project, both the praxis and the theory aspects of hermeneutics are superbly and masterfully treated. His dual methodology, in fact, reflects these two different layers of hermeneutics. The first of which is a cluster of philological and exegetical tools, which he calls grammatical, historical, and comparative re-constructions, that obviously falls in the sphere of hermeneutic praxis. The second one of which is his own weapon in solving the theoretical problems spawned by the first methodology, as well as by the question on the possibility of human interpretation itself, which he calls divinatory reconstruction, that marked the beginning of hermeneutic theory.

The first methodology, the grammatical, historical, and comparative re-constructions are varieties of contextual reading.

            In grammatical re-construction, the reader interprets the text against the context its original linguistic and grammatical rules and structures. It goes without saying that the reader has to master first the language and idiom of the text. Here, Schleiermacher's philological and exegetical training manifest themselves rather cleary. In historical reconstruction, the reader interprets the text against the context of the socio-cultural, as well as economic and political events that circumscribe the production of the same text. Archeology and historical investigations are the auxiliaries of the reader in this methodology. In comparative reconstruction, the reader interprets the text against its inter-texts-that is, its related texts.

            From the level of praxis, these methodological tools that Schleiermacher formulated are indeed very powerful. In fact, these changed the developmental course of sacred scriptural and historical investigations. But on the level sophisticated self-criticism, Schleiermacher discovered their radical contradictions. These re-constructions require a full knowledge of the text's grammatical structure, the text's historical circumstances, and the text's inter-texts. Yet, all of these-most specially, the second and the third one-can only be fully grasped through hermeneutics. In other words, the reconstruction of a context is in itself a hermeneutic endeavor that requires a preliminary batch of contextual re-constructions, which in themselves in return would be another set of hermeneutic endeavors.

           This series of contextual re-constructions theoretically can regress to infinity. This is the theoretical problem that shakes the methodological tools at their very foundation. Such a potential regression to infinity undermines the ground upon which a text is based, and made Schleiermacher to admit that texts can have infinite number of meanings. Simultaneously, however, he believes that even with the infinite meanings that are latent in a text, the author who created that text had a single and definite meaning in mind. This intentional meaning is what obsessed Schleiermacher and led him to formulate his second methodology. He defines divinatory reconstruction as the process through which "one seeks to understand the writer immediately to the point that one transforms oneself into the other." Through the empathic move of leaping into the particularity of the author's intention, Schleiermacher sheds off the rationalism of enlightenment and joins the stream of romanticists' emphasis on feelings. Though in his first methodology, he rigorously applies a rational system, in the end he succumbs to the romantic sort of poetic transfiguration of the self into the other and eludes, in the process, the radical contradictions of the first methodology.


            Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911), German philosopher of culture, and epistemologist, is Schleiermacher's biographer and intellectual heir. He is the person who made the capital distinction between the Naturwissenschaften (natural sciences), and Geisteswissenschaften (human sciences). He saw in his contemporaries the grave sin of truncating and mutilating the Geisteswissenschaften by forcing them into the methodologies and paradigms of the Naturwissenschaften. He believes that the methodologies and paradigms of the Naturwissenschaften are hooked on the explanations based on the principle of causality, while those of the Geisteswissenschaften should deal with understanding the essentially unpredictable human nature. Dilthey thinks that if the Kantian critique of pure reason is the rational foundation of the Naturwissenschaften, then his hermeneutic project will be the rational foundation of the Geisteswissenschaften. Dilthey starts with Schleiermacher's idea of romantic empathy as the basis of human understanding, but proceeds in a more stricter and rational way. If Schleiermacher balanced his attention to the praxis and theory aspects of hermeneutics, Dilthey considered only the theoretical side which he subdivided into pragmatic hermeneutics, or na‹ve interpretation, and methodic hermeneutics, or historical understanding.i

            As somebody who specialized in the theoretical aspect of hermeneutics, Dilthey had to deal with the problem of the possibility of human understanding. He adopted an earlier distinction between pragmatic and methodic hermeneutics, and respectively rooted them in his notions of elementary and higher forms of understanding.

            For Dilthey, elementary forms of understanding, which is the foundation for pragmatic understanding, is in return based on his concept of life-expression. Life expressions are tangible human activities that in one way or another, intentionally or unintentionally manifest a given individual's mental contents. These expressions are classified into two groups. The first one of which consists of concepts, judgments and larger thought-structures. Dilthey explains: "As constituent parts of knowledge, separated from the experience in which they occurred, what they have in common is conformity to logic. They retain their identity, therefore, independently of their position in the context of thought." The second group of which consists of actions, which generally do not arise from an intention to convey or signify something, but is, as a rule, always purposive. Hence, there is a natural connection "between an action and some mental content which allows us to make probable inferences."

            Elementary forms of understanding is possible because of the life-expressions' role in the pragmatic affairs of everyday life. When individuals inevitably have to interact and depend on each other for survival and development, they intentionally and unintentionally communicate through life-expressions. But what exactly makes these life-expressions meaningful as well as understandable to each an every individual. Dilthey thinks that circumscribing these life-expressions is the objektiver Geist (objective mind), a Hegelian term which he deployed to refer to 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.ii Influenced by Neo-Kantianism, he believes that works of art and literature, and all of human activities, are manifestations of the formal values and structures of feelings of their originary world. Texts and actions, therefore, are as much expressions of their culture as they are of their individual creators. It is in the world of the objektiver Geist that the individual "receives sustenance from earliest childhood," and it is through this world that the "understanding of other persons and their life-expressions takes place." It is the objektiver Geist, so to say, which acts as the overall context against which any given text or action can be understood. Within the context of the objektiver Geist not only will the life-expression be understood, but its mental content will be supplemented, yielding in the process a clearer and richer understanding. At this point, Dilthey presents the epistemological justification of all forms of contextual readings.

            Dilthey believes that the higher forms of understanding presuppose the lower forms of understanding, as sentences and paragraphs presuppose the alphabet. The lower forms of understanding are the rudiments of the higher forms of understanding. The higher forms of understanding, the foundation of methodic hermeneutics, starts with the artificial reconstruction of the text's or action's original objektiver Geist. At this stage, Dilthey, who was not very keen on the praxis aspect of hermeneutics, is most probably endorsing the grammatical, psychological and comparative re-constructions of his intellectual predecessor, Schleiermacher, but like his master he also encountered a theoretical contradiction here. The reconstructed objektiver Geist is only capable of shedding light on the text's or action's generalities. As a collective mind, it will be incapable of understanding the text's or action's particular otherness. If Schleiermacher eludes this contradiction by taking the mystical leap into the text's otherness with his divinatory reconstruction, Dilthey was methodically more cautious.

            In his effort to circumvent the theoretical contradiction, Dilthey deployed another category, the Erlebnis.iii Erlebnisse are experiences that are vibrating with life, like love, anger, oppression, revolution, beauty, pain, ambition, frustration and friendship, which Dilthey alleged to be 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. Instead of making the mystical leap into the text's otherness, Dilthey makes these Erlebnisse his moorings for his methodic hermeneutics. 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 reader and the text share something in common to start with. The highest form of understanding happens with the reader's empathic reliving and recreating of the text's life experiences. Dilthey writes:


In a lyrical poem we can follow the pattern of lived experiences in the sequence of lines, not the real one which inspired the poet, but the one, which, on the basis of this inspiration, he places in the mouth of an ideal person. The sequence of scenes in play allows us to re-live the fragments from the life of the person on the stage. The narrative of the novelist or historian, which follows the historical course of events, makes us re-experience it. It is the triumph of re-experiences that it supplements the fragments of a course of events in such a way that we believe ourselves to be confronted by continuity.



            i As the most authoritative biographer of Schleiermacher, Dilthey is oftentimes accused of inviting too much attention to Schleiermacher's divinatory re-construction at the expense of his rigorous grammatical, psychological and comparative re-constructions.

            ii For Dilthey the objektiver Geist's "realm extends from the style of life and the forms of social intercourse to the system of purposes which society has created for itself and to custom, law, state, religion, art, science and philosophy. For even the work of genius represents ideas, feelings and ideals commonly held in an age and environment."

            iii "Here, Dilthey makes an important distinction between two German words which can be translated as 'experience'. These are Erfahrung which is the common word meaning 'experience', and Erlebnis, a coined word from the infinitive erleben meaning 'to experience'. Erlebnis was virtually non-existent in German, until Dilthey used it in a special sense. Erfahrung is a general term but Erlebnis is a special term to connote our inner experiences or our 'lived experiences'." (Quito, Philosophers of Hermeneutics)



June 2001, San Beda College

Manila, Philippines