LITERALLY, THE STUDY OF INTERPRETATION.
The term was originally associated with biblical studies, but a philosophical tendency has been developed especially by Friedrich Schleiermacher(1768-1834), Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911), and Hans-Georg Gadamer(1900-2002).
Dilthey emphasized the need in human studies (Geisteswissenschaften) for an empathetic understanding (usually called by the German term, Verstehen) which went beyond mere external description. (Compare also the philosophy of Giovanni Vico (1668-1744).
Gadamer has emphasized the way interpretation develops gradually by an interplay between the interpreter and the subject-matter, denying both that there is a single objectively correct interpretation and that we can never get beyond our own initial interpretation.
H G Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics (1976)
Hermeneutics is derived from the Greek word ἑρμηνεύω (hermēneuō, “translate, interpret”), from ἑρμηνεύς (hermeneus, “translator, interpreter”), of uncertain etymology (R. S. P. Beekes (2009) suggests a Pre-Greek origin). The technical term ἑρμηνεία (hermeneia, “interpretation, explanation”) was introduced into philosophy mainly through the title of Aristotle’s work Περὶ Ἑρμηνείας (“Peri Hermeneias”), commonly referred to by its Latin title De Interpretatione and translated in English as On Interpretation. It is one of the earliest (c. 360 BCE) extant philosophical works in the Western tradition to deal with the relationship between language and logic in a comprehensive, explicit and formal way:
The early usage of “hermeneutics” places it within the boundaries of the sacred.:21 A divine message must be received with implicit uncertainty regarding its truth. This ambiguity is an irrationality; it is a sort of madness that is inflicted upon the receiver of the message. Only one who possesses a rational method of interpretation (i.e., a hermeneutic) could determine the truth or falsity of the message.:21–22
Folk etymology places its origin with Hermes, the mythological Greek deity who was the ‘messenger of the gods’. Besides being a mediator between the gods and between the gods and men, he led souls to the underworld upon death.
Hermes was also considered to be the inventor of language and speech, an interpreter, a liar, a thief and a trickster. These multiple roles made Hermes an ideal representative figure for hermeneutics. As Socrates noted, words have the power to reveal or conceal and can deliver messages in an ambiguous way. The Greek view of language as consisting of signs that could lead to truth or to falsehood was the essence of Hermes, who was said to relish the uneasiness of those who received the messages he delivered.
In religious traditions
Traditional Jewish hermeneutics differed from the Greek method in that the rabbis considered the Tanakh (the Jewish Biblical canon) to be without error. Any apparent inconsistencies had to be understood by means of careful examination of a given text within the context of other texts. There were different levels of interpretation: some were used to arrive at the plain meaning of the text, some expounded the law given in the text, and others found secret or mystical levels of understanding.Summaries of the principles by which Torah can be interpreted date back to, at least, Hillel the Elder, although the thirteen principles set forth in the Baraita of Rabbi Ishmael are perhaps the best known. These principles ranged from standard rules of logic (e.g., a fortiori argument [known in Hebrew as קל וחומר – kal v’chomer]) to more expansive ones, such as the rule that a passage could be interpreted by reference to another passage in which the same word appears (Gezerah Shavah). The rabbis did not ascribe equal persuasive power to the various principles.
Vedic hermeneutics involves the exegesis of the Vedas, the earliest holy texts of Hinduism. The Mimamsa was the leading hermeneutic school and their primary purpose was understanding what Dharma (righteous living) involved by a detailed hermeneutic study of the Vedas. They also derived the rules for the various rituals that had to be performed precisely.
The foundational text is the Mimamsa Sutra of Jaimini (ca. 3rd to 1st century BCE) with a major commentary by Śabara (ca. the 5th or 6th century CE). The Mimamsa sutra summed up the basic rules for Vedic interpretation.
Buddhist hermeneutics deals with the interpretation of the vast Buddhist literature, particularly those texts which are said to be spoken by the Buddha (Buddhavacana) and other enlightened beings. Buddhist hermeneutics is deeply tied to Buddhist spiritual practice and its ultimate aim is to extract skillful means of reaching spiritual enlightenment or nirvana. A central question in Buddhist hermeneutics is which Buddhist teachings are explicit, representing ultimate truth, and which teachings are merely conventional or relative.
Biblical hermeneutics is the study of the principles of interpretation of the Bible. While Jewish and Christian biblical hermeneutics have some overlap, they have distinctly different interpretive traditions.
The early patristic traditions of biblical exegesis had few unifying characteristics in the beginning but tended toward unification in later schools of biblical hermeneutics.
Augustine offers hermeneutics and homiletics in his De doctrina christiana. He stresses the importance of humility in the study of Scripture. He also regards the duplex commandment of love in Matthew 22 as the heart of Christian faith. In Augustine’s hermeneutics, signs have an important role. God can communicate with the believer through the signs of the Scriptures. Thus, humility, love, and the knowledge of signs are an essential hermeneutical presupposition for a sound interpretation of the Scriptures. Although Augustine endorses some teaching of the Platonism of his time, he recasts it according to a theocentric doctrine of the Bible. Similarly, in a practical discipline, he modifies the classical theory of oratory in a Christian way. He underscores the meaning of diligent study of the Bible and prayer as more than mere human knowledge and oratory skills. As a concluding remark, Augustine encourages the interpreter and preacher of the Bible to seek a good manner of life and, most of all, to love God and neighbor.
There is traditionally a fourfold sense of biblical hermeneutics: literal, moral, allegorical (spiritual), and anagogical.
Encyclopædia Britannica states that literal analysis means “a biblical text is to be deciphered according to the ‘plain meaning’ expressed by its linguistic construction and historical context.” The intention of the authors is believed to correspond to the literal meaning. Literal hermeneutics is often associated with the verbal inspiration of the Bible.
Moral interpretation searches for moral lessons which can be understood from writings within the Bible. Allegories are often placed in this category.
Allegorical interpretation states that biblical narratives have a second level of reference that is more than the people, events and things that are explicitly mentioned. One type of allegorical interpretation is known as typological, where the key figures, events, and establishments of the Old Testament are viewed as “types” (patterns). In the New Testament this can also include foreshadowing of people, objects, and events. According to this theory, readings like Noah’s Ark could be understood by using the Ark as a “type” of the Christian church that God designed from the start.
This type of interpretation is more often known as mystical interpretation. It claims to explain the events of the Bible and how they relate to or predict what the future holds. This is evident in the Jewish Kabbalah, which attempts to reveal the mystical significance of the numerical values of Hebrew words and letters.
In Judaism, anagogical interpretation is also evident in the medieval Zohar. In Christianity, it can be seen in Mariology.
Ancient and medieval hermeneutics
The discipline of hermeneutics emerged with the new humanist education of the 15th century as a historical and critical methodology for analyzing texts. In a triumph of early modern hermeneutics, the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla proved in 1440 that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery. This was done through intrinsic evidence of the text itself. Thus hermeneutics expanded from its medieval role of explaining the true meaning of the Bible.
However, biblical hermeneutics did not die off. For example, the Protestant Reformation brought about a renewed interest in the interpretation of the Bible, which took a step away from the interpretive tradition developed during the Middle Ages back to the texts themselves. Martin Luther and John Calvin emphasized scriptura sui ipsius interpres (scripture interprets itself). Calvin used brevitas et facilitas as an aspect of theological hermeneutics.
The rationalist Enlightenment led hermeneutists, especially Protestant exegetists, to view Scriptural texts as secular classical texts. They interpreted Scripture as responses to historical or social forces so that, for example, apparent contradictions and difficult passages in the New Testament might be clarified by comparing their possible meanings with contemporary Christian practices.
Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) explored the nature of understanding in relation not just to the problem of deciphering sacred texts but to all human texts and modes of communication.
The interpretation of a text must proceed by framing its content in terms of the overall organization of the work. Schleiermacher distinguished between grammatical interpretation and psychological interpretation. The former studies how a work is composed from general ideas; the latter studies the peculiar combinations that characterize the work as a whole. He said that every problem of interpretation is a problem of understanding and even defined hermeneutics as the art of avoiding misunderstanding. Misunderstanding was to be avoided by means of knowledge of grammatical and psychological laws.
During Schleiermacher’s time, a fundamental shift occurred from understanding not merely the exact words and their objective meaning, to an understanding of the writer’s distinctive character and point of view.
Nineteenth- and twentieth-century hermeneutics emerged as a theory of understanding (Verstehen) through the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher (Romantic hermeneutics and methodological hermeneutics), August Böckh (methodological hermeneutics), Wilhelm Dilthey (epistemological hermeneutics), Martin Heidegger (ontological hermeneutics, hermeneutic phenomenology, and transcendental hermeneutic phenomenology), Hans-Georg Gadamer (ontological hermeneutics), Leo Strauss (Straussian hermeneutics), Paul Ricœur (hermeneutic phenomenology), Walter Benjamin (Marxist hermeneutics), Ernst Bloch (Marxist hermeneutics), Jacques Derrida (radical hermeneutics, namely deconstruction), Richard Kearney (diacritical hermeneutics), Fredric Jameson (Marxist hermeneutics), and John Thompson (critical hermeneutics).
Regarding the relation of hermeneutics with problems of analytic philosophy, there has been, particularly among analytic Heideggerians and those working on Heidegger’s philosophy of science, an attempt to try and situate Heidegger’s hermeneutic project in debates concerning realism and anti-realism: arguments have been presented both for Heidegger’s hermeneutic idealism (the thesis that meaning determines reference or, equivalently, that our understanding of the being of entities is what determines entities as entities) and for Heidegger’s hermeneutic realism (the thesis that (a) there is a nature in itself and science can give us an explanation of how that nature works, and (b) that (a) is compatible with the ontological implications of our everyday practices).
Philosophers that worked to combine analytic philosophy with hermeneutics include Georg Henrik von Wright and Peter Winch. Roy J. Howard termed this approach analytic hermeneutics.
Other contemporary philosophers influenced by the hermeneutic tradition include Charles Taylor (engaged hermeneutics) and Dagfinn Føllesdal.
Wilhelm Dilthey broadened hermeneutics even more by relating interpretation to historical objectification. Understanding moves from the outer manifestations of human action and productivity to the exploration of their inner meaning. In his last important essay, “The Understanding of Other Persons and Their Manifestations of Life” (1910), Dilthey made clear that this move from outer to inner, from expression to what is expressed, is not based on empathy. Empathy involves a direct identification with the Other. Interpretation involves an indirect or mediated understanding that can only be attained by placing human expressions in their historical context. Thus, understanding is not a process of reconstructing the state of mind of the author, but one of articulating what is expressed in his work.
Dilthey divided sciences of the mind (human sciences) into three structural levels: experience, expression, and comprehension.
- Experience means to feel a situation or thing personally. Dilthey suggested that we can always grasp the meaning of unknown thought when we try to experience it. His understanding of experience is very similar to that of phenomenologist Edmund Husserl.
- Expression converts experience into meaning because the discourse has an appeal to someone outside of oneself. Every saying is an expression. Dilthey suggested that one can always return to an expression, especially to its written form, and this practice has the same objective value as an experiment in science. The possibility of returning makes scientific analysis possible, and therefore the humanities may be labeled as science. Moreover, he assumed that an expression may be “saying” more than the speaker intends because the expression brings forward meanings which the individual consciousness may not fully understand.
- The last structural level of the science of the mind, according to Dilthey, is comprehension, which is a level that contains both comprehension and incomprehension. Incomprehension means, more or less, wrong understanding. He assumed that comprehension produces coexistence: “he who understands, understands others; he who does not understand stays alone.”