Hermeneutics is the art of interpretation, closely taking apart a text, a discourse, or some other narrative in order to assess the underlying aspects to see what the author is ‘really’ telling us, or what we can discover about his life.
In general, hermeneutics is the study of theory and practice of interpretation. And then there are, at least, four sub-fields: (a) traditional hermeneutics (including Biblical hermeneutics) that refers to interpretation of texts such as of religion, literature, or law. (b) Contemporary or modern hermeneutics that extends beyond the written text and refers also to all forms of communication such as philosophy of language and semiotics. (c) Philosophical hermeneutics refers to Gadamer’s theory of hermeneutics, and, occasionally, to that of Paul Ricoeur’s. (e) Finally, hermeneutic consistency represents analysis of texts for coherent explanation.
In short, hermeneutics is the recognition that ideas are nested in linguistics, historical and cultural horizons of meaning and that these need to be mined for something of the ext to be understood. Proper understanding, then, of the text needs inter-disciplinary coloration with the theologian, for instance, needing the philosopher as well as the historian and the scientist to uncover possible authentic meanings. Inter-linguistic collaboration is also required where one may need to understand the author’s original language (since it may be often misinterpreted when converted into translation), as well as inter-national and inter-historical collaboration (in a manner of speaking) in order to ‘stand in the author’s shoe’s s far as oen possibly can.
Hermeneutics comes from the term Hermes. But who is Hermes? The closest we can come to that is the derivation the ‘some of Hermogenes’, and Hermogenes, himself, was a figure in one of the acts of Socrates. Hermes is what Hermogenes is not: constantly lucky in business affairs and scrupulous in seeking a fortune. The Socratic debate with Hermogenes revolves around language, particularly around names. Says Socrates: “There is a great deal of difficulty in this sort of knowledge” (Abulard, 12).
Earlier still, Plato speaks of Hermes as follows:
I should imagine that the name Hermes has to do with speech, and signifies that he is the interpreter, or messenger, or thief, or liar, or bargainer; all that sort of thing has a great deal to do with language. (Abulard, 13)
And Hermogenes admits that quite correctly he is “no true son of Hermes, for I am not a good hand at speeches” (ibid.)
Hermeneutics, arguably, came into being through religion that used it to tear aside its religious cannons in order to extract deeper and implicit meanings; in order to delve into the under-belly of the text. St. Augustine, one of the classical devotees of hermeneutics says that “to discover the meaning we must attend both to things and to signs” and provides the example of “the wood that Moses cast into the water & #8230;. Or the stone that Jacob used as a pillow.. Or the ram which Jacob offered up for his son… these are signs of other things” (Abulard, 14). Meaning that we cannot conclusively take them at face value, rather that may be either totally, or additionally, be indicative of another meaning altogether. In a similar way, “no one uses words expect as signs of something else” and words — our own articulations are always signs. The words ‘cat’ or ‘dog’, for instance, are allusions to an animal that we use as English semantic composed of various syllables that strung together read ‘CAT’ or ‘DOG’ and point to the corresponding image. The word itself stands as symbol or allusion to the reality. But the reality is never totally correspondent to the uttered syllables. It is the closest that we can come to pointing to what we mean. We can, however, never touch it. For Augustine, therefore, all sorts of disciplines — including, art, history, and the sciences — could be brought in to better understand and make use of the religious text in order to uncover its true meaning.
Schleiermacher was another pioneer of hermeneutics. To truly understand the content of the author’s writing and to as well as possible understand the meaning that the author intends to convey one has to know something about he author’s background, culture, historical epoch because all of this led to the author’s perspective and reputed in his or her particular worldview. Better understanding what he or she wants to tell us can emerge from knowledge of his background and possible mental constructs. All of this forms and informs the text and can provide us with an enhanced holistic picture: “Complete understanding is an understanding of the utterer better then he understands himself,” says Schleiermacher, “It is an infinity of past and future that we wish to see in the moment of the utterance” (Abulad, 17).
Other modern practitioners of hermeneutics included Dilthey who thought that interpretation relied on historical objectification and similar to Schleiermacher, to better understand the text we must explore not only the outer meaning of the other, but more importantly the inner meaning too. Dilthey’s treatise extended to all areas of life.
Heidegger shifted hermeneutics to a relationship between oneself and existence. Which should be treated in a direct, non-mediated sense. We are accustomed to interpretating our existence through the lens that we have been accustomed to seeing it with. Heidegger recommends a seeing of the world as it is; a direct, non-mediated relationship.
Ricoeur’s ideas of hermeneutics were similar to those of Heidegger’s, whilst other contemporary thinkers of the subjects include Ortiz-Oses, Lonergan. Apel (whose hermeneutics is based on American semiotics), Beuchot (who coined the term ‘analogic hermeneutics’ that also considers the plurality of meaning), and others.
Gadamer and Hermeneutics
It was ‘Truth and Method’ published by Hans-Georg Gadamer that first launched hermeneutics as a philosophical doctrine. Using concepts reminiscent of phenomenology and Heidegger, Gadamar argued that consciousness is always conscious of something. We are never an entity extraneous to all, but rather our perception is always linked to, and focused on, something. The cogito is inseparable from the cognitatum hence it is impossible, as Kant or Descartes (for instance), would like to think that we could sever ourselves from world phenomena and think independently. Rather subject and object are indelibly linked, and may be broken only through the activity of reading which becomes an I-Thou act where relationship is fused between reader and author and the author’s world (or horizons) collides with that of the readers.
Interpretation can only occur when ‘the sides are not stitched tight’, when the horizons are separated by a gap, namely when the reader severs himself from the author — steps back and endeavors toe valuate him. When however, the reading is uninterrupted, and the reader becomes absorbed by the author, a clash of horizons then occurs resulting in what Gadamer called ‘historically effected consciousness’ (Abulad, 18). Gadamer’s relationship with texts is thus a form of phenomenology, where the reader becomes a one with the author and thus enters, or is fused into, the author’s weltanschauung, as he described of a reader’s relationship with a poem:
The objective is not to discern or pinpoint the univocity of the poet’s intent? not by any means… Rather what is involved is attentiveness to the ambiguity, multivocity and indeterminacy unleashed by the poetic text — a multivocity which does not furnish a blank check to the license of the reader, but rather constitutes the very target of the hermeneutical struggle demanded by the text (Dalmayr, 2011, 44).
There is a sustained dialogical understanding and a fusion of horizons.
Jacques Derrida and hermeneutics
Derrida’s critical theory became known as deconstruction and his work labeled as post-structuralism and associated with post-modernistic philosophy. His most famous statement: ‘there is nothing outside the text” sums up his views on hermeneutics by his implication that there is no context…