Book Summary: Hermeneutics: A Very Short Introduction / Jens Zimmermann

Chapter 1: What is hermeneutics?

According to Zimmermann, a simple answer to the question is that “it means interpretation” (p.1). “Interpretation occurs in many fields of study and also day-to-day life. We interpret plays, novels, abstract art, music and movies, employment contracts, the law, the Bible, the Quran, and other sacred texts; but we also interpret the actions of our friends and enemies, or try to figure out what a job termination means in the context of our life story” (p.1). So, the goal of interpretation is to understand what these may mean. Although in some areas of life the need of interpretation is less obvious, “hermeneutics is more than the interpretive principles or methods we resort to when immediate comprehension fails us. Rather, hermeneutics is already unconsciously at work even when we grasp the obvious meaning of a red light” (p.2). And so, Zimmermann sees hermeneutics as the art of understanding and being understood—while focusing on the former in this book.

The term hermeneutics

The word comes from the ancient Greek language as hermeneuein means to utter, to explain, to translate. The word is seen to be used in the works of Plato and Aristotle. Interestingly, the word has also been associated with the winged-messenger god, Hermes.

Hermeneutics and the quest for self-understanding

“From its inception in Greek antiquity, hermeneutics aimed to discover the truth about ourselves and the world we inhabit for the sake of wisdom” (p.5)—as philosophers in the ancient times contended that discoveries about the nature of things should “enhance our understanding of who we are and how we should live our lives as human beings. They thought that all understanding is ultimately self-understanding.” (p.5). In other words, in contrast to the modern tendencies to discount philosophy, religion, and poetry as sources of real knowledge, “the ancient world considered them to be important carriers of moral ideals.” (p.5). And one of the aims of the book is to why art, poetry, and rhetoric were regarded as crucial forms of knowledge until the 17th century but were excluded later by modern thinkers.

Hermeneutics as philosophical discipline

‘Hermeneutics’ also has a second meaning. “It is also the name for the philosophical discipline concerned with analysing the conditions for understanding” (p.6). With the publication of the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer’s book, Truth and Method (1960), philosophical hermeneutics emerged as a discipline. Philosophical understanding of hermeneutics is “concerned with ‘understanding understanding’. As a philosophical discipline, hermeneutics examines and describes what happens when understanding of any kind takes place” (p.7).

What is understanding?

According to hermeneutic thinkers, “understanding is the interpretive act of integrating particular things such as words, signs, and events into a meaningful whole” (p.7) and that understanding of this kind happens unconsciously “because we already move in a familiar cultural environment within which we perceive words and objects in a pre-established context of meaning” (p.7-8). When you want to attend a concert or a play, the seat that you intend to sit “appears to you not as a meaningless object of neutral observation but as a place of comfort where you can rest and warm your weary bones […]” (p.8). So, unlike modern culture which tends to think that real knowledge consists in quantification and numerical description of the world in which objective truth requires an impersonal, theoretical stance towards things, “hermeneutic philosophers contend, on the contrary, that our primary mode of perception is no theoretical but practical, and depends on our current desires or interests” (p.8). Hence, “the way we perceive the world as meaningful mode of perception is closer to our experience of art than to a science experiment” (p.8).

Interpreting animals

“Hermeneutics philosophers argue that interpretation is not only something we do but also something we are” (p.9). In other words, interpretation is a fundamental way of being in the world as we are ‘interpreting animals’. Thus, “philosophical hermeneutics […] stands for a certain conviction about the nature and communication of truth, name that all understanding is a matter of interpretation and that interpretation is essentially the personal integration of objects or words into a meaningful whole” (p.9-10).

The three central claims of hermeneutics

According to hermeneutic philosophers, in the vital areas of the nature of consciousness, the nature of truth, and the importance of language, “key developments in modern thought have brought about a distorted view of who we are and how we arrive at knowledge” (p.11).

Consciousness: the self is no island

“Hermeneutic thinkers claim that our modern consciousness has been shaped in such a way that we imagine ourselves as islands of awareness floating in the grand ocean of life, disconnected from other selves. We tend to think of the mind as something interior, separated from the outside material world. […] In philosophical terms, we are individual subjects confronted by external objects, such as nature or other people. […] We like to think that no one tells us what to do, and that we make up our minds after considering all the evidence in a completely unbiased way. On this view, ideas, concepts, and even historical events appear as if passing on a conveyor belt before our mind’s eye, from which we take what we consciously decide to make our own” (p.11).

Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher and hermeneutic thinker, labelled this sort of self-contained consciousness as a ‘disengaged self’, “because outside influences are admitted only by conscious choice.” (p.11). In contrast, hermeneutic thinkers believe in an ‘engaged self’ “that is fundamentally connect to the world and other people. […] consciousness itself is shaped by the way in which we inhabit the world” (p.11). It is our upbringing, culture, and language that shape our choices before we make any conscious decision. Thus, “the community or tradition to which we belong gives us the lenses through which we see the world” (p.12).

Truth is an event

“Based on the assumption of separation between mind and world, the disengaged self naturally favours disengaged reason. Disengaged reason is the kind of abstract, theoretical view of truth we know from a scientific laboratory: a detached observer arrives at an insight by setting up a methodical experiment, and will arrive at the same result every time the same methodical procedure is repeated. […] Objective knowledge is defined as the result of this disinterested observation” (p.12). However, hermeneutic thinkers disagree with the thought that knowledge is obtained through disinterested observation. “Rather, hermeneutic thinkers say that we only conduct experiments and want to know about the world because we are already deeply involved in it at the level of everyday, practical activity. Without this prior experimental relation to things, scientific results would be meaningless.” (p.12). As the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray says, ‘If we did not know what water is by drinking and boiling it in our kettles, the scientific statement that water is H2O would be merely a meaningless noise.’

Thus, according to hermeneutics, knowledge is more than naming and describing objects. For example, unlike a disengaged-self person would argue, hermeneutic thinkers contend that “the reason we can understand history in the first place is because we are historical beings through and through. […] past texts or events hold meaning for us in the first place because we stand within a tradition that has provided us with the very concepts through which we are connected to the past in a meaningful way” (p.13). In other words, “we need to redefine objective truth as something we take part in rather than something we merely observe from a distance. We don’t make truth happen; rather truth is something that happens to us. Truth is an event” (p.13).

The importance of language

According to disengaged-self people, perception and language are kept apart. Language is an instrument that helps us label things and express our needs or thoughts. Yet, according to hermeneutics all understanding is a matter of interpretation and that our immediate sense experience of the world precedes any interpretation. “The language that we use already interprets for us a certain way in which we relate to sense experience and how we express it to others. For this reason, hermeneutic thinkers argue that language guides our perception intrinsically. […] Words and terms we inherit through our upbringing provide guiding concepts for our recognition of meaningful human experience. […] In short, the world is given to us already interpreted through language.” (p.15).

Is ‘hermeneutics’ another word for relativism?

“To perceive is to interpret. Many misunderstand this universal claim that all knowledge is interpretive to signal the denial of objective truth and to invite the spectre of relativism” (p.16). Today, many academics and scientists question the false idol of ‘scientific objectivism’ and see objectivism and relativism as two sides of the same coin as “scientists have realized that the process of discovery is much more intuitive and uncontrolled than formerly imagined” (p.17). “Objective understanding of the world, others, and ourselves requires personal engagement and passionate curiosity. Acknowledging personal engagement in obtaining knowledge does not invite relativism. […] The hermeneutic claim that our knowledge is always relative to a certain context and personal viewpoint would only be relativism if we actually were isolated selves, unformed by history or language. In truth, however, our standpoint always incldues a universally valid context of meaning, or what philosophers call ‘horizon’. […] For most hermeneutic thinkers, this horizon is the tradition and language we inhabit, and through which we share a meaningful world. […] Most hermeneutic thinkers are firm believers in universal reason that allows for translation between all languages and cultures. To understand is to interpret: this universal claim of hermeneutics is not relativism but the admission that we are not gods.” (p.18).

Chapter 2: Hermeneutics: a brief history

Knowledge in the ancient world

In the ancient world, knowledge was much more unified than today and “the transmission of knowledge depended largely on the preservation and interpretation of authoritative texts. […] These texts were carefully preserved and commented on from one generation to the next.” (p.19). A common purpose was self-knowledge with a goal of character formation. “Our sketch of knowledge in the ancient world shows us the intrinsic connection between mind and world assumed by pre-modern interpreters. This connection grounded the authority of texts, explained the importance of tradition, and accounted for the capacity of words to mirror, however imperfectly, the cosmic order shared by the human spirit” (p.21).

From wisdom to epistemology

“The ancients asked how knowledge could enable a virtuous life. Moderns focus more on the epistemological question how we can know that something is true. The emphasis shifts from edification to verification” (p.22).

Separating the mind from the world

The French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes doubted everything the ancient world considered as reliable sources of knowledge such as tradition, religious or worldly authorities, body, emotions, and the senses. “Descartes entrusted to human reason the construction of a sure edifice of knowledge, from one certain idea to the next” (p.22). This was followed by Kant for whom “intellectual maturity meant the independence of reason from tradition” (p.22)

“This breach between the mind and the world has two important implications for hermeneutics” (p.23). The first has to do with the redefinition of objective knowledge as unbiased, value-free fact. It is to assume that “knowing objectively means to screen out the context of our own lives in order to attain certain knowledge” (p.23). The second implication is the problem of how to access other minds. Because “with the separation of mind and world, the interpreter is now faced by a gulf between his own and the author’s mind. […] How can this gulf be bridged? Modern hermeneutics is essentially a series of attempts to answer this question” (p.23).

The beginning of general hermeneutics

“The German theologian Daniel Friedrich Schleiermacher was one of the first modern thinkers who attempted to heal the breach between mind and the world” (p.23-24). He foresaw a modern obsession with certainty which would give rise to cultural wars between secular and religious fundamentalists, each believing itself to have the monopoly on truth. By focusing on the universal human conditions for understanding that formed the ground of all knowledge disciplines, he attempted to avoid a possible clash between religion and science. “The question that unites all these separate interpretive theories is how do I understand anything spoken or written by someone else?” (p24).

Hermeneutics of the spirit

“Schleiermacher was part of an intellectual movement in Germany called Romanticism. Romantics opposed the dry, rationalist view of reality inherited from Descartes and appealed to what they called Spirit (Geist in German) […] Spirit was often defined as the pervasive rational-moral power through which all things were interconnected. […] Schleiermacher appealed to this power as the interconnecting ground of all human understanding, even across time and language” (p.24-25).

Schleiermacher and the hermeneutic circle

“Long before Schleiermacher, interpreters had established the maxim that understanding any statement depends on a circular movement between part and whole. […] Every careful reader knows that the meaning of a particular statement depends on the larger context: a whole within which the part has meaning. […] The hermeneutic circle means that some greater context always influences how we understand a particular part. […] Schleiermacher’s unique contribution to the hermeneutic conversation about knowledge is his expansion of this textual principle to every aspect of human understanding. He believed that human reasoning, no matter in what area of life, always operates according to this circular movement between part and whole. […] the greater whole that guarantees the unity of knowledge is a universe in which all things are interconnected through Spirit. […] The notion of god-consciousness was Schleiermacher’s answer to the modern fragmentation of knowledge. He argued that even those who do not actually believe in gods nonetheless assume what they know reflects part of a greater meaningful whole. He believed that by completing our understanding of the universe, every science deals with a particular facet of the Spirit’s unified artwork, and thus contributes to our knowledge of God. […] In other words, we can attain knowledge of the universe or of God only through the particular thoughts of others, through concepts, through comparative religions and worldviews.” (p.25-27)

Interpretation as reconstruction

“Schleiermacher was convinced that thinking and language were intrinsically connected. Thought happened only as language, and therefore the interpreter’s reconstructive efforts required first of all grammatical skills” (p.27).

Schleiermacher—pros and cons

Schleiermacher, “rather than focusing on how a statement conveys truth (epistemology), he enquired more generally into who we are as beings who understand (ontology), and what conditions for understanding are” (p.28). For him, Schleiermacher is farm more than a mere instrument of expression as “neither the speaker nor the interpreter merely reaches for words the way we reach for a tool in our toolbox, but that words are the flesh and blood by which our notions about anything gain form and life.” (p.28-29). Later thinkers criticized Schleiermacher’s idea that interpretation requires stepping out of one’s own mind into that of the author. “How can we assert the connection between minds without ignoring the problem of history? This question becomes the central of our next hermeneutic thinker” (p.29).

Dilthey’s hermeneutics of life experience

The literary historian and philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911), like Schleiermacher, sought to overcome the separation of mind and the world that characterizes the modern ideal of knowledge. However, instead of appealing to metaphysics, “he argued instead that the firm ground for human knowledge is life experience itself. […]” (p.29). By suggesting that life itself is the bedrock of meaning, Dilthey criticized rationalists and empiricists—arguing that they pursue an unnatural way of knowing and assume some value-neural and impersonal world on which we impose meaning. “Dilthey denied that we experience the world as naked facts that have in themselves no value or meaning. He held, on the contrary, that the world is give to us only as already meaningful experience.” (p.30).

Explanation and understanding

“Dilthey’s life ambition was to give knowledge in the humanities the same kind of respectability enjoyed by natural sciences. […] The Natural sciences explain nature, but only the human sciences can understand culture. […] For example, Science can explain what a castle consists of, but it cannot explain why humans would want or need to build a castle in the first place” (p.30-31)

Interpreting à la Dilthey

“Dilthey believed that knowledge in the human sciences was objective because […] the interpreter no longer sought to enter another person’s mind, but instead focused on verifiable cultural manifestations of life experience. […] According to Dilthey, the interpreter translated the objectifications of life from documents back into the spiritual life from which they emerge” (p.31)

We don’t do history; we are history

Dilthey affirmed two important hermeneutic insights. “First, self-understanding is possible only indirectly through the hermeneutic detour of interpreting life expressions from others. We only know what being human means and how to evaluate ourselves by studying other people and cultures. Second, Dilthey’s hermeneutics marks the first truly historical turn in our conversation about knowledge” (p.32). According to Dilthey, we don’t do history, as if the past was like an object we can handle; we are history, “insofar as out self-understanding requires the constant recovery and appropriation of our past cultural heritage, the meditation of past and present.” (p.33)

Husserl’s phenomenology

“Modern epistemology views the world as an assemblage of naked objects our minds then endow with some kind of meaning. But what if objects have instrinsic meaning in the way that they appear to us?” (p.33)
“Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) is credited with the insight that objects always appear to human consciousness as endowed with meaning” (p.33). As an example, my immediate experience of an apple is not from an undistinguished sense experience. In what Husserl called phenomenology, phenomena (anything) disclose themselves to us in their meaning. So, when one touched or saw an apple, one really is in touch with the essence or true meaning of apple. “This is so because the mind as part of reality is not a self-enclosed sphere by essentially correlated with objects in the world. For Husserl, the task of philosophy was now to study how objects revealed themselves in their immediate relation to the observer” (p.34)

Martin Heidegger: to be human is to interpret

According to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), to whom Husserl almost showed how to close the gap between mind and world, argued that “objects in the world disclosed their meaning not merely conceptually to our minds, but through our practical relation to them in daily life. With Heidegger, our conversation about knowledge moves most fully from epistemology to ontology, that is, from theories about knowledge to the life context that provides the conditions for knowledge in the first place” (p.34). According to him, “understanding is what we unconsciously do every day by conducting ourselves, more or less skillfully, in the totality of meaningful relations that make up our world. To be human is to interpret. The task of hermeneutics as a philosophical discipline […] is to make visible the meaning structures within which we exist as interpreting animals. […] For this hermeneutic effort, the scientific posture of examining an object from a distance is completely useless, because such a stance catapults the interpreter out of the very life relations he needs to probe. Instead, the interpreter has to be completely engaged an try to make transparent the very structures of being he himself inhabits” (p.35).

Heidegger’s ‘world’

“Heidegger suggested that the ‘world’ is less like a science laboratory in which we observe things in a detached way and more like a home with which we are familiar. Let’s call this an existential stance within the world. When we are at home, our lives are determined by the projects we are engaged in. We want to vacuum the house, wash the car, hang up a picture, or host a friend for dinner. Living in light of projects characterizes our being in the world as future-oriented. The future directedness expresses itself in the ontological structure of ‘attentiveness’ (Besorgnis). Attentiveness means we relate to things around us with an eye to how they assist us in completing the tasks we are striving to accomplish.” (p.36).

Heidegger’s hammer

A famous example for this existential mode of being is the use of a hammer. “Engaged in the project of hanging up a picture, we reach for a hammer. We do not perceive the hammer as an examinable object, but as part of our project, as a means that is ready to hand […]. In Heidegger’s jargon, our normal relation to things has the ontological structure of ‘in-order-to’. Only when the hammer’s head flies off the handle—or something similar interrupts our intentional activity—do we take up a theoretical stance and examine the hammer’s composition. The hammer is now present as an abstract object. This abstraction from life, however necessary at times, is not our primary way of perceiving things. Rather, the being of something, whether it is a hammer, an idea, or the meaning of a text, is disclosed not to the detached or abstract analytical gaze but emerges in the context of our engaging it within a meaningful life context.“(p.36)

The existential hermeneutic circle

“Heidegger’s hammer illustrates his deepening of the hermeneutic circle to the universal existential dimensions of life: the common human project we all seek to complete is life with its future possibilities. The ‘in-order-to’ structure of our life projects is ‘care’. Our being in the world and our relation to things are united into a meaningful whole through our will and desire to realize our future possibilities in accomplishing our life as a task. This task is framed naturally as the meaningful whole between birth and death. Human life is thus an essentially interpretive enterprise, a continual future oriented movement of self-understanding within which we interpret texts, life situations, and other things. We are thrown into this hermeneutic life circle by birth, and the cultural traditions in which our outlook is formed provide us with a certain pre-understanding about the things we encounter in the world. Language, concepts, and cultural traditions shape our perception of life. […] Particularly for the later Heidegger, language is what makes the world a home to us, providing the symbolic web of meaning relations that make up the conceptual map by which we interpret the world”(p.37).

Hermeneutics after Heidegger

After Heidegger, there are two basic insights concerning hermeneutics. First, “pre-understanding or preconceptions are deemed an essential, intrinsic part of interpretation. Any pretensions to presuppositionless interpretation, of approaching texts or whatever we interpret without bias, must be given up” (p.38). Secondly, the reason we can engage the world meaningfully is the temporal, historical nature of our being. History is not a barrier but the very thing connecting us to the cultural traditions that are giving us the initial lenses through which we see the world.

Chapter 3: Philosophical hermeneutics

“Philosophical hermeneutics refers to the detailed and systematic examination of human understanding that began with German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002)” (p.39)
In his book titled ‘Truth and Method’, Gadamer defends the humanities and the kind of truth pursued in the liberal arts while not simply opposing “moral insights in the human sciences to method-driven knowledge in the natural sciences. Rather, he recognized the importance of methodical procedures for obtaining knowledge” (p.39).

Historically affected consciousness

According to Gadamer, “we obtain objective understanding about anything only by allowing an object to disclose itself through the meaningful relations within which it appears to us. […] Knowledge is not something that we acquire and control as a possession but something in which we already participate. The reason we understand anything at all is because we already stand in it.” (p.40)

The conversation that we are

According to Gadamer, too, it is through language that we have a meaningful world. “Gadamer claimed that as fish swim in water, so we move in language—our consciousness of the world and our thoughts move within this matrix. It is through language that we have a common, truly human world across time and across cultures” (p.42). “We are beings who think in language, and we think in the language of tradition, not as parrots, but as artists who creatively appropriate and reshape inherited questions and answers about what it means to be human” (p.43).

Tradition and authority are good things!

Unlike the Enlightenment ideas which see tradition and authority as the enemy of critical thought and unlike the modern ideal of knowledge which has left us with a teenage mentality toward authority and tradition as inherently bad because they shackle our freedom of self-expression and independent thought, Gadamer showed why such prejudice against guiding influences was mistaken. According to him, tradition and authority are not enemies of reason or critical thought. Rather, tradition furnishes the web of conceptions within which we live, move, and have our historical being. “The positive view of tradition as the storehouse of human knowledge recognizes the natural limits of human finitude. No individual can reinvent from scratch insights gained over many generations, but rather draws on the handed-down experience of tradition through recognized authorities. […] The goal is to become aware of these guiding influences and creatively adopt those that are fruitful while weeding out those that cripple our thinking.” (p.44-45).

Seeing or hearing?

“If indeed our historical being-in-the-world is like a conversation, then the way we come to understand things is more like a dialogue with interested people than a scientific investigation. Understanding this world therefore requires an attentive ear. […] For philosophical hermeneutics, every text that we encounter is essentially an answer to a previously asked question. For that matter, every idea or concept that has developed over time is a response to a question.
“Sometimes when philosophers defend hermeneutics against the charge of relativism, they similarly resort to the popular Indian tale about the subjective nature of truth. We all know the story: six blind men are standing around an elephant, each taking hold of a different part and trying to define this thing called ‘elephant’. Each grasps only a partial truth of the object before them, and yet we know they are all dealing with the same objectively present thing under investigation. This story is sometimes used to illustrate the hermeneutic claim that our interpretations do get at the real object but only reveal a certain part of the whole . The immediate problem with this illustration, however, is that partial understanding is presented as deficiency. The men are blind. […] someone who actually does see the elephant in its entirety can assure us that each blind man’s partial impression is indeed connected to the whole. To whom or what do we appeal for this total vision?” (p.46-47)
The elephant illustration helps us think how we picture our access to truth. “Do we expect to ‘see’ immediately or do we seek understanding through the process of conversation that requires patient listening and attention to the meaning of words? Do we compare understanding to the primary impersonal experience of observation or to the intrinsically relational, interpersonal experience of conversation? Do we see or do we hear? For Gadamer, at least, hearing is superior metaphor to seeing in describing the hermeneutic nature of our being in the world. The notion of listening to a conversation more adequately conveys how we come to know and negotiate the world through language and tradition. For him, every meaningful interaction with the world occurs through language, a sentiment captured in his well-known adage, ‘being that can be understood is language'” (p.47).

The heart of hermeneutic experience: mediation

For Gadamer, understanding works essentially as mediation and it is the heart of hermeneutic experience. We perform this mediating constantly as we encounter new situations in our lives. “When we understand, we unite our own perspective with another’s viewpoint into a greater unifying context, and this experience transforms us by expanding our own perspective on things. […] Experience is not merely the encounter with something unforeseen but always includes our being changed by this encounter” (p.48). The fact that the strange does not simply remain strange and inaccessible to us lies in the human ability to detect similarity in difference. That is, when we encounter something unfamiliar, we engage it by relating it to what is already familiar to us. “Integrating the strange into the familiar, however, does not merely assimilate the new element into our own frame of reference, but also changes our own mental horizon” (p.48).

Fusion of horizons

When we read texts from the past, the same mediation of the alien and the familiar occurs. “According to Gadamer, the reader would ideally being reading such a text with the best understandable possible of its content and context. Once again, we meet here with the famous hermeneutic circle, the movement between parts and the whole that is also operative in unifying horizons from the past and present. The outcome of uniting past and present horizons, of this ‘fusion’, is the transformation of the reader” (p.51).

The soul of hermeneutic experience: application

According to Gadamer, application is essential to understanding. His point is that “any understanding, whether of a text or another’s utterance, requires that I pull the other’s statement into the concrete orbit of my own circumstances. And since these circumstances are always different, interpretation cannot proceed simply by templates or rules. The very idea of a text’s relevance requires my reading it in light of present concerns” (p.52).

Beyond objectivism and relativism

“The old scientific objectivism was wrong, therefore, to speak of detached knowing. At the same time, this involvement has nothing to do with relativism. It does not, because the reader cannot simply make up meaning but has to enter into the text’s or play’s given structure—this is the passive aspect of interpretation—even while the reader also plays an active role in performing the mediating work of interpretation we described as a fusion of horizons” (p.54). And Gadamer argued that knowledge derived from art operates precisely this way.

The power of art

Philosophical hermeneutics insists that art possesses the power to convey true knowledge about our human condition. And this power is best described as creative performance. “First, the hermeneutic aspect of making oneself understood plays an important role in artistic creation. In a first creative performance, an author, playwright, painter or sculptor captures aspects of human life and draws them together into the whole of a novel, a play, a statue, or even a historical account of the past. Created in order to be displayed, read, or performed, artwork is the most conscious expression of what human understanding always entails: the interpretative integration of life’s details itnto a meaningful whole. […] Understanding this original presentation by the artist requires a second performative re-presentation in which a text or play is brought alive and carried into the present” (p.54-55).

Chapter 4: Hermeneutics and the humanities


Texting, an email, or tweet is, compared to spoken conversation, is more easily misunderstood because it has been detached from its living context. “Yet this very detachment also allows the text to become, in a sense, timeless. Not only will the text live beyond ints moment of creation, but it will also become universally transmittable and accessible to all who can read” (p.57). In this sense, ‘texting’ is also the main occupation of knowledge disciplines called ‘the humanities’—as theology, philosophy, law, history, and literary studies deal mainly with the transmission and interpretation of texts. The technical term for this is ‘exegesis’, reconstructing a text in its original social-historical context and making texts speak before we can hear what they have to say.

Getting it right: the validity of interpretation

“How can we distinguish between valid and invalid interpretations? Is there only one correct interpretation? If not, then how do we adjudicate between conflicting interpretations? Hermeneutic thinkers have dealt with such questions about the validity of interpretation in essentially two ways” (p.59).

Hirsch’s hermeneutic objectivism

“The first solution is motivated by the fear of relativism: how do we avoid subjective interpretation that turns the text into a mirror of our own views?” (p.59-60). American literary critic E. D. Hirsch targeted four groups who opened the door to relativism. According to the thinkers in the first group, interpretation is ultimately about recognizing another person’s behind the text. “Hirsch rejected this kind of psychologizing interpretation that began with Schleiermacher’s Romantic ideal of understanding as communion with another soul” (p.60). The second group of subjective interpreters is New Criticism which aims to minimize the importance of authorial intent and historical context. The third targeted group is French post-modern philosophers and critics (Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida), who proclaimed the ‘death of the author’, meaning that an author is not really fully in control of what he writes. And the last targeted group is hermeneutic philosophers such as Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur because they do not separate strictly between ‘description and evaluation’, between what a text once meant and what it now means to us. Hirsch reduced these four groups to the “two extremes of intuitionism and positivism, that is, those who think they subjectively grasp the meaning of a text and those who construe what a text says based on interpretive principles alone” (p.60). Since both extremes open the door to relativism, Hirsch sought a middle ground. He did so by establishing author’s intended meaning as the changeless object of interpretation, arguing that the intended meaning of the original author determined the correct interpretation of texts at the time of the work’s original composition. Thus, Hirsch “clearly and neatly distinguished between our construal of a text’s meaning and our understanding of this meaning” (p.61). Nevertheless, Hirsch knew that, of course, no interpretation will likely ever reach the one and only correct reading that matches authorial intent. The text doesn’t speak to us but its meaning has to be constructed from the silent letters on the page. Yet, for Hirsch the choices that we make in interpreting a text should only influence our interpretation if the text’s significance for us, how its originally intended meaning.

Ricoeur’s response to Hirsch

Although Ricoeur emphatized with Hirsch’s desire to secure objective meaning, he disagreed with Hirsch’s idea that the most fundamental ethical principle for interpretation is to respect the original intent of the author. For Ricoeur, the distinction between original meaning and interpretative significance did not do justice to how we actually read texts—that is every meaning being constructed from the written signs on the page. This constructive effort was not the simple uncovering of a pre-existing object. “If that were so, the text would be like a corpse and the reader a pathologist conducting an autopsy, cutting out the originally intended meaning to evaluate it” (p.63). When it comes to the ‘the cat is on the mat’ example, Ricoeur thought this failed to account for the larger texts in literature, theology, history, or philosophy we call ‘a work’. “For Ricoeur, reconstruction was thus already a work of interpretation that depended on personal choices concerning the aims, values, and norms for determination of a text’s meaning. […] All construction of meaning requires choice and every choice involves ethical values” (p.63-64).

Interpreting objectively

“So how do we interpret objectively? The answer lies in redefining objectivity. […] The text in itself holds clues that provide the boundaries and possibilities for the meaning we construct. For example, an author’s choice of genre limits how we read a text, and social context helps too.” (p.64-65). Yet, our construed meaning can only ever be the most probable reading, “a hypothesis that best accounts for the greatest number of facets provided by the text. […] As in textual interpretation, the more integrative and elegant the scientific formula, the more convincing it is, but, as every scientist knows, hardly any theory about complex natural phenomena is ever final” (p.66).

How texts expand our world

According to hermeneutic thinkers, the goal of textual interpretation is to expand our vision of the world. According to Ricoeur, “we neither try to understand the other’s innermost experience nor to establish a single self-identical meaning, but rather to enter this world that the text displays and to explore the possibilities of this world opens up for us” (p.67)

Literature and the importance of metaphor

The reason hermeneutic thinkers have paid particular attention to literary texts is because they demonstrate more intensely the power of language to turn our environment into a meaningful human world through symbolic representation. “At the very heart of imagination lies metaphor, our ability to see similarity in difference and thus to enlarge our perspective and see things otherwise” (p.69).

Defending the humanities

“Interpreting texts in the humanities educates our imagination through immersion in our cultural inheritance, thereby allowing better to appreciate the present and envision the future. […] the lack of imagination often results in fundamentalism.

Hermeneutics and digital humanities

Scholars have asked how the digital revolution changes the conditions for understanding texts. Yet, computing is not a substitute for understanding and interpretation depends on the personal integration of information into a meaningful whole.

Chapter 5: Hermeneutics and theology

Theology (especially Abrahamic faiths) interprets divine revelation. Together with jurisprudence, theology is one of the classic hermeneutic disciplines that demonstrate the intrinsic practical dimension of interpretation: how does the law or God’s revealed will apply to present concerns?

Hermeneutics and divine inspiration

Divine inspiration may seem contrary to hermeneutics. “Does not inspiration ensure the absolute clarity of God’s revelation by avoiding any human mediation?” (p.73). What does inspiration entail in the three religions?

Inspiration and Judaism

“Ancient Jewish prophets were ‘filled by God’s Spirit’, when speaking for God, and traditionalists hold that the first five books of the Hebrew Bible were dictated word by word by God to Moses, while the remaining sacred writings were more generally inspired. […] Jewish hermeneutics thus always contained elements that allowed for the broadening of conceptions of inspiration from strict verbal dictation to the more general notion that emerged with reform movements in Judaism during the 19th century. This modern view of inspiration still accords the biblical text special divine status, but also recognizes the human mediation of God’s revelation by acknowledging different authorial styles, composition of single texts from multiple source materials, internal contradictions, and anachronisms in the Bible” (p.74).

Inspiration and Islam

The transition to a more hermeneutic view of inspiration has been more difficult for Islam because the Quran is believed to be verbally inspired, divine incarnation, ‘the speech of God, dictated without human editing’. Yet, “Muslim scholars throughout the centuries, have operated on the assumption that while the text is infallible, its interpreters are not. Most main schools of Islamic interpretation have rejected simplistic literalist readings of the text, and scholars have long debated allegorical interpretation and the role of reason in understanding divine revelation” (p.75-77).

Inspiration and Christianity

Christianity bears various views of inspiration, ranging from a general sense of divine illumination that includes human mediation to a narrow doctrine of dictation.

The importance of tradition

According to Gadamer, tradition is a medium that shapes our consciousness and thus connects us to a past. “Similarly, the framework of meaning within which the collection of biblical writings is read is based on the religious community’s beliefs and expectations about God’s relation with them. This framework itself is based on the history of interpretation within this community and its collective religious experience as it developed over time” (p.80). So, what the Bible means is inseparable from the interpreters who eventually canonized the texts and contributed to their definite contours of meaning.

Tradition and the Hebrew Bible

“When interpreting the Hebrew Bible, Jewish scholars also draw on the Bible’s history of interpretation. […] Drawing on these sources, a Jewish scholar never reads individualistically but always in conversation with the interpretive tradition” (p.82).

Tradition and the Christian interpretation

Tradition is as important for Christian interpretation as it was in Judaism. Early theologians employed two hermeneutic principles to read the Bible in the light of the life and teachings of Christ. “The first is called typology and was meant to show how important events in Israel’s narrative anticipated Christian faith. […] The second interpretive principle was allegorical reading. Allegorical interpretation showed how a historical event or biblical statement becomes a symbol pointing to another meaning” (p.84).

Spiritual interpretation

“In contrast to modern literalism, texts were treated as cryptic, containing hidden spiritual insights. Even historical events were means of conveying spiritual truths” (p.85).

The rule of faith

The church fathers referred to a certain interpretive tradition as ‘the rule of faith’, meaning that ‘the canon of truth’ was “a basic summary of Christian doctrine, handed down from the apostles, emphasizing Christ as the unifying ‘mind of the scriptures’ and stressing the redemptive work of Jesus as incarnation of God on behalf of human beings” (p.88).

Tradition in Islam

“Islam scholars have pointed out that unlike the Hebrew or the Christian Bibles, the Quran does not offer a ‘continuous narrative’ structure that provides a narrative framework for interpretation. Instead, this larger whole within which Mulism interpret God’s particular revelations to Muhammad is provided by the history of interpretation, which begins with recorded events about the Propher’s own implementation of Islam during his lifetime. […] Even while the Quran itself is regarded as direct revelation umediated through history or human culture, understanding this sacred text requires its mediation through tradition” (p.88-89).

A game changer: the Protestant Reformation

“Luther’s biblical hermeneutic flowed from a deeper theological framework that provided a dogramtic orientation or ‘rule of faith’ for guiding biblical exegesis. The same may be said of the Reformation tradition in general” (p.90)

The rise of modern historical criticism

“The divorce of biblical interpretation from the lfie of the church was accompanied by the changing view of truth discussed in Chapter 2. Now the meaning of religious texts had to match the intellectual horizon of interpreters disengaged from history and tradition. Objective truth was now defined by the disengaged mind of rationalist philsoophy” (p.93).
“If all interpretation thus depends on prior beliefs about reality, the historical critic’s superior authority collapses together with his appeal to a purely scientific reading of the text. Theological readings of biblical texts can no longer be dismissed out of hand. Moreover, scholars now also realize that the rationalist premise of historical criticism can readily fall prey to the same literalism that characterizes fundamentalist readings. Unlike pre-modern belief in a multi-layered meaning of words and texts, Rationalism and Fundamentalism share the same non-hermeneutic view of truth, fuelled by their obsession for the one true interpretation” (p.94).

Beyond historical criticism: Barth, Bultmann, and Bonhoeffer

Karl Barth contended that academic historical criticism had recast the Bible in the image of accepted modern categories of meaning. And this narrow interpretive grid prevented the text from conveying its divine message in freedom and authority. Another theological figure, Rudolf Bultmann, argued that theology must undertake the hermeneutic task of stripping biblical truth from its mythical framework and demythologyzing it. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer disagreed, accusing Bultmann of reducing the gospel to an ‘inner self-commitment’, because it obscured Bible’s comrehensive vision of this present world as belonging to God.

Some recent hermeneutic trends

“In recent decades, greater awareness of interpretive presuppositions has led to three major hermeneutic models that respect the integrity of biblical texts and are more conducive to theological hermeneutics” (p.96). The first is ‘narrative theology’ which respects the plain and narrative presentations of biblical texts as coherent wholes, and establishes their ‘literal sense’ with reference to the biblical narrative, before worrying about any other application to the present. Second is a shift away from a purely scientific to a more literary approach. Biblical schoalrs are simply literary critics who, without any theological commitment to the view the Bible as God’s word, appreciate its literary quality and narrative unity. Third approach is canonical criticm which rejects the fundamentalist belief that every single word of the text is divinely inspired, and rather speaks of general divine guidance in canon formation, allowing for the characteristic marks and frailties of human authorship.

Chapter 6: Hermeneutics and law

“What has hermeneutics to do with the law? Everything” (p.98). Legal work is more than mechanical application of legal propositions to specific cases. To judge is to interpret.

Legal positivism: the law is the law

The plain fact view of ‘law is the law’ is a form of legal positivism, which is less concerned with the theoretical grounds or ideal meanings of laws than with their factual historical existence. According to the English jurist John Austin (1790-1859), a judge simply executes the letter of the law without consideration of its relation to eternal justice or some other moral measure outside existing law.

Hart and the hermeneutics of recognition

A century later, Herbert L. A. Hart replaced Austin’s concept with a more democratic ideal, arguing that laws remain in force because people elected a body of representatives who imposed them, and because people have accepted, and continue to accept, the legitimacy of the government and the police is to uphold and maintain this law.

Rules of recognition

According to Hart, two sets of legal rules operate in society, the primary rules that tell us not to steal or kill and also secondary rules ‘of recognition’, by which primary law is recognized and applied in a regulated manner. For Hart, “law was all about rules. Legal work is not unlike a science experiment. […] Hart likened a judge to an umpire who makes a final call (judgement) based on the sport’s acknowledged rules” (p.104-105).

New laws or the limits of legal positivism

An updated form of legal positivism, called ‘legal conventionalism’ argues that “legal practice does not depend on political or moral reasoning, but rests on prior legal decisions that are in turn based on established, tried, and true legal conventions. […] For legal positivists, ‘new laws’ are exceptions that prove the true the rule that law is all about rules. From a hermeneutic point of view, however, such examples show that law requires more interpretation than positivists are willing to admit” (p.106-107)

Critics of legal positivism

Legal positivism depends on three assumptions. “First, law should be seen primarily as a social fact without necessary reference to moral considerations. Second, laws and legal decisions are valid insofar as they make sense according to a coherent, rational application of texts and rules that are ensured by a particular society’s institutionalized ‘rules of recognition’. Third, thus what is a right and a duty is explicable within such a system, an only in exceptional circumstances requires consultation of external universal moral rights or duties” (p.107).

Legal realism

Legal realists “contest the positivists’ ‘plain fact’ view of the law, and stress the personal, political, and economic influences in legal practice. They argue that the collective experience reflected in the common law, together with the judges’ political and personal views of social welfare, necessarily determine legal decisions.” (p.107).

Natural law

Another theory that is critical of legal positivism, natural law adherents “insist that human law is accountable to a more universal moral law” (p.108). In this view, appeal to universal morality is essential to avoid legal tyranny.

Hermeneutic conceptions of law: to judge is to interpret

Legal theorists who embrace hermeneutic conception of law argue that “jurisprudence is much more like the kind of interpretation we practise when reading literature. To be sure, such interpretation relies on certain interpretive rules for establishing a legal text’s meaning and historical context. Yet how a judge brings these rules to bear on a case is ultimately guided by her underlying assumptions about the law’s moral purpose and function within a given society” (p.110). Thus, legal ruling, too, is an act of interpretation in which a judge establishes the meaning of legal texts from their particular historical context to present.


One example of a hermeneutic approach to law is ‘textualism’. Textualists worry that the absence of clear hermeneutic guidelines gives too much power to judges’ interpretation. Textualism care more about what the written words mean rather than the intention of a legislature in drafting a new law. “For this reason, textualism is also known as originalism. Textualist interpreters ask what a document such as the US constitution would have meant to a citizen in the 18th century with a reasonable command of the English language” (p.113).

Law as integrity

A constitutional expert, Ronald Dworkin, criticized textualists’ own lack of hermeneutic principle that “could explain how a judge applies the original meaning of a legal text to present cases” (p.114). Instead, he suggested the ideal of ‘integrity’. “We call people honest, because their lives form a coherent whole in light of which their particular actions make sense. He argued that in the same way, judges should make their decisions by considering individual legal statutes and rulings within the history of our legal tradition as a whole. […] The ideal of human dignity functions as a greater principle of integrity, as the whole, by which every individual ruling can be assessed. This helps prevent law from becoming a system of directionless rules that can be turned into tools of state oppression” (p.114).

Chapter 7: Hermeneutics and science

Facts or interpretation?

The view of science as something independent of opinion, personal bias, and vagaries of language—elements that are intrinsic to hermeneutics—is no longer shared by most scientists. Yet this view remains stubbornly lodged in our collective popular consciousness.

Scientific objectivism

“‘Scientific objectivism’ is the view that science’s empirical method leads to the highest form of knowledge, namely objective truth as defined by scientific experimentation. […] For such a mechanistic conception of the world, science is purely descriptive. Knowledge is what happens to the detached observer, whose personality, disposition, and imagination contribute nothing to scientific discoveries. This systematic elimination of the knower from the process of knowing with a sole focus on the object of knowledge is called ‘scientific objectivism’.” (p.117). Such view, of course, overlooks the personal involvement of the researcher in the process of scientific discovery, her imagination, passionate commitment, and faith in being on the right path to discovery.

Scientific positivism

According to the French astronomer and mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace, scientific facts would eventually reveal all general physical laws by which the world functioned and thus render the world predictable. “Laplace thus formulated the ideal of strictly objective knowledge that became deeply lodged in Western culture and still holds sway in many quarters: science has nothing to do with meaning but is all about observational accuracy, precision, and predictability. For this very reason, Laplace’s ideal of science is really a delusion that equates information about particular facts with the meaning these facts have for us. This creates the illusion that human experience is reducible to the knowledge of the material conditions for such experience” (p.119). Along others, the French philosopher and sociologist August Comte added a historical dimension to scientific objectivism, claiming that human knowledge in every field has to run through three developmental stages, eventually leading to scientific positivism. “Today, scientific positivism, with its dream of scientific predictability, has long been discredited as illusory by many philosophers and modern scientists. The essential flaw of trying to shore up truth based on impersonal methods of verification is that judgements and insights require personal commitments—trust in a theory or belief in the basic rationality of the universe—that are not themselves subject to verification by rules. Put differently, there is no rule for how we apply rules” (p.120).

Understanding as a basic mode of intelligent life

As in any other areas of knowledge, science too is very much a matter of interpretation. Any attempt to make sense of one’s situation is indeed an act of understanding, which the philosopher of science Michael Polanyi defined as “he integration of particular details into a meaningful whole, is a basic mode of learning common to all intelligent life” (p.121). Thus, “Scientific research and discovery do not require detachment, but are based on personal involvement focused on a better understanding of reality” (p.122).

Personal knowledge

“A scientist straining to understand something inhabits and uses scientific axioms without constantly doubting or verifying their truthfulness while he is working on a problem. Polanyi called this subsidiary element ‘the tacit dimension’ of knowledge. The scientist too participates in these structures, and wields them in striving for a new understanding of a phenomenon, the same way we wield a hammer to drive in a nail. We are aware of the handle and its vibrations in our hand, and we keep adjusting our aim and blows to focus on hitting the nail. Should we divert our attention from the nail to the hammer itself, we’d most likely merely hit our fingers” (p.122-123). So, knowledge, even empirical observations, is the action of integrating particulars into a coherent whole. And this integration does not happen all by itself but requires personal engagement.

Science as art

“Scientific observation, just like map reading, is not an exact impersonal numbers game, but requires the personal judgement of the scientist. Scientific prediction depends on an art, namely the art of establishing—by means of the scientist’s trained eye, ear, and touch—the correspondence between the explicit predictions of science and the actual experience of our senses to which these predictions apply. […] Thus, insofar as scientific knowledge requires the artful integration of details into a coherent whole through an act of the imagination based on personal experience, science too relies on interpretation.” (p.124-125).

The hermeneutics of scientific discovery

Contrary to popular modern understandings, scientific discovery is much more dynamic and much less predictable. Firstly, “science relies on tradition insofar as scientists hold to a certain vision of reality or world picture as currently accepted by science. No one scientist actually knows and, least of all, constantly verifies every detail of this reality” (p.125). Thus, so-called scientific facts are not simply ‘given’ but derive their significance from being integral parts of a certain holistic interpretation of the world. Secondly, “the scientist is not an independent observer, but inhabits the current paradigm and upholds it by her commitment. This commitment is by no means arbitrary, but derives from the pleasure of possessing a satisfactory understanding of the world we inhabit. […] Because an accepted paradigm is a reasonable, but never total, explanation of our world, scientists are personally invested and have faith in this world picture” (p.126). As a historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, showed, scientific discovery is not an orderly, rule-governed affair, but rather resembles a paradigm change Kuhn called ‘scientific revolution’. “To think of a scientist cheerfully trying this or that experiment, calmly changing course at each failure, distorts the dynamic and creative process of science, and occludes the scientist’s deep commitment to a possible new theoretical framework. Often, this passionate commitment to an established paradigm will result in resistance to new theories. At other times, a researcher may be already committed to a new paradigm, but will not fully understand it until some additional discovery vindicates the new vision as a better account” (p.127).

Science as a distinct mode of knowledge

“While both science and the arts proceed basically from faith (a tacit personal commitment to a world picture or interpretive framework) to understanding, the faith element in the arts is deeper, more emotionally intense and intellectually complex. Nevertheless, both scientific verification and aesthetic validation of experience testify to the same personal and interpretive quality of all human knowledge. To know is to interpret” (p.130).

The future of hermeneutics

By showing and insisting on the interpretive nature of all human knowledge without falling into relativism, hermeneutics encourages the interpretive humility essential to any dialogue. “Acknowledging the profound mediation of even our deepest beliefs through history, tradition, and language should induce us to admit that we could be wrong and are thus open to correction. The awareness that our own interpretive framework can benefit from another’s encourages conversation in order to learn. By contrast, the belief that truth is something self-evident only an obstinate fool would reject fosters a basic stance of confrontation. Insofar as hermeneutic philosophy encourages conversation among those of different faiths and cultures, hermeneutics will remain an essential part of our future” (p.132).

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