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Philosophical Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics, as I use the term, refers to a general theory of interpretation. Those of us who embark on the task of hermeneutics are interested in describing what it means to interpret and what happens when something is interpreted. What happens when meaning is understood? That's our question.

We at the Department of Hermeneutics read texts of all sorts: religious tomes, historical studies, scientific treatises, and literary works such as plays and poems. You can take a hermeneutical approach to any kind of text. My own studies in the field differ some from those of Heidegger, Gadamer, and Derrida, but we're not on distant worlds, separately doing our own thing.

I think interpretation is an open process without definitive conclusions, because understanding is always contextual. No one has the last word on what the Bible or Shakespeare or Miley Cyrus means. Interpretation is the work of guessing and validating, as best we can. And because we all interpret from our own "place" and point of view, we're smart to get together and chat; by doing that, we can broaden our horizons and, I hope, improve our understanding of the world and our place within it.


I was interested in three different kinds of time: cosmic time, lived time, and historical time (source).

Cosmic time refers to the sequence of moments that pass with a before, an after, and an ever changing present. The world spins; life goes on; whatever—that's cosmic time. Lived time is time as an individual experiences it and finds (or gives) meaning to its movement. Lived time is subjective; unlike cosmic time, its moments vary in their significance. The universe doesn't care about your day of graduation, for example, but to you the day is special. The third sense of time, historical time, comes when cosmic time and lived time are taken together harmoniously.

I think that it's historical time that allows us to make sense of human action. Human action is motivated by past occurrences (both in a cosmic sense and lived sense), and human action is done with expectations about consequences in the future. Analyzing and interpreting human action requires an understanding of its temporality.


So, okay. I just said that in order to understand human action, we have to take temporality into consideration—we have to understand the past events that led to this action, and we have to understand what the consequences of this action were (or were expected to be).

To do this, though, we need to come up with some way to talk about action that includes both the cosmic and lived senses of time. I say that we do that through narrative.

Stories progress with the passage of time (not necessarily in a chronological way) as events unfold and things happen, but these stories also involve characters for whom the moments in the passage of time means something.

Think of the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off. For the other students at Ferris Bueller's school, the day went by a second at a time, just as it did for Ferris, but for Ferris, the day was all about skipping school and getting into shenanigans around town. That means that time passed differently for Ferris from the way it passed for other students at the school.

With narrative, storytellers create time and bring meaning both to the passage of time and to the events that happen in time. The story that is told depends a lot on the way the author manages time. The movie Memento, for example, is interesting precisely because Christopher Nolan presented the events in reverse chronology. Narrative lets storytellers work with time and, as a result, better understand it.

Narrative Identity

As Katie Holmes says to Christian Bale's Batman, it's our actions that define us. What brings our actions together into something singular and meaningful are the stories that we tell.

If you were to ask someone who had seen the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off the question "Who is Ferris Bueller?" you would probably get snippets of his story—and not only would you get his story, but you would also hear stories about his friends, his sister, his parents, and the principal of the school. The plot of the movie is a big web of intertwined actions and reactions involving the whole cast of characters.

It's narrative—the complex interactions between characters and actions in time—that brings all these elements together into a whole that an audience can understand, and it's narrative that gives us a sense of who the characters really are. We're not just being told about Ferris Bueller or Bruce Wayne; we learn about them based on how they act and interact throughout an entire narrative.


Some folks aren't too keen on the linguistic turn in philosophy. That's when philosophers started focusing on language at the expense, some would say, of the things people use words to speak about—things like love, death, meaning, experience, and stuff like that.

I think that those linguistic turn people had a point: language is a structure by which we understand reality. It might even add to what we perceive as reality. I wouldn't go so far as to say that reality itself is nothing but a social construct, but sure, there's totally a sense in which reality is "made up." We understand reality in terms of the ideas we create with language.

Basically, I'm not going to go deconstructing everything to kingdom come, but I do think we need language to have access to reality; we even need language to understand the self.

Surplus of Meaning

When I say that human discourse and actions are "worlds" open to interpretation—meaning that they allow for more than one understanding—it doesn't mean that I'm saying that things are ultimately meaninglessness. The plurality of interpretations means that texts and actions have a surplus of meaning; it doesn't mean that they have no meaning. There's just more there than any one person can find on his or her own.

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