You flip open a fat, zillion-page novel. You leaf through an encyclopedia. You read the tabloid headlines in line at the grocery store. You scroll through your Facebook feed.
When you look at any of these things, you are, in a word, interpreting them. But what’s actually happening when you do this? Sure, you’re breathing, you’re chewing gum, you’re letting your eyes wander toward that foxy individual across the room. But, when you actually work on understanding the words in front of you, what’s the process of how you interpret those texts?
That’s the basic question posed and explored by the school of thought called hermeneutics. Not hemorrhoids. Not Hermione Granger. Hermeneutics.
Hermeneutics is a general theory of how people interpret stuff—and that stuff can be across multiple genres and all manner of speaking and writing. Hermeneutics is less concerned with understanding specific works of poetry or theology or case law or whatever than it is with understanding what it means to understand in general. Totally clear, right?
What are the tools people use to get the gist of whatever thing they’re looking at, whether the Bible or the epics of Homer or Miley Cyrus’ latest single? The method of hermeneutics addresses that question by analyzing the rules that apply to each text, the circumstances that can occur in any one of them, and how people find the meaning in whichever masterpiece they’re looking at.
The hermeneutic philosophers (hermeneutites? Hermeneuticists? Hermenphrodites?) pretty much agree that when you interpret a text, you always do so situated in—cue dramatic music—the hermeneutic circle. Think the Circle of Life, but with stodgy theorists instead of singing animals.
The basic idea is that every interpretation takes place in some location, so every interpretation comes influenced by the specific circumstances of whoever’s doing the interpreting. Quite a few places, usually.
Why? Well, we live in different societies and different cultures. We speak different languages. We come from different traditions. We have different histories. We have different presuppositions and pre-judgments.
In other words, no one of us ever approaches a text from every place or no place. The meaning of your own life and circumstances informs the meaning you find in texts about the lives and circumstances of others. Are we there yet?
Having a perspective means there’s things you see and don’t see. An English-speaker unfamiliar with Russian culture and history, not to mention the whole Christianity thing, won’t be able to see the whole of Crime and Punishment the way Dostoevsky did. However, neither will the contemporary Russian, who is also pretty distant from the world in which Dostoevsky wrote his novel, even if they’re looking out the window at the same sort of icy snow storm you only get in Russia.
And guess what? Even the author has a perspective on her own work. If you’ve written a lot of papers, you’ve probably discovered the benefit of taking time away from a writing project so as to get a little distance and get a more objective view. The hermeneutic philosophers argue that no one can have a purely objective view, free of limits. No one sees the whole perfectly or fully, so no one can completely make sense of the parts. All we can do is go piece by piece—or better yet, arc by arc.
Moving along the hermeneutic circle means you get a better sense of the whole by better understanding the parts, and you get a better sense of the parts by getting a better sense of the whole—the whole of the text and the worlds outside the text from which it came and to which it belongs.
You never get a perfect sense of everything under the sun, however, so there’s no leaving the hermeneutic circle. No, we’re not there yet. Never will be. But think of the circle as a giant pizza to bite through one cheese lump at a time, and that way you can choose to enjoy the ride.
Whether you’re reading the news while you sip your coffee, wading through Virgil’s Aeneid for your lit class, responding to another driver who’s honking at you, or reading up on J-Wow’s latest tweets, hermeneutics is there. It always shows up the moment something meaningful is communicated from someone to someone else.
Basically, wherever you find human beings, you find hermeneutics (not that it doesn’t spread into the animal kingdom—how does an antelope interpret a lion’s roar? They run).
So, to study hermeneutics is to study what happens when interpretation happens: what‘s the process by which meaning is understood, what happens to us when we seek to understand our world by interpreting it, why that antelope just knows it’s gotta bolt.
You should care about hermeneutics because it’s something that happens to you every day, and what it shows you is that you’re not some isolated individual thinking about the world in your own way; you’re bound to traditions that have given you ways of perceiving and interpreting, judging and acting, not all of which are you aware of.
Oh, you think your thinking is really your own? Think again! Your rootedness in tradition colors and shapes how you understand and approach the world. But lucky for you, studying hermeneutics will give you a better sense of what your own thinking and acting owe to the languages you speak, the family you come from, the culture in which you live, and the society in which you eat, sleep, think, talk, read, tweet, blog, shmoop, and operate day by day. In a way, it’s all about you!
Sometimes a specific way of interpreting a text is called a “hermeneutic.” Theorists speak of a feminist hermeneutic, or a Marxist hermeneutic, or a classical hermeneutic. The term denotes the angle a person takes to approach a text and the methodology one employs. The term is fitting because hermeneutics, as a general theory of interpretation, underlies all individual hermeneutic tools and tactics.
It’s easy to get locked into one’s preferred hermeneutic, believing it’s the be-all-end-all of how to see the world. The study of hermeneutics can provide the antidote to this temptation. By seeing one’s preferred manner of interpreting as coming from a specific place and rooted in specific traditions, one begins to see that there are more things in the world than your given philosophy can cover.
On top of all those other tools, hermeneutics is a tool in humility. Just the sort of medicine most theorists need. And, to be honest, who hasn’t wanted to humble a theorist?