Many ages ago our first ancestors realized they could make grunting noises or scribble on the walls of their caves if Biff wanted to make a point about his neighbor Trog’s inferior spear or if they wanted to plot out their next dinosaur hunt. Eventually, Wilma, a tribal chieftain’s daughter, explained the rudiments of agriculture to her nomadic tribe and asked, “Do you understand what I mean?” One puzzled cave-dweller queried what it meant to stand under Wilma. A new way to trap mammoths? And on that day hermeneutics was born.
At the time, no one called this inquiry into interpretation by the name hermeneutics, especially not after the Olympian god Hermes temporarily used the word as the name for his team of young grass-dwelling insects.
Still, the term popped up in stuff by Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, but without much fanfare. Christian theologians such as Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas (who was also made a saint), and Martin Luther, who were concerned with the proper interpretation of sacred Scripture, added their alms to the concept.
For most of its history, hermeneutics has been what we might call regional or genre-specific. Theologians were interested in the rules for interpreting sacred texts. Literary critics of various schools were interested in the rules for interpreting literature. Lawyers were interesting in, um, writing and interpreting the law.
It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey came along and developed general theories of interpretation, i.e., theories that covered interpretation across the board.
As he developed his theory, Schleiermacher’s mind kept spiraling around in what’s commonly known as the hermeneutic circle. He realized that to understand the parts of something, you have to understand the whole, but to understand the whole, you have to understand the parts. As you get a better sense of one, you get a better sense of the other. And around, and around, and around.
This circle isn’t vicious, as the saying goes, because it doesn’t prohibit understanding. Or bark, growl, or bite. Most everything in the field of hermeneutics revolves around some idea of this hermeneutic circle.
Schleiermacher had two big goals in his hermeneutic project: gaining a) knowledge of universally valid rules of interpretation, and b) knowledge of the author by way of reading his texts. Dilthey, on the other hand, concerned with giving the human sciences a good name, sought to justify the work of hermeneutics with a respectable methodology.
Martin Heidegger, one of the heavyweights of twentieth-century philosophy, hit the first hermeneutic home run (or boxing equivalent) when he related the conditions necessary for interpretation to his description of humans’ state of “being in the world.”
With Heidegger, hermeneutics took on an ontological dimension. In other words, the hermeneutic circle isn’t just a way of interpretation; it’s a way of being, a way of life. In Heidegger’s high-theory jargon, it's a rug that ties the whole room together.
The chief dude of hermeneutics, however, is the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, whose opus Truth and Method is the closest thing to a bible of hermeneutics text that we’ve got. Building on the hermeneutic work of Schleiermacher, Dilthey, and others, Gadamer formulated a theory of hermeneutics centered on belonging to tradition.
For Gadamer, there’s no seeking meaning and truth outside of some form of tradition—whether based on family, culture, skin color, favorite TV show, you name it. Every one of us is situated in various traditions, and those traditions form the way we think about the world.
Similarly, authors write works from within their traditions, and we read them from within our traditions (which are sometimes very different from the original—imagine a mohawked vegan postcolonialist in the tradition of, well, Portland, trying to get the tradition of Plato back in toga-wearing, doric-column-worshipping Greece).
Because neither the writing nor the reading takes place in a vacuum, the meaning of every work depends upon both the writing and the reading. Reading from within a tradition means that reading is a re-creation of the text. So now you can imagine Plato with a mohawk. Thanks, Mr. Gadamer!
One other fellow to keep in mind: Paul Ricoeur wrote bundles of essays on hermeneutics, usually using a blend of philosophy and anthropology. With that approach, his most important contribution might be his application of hermeneutics to self-understanding, which involves understanding other selves.
For Ricoeur, a person understands herself only by taking a “detour” through the other—whether a racial, sexual, ethnic, or other sort of other. Ricoeur followed Gadamer in seeing the interpretation of texts as involving a performance and a production of meaning. Texts are not objects one receives, but events whose meaning arises in interpretation. For Ricoeur, self-understanding is also reproduction, performance, and interpretation. Ready to interpret some texts? Better start interpreting yourself first.
While the philosophers working to unlock hermeneutic doors tended to agree that interpretation generally happens and also involves some kind of rules, they didn’t all stand before the same passageways or have the same reasons for boldly going where no reader had gone before.
In fact, there were some pretty beefy differences and disagreements between the major figures in hermeneutics. And guess what? Knowing these debates will give you one “hermeneutic key” for understanding their work.
Romantic Hermeneutics vs. Critical Hermeneutics
If you’re someone who’s ever said something to someone else, then you, friend, are of interest to hermeneutics. You don’t even have to be particularly famous or influential or weird to catch their eye.
You’ll find, however, if some of these hermeneutic thinkers wanders over your way with a mind to interpret whatever it is you’ve expressed, that they’ll not all share the same agenda. Some will stare you down and start to pick you apart as someone who has said something. Others will be focused on the meaning of what you’ve said.
The early hermeneutic philosophers, the Romantics, took the first approach. Romantic hermeneutics, as the name implies, is interested in the psychic life of the author more than in what the author has to say (that’s right, Romanticism’s not just about flowers and chocolate hearts).
For them, what the author says is the key to understanding the inner experience of the author, and how that experience gave rise to the author’s words. Guys like Schleiermacher and Dilthey sought to enter the heart and head of the author—to make sense of the psychic experiences, both intellectual and emotional, underlying what the author had to say.
Getting to this hidden foundation was the Romantics’ one direction, and they went after it with the determination, if not the exuberance, of a popular musician’s groupies.
And then there’s Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur. For them, Romance is dead. They argued that interpretation cannot unlock the inner life experiences of an author because the meaning of the texts produced by the author goes beyond the author. Not just sometimes, but always. None of these three took a text as separate from the author.
Ricoeur, for example, approached a text as autonomous from the author because the meaning of a text includes, but is not limited to, the meaning the author intended. No author is the complete creator or master of the language she uses, so no author can be the sole creator of meaning. Therefore, what an author has said cannot be taken as a sure path into her psychic life.
Bottom line: some critics care most about the beautiful words that flowed from the author’s quill and others are more into guessing what mood the author was in when dipping into the inkpot.
Hermeneutics as Epistemology vs. Hermeneutics as Ontology
After Kant (generally considered the conquering hero and granddaddy of Western philosophy), philosophers switched their focus from circling around that elusive bird called “reality” to taking a stroll around the human mind. The bulk of modern philosophers weren’t studying “being” with the goal of seeing whether the mind corresponded to it; they were intent on describing how the mind organized and categorized information.
Then Kant came along and was like, knowledge can’t extend beyond the physical world, and the way we’re taught stuff determines the way we categorize and understand objects, ideas, and pretty much the whole universe.
So, if our minds shape how we see “the things themselves” and around us, different minds that belong to different people in different historical and cultural contexts will see similar things in different ways (Hindus see cows as sacred and Americans see them as delicious, for example).
After Kant totally shook up the way people got their philosophy on with his badass concepts of transcendental idealism and empirical realism, the focus of a lot of philosophy switched to epistemology—the study of how we know the stuff we know. Bulls-eye for Mr. Kant!
But that switch presented a problem. If things themselves are inaccessible, then they can’t serve as a sure basis for objective knowledge. Without such a basis, we’re lost in the treacherous land of relativism, where how we understand cows, chairs, even morality can be different all the time.
So, deprived of the happy time when things could be trusted as stable and comprehensible in themselves, philosophers sought objectivity in refining the methods they used to do their thinkin’.
So far so good? Sweet.
Now that we’re experts in Kantian philosophy, it should be no surprise that early hermeneutics developed in this historical context. The natural sciences had their tried-and-true scientific method, and by golly the human sciences needed theirs as well. Following the Kantian search for the universal conditions of objectivity, hermeneutics sought the “universally valid rules of interpretation.”
Again, Kant said that we had to investigate the capacity of our knowledge before getting to questions of being. In turn, hermeneutics said that we have to lay out what it means to interpret before we can know whether we’re interpreting some text correctly. Both schools of thought developed an idea of the mind as the fertile, if not always consistent, ground for knowing and interpreting.
Hermeneutics as pursued by Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur, as it moved away from the Romantic focus on the mind, turned to exploring the world of the text and its ontological (meaning, related to the state of being) conditions. Following Nietzsche, they thought that the minds of other folks were always too distant and too unknown to serve as a foundation for framing universal rules of interpretation.
Their foundational question: what exactly is an object of understanding? Or, as Ricoeur posed it: “what is the mode of being of that being who exists only in understanding?” The fruitful terrain of being-in-the-world and the world of the text replaced the mental life of the author as hermeneutics’ locus of study.
Primacy of the Author vs. Primacy of the Text
As Romantic hermeneutics sought to get into the heads of the author and understand their inner experiences that gave life to the text, it’s not surprising that it would give primacy to the author. According to this method of hermeneutics, understanding a text is a means to understanding the author. Reading texts is a way to have a personal encounter with another. It’s psychological, dude.
Later hermeneutics, especially the branch captained by Ricoeur, give primacy to the text instead of the author who wrote it. Ricoeur talked about the “autonomy of the text,” arguing that sure, texts can’t be totally separated from their authors, since authorial intention usually has something to do with the text’s meaning, but neither can the meaning of a text be reduced to the author’s intention.
Ricoeur had two reasons for saying this. First, because meaning is contextual: the meaning of words depends on the context in which it was written and the context in which it is read. Second, the meaning of a whole text depends not only on its parts, but also on the linguistic and cultural worlds in which it’s situated. A text is a whole within larger wholes, and there’s no limit to the number of extra holes you can dig.
One example is Moby-Dick, which fits into a whole bunch of holes—the history of American literature, a tradition of Christian symbolism, the use of whales as metaphors, and books written in the English language, to name a few. It belongs in one way to Herman Melville’s world and in another way to AP English classes reading it today.
What Kant would focus on is how these are wholes in which the novel has a place, and they are each places from which one can approach and interpret the novel. Since no one can stand in every possible place, no one has a final say on what a text means. It’s as elusive as that darned cow that escaped the farm and got turned into a god!
State of the Theory
People don’t exactly line up for books on hermeneutics like for the latest Harry Potter, and its theorists don’t quite have the Twitter following of Kanye West, but the theory’s not going away anytime soon. While its towering figures Gadamer and Ricoeur passed away in the early 2000s, their legacy lives on in their students who continue to teach, write, and publish in the field.
And today that field is morphing into a whole different animal as its insights are being adopted in other disciplines and areas of study. Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur have influenced philosophers analyzing religious practice and texts, scholars studying art and literature, and even theorists studying environmental issues.
Hermeneutics arguably has lasting power given that its key contribution—a description of our rootedness or “situatedness” in tradition, and how that shapes the way we think and interpret things—unlocks the door to explorations of the traditions of others. In that way, hermeneutics can expand our horizons and make life all-around more meaningful.
Talking the Talk
What is literature?
According to the Gadamer variety of hermeneutics, each work of literature is an event. It’s an experience in which meaning happens, again and again, each time it is read. Meaning, rather than being locked in the past, begins anew with each new reading and interpretation.
Even the author doesn’t have total responsibility or ownership of its meaning, as the author wrote and interpreted her own work within a historical world that informed her. Once written, the work becomes autonomous and, as Ricoeur would say, a world emerges before it—a world that readers can enter and interpret, reproduce and perform, for their own historical situation.
Because reading is so involved in the theory of hermeneutics, you can say that work of literature is always unfinished.
What is an author?
The author creates meaning, but not out of nothing. You need to grow the strawberries, mangoes, and kale for the literary smoothie, and the author works with the fruits that’ve been given to him.
Authors speaks or write using words, ideas, and berries that they have learned from others; they depict experiences of others as well as their own; they interpret all of this mush of meaning from within their own limited perspective.
So the author is a co-creator of meaning, not its master. Authors whose works have been made into movies know this all too well.
What is a reader?
In Truth and Method, Gadamer says that “reading with understanding is always a kind of reproduction, performance, and interpretation.” So whether you’re reading Crime and Punishment, Gadamer’s theory, or this Shmoop guide, think of the reader as analogous to a musician performing a musical work.
Does that mean you should sing this out loud? Be our guest.
But to continue the analogy, remember that a performance, to be good, has to remain true to the composition—and yet there’s so much more to the performance than what’s dictated by the sheet of paper the notes are written on. No musician plays a piece of music quite the same way.
This is true of the reader of literature, too. Hogwarts may have green turrets in our eyes and be made out of rhinestones for you, even though we’re reading the same words—at least, until we go see the movie and we see it the same way for the rest of time.
Still, the audience plays as big a role in interpreting as the writer in producing the ideas and meanings. And that’s key in hermeneutics.