Study Guide

Hermeneutics Critics

  • Friedrich Schleiermacher

    Hermeneutics and rhetoric are intimately related in that every act of understanding is the reverse side of an act of speaking, and one must grasp the thinking that underlies a given statement.

    Both the speaker and the interpreter walk the same yellow brick road; they simply travel in reverse directions. A speaker, assuming he’s honest, indicates what he’s thinking by what he says. The listener (or reader) takes what’s been said with a mind to figure out what the speaker was thinking in the first place.

    What’s important to note here is that understanding, as Schleiermacher understands it, is about getting a grasp of the thought process underlying a statement. The meaning of the statement points to the mental life of the speaker. It’s up-close and personal. Psychological. Romantic. For real, that’s some heavy mental.

    But why bother with mental life? As Schleiermacher liked to think, the interior thinking of an author could clue us into how and why a statement popped into the world, and how it’s supposed to make us think new thoughts based on the thoughts the author was thinking.

    And to get deep with this, let’s note that some statements have got real lasting power: the power to be remembered and even to sway human action. Every nation, political movement, cultural advancement, and economic policy began with someone thinking something and communicating those thoughts to others who started some of their own thinking and, in special cases, acted on those lines of thought.

    Understanding the thinking behind social constructs and events might not be a bad idea if you’re of the mind to encourage some of those ideas or hinder others. Getting a sense of patterns of thought is a great way to use hermeneutics when you’re analyzing a book or a poem, and it can also help you to better understand the world around you.

  • Wilhelm Dilthey

    Understanding is what we call this process by which an inside is conferred on a complex of external sensory signs….Even the apprehension of our own states can only be called understanding in a figurative sense. To be sure, I say: "I can’t understand how I could have acted thus," and even, "I don’t understand myself anymore." Yet what I mean by this is that an objectification of my own being in the external world now stands before me as that of a stranger and that I am unable to interpret it, or alternatively that I suddenly find myself in a state that I stare at, so to speak, something alien to me. We therefore call understanding that process by which we recognize, behind signs given to our senses, that psychic reality of which they are the expression. Such understanding ranges from grasping the babblings of children to Hamlet or the Critique of Pure Reason.

    Dilthey’s doing his best here to provide a universal definition of understanding in a way that covers all manner of expression. He mentions baby babbles, Shakespeare (which sometimes sounds like baby babbles), and the philosophical writings of Kant (which will put an end to any baby’s babbling by putting them right to sleep).

    We could add all manner of texts from last night, morning chatter about reality TV, and motherly nagging about finishing homework five minutes after you get home from school. Some is easier to interpret than others, but it all has to do with understanding on a large scale.

    How does Dilthey suggest that we bring all these kinds of expressions together? By entering the mental life or psychic reality of the speaker, of course. Any statement of any kind presupposes some psychic goings-on in the person doing the stating. Sure, language is used differently across genre lines, but its use is always rooted in some interior state.

    Interpretation, however, is not intuition. The interior life of others is not plain to see—heck, it’s not always that plain in our own selves, as the Dilth bemoans. If it were, then it wouldn’t be an interior life.

    To get to the interior life of others (and let’s not even worry about our own interiors for now—leave that to Mr. Freud), you have to go by way of signs. Signs may be spoken, or written down on paper, or posted with various shaped arrows on the side of the road. In people, they may be gestures or facial expressions, not just words.

    Whatever form signs may take, says Dilthey, we can see them as referring back to the psyche. It’s the job of hermeneutics to take a peek into the psychic life by looking through the signs that express it. And once we get the hang of what those signs might mean, we start to get closer to that dodgy thing called understanding.

  • Martin Heidegger

    If the basic conditions which make interpretation possible are to be fulfilled, this must rather be done by not failing to recognize beforehand the essential conditions under which it can be performed. What is decisive is not to get out of the circle but to come into it the right way. This circle of understanding is not an orbit in which any random kind of knowledge may move; it is the expression of the existential fore-structure of Dasein itself. It is not to be reduced to the level of a vicious circle, or even a circle which is merely tolerated. In the circle is hidden a positive possibility of the most primordial kind of knowing. To be sure, we genuinely take of this possibility only when, in our interpretation, we have understood that our first, last, and constant task is never to allow our fore-having, fore-sight, and fore-conception to be presented to us by fancies and popular conceptions, but rather to make the scientific theme secure by working out these fore-structures in terms of the things themselves.

    Are you lost yet? Or maybe just fore-lost? If so, fret not. We can get around this description of understanding via the hermeneutic circle. And we can get around the hermeneutic circle via this description.

    Being in the hermeneutic circle means that you don’t read or hear something from the position of nowhere. You read it or hear it from an endless spiral of your own life experiences, knowledge, and presuppositions—those things that make up the fore-structures Heidegger’s talking about.

    So, as you encounter what folks around you are expressing from the standpoint of your own background, you do a better job taking the parts of a slice of knowledge and working toward a sense of the whole, which then gives you a better sense of each part. And that’s how your circle revolves, around and around and around.

    Heidegger didn’t want you to try to get out of the hermeneutic circle, but he did want you to roll around it in the right way—i.e., not guided by far-flung fancies and popular conceptions. Sure, your background plays a role in how you interpret, but you nonetheless have a say about how your experiences and prejudices predispose you toward the world.

    But to have this say, you have to know yourself, or more specifically, the ways in which you’re inclined to see and understand the world based on all that presupposition stuff. Once you have a good sense of your own worldview and how it angles the world for you to see, then you’re in a position to reengineer it. Who ever said you can’t reinvent the wheel? Or in Heidegger’s case, the plain old circle.

    Let’s look at an example with some really serious classic literature. So let’s say that you’re passionate about vampire literature. You’ve read all the classics. Mary Shelley. Bram Stoker. Anne Rice. You name it, you’ve read it. Or, in the case of Buffy, watched it. Then Stephenie Meyer comes along with Twilight and the world is never again without steamy teenage vampires with funny-colored eyes.

    And let’s say you’re not taken with these vampires. Not that you’re a vampire purist, but this isn’t a question of purity. It’s a matter of undead ontology, morbid metaphysics. Vampires aren’t teenagers. And they should not have eyes that color, not to mention Mormon undertones.

    Hence, you’re not inclined to recognize Edward Cullen and the gang as authentic vampires. This is your fore-conception—the conception you had before you started reading Twilight. The Heideggerian hermeneutic question is whether this fore-conception is set in terms of the things themselves—in this case, vampires, in all their historical and mythological glory.

    In other words, is your conception too limited? Or has Meyer taken vampires too far away from their proper mode of being-in-the-world—or un-being, as their almost-but-not-quite-dead status might be? (Being-in-the-world, by the way, is the multi-word for Dasein, in Heidi’s original German compound.)

    The sad, sharp-fanged truth is that hermeneutics doesn’t actually answer this question for you, because Heidegger didn’t really have a thing for vampires. But it does give you the tools to observe and understand the relationship between vampire fiction and the way you’ve come to think and feel about vampires so that you can analyze the Twilight series from a more, um, intellectually profound position. Because that’s the only way to analyze vampire fiction.

  • Hans-Georg Gadamer

    Not just occasionally but always, the meaning of a text goes beyond its author. That is why understanding is not merely a reproductive but always a productive activity as well.

    Are you done with the psychology stuff yet? Whether Dilthey’s Romance stuff or Heidegger’s vampires, sometimes understanding goes beyond that whole mental life thing.

    But wait, what about when you say something because you’ve got some meaning you wish to communicate? Doesn’t it matter that you want to be understood? Sure—whether by pencil, pen, computer, or smartphone, you’ve authored a text, a text that has meaning you intend to be there.

    So let’s be clear—Gadamer’s not denying that texts have intentional meaning. When he says the meaning of the text goes beyond the author, he means that it may include in its meaning more stuff than what the author consciously put there.

    For realz? When you text your buds “LOL,” doesn’t that just automatically represent the mental state of laughing out loud?

    Sure, but Gadamer would say there’s more to it than that, and he would say that for two reasons. First, every author writes from within a set of traditions that inform her thinking, sometimes without her being fully aware of the influence. No author can utterly dictate the full scope and power of the language she uses and the prejudices and presuppositions that direct her composition. The author of “LOL” may or may not be aware of the power of using that abbrev over, like, “LMAO” or the simple and antiquated “Haha.”

    Second, the reader encounters the text from the context of her own world and so, in the act of interpreting it, creates something new and unique. Readers read both in terms of the text and in terms of their own place. In some places, “LOL” may mean “lots of love” or may refer to laughter sarcastically only.

    This is why we have secondary literature: every written interpretation of a primary text is a new, distinct, and separate text that calls for interpretation. For Gadamer, a text is less an object of the past than an event realized in the present with each new reading. You, dear reader, have to make the text come alive! And, yes, inflection and character voices help. Only through such analysis will we come to learn what LOL really means in our culture.

    When we try to understand a text, we do not try to transpose ourselves into the author’s mind but, if one wants to use this terminology, we try to transpose ourselves into the perspectives within which he has formed his views. But this simply means that we try to understand how what he is saying could be right.

    Here Gadamer says that understanding a text means understanding it in context. It should be no surprise by now that his main squeeze isn’t the mental life of the author, but the traditions that informed the author’s mental life. Sure, that still involves a wee trip to the past, and Gadamer definitely hasn’t bypassed the person who did the authoring, but he is treating the author as someone influenced by the world in which he or she wrote.

    So, for instance, had Gadamer lived to read The Hunger Games, he wouldn’t have been interested so much in the mind of Suzanne Collins when she created Katniss Everdeen, but what she had in mind—what social concerns she wanted to comment on and how the tradition of young adult literature informed her idea of a strong female protagonist—and how those things guided her mind to create that character.

    Now let’s get contextual for a minute: like good ole Dilthey, Gadamer proposed that hermeneutics was a general theory of understanding that presupposes the hermeneutic circle and the importance of methodology. Plus, following Heidegger, he moved the focus away from the “who” of the author and toward the “what” in which the author was situated. His concern for the text was how it was an embodiment of tradition, not a door to the psyche of the author.

    In a certain sense interpretation probably is re-creation, but this is a re-creation not of the creative act but of the created work, which has to be brought to representation in accord with the meaning the interpreter finds in it.

    We already know Gadamer is super into the whole text-in-tradition thing. As far as interpreting goes for this guy, when you read to understand, the meaning of the work comes to you not like a fish to a net or a football to a wide receiver. You’re more like a builder working from a blueprint that allows you some freedom for how to realize the building.

    Reading is not like following the instructions to a Lego set, where you do just what the instructions indicate. You can build your own construction of course, but that means putting aside the instructions to make a unique (and not always successful) design. Imagine, though, that a Lego set came with instructions that didn’t tell you where to put every piece. Imagine that the directions let you choose where and how to place pieces—some that come with the set, others that you had already—while still giving some parameters.

    Whatever boat or castle or tiny town you create is your interpretation of the instructions. It’s not a rewriting of the instructions, but your own creation based on the meaning you interpreted from the loose guidelines this new-fangled Lego idea presented to you.

    What about literature, (not just lego-rature)? When you interpret a text you produce something based on the “instructions” of the text—the meaning you find in its words and sentences. That production may be related to the ideas from the original author’s head, or may be relatively new because you prefer castles to boats in your own personal Legoland. Whatever the case, both the original intention and your own form of understanding are at play.

  • Paul Ricoeur

    Narrative fiction, we said, “imitates” human action, not only in that, before referring to the text, it refers to our own preunderstanding of the meaningful structures of action and of its temporal dimensions but also in that it contributes, beyond the text, to reshaping these structures and dimensions in accordance with the imaginary configuration of the plot. Fiction has the power to “remake” reality and, within the framework of narrative fiction in particular, to remake real praxis to the extent that the text intentionally aims at a horizon of a new reality that we may call a world. It is this world of the text that intervenes in the world of action in order to give it a new configuration or, as we might say, in order to transfigure it.

    Cue the deep-voiced movie preview narrator: “In a world…where magic reigns…In a world…where darkness covers the land…In a world…where everyone reads philosophy…”

    Ricoeur may not be quite as familiar-sounding as the tried-and-true preview guy, but he has at least as much to say about the world—depending on which world you mean, anyway. What Ricoeur means by “world,” generally, is something like a network of meaning and truth.

    There are textual worlds such as Middle-earth, District 12, and Hogwarts. There are the worlds of various communities such as your family, neighborhood, and country. Your Facebook feed is something of a world. Even Google+ can be a world—a collection of worlds if you have a variety of circles.

    Chances are, when you enter some world of fiction and really get immersed in it, your own world changes as a result. You may start to see things a little bit differently. Maybe you’re more empathetic or understanding of what others have gone through. Perhaps you’re simply more imaginative. Possibly you yell “Accio!” and expect your coffee to fly across the room into your hand.

    By stressing the relationship of textual worlds with the worlds in which we act, Ricoeur took hermeneutics into the practical sphere: the “worlds” of ethics and politics. So whether you’re experimenting with spells or deciding to pay a bit more attention to the whole human rights thing, literature can play a role in how you act in your own world.

    The concept of distanciation is the dialectical counterpart of the notion of belonging, in the sense that we belong to a historical tradition through a relation of distance which oscillates between remoteness and proximity. To interpret is to render near what is far (temporally, geographically, culturally, spiritually). In this respect, mediation by the text is the model of a distanciation which would not be simply alienating, like the Verfremdung that Gadamer combats throughout his work…but which would be genuinely creative. The text is, par excellence, the basis for communication in and through distance.

    Confusing metaphors, Batman! Is Ricoeur asserting that readers should take a book in hand and hold it as far away as possible? Thankfully, no. Especially if you’re nearsighted.

    What Ricoeur means is that the flip side of our being immersed in worlds is our distance from them. The same text may, in different ways, be both close and distant from the reader.

    A religious text like the Bible illustrates this. For a Christian community, the stories and teachings and passages of the Bible are on the tips of their tongues; they recite lines from it and try to put it into practice in their own lives.

    Conversely, the events of the Bible and the historical worlds to which it belong are distant worlds, made all the more distant by their historical obscurity. Is someone really going to fear that they’ll turn into a pile of salt? Debatable. Still, for lots of readers, reading the text brings the Biblical worlds close to the reader, even though the saltier ones may remain somewhat remote.

    Whether you’re talking Bible, Buddhism, or Dan Brown, Ricoeur’s theory of distanciation wasn’t about contradicting Gadamer’s description of belonging to tradition. However, he did present it as a corrective or addition to the earlier philosopher’s work. So you can think really hard about Verfremdung (that’s the German for the whole distancing thing) next time you’re reading a book, no matter how close to you’re face you’re holding it.

    If it is true that there is always more than one way of construing a text, it is not true that all interpretations are equal and may be assimilated to so-called rules of thumb. The text is a limited field of possible constructions. The logic of validation allows us to move between the two limits of dogmatism and skepticism. It is always possible to argue for or against an interpretation, to confront interpretations, to arbitrate between them, and to seek for an agreement, even if this agreement remains beyond our reach….As the logic of text interpretation suggests, there is a specific plurivocity belonging to the meaning of human action. Human action, too, is a limited field of possible constructions.

    First thing’s first. Is plurivocity a real word? It may not show up in your typical Merriam-Webster, but we can piece it together: plural + vocal must have something to do with speaking with multiple voices. Right? So that means human action has to come from multiple directions, whether vocalized or not.

    Now let’s bring that into interpretation-land. Hermeneutics tends to go in for multiple valid readings of a text (sounds pretty plural to us), even when they conflict, but that doesn’t mean the text can mean anything you want it to mean or that every interpretation is equal to every other interpretation.

    If you want to claim that Frodo and Sam are actually the same person and founder of Hobbiton Fight Club, go ahead, but you’d better have some textual support and a good argument to go with your great big imagination. And you’d best be prepared when the weight of Tolkien scholarship, not to mention basic reading comprehension, fall upon your shoulders.

    Boxer hobbits aside, neither the psychic lives of the author and reader nor the traditions of the world to which each belong erase the fact that there is a meaningful text. When you interpret a text as a literary critic, you may consider the worlds to which you and it belong, but at the end of the day, it’s the text you’re seeking to interpret.

    You and your friend might disagree about whether Willy Wonka is just a nice guy with a sweet tooth or a kind of creepy dude who shouldn’t be allowed around children—but you’ll each point to events in the book that buttress your interpretation. Ambiguity doesn’t mean that anything goes, no matter where your pure imagination takes you.