The Aeneid by Virgil (19 BC)
When the ancient epic poem The Aeneid picks up, the Trojan War has come to an end, and just the mention of the word “horse” was enough to make any Trojan’s hair stand on end. Aeneas, a brave soldier who happens to be the son of Venus, flees the city with his family and undergoes a series of adventures before settling in Italy. Why this epic hasn’t been made into an HBO miniseries is beyond us.
Like The Iliad and The Odyssey, this mythical tale features gods and goddesses intervening in human lives. Every once in awhile, a god will lift the veil, giving a mortal a glimpse of divine meddling. Amidst the carnage, Aeneas is enraged and blames the human actors, but his mom reveals to him that fall of his home is the result of the harsh will of the gods. It can be useful to have a goddess as a mom sometimes, huh?
With this new insight, Aeneas changes his whole interpretation of the war, its aftermath, and his destiny. How does having a sudden fundamental change in how you see the world something a hermeneutics scholar would love to take a bite out of?
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare (1601)
Hamlet is the play that drives Shakespeare scholars the world over mad with philosophical, literary, and personal questions of all sorts. Master poet T.S. Eliot thought it was a failure. Most people in the world disagree. It’s certainly ambiguous as far as themes and characters and major dramatic events go. Hermeneutics dream-come-true, check.
Why do scholars attend to think stories in which the meaning is clear and orderly don’t have as much to offer as ones in which the meaning is ambiguous and uncertain? Why do you think this preference plays a role in hermeneutics?
If the meaning of Hamlet cannot be settled, but rather remains open, can we say that the play is ever really understood?
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
Call me Ishmael.
But should you really call him Ishmael?
As Moby-Dick's narrator, Ish has got some issues. He’s not always honest with others and himself. He tells Elijah that he knows all about Captain Ahab when he really just barely found out he exists. It’s fair to ask whether Ishmael’s description of events, based on his own perspective and informed by his interpretation of events he may not fully understand, sufficiently captures all the ish that happens on the boat. What say ye?
Along these lines, what do you make of Ishmael’s opening words, “Call me Ishmael”? He doesn’t tell us that he is Ishmael or that the name belongs to him; instead, he chooses to introduce himself with an imperative regarding your act of calling rather than his act of being. What does that say about how we’re supposed to interpret his narration, if we can’t even fully believe his own name?
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1880)
Three brothers have daddy issues. They react to their father’s evil nature and aren’t sure whether to laugh or cry or go to court once he gets murdered. The Brothers Karamazov (say it with us: kah-rah-MAH-zuv) explores how these individuals, born into similar but not identical circumstances, each perceive the figure of their father differently based on their own sense of self, their memories, their personality types, and their basic principles and beliefs.
The three brothers are each unique individual snowflakes with natures that guide their thinking and acting. Dmitri has passion, Ivan’s got the brains, and Alyosha has purity and faith.
In what ways do these foundational characteristics shape and color the way each relates to their father? As for the pops, does the novel present a singular truth concerning Fyodor Karamazov or is the truth of the character, in a sense, relative to the perspectives of the three brothers?
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)
Tolkien famously detested allegory—that is, a one-to-one correspondence of symbols (i.e., Aslan from Narnia = Jesus; pig society in Animal Farm = communism). Tolkien, in contrast, practiced typology, a form of representation that allows for multiple symbolic associations and ambiguity of meaning.
The world Tolkien created in his Lord of the Rings series has appealed to readers of the Catholic faith, which Tolkien practiced, but also readers coming from other faith traditions and even readers who practice no faith at all. The extraordinarily detailed world of Middle-Earth invites a multitude of possible readings—or, in Ricoeur’s way of putting it, worlds before the text.
If, indeed, Tolkien’s novel does allow for multiple interpretations, what keeps the meaning of the work from floating away into a sort of relativism where “anything goes”?
The relationship between naming and being is an important theme in the novel. Where goodness, or the fulfillment of being, is associated with lots of names, evil, which is understood as an incomplete form of being, is associated with namelessness. What does this association tell us about Tolkien’s take on the relationship between language and reality?
Hermeneutics and the Study of History by Wihelm Dilthey (1900)
For the Romantics, hermeneutics is not unlike dating (they are Romantic, after all). You listen to your date chat about all sorts of topics, not because you’re interested in knowing about them, but rather because you want to get to know the person sitting across the table from you. You’re aiming to get a sense of who this person is, and whether they’re worthy of date #2, based on what this person says.
Dilthey argued that if you could get the methodology right, you could come to a pretty good understanding of the mental life of an author. This methodological understanding would give human sciences like literary criticism or history true legitimacy! Imagine the humanities being prove-able to a degree comparable with what we associate with things like biology or chemistry. Why not?
Well, it’s harder than it sounds. It would mean skirting the whole “objectivity” thing—for Dilthey, it’s not enough to say that a historical account is factual, as if history were merely the statement of what happened. History always involves the interpretation of facts.
Why do you think Dilthey and the gang were so intent on giving the human sciences a good name? Would it have been so awful if, say, historical interpretation didn’t have rules upon which historians generally agreed?
Being and Time by Martin Heidegger (1927)
Heidegger covers a lot more ground than specifically hermeneutic matters, but his description of the hermeneutic circle effectively “de-psychologized” it, moving the hermeneutic focus from the inner life of others to the basic structures of our being in the world.
For example, when distinguishing ourselves from the objects of our study, we frame our relationship to them in terms of subject and object, terms that set the stage for how we think and act. Heidi says that we inhabit the world and cannot therefore understand the world as if we’re separate, entirely detached observers. Objectivity? Pie in the sky.
Have you ever had the experience of feeling something so intensely that it affected how you interpret what’s going on around you? How could that affect the way you interpret a book, or a movie, or a conversation with your roommate who accidentally left the lid off the blender on Smoothie Tuesday?
Truth and Method by Hans-Georg Gadamer (1960)
The first third of Gadamer’s Truth and Method could have been titled Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about German Aesthetics but Were Afraid to Ask. And come on, that’s a lot, right?
Ol’ Hans Solo here is on a mission for which he’s well paid (in the philosophical sense of payment, that is). Gadamer argues that the truth of art cannot be found just in someone’s aesthetic experiences of the work of art, but instead in the ontology of the work of art, which Gadamer says has got to be representation or reproduction. Literature, for example, has its being not in the original manuscripts, but in the event of being read and interpreted. The truth of literature is not contained in the past, but is rather newly present in every representation.
According to Hans, meaning, and therefore truth, occurs in the event of each reading, whether the work in question is the script to a video game, Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War, or Freud’s psychological works. Meaning and truth are not fully contained between the covers of the text; the reader and the world she inhabits bring something to these. For hermeneutics, truth is objective, relative, and created, in both the writing and the reading.
Think about it through a classical work of art: Star Wars. It’s probably fair to say that the audience is meant to cheer the destruction of the Death Star—a response that presupposes that the audience shares the basic moral setup of the film. This setup includes not only the association of the Empire with evil and the Rebellion with good, but also the legitimacy of violence in responding to imperial oppression. How might someone who believes that all violence is inherently unjust interpret the ending of Star Wars?
Here’s another. Say you’re assigned in class to read The Iliad by Homer. How do you think your reading the epic will be informed by your reading a translation and by your reading it from the standpoint of a world far removed from ancient Greece?
Philosophical Hermeneutics by Hans-Georg Gadamer (1976)
If you have a pressing desire to acquaint yourself with Gadamer’s hermeneutics (and who doesn’t?), then this collection of essays may be your cup of tea. Gadamer addresses the centrality of language in contemporary philosophy, the historical development of philosophical hermeneutics, and the relationships between hermeneutics and semantics, aesthetics, and self-understanding.
In what sense (if any) does a work of fictional literature have truth? How much is the idea of truth dependent on things you learn to believe in from an early age?
Imagine growing up on a deserted island, where you have plenty of coconuts but zero human contact and therefore no language at all. Your first encounter with other human beings comes when you witness a theft—one person robbing another. Only you don’t understand what you see as a theft because you have no concept of private property, ownership, and so forth. How would you interpret this event?
The Conflict of Interpretations by Paul Ricoeur (1969)
Paul Ricoeur’s early work in hermeneutics dealt with bringing phenomenology (translation: the study of human consciousness) into dialogue with hermeneutics. He claimed not to be interested in synthesizing the two into one new philosophical system—an impossibility anyway, according to hermeneutics—but he did emphasize the importance of how the two together can aid interpretation.
Building on Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, Ricoeur developed a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” an approach to interpretation that stressed the presence and effects of false consciousness in the beliefs people form. Basically the Sherlock Holmes of literary analysis.
So, if consciousness is our fundamental access to the world of meaning, but consciousness can be deluded or deceived, then our access to meaning may be blocked or distorted. What we take for conscious beliefs and decisions may be the product of the inner workings of our unconscious. Spooky huh? Yup—we may even be wrong about our own beliefs and why we do what we do.
Have you ever had the experience of reacting to something you read or watched in a way that surprised you? You find yourself sad or angry or disturbed, and you’re not sure why. If you tried to figure out why you reacted this way, you might have contemplated your life experiences, trying to pinpoint an event or occurrence that apparently affected you in ways you didn’t realize. That’s hermeneutics.
As the unconscious affects the reader, it also affects the writer. How does the influence of the unconscious put authorial intention into doubt?
From Text to Action by Paul Ricoeur (1986)
Follow-up to The Conflict of Interpretations, this set of essays features Ricoeur’s take on the history and task of hermeneutics; interpretation as it relates to understanding and informing human action; the relationship between philosophical and biblical hermeneutics; the role of imagination; and what hermeneutics has to say to ethics and politics. Throw in the kitchen sink and you’ve got yourself a nice little list.
Ricoeur asks us to consider imagination as a method, writing about how “the work of imagination” (hey, isn’t imagination about play?) is to “see one thing as another.” Imagination creates a place in which we can “try out new ideas, new values, new ways of being in the world.” Sounds like playing make-believe to us. But in theory world, what practical function, if any, does this work of imagination give to fiction?
Since fiction is by definition make-believe, in what sense, given Ricoeur’s remarks on imagination, can we say that there is truth in literature?