Hermeneutics started way back when?! That’s right, for a millennium or two before our pal Immanuel Kant showed up there were plenty of theologians, lawyers, and literary critics busy at work crafting theories of interpretation, but always within their own specific domains. No lasting general theory of interpretation that we associate with modern hermeneutics appeared during this time, but people were considering the way interpretation works from time immemorial all the way to time Immanuel.
The Protestant Reformation did a lot of things for, well, world history. One of those things was to give birth to the doctrine of sola scriptura, the idea that the Bible (scriptura) alone (solo) imparts the knowledge necessary for salvation and that therefore the authorities within the church are subordinate to it.
This new doctrine caused something of a scandal. Suddenly you didn’t need a pope or priest or even a bishop to tell you how to interpret the big pile of rules the Bible said people should live by. Did all the priestfolk like that? Your guess is as good as ours.
Back to the hermeneutics part, in the wake of all this religious (and therefore, wider cultural) upheaval, reformers developed theories about how you should go about interpreting the Bible. Their theories contributed to general thinking about interpretation which eventually extended into other branches of knowledge, too.
Spinoza—who was similar to Kant in thinking that intellectual factors shape how we see the world, but went off on his own in thinking philosophy should be based on geometry—wanted his readers to understand scripture in the historical contexts in which it was written, not just based on what religious leaders said.
This idea set the groundwork for a philosophical examination of the hermeneutic circle and future jokes by Woody Allen.
Vico observed how all thought took place in specific cultural context, and wrote about the relation between investigation of the world and an individual’s own self-understanding. Still not the official realm of hermeneutics, but getting closer.
At last, a theory of universal hermeneutics! After all those almost-but-not-quite philosophers who danced around something resembling hermeneutics, Schleiermacher was the first to really give hermeneutics a place of its own.
He also treated topics that would become important to Gadamer: the space between the particular and the universal, the otherness and unfamiliarity of other cultures and traditions, and the ways in which prejudices guide and cloud interpretation. And thus the groundwork was laid for the hermeneutics we know and love today.
Droysen made the case for the legitimacy of the human sciences based on their methodology and unique objectivity. He’s not the most important name in the history of hermeneutics, but his focus on hermeneutics helped set the scene for the important work of Dilthey a few years and one bullet point later.
Dilthey, in an effort to make the methodology and epistemology of the human sciences respectable topics for the dinner table, distinguished between the task of explanation in the natural sciences, on the one hand, and the task of understanding within the human sciences on the other.
This form of understanding presupposed the capacity to enter into the mental life of others, a path that’s possible because we human beings are usually not entirely alien or foreign or unknowable to one another. Even if we’re not literally capable of reading minds, the argument goes, we can get a good sense of what another person’s thinking and feeling from the signs that other person expresses. Kind of body language 101 with a philosophical bent.
For Dilthey, the task of hermeneutics is to map out the mental life of an author by interpreting the author’s texts. Here’s where the psychological becomes just one more bloom on the growing hermeneutical rosebush—though later scholars would think of that aspect as more of a thorn.
All that psychology stuff that’s been building up in hermeneutics up to this point—kaput once Martin Heidegger shows up. Sure, it was one aspect of his philosophical project regarding the question of being, but the focus switched after he had his say.
Since the Romance was over as far as Heidi was concerned, he scoffed at the Romantics’ idea that intimate knowledge of others could be possible and turned the attention of hermeneutics to being-in-the-world.
In case you’re confused by this idea of being-in-the-world (from German, which loves gluing lots of nouns together to make another noun), think of it with this much simpler word: that-state-of-existing-here-on-earth-that-determines-how-you-use-your-brain-to-think-about-and-understand-stuff-related-to-the-human-sciences-and-maybe-even-beyond-that.
Even though he tended to run out of glue, Heidegger had the goal of understanding what makes understanding possible. But he may be the only one who understood what he was saying.
Oh my Gadamer! This guy’s opus is arguably the classic text on hermeneutics. It offers detailed overview of aesthetics, focusing on discovering art’s mode of being, providing a history of the hermeneutic project, and making a brand new case for the hermeneutic task.
This Gadamer-sent understanding has become the standard in the field. The work explores the necessity of prejudice and tradition in interpretation and the performative character of all understanding.
In this book (and expanded in his 1986 From Text to Action), Ricoeur helped expand the reach of hermeneutics by bringing figures such as Freud and Nietzsche (as well as our buddies Heidegger and Gadamer) into the discussion.
Ricoeur not only expanded the method in theory; he also took the hermeneutic approach to basic questions pertaining to religion, politics, and ethics, thus bringing hermeneutic theory to never-before-trod territory.