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Hermeneutics // is the theory of text interpretation, especially the interpretation of biblical texts, wisdom literature, and philosophical texts. The terms "hermeneutics" and "exegesis" are sometimes used interchangeably. Hermeneutics is a wider discipline that includes written, verbal, and nonverbal communication. Exegesis focuses primarily upon texts. Hermeneutic, as a singular noun, refers to a single particular method or strand of interpretation (see, in contrast, double hermeneutic). The understanding of any written text requires hermeneutics.
Hermeneutics initially applied to the interpretation, or exegesis, of scripture. It emerged as a theory of human understanding beginning in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries through the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey. Modern hermeneutics includes both verbal and nonverbal communication as well as semiotics, presuppositions, and preunderstandings. Hermeneutic consistency refers to the analysis of texts to achieve a coherent explanation of them. Philosophical hermeneutics refers primarily to the theory of knowledge initiated by Martin Heidegger and developed by Hans-Georg Gadamer in his work Truth and Method. It sometimes refers to the theories of Paul Ricoeur.
Hermeneutics is derived from the Greek word ἑρμηνεύω (hermeneuō, 'translate' or 'interpret'). It was introduced into philosophy mainly through the title of Aristotle's work On Interpretation, commonly referred to by its Latin title De Interpretatione. It is one of the earliest (c. 360 B.C.) extant philosophical works in the Western tradition to deal with the relationship between language and logic in a comprehensive, explicit, and formal way.
The early usage of "hermeneutics" places it within the boundaries of the sacred. A divine message must be received with implicit uncertainty regarding its truth. This ambiguity is an irrationality; it is a sort of madness that is inflicted upon the receiver of the message. Only one who possesses a rational method of interpretation (i.e., a hermeneutic) could determine the truth or falsity of the message.
Folk etymology places its origin with Hermes, the mythological Greek deity who was the 'messenger of the gods'. Besides being a mediator between the gods and between the gods and men, he led souls to the underworld upon death.
Hermes was also considered to be the inventor of language and speech, an interpreter, a liar, a thief, and a trickster. These multiple roles made Hermes an ideal representative figure for hermeneutics. As Socrates noted, words have the power to reveal or conceal and can deliver messages in an ambiguous way. The Greek view of language as consisting of signs that could lead to truth or to falsehood was the essence of Hermes, who was said to relish the uneasiness of those who received the messages he delivered.
|“||Words spoken are symbols or signs (symbola) of affections or impressions (pathemata) of the soul (psyche); written words are the signs of words spoken. |
As writing, so also is speech not the same for all races of men.
But the mental affections themselves, of which these words are primarily signs (semeia), are the same for the whole of mankind, as are also the objects (pragmata) of which those affections are representations or likenesses, images, copies (homoiomata). [De Interpretatione, 1.16a4]
However, these texts deal with the presentation and refutation of arguments, speeches, and poems rather than with the understanding of texts per se. As Ramberg and Gjesdal note, "Only with the Stoics, and their reflections on the interpretation of myth, do we encounter something like a methodological awareness of the problems of textual understanding."
Some ancient Greek philosophers, particularly Plato, vilified poets and poetry as harmful nonsense. In The Republic, Plato denied poets entry into his "ideal state" until they could prove their value. In Ion, Plato famously portrayed poets as possessed:
|“||You know, none of the epic poets, if they're good, are masters of their subject; they are inspired, possessed, and that is how they utter all those beautiful poems. The same goes for lyric poets if they're good: just as the Corybantes are not in their right minds when they dance, lyric poets, too, are not in their right minds when they make those beautiful lyrics, but as soon as they sail into harmony and rhythm they are possessed by Bacchic frenzy. [ Plato, Ion, 533e–534a]||”|
The meaning of the poem thus becomes open to ridicule. Whatever hints of truth it may have, the truth is covered up by madness. However, another line of thinking arose with Theagenes of Rhegium, who suggested that, instead of taking poetry literally, it ought to be taken as allegories of nature. Stoic philosophers further developed this idea, reading into poetry both allegories of nature and allegories of ethical behavior.
Aristotle differed with his predecessor, Plato, about the worth of poetry. Both saw art as an act of mimesis, but where Plato saw a pale, essentially false, imitation of reality, Aristotle saw the possibility of truth in imitation. As critic David Richter points out, "For Aristotle, artists must disregard incidental facts to search for deeper universal truths." Thus, instead of being essentially false, poetry may be universally true. [Richter, The Critical Tradition, 57]
A common use of the word hermeneutics refers to a process of scriptural interpretation. Its earliest example is, however, found not in the written texts but in the Jewish Oral Tradition [dated to the Second Temple era, 515 BCE – 70 CE] that later became the Talmud.
Summaries of the principles by which Torah can be interpreted date back to, at least, Hillel the Elder, although the thirteen principles set forth in the Baraita of Rabbi Ishmael are perhaps the best known. These principles ranged from standard rules of logic (e.g., a fortiori argument [known in Hebrew as קל וחומר — kal v'chomer]) to more expansive ones, such as the rule that a passage could be interpreted by reference to another passage in which the same word appears (Gezerah Shavah). The rabbis did not ascribe equal persuasive power to the various principles.
Traditional Jewish hermeneutics differed from the Greek method in that the rabbis considered the Tanakh (the Jewish bibilical canon) to be without error. Any apparent inconsistencies had to be understood by means of careful examination of a given text within the context of other texts. There were different levels of interpretation: some were used to arrive at the plain meaning of the text, some expounded the law given in the text, and others found secret or mystical levels of understanding.
Vedic hermeneutics involves the exegesis of the Vedas, the earliest holy texts of Hinduism. The Mimamsa was the leading hermeneutic school and their primary purpose was understanding what Dharma (righteous living) involved by a detailed hermeneutic study of the Vedas. They also derived the rules for the various rituals that had to be performed precisely.
The foundational text is the Mimamsa Sutra of Jaimini (ca. 3rd to 1st century BCE) with a major commentary by Śabara (ca. the 5th or 6th century CE). The Mimamsa sutra summed up the basic rules for Vedic interpretation.
Biblical hermeneutics is the study of the principles of interpretation of the Bible. While Jewish and Christian biblical hermeneutics have some overlap, they have distinctly different interpretive traditions.
Augustine offers hermeneutics and homiletics in his De doctrina christiana. He stresses the importance of humility in the study of Scripture. He also regards the duplex commandment of love in Matthew 22 as the heart of Christian faith. In Augustine’s hermeneutics, sign has an important role. God can communicate with the believer through the signs of the Scriptures. Thus, humility, love, and the knowledge of signs are an essential hermeneutical presupposition for a sound interpretation of the Scriptures. Although Augustine endorses some teaching of the Platonism of his time, he corrects and recasts it according to a theocentric doctrine of the Bible. Similarly, in a practical discipline, he modifies the classical theory of oratory in a Christian way. He underscores the meaning of diligent study of the Bible and prayer as more than mere human knowledge and oratory skills. As a concluding remark, Augustine encourages the interpreter and preacher of the Bible to seek a good manner of life and, most of all, to love God and neighbor.
The earliest Christian period of biblical interpretation was the Apostolic Age. Traditionally, that was the period of the Twelve Apostles, dating from the Great Commission until the death of John the Apostle (about 100 A.D.). Because John lived so long and was the last of the apostles to die, there is some overlap between the Apostolic Age and the first Apostolic Fathers. (See Deaths of the Twelve Apostles.)
The operative hermeneutical principle in the New Testament was prophecy fulfillment. The Gospels, particularly the Gospel of Matthew, make extensive use of the Old Testament for the purpose of demonstrating that Jesus was the Messiah. Examples include Matthew 1:23, 2:15–18, 3:3, 21:42, Mark 1:2–3, 4:12, Luke 3:4–6, 22:37, John 2:17, 12:15, and notably Luke 4:18–21. Jesus read extensively from Book of Isaiah and said that the prophecy was fulfilled in the crowds who heard it. The Pauline epistles also employ the principle of prophecy fulfillment, as evidenced by 1 Corinthians 1:19 and Ephesians 4:8–10.
The principle of prophecy fulfillment was carried over from the Apostolic Age and was continued up to the beginning of the 3rd century A.D. For example, Irenaeus dedicates an entire chapter of Against Heresies to the defense of Isaiah 7:14, which was one of the chief prophecies used to validate Jesus as the Messiah.  This is consistent with Irenaeus' other writings.
Even more than Irenaeus, the second century apologists tended to interpret and utilize most scripture as if it were primarily for the purpose of showing prophecy fulfillment. Prominent among these was Justin Martyr, who made extensive use of scripture to this end. Examples of prophecy fulfillment can be seen in his Apology, in which chapters 31–53 are specifically dedicated to proving through prophecy that Jesus was the Messiah. He uses scripture similarly in Dialogue with Trypho.
|“||And when Herod succeeded Archelaus, having received the authority which had been allotted to him, Pilate sent to him by way of compliment Jesus bound; and God foreknowing that this would happen, had thus spoken: "And they brought Him to the Assyrian, a present to the king."||”|
Here Justin demonstrates that prophecy fulfillment supersedes logical context in hermeneutics. He ignores the Christological issues that arise from equating Jesus with the golden calf of Bethel, which is the "him" that is being brought to the king in Hosea 10:6.
It is likely that the preeminence of prophecy fulfillment was a product of the circumstances of the early church. The primary intent of early authors was a defense of Christianity against attacks from paganism and Judaism, as well as suppressing what were considered to be schismatic or heretical groups. To this end, Martin Jan Mulder suggested that prophecy fulfillment was the primary hermeneutical method because Roman society placed a high value upon both antiquity and oracles. By using the Old Testament (a term linked with supersessionism) to validate Jesus, early Christians sought to tap into both the antiquity of the Jewish scriptures and the oracles of the prophets.
Two divergent schools of thought emerged during this period, which extends from 200 A.D. to the medieval period. Historians divide this period into the Ante-Nicene Period and the First seven Ecumenical Councils.
The Ante-Nicene Period (literally meaning "before Nicaea") of the history of early Christianity extended from the late 1st century to the early 4th century. Its end was marked by the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Christianity during this time was extremely diverse, with many developments that are difficult to trace and follow. There is also a relative paucity of available material, and this period is less studied than the preceding Apostolic Age and the historical ages following it. Nevertheless, this part of Christian history is important because it had a significant effect upon the development of Christianity.
This era begins with the First Council of Nicaea, which enunciated the Nicene Creed that, in its original form and as modified by the First Council of Constantinople of 381 A.D., was seen as the touchstone of orthodoxy for the doctrine of the Trinity.
The first seven Ecumenical Councils, from the First Council of Nicaea (325 A.D. ) to the Second Council of Nicaea (787 A.D. ), represent an attempt to reach an orthodox consensus and to establish a unified Christendom.
The first scholar to study this time period as a whole was Philip Schaff, who wrote The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, first published after his death in 1901. The topic is of particular interest to proponents of paleo-orthodoxy, who seek to recover the church as it was before the schisms.
Medieval Christian biblical interpretations of text incorporated exegesis into a fourfold mode which emphasized the distinction between the letter and the spirit of the text. This schema was based on the various ways of interpreting text that were utilized by the patristic writers.
|“||The hermeneutical terminology used here is in part arbitrary. For almost all three interpretations which go beyond the literal explanations are in a general sense "allegorical". The practical application of these three aspects of spiritual interpretation varied considerably. Most of the time, the fourfold sense of the Scriptures was used only partially, dependent upon the content of the text and the idea of the exegete.... We can easily notice that the basic structure is in fact a twofold sense of the Scriptures, that is, the distinction between the sensus literalis and the sensus spiritualis or mysticus, and that the number four was derived from a restrictive systematization of the numerous possibilities which existed for the sensus spiritualis into three interpretive dimensions.||”|
In each case, the meaning of the narrative was constrained by imputing a particular intention to the Bible, such as teaching morality. But these interpretive bases were posited by the religious tradition rather than suggested by a preliminary reading of the text.
A similar fourfold mode is found in rabbinic writings. The four categories are:
It is uncertain whether the rabbinic categories of interpretation predate those of the patristic version. The medieval period saw the growth of many new categories of rabbinic interpretation and of exegesis of the Torah. Among these were the emergence of Kabbalah and the writings of Maimonides.
The customary medieval exegetical technique commented on the text in glossae or annotations that were written between the lines or at the side of the text (which was left with wide margins for this purpose). The text might be further commented on in scholia, which are long, exegetical passages, often on a separate page.
The discipline of hermeneutics emerged with the new humanist education of the 15th century as a historical and critical methodology for analyzing texts. In a triumph of early modern hermeneutics, the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla proved in 1440 that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery. This was done through intrinsic evidence of the text itself. Thus hermeneutics expanded from its medieval role of explaining the true meaning of the Bible.
However, biblical hermeneutics did not die off. For example, the Protestant Reformation brought about a renewed interest in the interpretation of the Bible, which took a step away from the interpretive tradition developed during the Middle Ages back to the texts themselves. Martin Luther and John Calvin emphasized scriptura sui ipsius interpres. Calvin used brevitas et facilitas as an aspect of theological hermeneutics.
The rationalist Enlightenment led hermeneutists, especially Protestant exegetists, to view Scriptural texts as secular classical texts. They interpreted Scripture as responses to historical or social forces so that, for example, apparent contradictions and difficult passages in the New Testament might be clarified by comparing their possible meanings with contemporary Christian practices.
Friedrich Schleiermacher explored the nature of understanding in relation not just to the problem of deciphering sacred texts but to all human texts and modes of communication.
The interpretation of a text must proceed by framing its content in terms of the overall organization of the work. Schleiermacher distinguished between grammatical interpretation and psychological interpretation. The former studies how a work is composed from general ideas; the latter studies the peculiar combinations that characterize the work as a whole. He said that every problem of interpretation is a problem of understanding and even defined hermeneutics as the art of avoiding misunderstanding. Misunderstanding was to be avoided by means of knowledge of grammatical and psychological laws.
During Schleiermacher's time, a fundamental shift occurred from understanding not merely the exact words and their objective meaning, to an understanding of the writer's distinctive character and point of view.
Wilhelm Dilthey broadened hermeneutics even more by relating interpretation to historical objectification. Understanding moves from the outer manifestations of human action and productivity to the exploration of their inner meaning. In his last important essay, "The Understanding of Other Persons and Their Manifestations of Life" (1910), Dilthey made clear that this move from outer to inner, from expression to what is expressed, is not based on empathy. Empathy involves a direct identification with the Other. Interpretation involves an indirect or mediated understanding that can only be attained by placing human expressions in their historical context. Thus, understanding is not a process of reconstructing the state of mind of the author, but one of articulating what is expressed in his work.
Dilthey divided spiritual science into three structural levels: experience, expression, and comprehension.
Since Dilthey, the discipline of hermeneutics has detached itself from spiritual science and has broadened to include all texts and multimedia. In the 20th century, Martin Heidegger's philosophical hermeneutics shifted the focus from interpretation to existential understanding, which was treated more as a direct, non-mediated — and thus more authentic — way of being in the world than merely as "a way of knowing." For example, he called for a "special hermeneutic of empathy" to dissolve the classic philosophic issue of "other minds" by putting the issue in the context of the being-with of human relatedness. (Although Heidegger himself did not complete this inquiry.)
Advocates of this approach claim that some texts, and the people who produce them, cannot be studied by means of using the same scientific methods that are used in the natural sciences, thus drawing upon arguments similar to those of antipositivism. Moreover, they claim that such texts are conventionalized expressions of the experience of the author. Thus, the interpretation of such texts will reveal something about the social context in which they were formed, and, more significantly, will provide the reader with a means of sharing the experiences of the author.
Hans-Georg Gadamer's hermeneutics is a development of the hermeneutics of his teacher, Heidegger. Gadamer asserted that methodical contemplation is opposite to experience and reflection. We can reach the truth only by understanding or mastering our experience. According to Gadamer, our understanding is not fixed but rather is changing and always indicating new perspectives. The most important thing is to unfold the nature of individual understanding.
Gadamer pointed out that prejudice is an element of our understanding and is not per se without value. Indeed, prejudices, in the sense of pre-judgements of the thing we want to understand, are unavoidable. Being alien to a particular tradition is a condition of our understanding. He said that we can never step outside of our tradition — all we can do is try to understand it. This further elaborates the idea of the hermeneutic circle.
Bernard Lonergan's (1904–1984) hermeneutics is less well known, but a case for considering his work as the culmination of the postmodern hermeneutical revolution that began with Heidegger was made in several articles by Lonergan specialist Frederick G. Lawrence.
Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005) developed a hermeneutics that is based upon Heidegger's concepts. His work differs in many ways from that of Gadamer.
Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) criticized the conservatism of previous hermeneutists, especially Gadamer, because their focus on tradition seemed to undermine possibilities for social criticism and transformation. He also criticized Marxism and previous members of the Frankfurt School for missing the hermeneutical dimension of critical theory.
Habermas incorporated the notion of the lifeworld and emphasized the importance for social theory of interaction, communication, labor, and production. He viewed hermeneutics as a dimension of critical social theory.
Andrés Ortíz-Osés (b. 1943) has developed his symbolic hermeneutics as the Mediterranean response to Northern European hermeneutics. His main statement regarding symbolic understanding of the world is that meaning is a symbolic healing of injury.
Mauricio Beuchot coined the term and discipline of analogic hermeneutics, which is a type of hermeneutics that is based upon interpretation and takes into account the plurality of aspects of meaning. He drew categories both from analytic and continental philosophy, as well as from the history of thought.
In 1992, the Association for Objective Hermeneutics (Arbeitsgemeinschaft objektive Hermeneutik, AGOH) was founded in Frankfurt am Main by scholars of various disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Its goal is to provide all scholars who use the methodology of objective hermeneutics with a means of exchanging information.
In one of the few translated texts of this German school of hermeneutics, its founders declared:
|“||Our approach has grown out of the empirical study of family interactions as well as reflection upon the procedures of interpretation employed in our research. For the time being we shall refer to it as objective hermeneutics in order to distinguish it clearly from traditional hermeneutic techniques and orientations. The general significance for sociological analysis of objective hermeneutics issues from the fact that, in the social sciences, interpretive methods constitute the fundamental procedures of measurement and of the generation of research data relevant to theory. From our perspective, the standard, nonhermeneutic methods of quantitative social research can only be justified because they permit a shortcut in generating data (and research "economy" comes about under specific conditions). Whereas the conventional methodological attitude in the social sciences justifies qualitative approaches as exploratory or preparatory activities, to be succeeded by standardized approaches and techniques as the actual scientific procedures (assuring precision, validity, and objectivity), we regard hermeneutic procedures as the basic method for gaining precise and valid knowledge in the social sciences. However, we do not simply reject alternative approaches dogmatically. They are in fact useful wherever the loss in precision and objectivity necessitated by the requirement of research economy can be condoned and tolerated in the light of prior hermeneutically elucidated research experiences.||”|
In archaeology, hermeneutics means the interpretation and understanding of material through analysis of possible meanings and social uses.
Proponents argue that interpretation of artifacts is unavoidably hermeneutic because we cannot know for certain the meaning behind them. We can only apply modern values when interpreting. This is most commonly seen in stone tools, where using descriptions such as "scraper" can be highly subjective and actually unproven.
There are several traditions of architectural scholarship that draw upon the hermeneutics of Heidegger and Gadamer. Lindsay Jones examines the way architecture is received and how that reception changes with time and context (e.g., how a building is interpreted by critics, users, and historians).
Dalibor Vesely situates hermeneutics within a critique of the application of overly scientific thinking to architecture. This tradition fits within a critique of the Enlightenment and has also informed design-studio teaching.
Adrian Snodgrass sees the study of history and Asian cultures by architects as a hermeneutical encounter with otherness. He also deploys arguments from hermeneutics to explain design as a process of interpretation. Along with Richard Coyne, he extends the argument to the nature of architectural education and design.
Environmental hermeneutics applies hermeneutics to environmental issues conceived broadly to subjects including "nature" and "wilderness" (both terms are matters of hermeneutical contention), landscapes, ecosystems, built environments (where it overlaps architectural hermeneutics ), inter-species relationships, the relationship of the body to the world, and more.
Insofar as hermeneutics is a basis of both critical theory and constitutive theory (both of which have made important inroads into the postpositivist branch of international relations theory and political science), it has been applied to international relations.
Some scholars argue that law and theology are particular forms of hermeneutics because of their need to interpret legal tradition or scriptural texts. Moreover, the problem of interpretation has been central to legal theory since at least the 11th century.
In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the schools of glossatores, commentatores, and usus modernus distinguished themselves by their approach to the interpretation of "laws" (mainly Justinian's Corpus Juris Civilis). The University of Bologna gave birth to a "legal Renaissance" in the 11th century, when the Corpus Juris Civilis was rediscovered and systematically studied by men such as Irnerius and Johannes Gratian. It was an interpretative Renaissance.
Since then, interpretation has always been at the center of legal thought. Friedrich Carl von Savigny and Emilio Betti, among others, made significant contributions to general hermeneutics. Legal interpretivism, most famously Ronald Dworkin's, may be seen as a branch of philosophical hermeneutics.
Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo and Spanish philosopher Santiago Zabala in their book Hermeneutic Communism, when discussing contemporary capitalist regimes, stated that, "A politics of descriptions does not impose power in order to dominate as a philosophy; rather, it is functional for the continued existence of a society of dominion, which pursues truth in the form of imposition (violence), conservation (realism), and triumph (history)."
Vattimo and Zabala also stated that they view interpretation as anarchy and affirmed that "existence is interpretation" and that "hermeneutics is weak thought."
Hubert Dreyfus's critique of conventional artificial intelligence has been influential among psychologists who are interested in hermeneutic approaches to meaning and interpretation, as discussed by philosophers such as Martin Heidegger (cf. Embodied cognition) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (cf. Discursive psychology).
The understanding of a theological text depends upon the reader's particular hermeneutical viewpoint. Some theorists, such as Paul Ricoeur, have applied modern philosophical hermeneutics to theological texts (in Ricoeur's case, the Bible).
In the field of safety science, and especially in the study of human reliability, scientists have become increasingly interested in hermeneutic approaches.
It has been proposed by ergonomist Donald Taylor that mechanist models of human behaviour will only take us so far in terms of accident reduction, and that safety science must look at the meaning of accidents for human beings.
In sociology, hermeneutics is the interpretation and understanding of social events through analysis of their meanings for the human participants in the events. It enjoyed prominence during the 1960s and 1970s, and differs from other interpretive schools of sociology in that it emphasizes the importance of both context and form within any given social behaviour.
The central principle of sociological hermeneutics is that it is only possible to know the meaning of an act or statement within the context of the discourse or world view from which it originates. For instance, putting a piece of paper into a box might be considered a meaningless act unless it is put into the context of democratic elections (the act of putting a ballot paper into a box). One can find frequent references to the "hermeneutic circle": that is, relating the whole to the part and the part to the whole. Hermeneutics in sociology was most heavily influenced by German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer.