HERMENEUTICS: A Brief Introduction to Theories of Understanding

To some students of faculty of humanities or social sciences, perhaps “hermeneutics” sounds unfamiliar because this field is usually thought of a subdiscipline for theology where it covers the study of methods of understanding and interpretation of texts. Hermeneutics has always been associated with theology because of the fact that scripture is always understood through interpretation. Coined from the Greek word, hermeneutics is the study of the theory and the practice of understanding and interpretation through language. Hermeneutics assumes that interpretation is not a straightforward activity though people do it in all the time in their daily activities. A student decides to take a certain course is the result of interpretation. A judge gives a five-year punishment, for an example, to a criminal after interpreting the data or proofs already collected. As a discipline, hermeneutics stands on two different pillars; a school of thought in philosophy and a method of interpretation of (especially) written texts. In its development hermeneutics breakdowns in both written and oral communication. 

The basic concept of hermeneutics is based on Hermes, the Greek mythological god whose task is to translate the gods’ messages for humans. To do the task successfully, Hermes had to understand both the language of and the mind-set of the gods (so as to communicate the intended message) and those of humans (so as to communicate it in a way they could understand). We can imagine how hard the task carried by Hermes is as he has to understand the language of god and transfer the intended information from god to humans using the human language. In its work, hermeneutics involves three important components which makes it different from any other methods of interpretation, namely person to text, person to person, and person and world where meaning is open to interpretation. To get a comprehensive understanding, a hermeneutic researcher will consider the interplay of tradition, language, dialogue, experience, and context. Understanding itself as the ultimate goal of hermeneutics, as Schleiermacher stated, is more than understanding the meaning of words, but also the spirit of the author which initiates and controls his writing.

Hermeneutics originally focused on the interpretation of Biblical and legal texts and has developed into an influential school of thought of philosophy as well as in applied social researches. Following Descartes’ rationalism, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) strengthened the role of mind which actively makes sense of the world based on prior conceptual frameworks and this paves the way for hermeneutics as it is known today. (Read “Rationalism versus Empiricism”).  Kant’s insight broadens the world of interpretation that it never ends. The result of interpretation is a new text which is subject to further interpretation. Hermeneutics is also defined as an art of interpretation.  

There are some principles of hermeneutics. First, hermeneutics emphasizes intuition to get true knowledge. Knowledge is not to be acquired in the usual, reasoning and rational way nor by laborious process, but by a kind of mental flashlight. It results in the understanding of underlying meaning, not the explanation of causal connection. Second, truth as an act of disclosure, in which the polarity between subject and object, as well as understanding and explanation is dissolved in the radical light of a more original unity. Third, hermeneutics applies “ a part and whole principle” where  the meaning of a part can only be understood if it is related to the whole. This is called “hermeneutic circle” – the part can only be understood from the whole and the whole from the parts. Howard (1982: 21) adds that totality of interpretation must begin with the study of a part, then extend to the whole.                    

Hermeneutics has its roots in the Renaissance in two parallel and partly interacting currents of thought — the Protestant analysis of the Bible and the humanist study of the ancient classics.  Among many philosophers, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) was the first philosopher who theorized that hermeneutic thinking is universal and natural part of being human in a social world rather than simply an application of strategies for interpreting Biblical texts. Schleiermacher is then known as the founding father of modern hermeneutics. Schleiermacher distinguishes between two forms of interpretation. The first, is acts of interpretation that happen all the time as people encounter texts or the world around them without much thought. The second, is acts of interpretation that deal with ambiguous, complex texts or situation where understanding is not easily acquired.

What Schleiermacher did was opening the science of interpretation widely. Understanding and interpretation are naturally happening, where innate human abilities and human inabilities are the core of hermeneutics. Freeman (in Given, 2008: 388) states that if people always understood correctly and readily, then bureaucrats, teachers, researchers, and other social interpreters would not be needed to assist with obscure texts or unfamiliar points of view. It is because understanding can be manipulated, mistakes, misguided that hermeneutic theories of understanding take into account the social, cultural, and political contexts, past or present, in which understanding and misunderstanding take shape. It is also because humans continue to make sense of the world around them and act on those interpretations regardless of their familiarity, interests, or knowledge that understanding the process of understanding is a core of social research in which hermeneutics is a part of it.

After Schleiermacher, the theories of understanding and interpretation is continued by hermeneutic thinkers (each with his own theory) as follows:

  1. Wilhem Dilthey (1833-1911) with his methodic hermeneutics..
  2. Edmund Husserl (1889-1938) with his phenomenological hermeneutics.
  3. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) with his existential hermeneutics.
  4. Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900- 2003) with his romantic hermeneutics.
  5. E.D. Hirsch Jr. (1928-   ) with his intentional hermeneutics.
  6. Jurgen Habermas (1929 – ) with his critical hermeneutics.
  7. Paul Ricoeur (1913- 2005) with his dialectic hermeneutics.
  8. Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) with his radical hermeneutics.
  9. Rafael Capurro (1930- 2004) with his digital hermeneutics.

Different from any other methods of text analysis, hermeneutics provides and opens broad opportunities for interpreters to understand texts. However, Madison as quoted by Alvenson and Kaj Skoldberg (2000: 39) proposes methodological principles as follows:

  1. Coherence – the interpretation should be logically consistent.
  2. Comprehensiveness – regard for the whole of the work.
  3. Penetration – the underlying, central problematic should be laid bare.
  4. Thoroughness – all the questions raised by the text should be answered.
  5. Appropriateness – the questions should be raised by the text, nit by the interpreter.
  6. Contextuality – the text should be set into its historical-cultural context.
  7. Agreement (1) – the interpretation should agree with what the author really says, without distortions.
  8. Agreement (2) – interpretation should agree with established interpretation  of the text.
  9. Suggestiveness – the interpretation should be “fertile” and stimulate the imagination.
  10. Potential – the application of the interpretation can be further extended.       

Originally only used to interpret biblical texts, hermeneutics has now occupied many of the best philosophical minds of the century. Hermeneutic philosophers have become influential thinkers in many disciplines and left hermeneutics as a very challenging discipline, not only for students of theology, but of humanities and social sciences as well.

(Paper presented in the class of Schools of Linguistics for 7th semester students of English Literature, Faculty of Humanity, UIN Maulana Malik Ibrahim Malang, Thursday, May 6, 2021.)

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