Hermeneutics is both the science and art of interpretation and understanding and has been applied to a broad span of disciplines and forms of scholarly inquiry. The roots of the term trace back to the Greek verb hermeneuein, which means “to interpret” and is found in the works of both Aristotle and Plato. However, Grondin maintains its emergence in the 17th century. Hermeneutics is commonly applied to the theological study of biblical interpretation, as well as literary theory, foundationalism, deconstruction, philosophy, politics, and a host of others.
Hermeneutics challenges (within disciplines) the historical or established meaning of an object or a given work. A work is most often seen as being man-made, whereas an object is the craftwork of nature. Works and objects are commonly understood within the established content or framework of a scientific discipline. The disciplinary content includes both the focused theoretical perspectives and specific terms unique to that field of study. It is the creation and application of this disciplinary understanding with which hermeneutics takes issue. Hermeneutics asks, “How do we know that the traditionally applied understanding of a work or object is correct” and “How do we know that anything is correct”? These fundamental questions are asked with the realization that disciplines have established laws or methods as a formal framework that guide their analysis. These guidelines for interpretation may be inherently inappropriate for an objective examination and untainted understanding of a given work or object. This condition is attributable to their principal beliefs being grounded in myopic or flawed thinking.
The meaning of words can change from one generation to another and most certainly from one century to another. Consider how diverse the English language is and the dynamic and ever-shifting meaning of words. Imagine attempting the translation of English into Hebrew and the inability to capture the accurate meanings. Who can know the true intent of an artist’s work, the motivation of a composer, or the crafters of a constitution hundreds of years old?
Hermeneutics views the historical analysis of works and objects as generally laboring under the weight of applied cultural values of its contemporary society. These values are a central component of the process of problematic interpretation. Cultural values impacting interpretation are manifest in many forms. Examples are found in numerous areas, including law, art, social fields, religion, literature, economics, and language. Often, interpretations rise to the status of accepted understanding, frequently consistent with being a certainty. Hermeneutics looks at the sciences as making interpretations and arriving at understandings by following the law of their own subject matter and taking on the position of the “purveyor of all truth.” All truth is seen as problematic when determined in the absence of a hermeneutic perspective.
The science of hermeneutics applies the philosophy of phenomenology, which means, according to Palmer, “letting things become manifest as they are, without forcing our own categories on them. It means a reversal of direction from that one is accustomed to. It is not we who point to things; rather, things show themselves to us.” There are several philosophical perspectives of phenomenology; however, it can best be looked upon as a lying open of consciousness or a disclosing of being as a method of hermeneutical investigation (or also known as a “hermeneutic”). The hermeneutic requires the intersubjectivity of the investigator and for the investigator to achieve interpersonal distance from the object of study.
- Caputo, J. D. (1987). Radical hermeneutics. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
- Crusius, T. W. (1991). Philosophical hermeneutics. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
- Grondin, J. (1994). Introduction to philosophical hermeneutics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Palmer, R. E. (1969). Hermeneutics. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
- Silverman, H. J., & Idle, D. (1985). Hermeneutics deconstruction. New York: New York University Press.
- Weinsheimer, J. (1991). Philosophical hermeneutics and literary theory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.