The term “hermeneutics”, a Latinized version of the Greek “hermeneutice” has been part of common Ianguage from the beginning of the 17th Century. Nevertheless, its history stretches back to ancient philosophy. Addressing the understanding of religious intuitions, Plato used this term in a number of dialogues, contrasting hermeneuic knowledge to that of “sophia” Religious knowledge is a knowledge of what has been revealed or said; it is a contrast to “sophia” (knowledge of the truth-value of the utterances).

In religious studies and social philosophy, hermeneutics suggests the study of interpretation theory, and can either be the art of interpretation, or the theory and practice of interpretation. Traditional hermeneutics (including Biblical hermeneutics) refers to the story of the interpretation of written texts, especially texts in the areas of literature, religion and law. Contemporary or modern hermeneutics encompasses not only issues involving the written text, but everything in the interpretative process. This includes verbal and nonverbal forms of communication as well as prior aspects that affect communication, such as presuppositions, preunderstandings, the meaning and.philosophy of language, and Semiotics.

In contemporary times, hermeneutics has also been concerned with the interpretation and understanding of human action, especially with human action through political, cultural, economic and kinship institutions. Philosophical hermeneutics refers primarily to Hans-Georg Gadamer‘s theory of knowledge as expressed in Truth and Method, and sometimes to Paul Ricoeur. However, in literature, the main impetus of hermeneutic  theory, derives from the conflation of German Higher Criticism of the Bible and the Romantic period.

Hermeneutics, in its broadest sense, describes the interpretation of meanings – explication, analysis, commentary. Originally applied to the interpretation of the Bible, Hermeneutics comprised valid readings plus exegesis (commentary on how the meanings were to be applied). In the nineteenth century, hermeneutics came to be considered as a general theory of interpretation applied to texts of all description. Wilhelm Dilthey (1833- 1911), the German philosopher, developed Friedrich Schleiermacher‘s idea of the “hermeneutic circle” – the paradox which emerges from the fact that the reader cannot understand any part of the text until the whole is understood, while the whole cannot be understood until the parts are understood. Dilthey imported the notion of Hermeneutics from theological discourse to philosophy and clearly defined the methods of “sciences of  the human spirit” as opposed to the scientific methods of natural science. He was primarily concerned with essential meaning and essence, and understanding. He postulated the difference between “understanding” and “explanation” as underlying the basic distinction between human sciences and natural sciences. According to E. D. Hirsch, who sees the hermeneutic circle as nonvicious, valid interpretation involves a correct interpretation of the author’s willed meaning. Such a construal takes into account the author’s purview or perspective, his horizon of expectations – generic, cultural and conventional. For Hirsch, verbal meaning is stable and leterminate. By contrast, Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer insists on the historicity and temporality of interpretation (Heidegger conceives of “Dasein” as constituting a temporal structure of interpretive understanding, which is already engaged in the activity of interpretation).For them, meaning is always codetermined, the reader’s horizon of expectations attempting to fuse with the author’s. An inescapable relativity and indeterminacy is thereby introduced into the notion of interpretation. Gadamer argues that an interpretation of past literature arises from argument between past and present. Our present perspective is definitely associated with our past; simultaneously, the past can only be grasped through the limited perspective of the present. So, the reader’s involvement in the creation of meaning also becomes significant. A text’s interpretation depends on the knowledge, assumptions, cultural backdrop, experiences and insights of its readers. Thus, hermeneutical methods and ideas have had tremendous impact on phenomenology, reader response theory, especially on prominent theorists as Wolfgang Iser, Hans-Georg Gadamer, ED. Hirsch and Stanley Fish.

Jurgen Habermas argues that there are limitations to the scope of hermeneutical analysis. He notes this mode of analysis considers interpretation only in terms of everyday language, rather than in terms of forms of social life.

Categories: Phenomenology, Philosophy

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  1. Key Theories of Hans-Georg Gadamer – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes
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