Literary Criticism of Friedrich Schleiermacher

The German philosopher and Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) is generally credited with having laid the foundations of modern hermeneutics, or the art of systematic textual interpretation. His most important text in this regard was his Hermeneutics and Criticism, published posthumously in 1838, in which he formulates principles for the textual interpretation of the New Testament. These principles, though they were often contested and modified, had a profound effect on the work of both contemporaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and later thinkers such as Wilhelm Dilthey, Martin Heidegger, and Hans Georg Gadamer. Some of Schleiermacher’s positions have been expressed by thinkers such as Lyotard, Rorty, Lacan, Derrida, and Donald Davidson. Indeed, hermeneutics is currently a controversial issue in contemporary philosophy.

Schleiermacher’s work straddled both philosophy and theology, and hermeneutics plays a central role for him in both fields. Born in Prussia to a family steeped in Moravian pietism, he studied at Moravian Brethren schools; he translated many of Plato’s works into German; he contributed to the journal Athenaeum, founded by his friend and early Romantic Friedrich von Schlegel; he taught philosophy and theology first at the University of Halle and then at Berlin. He advocated many views which are now seen as Romantic: the freedom of the Church; the importance of the intuitive and emotional, rather than the moral, dimensions of religion, as in his books On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799), addressed to his Romantic colleagues, and The Christian Faith (1821–1822); he also supported the causes of various rights for workers and women.

content.800Schleiermacher’s Hermeneutics and Criticism is the first text to establish hermeneutics as a modern, systematic discipline, and many of his principles are so fundamental that they are still in use today in a wide range of fields: these principles include the central role of language in human understanding, the reciprocal relationship between individual speech acts and the structure of language as a whole, the intimate interdependence of the various elements in language, and the historicist principle of understanding the differences between our own culture and that of the text we are interpreting. Schleiermacher initially defines hermeneutics as “the art of understanding particularly the written discourse of another person correctly,” and criticism as “the art of judging correctly and establishing the authenticity of texts.” Both of these activities, he stresses, presuppose each other.1 Moreover, both of them must be categorized, along with grammar, as philological disciplines (4). Schleiermacher points out that as yet, there exists no general art of hermeneutics: it has been treated as an appendix to logic or as a branch of philology (5, 21).

In attempting to define the nature of hermeneutics, Schleiermacher elaborates the connection between speech and thought. For him, language is integral to the thought process. The notes of Schleiermacher’s lecture of 1832 state that “language is the manner in which thought is real. For there are no thoughts without speech . . . no one can think without words” (8). What hermeneutics attempts is to clarify the connection between these two elements, speech and understanding. Since speech is “the mediation of the communal nature of thought,” the art of hermeneutics belongs together with the art of rhetoric: if rhetoric comprehends acts of speech, every act of understanding is the “inversion” of those speech acts, attempting to grasp the thought which is at the basis of speech. Moreover, both rhetoric and hermeneutics have a common connection with dialectic, the art of logical thinking, since the development of all knowledge depends on both speech and understanding (7).

In general, speech stands in a twofold relation: on the one hand, it is related to “the totality of language”; on the other hand, it bears a relation to the “whole thought” of its author or creator. All understanding, therefore, must accommodate these two components: the utterance as derived both from the language as a whole and from the mind of the thinker (8). These two components react reciprocally on each other: we can say that every speech or utterance arises from a given language; but we must also acknowledge that language comes into being only through speech. Hence Schleiermacher sees every person as both a locus “in which a given language forms itself in an individual manner” and a speaker whose discourse or speech needs to be understood as situated in the totality of the language system (8). The notes of Schleiermacher’s 1832 lecture explain that the “individual is determined in his thought by the (common) language and can think only the thoughts which already have their designation in his language.” Schleiermacher characterizes thinking as an “inner speaking,” and concludes that “language determines the progress of the individual in thought. For language is not just a complex of single representations, but also a system of relatedness of representations . . . Every complex word is a relation.” And it is because language is a system of relations that “every utterance can only be recognized as a moment of the life of the language-user in the determinedness of all the moments of their life, and this only from the totality of their environments . . . their nationality and their era” (9). In other words, to understand a given act of speech, we must take into account not only the structure of the language and how this determines individual speech, but also the unique psychological and social circumstances of a given speaker.

Hermeneutics or the understanding of speech, then, consists in just this interaction of these two elements: the “grammatical” interpretation, which attends to the place of an individual’s speech within language as a whole, and the “psychological” (or what Schleiermacher calls the “technical”) interpretation, which focuses on the psychological and cultural conditions of the speaker. These two aspects of interpretation are intrinsically related and complementary: an utterance must be understood both as a modification of the language in general, since “the innateness of language modifies the mind,” and as “an act of the mind” of the individual speaker (11). Schleiermacher acknowledges that not all texts are equally open to a given type of exposition. For example, when a work lends itself primarily to a grammatical interpretation, this propensity is called classical. When a work disposes itself to a psychological interpretation, such a disposition is named original (13). Hence it is not necessary to use both sides of the hermeneutic procedure for all cases (14).

Laying down some general rules on the art of hermeneutics, Schleiermacher stresses that our aim is to attain an exact understanding of texts (20). We begin with “misunderstanding,” which can be “qualitative,” where we mistake the meanings of certain expressions, or take irony as meant seriously or vice versa; in “quantitative” misunderstanding, we take parts of the text out of context or err in our view of the speaker’s own elaboration of the text, or fail to grasp the main thought or indeed the whole itself (22, 28). From this misunderstanding we progress to a “precise understanding” (22). In order to achieve this, we must first place ourselves “in the place of the author,” by means of what Schleiermacher calls objective and subjective reconstruction of the speaker’s utterance (24). In the case of a text far removed from us in time and culture, we must first employ a knowledge of language and history to understand the differences between the author’s culture and our own: we must attempt to identify the text’s original meaning (20).

Schleiermacher offers a “formula” for interpretation, whereby we can identify with the author’s overall situation, a formula which includes: objective historical reconstruction, which considers how a given utterance relates to language as a whole, and how the knowledge in a text is the product of language; objective divinatory reconstruction, which conjectures how the utterance or discourse itself will contribute to the language’s development; subjective historical reconstruction, which examines a discourse as a product of an individual writer’s mind; and, finally, subjective divinatory reconstruction, which assesses how the process of composition affects the speaker. Strikingly modern in this apparently anti-intentionalist insight, Schleiermacher asserts that the task of hermeneutics is to understand the text or utterance “just as well and then better than its author.” All our knowledge of him is not immediate (like his own) but mediated; and we can therefore attempt to make conscious elements of which he may have been unconscious (23). By attaining such knowledge of the language as he himself had, we will possess a more exact understanding of it than even his original readers had (24).

This emphasis on two poles of interpretation, individual elements and their broader contexts, leads Schleiermacher to expound the famous “hermeneutic circle” of interpretation or understanding: “Complete knowledge is always in this apparent circle, that each particular can only be understood via the general, of which it is part, and vice versa” (24). The point is that, since the particular is integrally part of a totality, knowledge of the general and knowledge of the particular presuppose each other. We must begin, therefore, with “provisional understanding,” based on the knowledge we obtain about particulars from a general knowledge of the language. Hence, though we must contextualize any given idea, and find in a text the “leading ideas according to which the other ideas must be assessed,” we must begin with the interpretation that has larger scope, the grammatical interpretation (27).

It must be remembered, however, that Schleiermacher’s own purpose was to formulate a systematic method for the interpretation and criticism of the New Testament. A number of his insights are worth mentioning. Addressing the question of whether there are special and unique modes of interpretation that apply only to the New Testament, he agrees with advocates of the historical interpretation that the New Testament writers are essentially products of their time. However, this insistence should be balanced by recognizing the power of Christianity to give rise to new concepts. Moreover, we should be wary of viewing these ancient texts through modern eyes; the task of interpretation is to reconstruct “the relationship between the speaker and the original listener” (15). Schleiermacher also offers some observations on the allegorical interpretation of scripture and the exposition of myths. He affirms, like Dante and some other medieval thinkers, that allegorical interpretation should be based on truth. However, the test of the propriety of an alleged figurative meaning is whether or not this is “woven into the main sequence of thoughts.” With myths, says Schleiermacher, no psychological interpretation is possible, since there is no single text and no given author (15–16).

Schleiermacher cautions against certain errors in expounding the New Testament. Firstly, its connection with the Old Testament often encouraged scholars to use the same methods of exegesis as for the former. Secondly, there was a tendency to view the Holy Spirit as the author of the New Testament. But such an author, observes Schleiermacher, “cannot be thought of as a temporally changing individual consciousness,” and this view generated a disposition “to find everything” in the sacred text (16). He rejects claims that the scriptures should be treated differently than other texts: for one thing, the “whole of Christianity” is not contained in the writings of the apostles: they were directed at specific communities, each of which stressed certain characteristics of the gospel stories. These texts, therefore, must be explicated using the same methods that are applied to secular works, and assume that even if the Holy Spirit did speak through the New Testament authors, it “could only have spoken through them in the way they themselves would have spoken” (17). Hence Schleiermacher’s work was modern not only in its formulating of the general principles of textual exposition but also, as part of the same program, in its effective constrainment of sacred texts within these hermeneutic boundaries.

In part I of his Hermeneutics, which is devoted to expounding the process of grammatical interpretation, Schleiermacher advances certain general principles: a given utterance must be clarified by referring to the uses of language that are common to the author and his original audience (30); the sense of particular words and passages must be determined by their linguistic context, the words and passages that surround it (44); the main thought of a text can be established by reference to other texts in the same vein by a given author (51). In applying these rules to New Testament explication, Schleiermacher states that if we cannot definitively determine the elements of a sentence from its contexts, we must proceed via an alternative route: we must obtain an overview of the whole text, attempting to distinguish between the main thought and secondary thoughts; if the meaning of a word or sentence is unclear, we can refer to a parallel passage where these expressions are used in a similar manner; we can use oppositions and analogies as hermeneutic aids (61–63). He rejects the ancient maxim that scripture should never be interpreted figuratively if it can be read on a literal level, suggesting instead that, as with every other text, the level of reading should be determined by the context (81–82).

Schleiermacher offers some interesting observations on the interpretation of poetry which, along with prose, he takes as the two “end- and limit-points” of hermeneutics. The aforementioned procedure of obtaining an overview of a text and distinguishing leading ideas and secondary thoughts is not strictly applicable to poetry. Lyric poetry presents a particular challenge to hermeneutics since it “eludes logical analysis” and proceeds via “a free movement of thoughts” linked primarily by the self-consciousness of the subject. It is difficult to distinguish here what is the main thought, the secondary thought, and what is merely means of presentation (64). Normal hermeneutical principles are based on the assumption of a “bound” train of thought, i.e., thought that is subject to rules. But in lyric poetry, “unboundedness prevails.” However, though such a poem may appear as the negation of a bound train of thought, there are certain points in the poem which are bound, since “even the most free movement of thought cannot free itself ” (64–65). In a lyric poem, says Schleiermacher, the linguistic elements are the same but they exist in different relationships than in prose. Because “logical opposition and subordination are lacking it is best to go straight into the detail after getting an impression of the whole” (65). In this type of explication, “the hermeneutic operation encroaches on the psychological side.” In other words, if we are attempting to follow the “free” train of thought in a lyric poem, our knowledge of the individuality of the author, his psychology and circumstances, may help us to determine the linguistic value of a given expression (67).

With scientific writing, the obverse is the case, since here “everything stands in the relationship of subordination or co-ordination of the individual parts of the whole.” But difficulties can arise even in the explication of scientific texts if scientific revolutions have prevailed; in such cases, one must first compare entire systems with one another before attempting to grasp differences of detail. Schleiermacher states that “the general hermeneutic difference between poetry and prose is that in the former the particular wishes to have its specific value as such, in the latter the particular has it only in the whole, in relation to the main thought” (65–66). This is an important affirmation, which anticipates various kinds of Romanticism and formalism. It stresses that in poetry, words can have a value independent of their mere semantic relation to their context and the leading ideas contained by this context. For example, a word can have value for its material qualities, its sound, its shape, and its ability to excite certain associations and emotions.

The second part of Hermeneutics is devoted to what Schleiermacher calls the “psychological” or “technical” aspect of interpretation.6 He states that the task of psychological interpretation in general is to understand “every given structure of thoughts as a moment of the life of a particular person” (101). Offering certain basic principles for this task, he affirms that, as with the grammatical interpretation, the starting point of psychological interpretation is “the general overview which grasps the unity of the work and the main characteristics of the composition.” The work’s basic qualities are seen as flowing from his “individual nature” (90). In grammatical explication, the work’s unity is seen as the manner in which the grammatical constructions of the language are composed and connected; this unity is “objective.” But the author orders this object in his own individual manner, and adopts secondary ideas which also reveal his individuality. Hence Schleiermacher characterizes the author’s function within the language as twofold: on the one hand, he produces something new in his use of language; on the other, he “preserves what he repeats and reproduces.” Both methods, the grammatical and the psychological, are “the same, only looked at from a different side” (91). Hence there must be continuity between both perspectives, those which view the whole and parts respectively; and the grammatical perspective must not overlook the genesis of the work (91). Schleiermacher points out that there can never be a perfect interpretation; no individual explication can be exhaustive, and can always be rectified or improved (91).

Before beginning the psychological interpretation, there are a number of things we need to know: how the subject occurred to the author, how he acquired the language, earlier developments in the genre in which he wrote, the uses made of that genre, as well as “the contemporary related literature” on which the author may have drawn (92). On the whole, we need to adopt two methods. The first is the divinatory, whereby we “transform” ourselves, as it were, into the author; our ability to do this depends on our power of empathy or “receptivity for all other people,” which in turn rests on our possession of certain universal human characteristics. The second is the comparative method, which places the work under a general category alongside similar works. Both of these methods refer back to each other because “divination is . . . excited by comparison with oneself ” (93). It is through the main idea of the work that the author’s purpose reveals itself; this purpose must be gleaned through the way the material is developed and by ascertaining the entire “sphere of its effect,” which would include such factors as its audience and its intended effect on that audience (93). Schleiermacher points out elsewhere that we cannot simply rely on the author’s own statement of his purpose, since many “texts indicate something which is far below the real theme in importance as their object” (101). Overall, then, the psychological task involves two aspects: “understanding of the whole basic thought of the work,” and “comprehension of the individual parts of the work via the life of the author” (107). Whereas grammatical interpretation situates an author within the language, effectively viewing him as a linguistic site, the psychological perspective will view language as “the living deed of the individual, his will has produced what is individual in it” (132).

Schleiermacher distinguishes three stages of the hermeneutical task in general. The first stage is an interest in history, so as to establish the relevant facts in a case of interpretation. The second stage is “artistic interest or the interest of taste.” This is more specialized and depends on knowledge of both language and the arts. The third stage is the speculative, under which Schleiermacher includes both scientific and religious interests, which “both emerge from the highest aspect of the human spirit.” The former comprehends the development of humanity and its consciousness through language; this, too, is a specialized interest, but it is counterbalanced by the universal nature of the religious interest; again it is through language that humankind becomes “clear and certain” about its religious ideas (156–157).

The principles of hermeneutics as formulated by Schleiermacher include important insights into language and the construction of meaning: that language is historically determined; that any element of a text must be situated not only within the text as a totality but also in the context of the writer’s work and historical situation as a whole; that the cultural and psychological constitution of the subject has an active role in the creation of meaning; that an author’s work is to a large extent determined by his location within the history of language and literature, while he himself may exert a reciprocal influence on the development of both; and that our knowledge itself moves in endless circles such that we must often acknowledge its provisional and progressive nature.

1. Friedrich Schleiermacher, Hermeneutics and Criticism and Other Writings, trans. and ed. Andrew Bowie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 3. Notes from various lectures of Schleiermacher are integrated into this text. Hereafter page citations are given in the text.


Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Romanticism

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