hermeneutics. The name of Hermes, the messenger of the Greek gods, gave rise to
hermeneuein, 'to interpret', and hermeneutike (techne) is the 'art of interpretation'. It became
important after the Reformation, when Protestants needed to interpret the Bible accurately.
Medieval hermeneutics ascribed to the Bible four levels of meaning: literal, allegorical,
tropological (moral), and anagogical (eschatological). But the Reformation insisted on
literal or 'grammatical' exegesis and on the study of Hebrew and Greek. Modern
hermeneutics falls into three phases.
1. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), the great Protestant theologian and Plato scholar,
gave in lectures, from 1819 on, a systematic theory of the interpretation of texts and speech.
(Another Plato scholar, Friedrich Ast (1778-1841), had in 1808 published Elements of
Grammar, Hermeneutics and Criticism.) The interpreter's aim is to 'understand the text at
first as well as and then even better than its author': 'Since we have no direct knowledge of
what was in the author's mind, we must try to become aware of many things of which he
himself may have been unconscious, except in so far as he reflects on his own work and
becomes his own reader.' A text is interpreted from two points of view: 'grammatical', in
relation to the language in which it is written, and 'psychological', in relation to the
mentality and development of the author. We cannot gain complete understanding of either
of these aspects, since we cannot have complete knowledge of a language or a person: we
'move back and forth between the grammatical and the psychological sides, and no rules
can stipulate exactly how to do this'. We cannot fully understand a *language, a person, or a
text, unless we understand its parts, but we cannot fully understand the parts unless we
understand the whole. Thus at each level we are involved in a *hermeneutical circle, a
continual reciprocity between whole and parts; a significant 'text can never be understood
right away . . . every reading puts us in a better position to understand since it increases our
knowledge'. (It is the range of relevant knowledge, not circularity alone, that precludes
definitive interpretation. Our understanding of 'Hand me my clubs!' on a golf-course is
circular, since only the whole utterance disambiguates 'hand' and 'clubs', but it is definitive
2. Schleiermacher's biographer, Dilthey, extended hermeneutics to the understanding of all
human behaviour and products. Our understanding of an author, artist, or historical agent is
not direct, but by way of analogies to our own experience. We relive past decisions, etc. in
3. Heidegger learned of hermeneutics from his theological training and from Dilthey.
Theological hermeneutics considers the interpretation of ancient texts; Dilthey is concerned
with understanding in the cultural, in contrast to the natural, sciences, and again mainly, if
not exclusively, with the interpretation of the products of past societies. In Heidegger's
Being and Time, hermeneutics acquires a deeper and wider sense. It is concerned with the
interpretation of the being who interprets texts and other artefacts, who may become, but is
not essentially, either a natural or a cultural scientist: the human being or *Dasein.
Heidegger's *phenomenology is hermeneutical, rather than, like Husserl's, transcendental.
Our approach to Dasein must be hermeneutical since the fundamental traits of Dasein and
its 'world' are not, as Husserl supposed, on open display, but hidden, owing in part to their
very familiarity, in part to Dasein's tendency to misinterpret and obscure its own nature and
such features of itself as mortality. Understanding Dasein is more like interpreting a text
overlaid by past misinterpretations (or penetrating the self-rationalizations of a neurotic)
than studying mathematics or planetary motions. Hermeneutics no longer presents rules for,
or a theory of, interpretation; it is the interpretation of Dasein. But hermeneutic
phenomenology gives an account of understanding, since a central feature of Dasein is to
understand itself and its environment, not in the sense of disinterested interpretation or of
explicit assertion, but of seeing the 'possibilities' available to it, seeing a hammer, for
example, as something with which to mend a chair: 'All pre-predicative simple seeing of
the invisible world of the ready-to-hand is in itself already an "understanding-interpreting"
seeing.' It is only because Dasein has such 'pre-understanding' that it can interpret alien
texts and understand itself in an explicit philosophical way. Heidegger's later works rarely
mention hermeneutics, but interpret poetic and
philosophical texts in a more traditional sense. His hermeneutics differs from Derrida's: for
Heidegger, words 'show' something beyond themselves, namely being, and we need to
think about this, not simply about the text, in order to understand what is said. Being and
Time influenced Gadamer, and Rudolf Bultmann's (1884-1976) demythologizing
interpretation of the Bible.
A. Laks and A. Neschke (eds.), La Naissance du paradigme herméneutique:
Schleiermacher, Humboldt, Boeckh, Droysen (Lille, 1990).
K. Mueller-Vollmer (ed.), The Hermeneutics Reader (Oxford, 1986).
R. E. Palmer, Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger,
and Gadamer (Evanston, Ill., 1969).
P. Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences (Cambridge, 1981).
Hermetic corpus. A body of texts composed between an 100 and 300, but supposed,
together with a text advertising ceremonial magic called Asclepius, to contain the ancient
'Egyptian' wisdom, from which both Moses and Plato borrowed. Translated by Marsilio
Ficino in 1463, they strengthened a growing conviction that human beings could be as
gods: through Reason, the child of God, we could be cleansed of 'the twelve madnesses',
and come to see the ordered beauty of nature; people have forgotten that they exist to
understand and tend the works of God, who is himself beyond our intellectual grasp. Later
scholars, beginning with Casaubon in 1614, have discredited the claim to represent an
original, pre-Greek, theology, but its historical importance is obvious, and its doctrines,
however poetically expressed, deserve close consideration.
G. Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes (Cambridge, 1986).
Herzen, Alexandr Ivanovich (1812-70). A leading figure in Russian political thought,
Herzen lived according to a youthful vow of hostility to Russian despotism. After periods
in exile, he became an influential member of the 'Westernizers' in the 1840s. Though
initially influenced by Hegel, whose dialectic he described as 'the algebra of revolution',
Herzen developed a 'philosophy of contingency' that stressed the role of chance in history.
Though he passionately defended individual *liberty, Herzen saw the peasant commune as a
model of an agrarian socialism that might flourish without the prior development of
capitalism, a system he abhorred. He emigrated in 1847, settling in London where he
published Kolokol (The Bell). Smuggled into Russia, the journal became a powerful forum
of political debate. Herzen's memoirs, My Past and Thoughts, are an outstanding
contribution to literature and an engaging chronicle of Russian life.
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