Developments in Hermeneutics and the Impact on Phenomenology

 In History of Phenomenology

This post continues the series on the Nineteenth Century intellectual movements and schools that influenced the development of mature phenomenology in the early Twentieth Century.  If you haven’t yet read the earlier post on existentialism, you might want to start there.

This week I’ll focus on hermeneutics.  Hermeneutics is the theory and methodology of interpretation.  More specifically, this involves the interpretation of the meaning of artifacts of communication, which can include various types of written texts, audio and/or visual recordings, personal observations and interactions with other people, and perhaps other forms of communication.  To say that someone is interpreting the meaning of something communicated by another, be it a written text or spoken verbally or communicated through some other means, is to say that they are attempting to understand the meaning that the other was trying to convey and/or to understand the mental state of the other when they were formulating the content of the communication.

There are diverse ways of practicing hermeneutics and there is very little in common across the various hermeneutic methods, but nonetheless there are certain fundamental assumptions that are essential any time one is attempting to interpret the meaning of artifacts of communication.  This process necessarily involves intersubjectivity, as communicative acts by a conscious subject are inherently related to the communicator’s structures of consciousness and also to their attempt at conveying some sort of information to others.  Communication is inherently related to the subjectivity of the communicator and therefore any attempt to interpret communication is an attempt to create socially verified intersubjectivity.

There have been active hermeneutic schools in various regions of the world since the advent of writing.  All societies throughout history in which some people were literate must also have had a tradition of how one can interpret written texts that they had on hand and which they considered significant.  These specific methods of interpretation often varied widely from one literate society to another and were often closely coupled with the specific texts to which they were applied.  Although hermeneutics, as broadly defined, has a very long history, the modern hermeneutic tradition goes back to the early Nineteenth Century and owes much to the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher, whose approach to hermeneutics involved an attempt to shift away from more specific methods of interpretation, such as ways of interpreting biblical or classical texts, and instead to focus more generally on the way in which people understand texts.

Schleiermacher’s approach to interpretation emphasized that one who wishes to interpret a text would need to understand the text as a necessary precondition to interpreting it.  Understanding would have to involve repeated circular movements between the parts and the whole.  This then leads to the notion of an interpretive or hermeneutic circle, which is an acknowledgment that the understanding of the whole is dependent on understanding the parts, and vice-versa.  But this is not a vicious circle because the interpreter begins with a basic understanding and they use an iterative process to gain more and more understanding, which is a cycle that does not ever end.  Understanding the meaning of a text is not necessarily about decoding the author’s intentions, but instead it is involves establishing and building relationships between reader, text, and context.  If practiced effectively then the same exact ground should not be covered repeatedly because progress is being made as the interpreter’s understanding of the text grows.  Thus, this process of interpretation can be likened not to a circle, but to a spiral that expands outward with increasing understanding.

Following Schleiermacher, there were others such as Wilhelm Dilthey who expanded the application of hermeneutics beyond mere textual interpretation so as to also include other forms of communication.  Dilthey wished to establish this expanded form of hermeneutics as the foundation of the social sciences.  His reasoning was that social sciences such as psychology, sociology, and historiography are necessarily centered around the interpretation of human behavior.  In each of these sciences, one must attempt to understand people’s motives for doing things.  Dilthey argued that people’s lives and deeds could be studied, and their motives interpreted much the same whether it be the case that the those being studied are living and their actions occurring at the present time or whether they are long past.

Dilthey sought objectivity with regards to the understanding of human communication and of the lived experiences of humans and he thought there could be a scientific methodology through which objectivity in these areas of study could be achieved.  Dilthey argued that the human sciences, with the methodologies he outlined or borrowed from as developed by his predecessors, was self-sufficient as a body of knowledge, independent from the natural sciences.  He insisted that the human sciences should not borrow their methods from the natural sciences, as advocates of positivism had claimed.

Dilthey offered a generalized outline of a method for social science, which can be summarized as follows: He thought one could carefully observe other people and consider everything that is known about them so that it is possible to truly empathize with them.  If enough information is taken into account then one can try to imagine the subject’s life-world, life experiences, thoughts, and feelings.  In studies of history, Dilthey advocated interpretation of others in their historical setting that they lived, even if this was generations ago.  He argued that with the aid of detailed contextual information of the time and place in which the human subjects lived, empathizing with them becomes possible.  He also argued that it is also essential to begin these studies with a clear and honest understanding of our own lives and how we build knowledge from our own experiences.  Dilthey’s method is therefore both an individual and communal social experience and activity.  As Kurt Mueller-Vollmer explains in The Hermeneutics Reader:

Dilthey maintains that in their daily lives human beings find themselves in situations where they have to ‘understand’ what is happening around them so that they may act or react accordingly.  Thus, their actual behavior reflects their lived understanding and comprehension of their social or cultural environment.  Dilthey claimed that all ‘higher’ or complex manifestations of understanding, including those found in the human sciences, derived from these ‘lower’ or primitive forms of comprehension.[1]

Dilthey practiced this method in his own work and argued that it was effective, even as he admitted that it needed further refinement in order to truly achieve the high standard of objectivity in the conclusions that are produced from the studies.  Although Dilthey aimed for objectivity in his work, it is not possible to achieve this in matters that depend on the interpretation of other people’s inner experiences, but intersubjectivity is possible through a sufficient degree of rigorous examination of everything that can be objectively known about someone, including what they did, said, wrote, etc.  His method has similarities to the social sciences, which are more or less objective sciences.  In the Twentieth Century, several thinkers were inspired by the works of Schleiermacher and Dilthey (among others) and further developed hermeneutic theories in conjunction with phenomenology and these thinkers and their ideas will be considered in the next several blog posts.

[1] The Hermeneutics Reader, p. 25.

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