READING GUIDE TO: Gadamer, H-G  (2006) ‘Classical and Philosophical Hermeneutics’, in Theory, Culture and Society, 23 (1): 29—56.

[This is a very useful but formidably scholarly summary, with the origin of the term “hermeneutics” traced through various philosophical movements and arguments,many of which elude me --so I'm doing my best here but doubtless missing a lot of stuff.. Palmer's general intro helps a lot. Since one of the key applications was theology, a number of religious reforms are also important, and the same goes for the breakaway from Roman law in the Middle Ages, which lead to a hermeneutics in jurisprudence. Various methodological disputes have also been influential, like the ones in Idealism. The story involves various learned asides, and leads towards the key notion in modern hermeneutics, which is the indispensability of preunderstanding in any form of communication. This has clear implications for the claims of positivist science to be able to work without presuppositions, but there are no easy answers for qualitative methods either. Ultimately, no method can replace understanding, and no researcher can stand outside the processes of reciprocal understanding.]

Early Greek notions of hermeneutics were ambiguous, oscillating between the notion of bringing the word of the gods to humans, and actually translating what the gods might have said. This in turn requires orienting the listener to the meaning systems of the gods. Already, there is an notion of revealed truth on the one hand, and a discussion of how meaning arises on the other, and the ambiguity means it can never be codified as a science, but rather must exist as “more of practical ability to do something—a techne” (30). By contrast, modern discussions of the term involve notions of methods and science, where the interpretation needs to be justified theoretically.

Theology developed the notion to mean interpretation of holy texts, in particular deciding between those elements  provided by the particular history of the Jewish writers and the universal truths of God. Here, one solution was offered by Augustine who suggested that there was a hierarchy of meaning, from the literal sense to the moral meaning and then spiritual meaning. A particular problem was provided by the issue of allegory. These problems were heightened by the democratization of cities [with the decline of a particular ruling class and thus compelling interpretation] Homer was also subjected to an allegorical interpretation by the Sophists, and, later, by a medieval notion of the fourfold  sense of the scriptures—the literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical.

Methodological issues were sharpened by the Reformation of with its suspicion of allegorical meaning, and its interest in objective method . However, the aim was still to provide a correct interpretation , an authentic one. What this meant in practice was the desire to unlock a suppressed tradition of [so we are still not doing pure methodology]. This desire extended to a new impetus to understand Greek and Latin classics, or Roman law.

Modernity brought a new interest in formal method. Various languages were proposed as universal—mathematics and logic for example. Hermeneutics was seen as a kind of logic, or as a part of a general semantics. The more applied examples in theology resisted this incorporation, and developed a few basic methodological rules of their own. In particular, ancient rhetoric became an important methodological strand, interpreted to mean a correct reading of books. There was also an insistence on understanding the relationship of parts to wholes—even this had a theological application in resisting piecemeal understandings of the scriptures.

Beneath the specific disputes, a general philosophical issue was lurking. Protestant hermeneutic was capable of criticizing dogmatic traditions, but was itself open to the question of where interpretations came from. It was necessary to resist “naive inspiration theory” (33). How then to justify particular Protestant readings, especially that of Luther? It was clear that Luther’s own work in translating the Bible used a number of particular “traditional philological and exegetical tools” (33), despite the apparent self interpretational nature of the Bible. Protestantism also had its own dogmatic guidelines. Here we see the first clue that there are necessary preunderstandings to any hermeneutic activity.

Other critical traditions aimed at the Bible raised additional problems. Spinoza criticized the notion of a miracle, for example, on the grounds that it contradicted the notion of reason and rationality—“what offends the reason calls for a natural explanation” (34), which lead to a displacement towards understanding the faith in miracles. Partly to combat this trend, other theologians focused upon the important issue of the meaning of texts when they are actually applied to concrete situations. This kind of meaning corresponds to the act of preaching. There is also a rejection of rationality and rules as such, since understanding the impact of reading or sermonising “requires powers of judgment which cannot be secured through rules alone” (34).

Schleiermacher proposed to generalise hermeneutics by conceiving it as a universal doctrine of understanding and interpretation, with theological and juridical applications. Generalising like this emphasises the scientific character of theology against inspiration, but there was also a genuine philosophical issue. That turned partly on the notion of subjectivity itself. An early romantic notion was that dialogue was the source of truth rather than dogma, and that the single thinking ego has to be replaced by the notion of dialogue, especially the capacity for friendship, for communication. These capacities were fundamental to human experience, and textual interpretation became a matter of understanding the “traces of spirit congealed into writing” (35). [Obvious connections to the whole German idealist tradition. Gadamer spells out the particular connections with the likes of Dilthey and his general psychology]. As a result, texts themselves become less important, and understanding becomes an attempt to recover the meaning of the author, drawing on “a congeniality of spirit” (35). At least this breaks the link between hermeneutic and textual interpretation, and permits it to extend to dialogue. Thus hermeneutics “becomes the foundation not just for theology but for all historically based humanistic disciplines” (35).

However, historicism emerges then as a problem. Schleiermacher and the other idealists proposed some underlying highest principle, some absolute unifying force behind historical variation. Dilthey proposed some particular experience which connected the historical and the individual, some “heightened lived experience” (36). He hoped that this would reconcile the idea of historical consciousness with some objective scientific claim to truth, “seeking a constant that would go back behind all relativity” (37). This led him to propose a notion of  types of world view, but the notion of world views still implies some self sufficient consciousness which cannot be explained, even as some manifestation of an underlying expression of life. It becomes difficult to see knowledge as resulting from the deployment of correct concepts [which is Gadamer’s preferred way to think of the philosophical tradition]: rather it becomes a matter of obtaining the right historical consciousness (37).

Gadamer argues that all typologies, including Weber’s, face this problem of “a concealed  dogmatic base” (37), especially when they attempt to explain everything. [I am not sure I understand this completely. Perhaps the argument is that something like Weber’s three types of action presupposes some notion of action in general, something that lies outside the typology.The example given on page 38 is Weber on asceticism, which has to be “supplemented itself through the fully rational decisionistic concession that each person must choose his god, the god he wishes to follow” (38).

Theological hermeneutics had a similar problem in wanting to interpret the Bible yet without accepting that all dogmatics had an historical base. Bultmann attempted to see hermeneutics as a matter of demythologising, a term which implies both a critique of historically flawed notions of understanding, and some universal understanding. However, such a universal understanding was itself “a construction absolutely full of presuppositions based in the modern Enlightenment” (38), which simply abandoned any meaning expressed in the language of myth. There was also a move away from idealism in this approach, and Heidegger seemed to offer suitable neutral terms in order to understand religious faith. [especially the notion of authentic being as opposed to being entrapped in the world, which could be interpreted as akin to faith and sin—39]. This move did help to introduce the key concept of pre-understanding whatever its theological merits.

Heidegger help to break with Dilthey, and Heidegger radicalised the notion of the “standpoint of life”. Basically, Heidegger saw existence itself as involving understanding and interpretation, “the self-projecting by the self of its possibilities” (39). In this way, hermeneutic itself became an ontological matter, not just a methodological one—understanding is something that constitutes being itself. As for interpretation, Heidegger borrows from Nietzsche the idea that consciousness develops by doubting its own assertions, but that this too can be seen as an ontological issue, a matter of the will to power. This is also one response to the necessarily historical nature of knowledge. Far from being a limit to understanding and truth, this historical knowledge becomes a necessary condition for truth, and “The idea of requiring a criterion for absolute truth is shown to be an abstract and metaphysical idol and loses any methodological significance at all” (40). There is also an implication for those who wish to consider and develop the relation between “I” and “thou” [but I did not really understand this – 40].

Heidegger also heavily criticized the usual notions of the subject, and, correspondingly the notion of subjective reflection [and transcendental philosophy as in Husserl]. [I think by replacing the notion of subject -object thinking with the general discussion of being]. One consequence was to criticize psychological assumptions in hermeneutics, including the view that one finds the meaning of a text by trying to reconstruct the intentions of the author, reproducing the author’s intention. This approach never worked with those traditions which offer a particularly good examples of creative interpretations and applications, including the law. It would be wrong to privilege the intentions of the original creator, because that would diminish the role of the artist or interpreter, which would have to be seen as random or worthless. What is more, actors do not always understand their own actions when they perform them. It would be wrong to risk “a subjectivist narrowing of the problem” (41) [for example by insisting that even acts of science are authored]. Nor is empathy much more than “an aesthetic drama” (42)—it is asking too much of the historian, and it ignores the problems of “confronting his own horizon with the complex horizon of the past” (42).

Similar problems arise with interpreting scripture, especially if one allows for the importance of application [and only an inspirationist would think it possible to empathise with Jesus]. The concept of preunderstanding, however, does allow for the historical effects on consciousness. Reception theory in literature offers the same arguments. It seems to offer a threat to the objectivity of literary research, and has been fiercely resisted [including by the likes of Hirsch]. Juristic hermeneutics also reveals the importance of going beyond the original intention, in insisting that the universal law must be applied to concrete cases. Only then can ancient law continue to be seen as valid. Modern attempts to codify the law also raise the problem, but attempt to solve it by using modern historical methods. Nevertheless, hermeneutics’ interpretation can still be valued, and “it remains an indispensable… Element in all pronouncing of legal judgments” (43).[Could be implications here for politics too, of course, ‘applying ‘the universal interests of the State to concrete issues, and inevitably calling into question the judgements involved etc]

What the specific examples show is that there is a general implication for hermeneutic method in the present. For example, it is necessary to criticize the claim that science proceeds without presuppositions. The experience of art shows this to be untenable, for Gadamer [in Truth and Method]. Basically, objective analysis cannot explain the experiencing of specific works of art. Indeed, scholarly study can only be defended in terms of how it adds to the experience of art. We have here the same problems of application as in theology and jurisprudence. This example also shows us that “application” should not be understood as taking some dogmatic rule and applying it to something subordinate: “Rather, the means in general are determined by ends, and rules are determined by or even abstracted from behaviour” (44). [This seems relevant to my interest in music. The problem is that music is appreciated in the here and now, in the moment, regardless of the formal characteristics identified by music critics—and sport scientists. The formal characteristics themselves are debatable—do they arise out of experience in the first place? Are they dogmatic rules to be imposed on experience?].

Positivist notions of “application” imply that there is a limit to understanding. Hermeneutics reflection by contrast insists that understanding operates already in each case, via preunderstanding – “conditions which are operative when we concern ourselves to understand the assertion made by a text”. These preconditions affect not just human sciences but all science. Indeed, understanding only takes place “when one brings one’s own presuppositions into play!” (45). The interpreter must have a productive role in understanding. This is not to accept “private and arbitrary and subjective biases and prejudices”, since the whole intention is to try to understand something outside. There will always be a “tension” in such attempts to understand, because there is an inevitable “distance between time periods, cultures, classes, races or even between persons” (45). “… The interpreter and the text each possesses his, her, or its own horizon and every moment of understanding represents a fusion of these horizons” (45). The subjective is not privileged in this fusion.

The mediation of distance happens in language. There is no artificial symbolic language that will lead to objectivity. Even agreement to play a language game does not guarantee intersubjective understanding, since traditions are much more discontinuous and interrupted than language games. Positivist attempts to operate with a simple notion of what is given are naive.

Philosophical hermeneutics extends beyond pure logic to examine the actual lived context of speaking, concrete communication processes. Purely logical or scientific statements are a special case of such processes. Language nearly always implies dialogue, even with oneself. Hermeneutics urges us to see each statement as the answer to a question, even if not specified. Collective perceptions and judgments are always present.

Hermeneutics therefore turns away from modern conceptions of the sciences of experience to an earlier notion of experience in rhetoric, as something that resists the universal claims of scientific discourse, and restorers the notion of persuasive argument [cf. Habermas on argumentation—lots of lovely examples in sports science, including the standard “discussions” section].

Language also becomes central rather than just a particular symbolic form “For it is reason that is communicatively actualized in language” (47). Language makes the hermeneutical dimension universal, as we saw in the earlier discussion of matters such as allegorical meaning. Thus everything exists within “our linguistically grasped orientation to the world” (47). It is impossible to step outside linguistic experience. We operate with a kind of induction in order to articulate our world. It is impossible to split off something such as a cultural heritage from other areas such as the conditions of production. Instead, our world is nothing but experience. This experience informs everything we do, when we clarify something, or learn something. Thus “the primary task of hermeneutics as a philosophical theory lies in showing that it means to integrate all knowledge we have in the sciences into the “personal knowing” of the individual experience, as Michael Polanyi has shown in his book Personal Knowledge” (48).

Hermeneutic sees itself as engaged in a conversation with the whole history of philosophy and understanding. It denies there is a simple way to master the present, such as reading philosophy in the past as a series of problems which the present has overcome. This applies to hermeneutics  itself. Its own concepts are not identical with the words that carried them. Hermeneutics is not like mathematics. Instead, concepts are developed and transformed over time, with some of the older connections being taken for granted and then rethought. There are no univocal definitions that can somehow erase this historical experience: “In the highly artificial form of terminology we encounter only the ossified crust of the living stream of thinking and speaking” (49).

Hermeneutical conceptions apply to all experience, including the work of the natural sciences [and Kuhn is referenced here]. The very objects of social science can only be understood hermeneutically. Habermas is right to critique some of the more naive objectivism using the term ideology, but it would be wrong to claim some particular privilege on the part of the social science in relation to everyday life. Nor could social science be seen as some kind of applied therapy  as in Lacan [and there is a brief reference to Derrida and deconstruction page 50]. In hermeneutics, understanding is directed towards a possible consensus and agreement, assuming some common ground between the parties. Even ideology-critique assumes some common understanding on the part of its listeners, as does therapy. Consensual communication is seen as the basic and natural case.

This is where the difference between hermeneutics and the critique of ideology emerges. The emancipatory claims of ideology- critique presuppose that the critic holds some special knowledge in advance, which is scientifically based. Hermeneutics does not claim to know in advance what the case is, for example that only distorted communication can take place. Nor does it claim to know what undistorted communication would look like. Hermeneutics is sceptical towards every system of knowledge, especially when it claims to deliver enlightenment, emancipation and the like. Specifically, hermeneutics argues that prejudgments are deeply rooted and not easily dissolved by reflection. Hermeneutics aims at a genuine encounter with the opinions of another, including texts. As a philosophical position, it goes beyond mere techniques to empathise, however, and makes the point that “all understanding of the matter, or of another person, [involves] the critique of one’s self… One who understands does not claim to hold a superior position in advance but instead admits that his or her own assumed truth must be put to the test in the act of understanding” (51). [There is an implication here, reminiscent of American pragmatism,  that such mutual understanding leads to the development of knowledge].

Understanding proceeds through dialogue or conversation, and this assumes an equality, not that one party knows and can explain the views of the other. The latter only “locks oneself into the circle of one’s own prejudices” (52) [as in the confirmation of stereotypes]. This happens if one party claims to be able to see through the views of the other, as do Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. Ricoeur does try to defend the notion of expert knowledge by using terms such as archaeological understanding [the expert helps the other understand their views genealogically?], or teleological understanding [trying to understand an intended sense?], seeing these terms as temporary stages towards a genuine hermeneutical understanding. However, Gadamer sees any such expert understandings as excluding the other.

Ultimately, philosophical hermeneutics needs to show that it is not just a theoretical approach, but is grounded in the principles of common sense. Even here, this would not be some attempt to scientifically understand actual practice. Instead, hermeneutics would try to demonstrate the limits of all scientific and technical efforts [rather as Habermas privileges the lifeworld against system imperatives?]. Insisting on limits, against the colonizing tendencies of modern science “is one of the most important tasks of philosophical hermeneutics” (53).

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