Modern hermeneutics

 I want to focus today on the development of the term after Heidegger,via the work of Gadamer, Ricoeur, the Italian “Hermeneutic Circle” etc. All of these heroes are well discussed in Palmer (try especially the excellent chs. 9 --13). A useful discussion is also found in Giddens’ New Rules..., (esp.pp 54 — 71, and the Conclusion). The main points are:

(i) Pure, idiosyncratic subjectitity is denied. Personal meanings are always located in a pre-given framework of meanings, a tradition, a language,which is beyond individuals and of which they are not aware. To focus upon the purely personal, then, to offer only “interpretation”(i. e. the personal meanings of the individual “author”) is to make two sorts of mistake. 

  1. First, we encounter the sorts of problems we find in “social phenomenology” — subjective meaning cannot be understood until it is mediated via a common language, shared by the interpreter. However, as soon as it is so mediated, it ceases to be purely subjective, and this leads to all sorts of difficulty establishing just what are subjective/intended meanings and what are objective/observer's meanings. 
  2. Second, to focus exclusively upon authors' intended meanings is to narrow our focus unduly. Other meanings are also available — e.g. those which authors may not be aware of, which express their social context, tradition, way of life etc. and those which emerge only when a text is read, when it is confronted with other meanings, brought to it, as it were by different readers, different traditions and ways of life. The central task of hermeneutics is to recover all these meanings. 
Specifically, this view is seen in Palmer’s discussion of Hirsch. In order to establish some sort of agreed validity in what is a notorious field (literary criticism), Hirsch proposed to focus upon the author’s meaning as a privileged one. This led him to devise a method, based on Weberian ideal-types, to accurately recapture the author’s meaning. Palmer rejects this strategy along the lines suggested above, and this rejection has important further implications: there is no objective validity in interpretation (at bottom, such concepts are category mistakes, belonging to science, not moral sciences). Similarly, there is no permanent method available for understanding — what we are offered instead are vaguer principles like consistency, satisfaction, self-understanding, open-ness, autonomy etc. — a commitment to a never-finished process of the recovery of meaning.

(ii) Total, closed cultural determinism is denied, so is ahistorical transcendental idealism. This is where Heidegger’s influence is crucial. I’ll leave you to fill out the case (e.g. in Palmer,chs.9 and 10) but very briefly, Heidegger is seen as concretising Husserl’s phenomenology --  Being is the ground of meaning, rather than transcendental consciousness; phenomenology becomes “letting Being disclose itself to Dasein” as Palmer puts it. Instead of getting heavy about this, what I propose to do is to give some implications of this view for the stance of the hermeneuticist. 

One is that hermeneutics becomes the model of understanding (since Being and Dasein are very general categories indeed, no?). Another implication is that the objects of interpretation have some autonomy, some aspect of thingness in their own right as it were, not totally uncovered simply by unpacking the categories of transcendental consciousness. The insistence that Dasein, (briefly, concrete human being) is the party to the disclosure, means that the concrete cultural context and historical location (and actual temporality) of the interpreter are crucial mediators of meaning. The mysteries of the concept of Dasein also imply a clear rejection of scientific accounts of human action and authorship, and indeed, of method itself. O.K.--  this is a bit mystifying, but it’s all in Palmer....

You can also see the rejection of cultural determinism in Ricoeur’s attack on Levi-Strauss’s structuralist account of myth (in the N.L.R. reference).This is also difficult, dense, and positively Gallic in parts —very briefly, what Ricoeur is arguing is that although it is possible to parcel out the meaning of myths into elements of deep structural codes etc., there are still elements of meaning which are missing.

What is missing is those elements of meaning brought to the myths by concrete acting subjects located in cultures who enter into relations of their own with the codes, (and, more obscurely, Ricoeur is raising the problems we have mentioned with Levi- Strauss -- has he not brought in, in a disguised way, the meanings embedded in his own cultural tradition?)  It is precisely these elements of missing meaning, says Ricoeur, that is the central concern of hermeneutics.

(iii) Having rejected these alternatives, what space is left for hermeneutics? The space is precisely in the interface between purely subjective meanings and the non-personal cultural traditions in which meanings are embedded (but not completely submerged, of course).The process of the recovery of subjective meaning in this space involves the famed “hermeneutic circle”. 

The easiest way to describe this circular process of interpretation is to think of it as a dialogue the reader has with a text. Individual readers clearly bring subjective understandings and pre-understandings to a text. When reading a text, it is always possible to uncritically maintain these personal understandings, to force the text to confirm them, as it were. This would be to “do violence to the text”, however, not to treat it as autonomous, and not to open oneself to new possibilities of meaning. To avoid this violence, one is often urged to confirm the so-called “first principle of hermeneutic interpretation — to perform exegesis, i.e. to expound a consistent meaning for the text as an expression of a cultural tradition, or as the free project of the author.(This crucial exercise might itself involve a circling between parts - e.g. chapters - and the whole, so that the chapters are read in sequence until some idea of the whole project is gained, this idea is then used to reinterpret each chapter, and in the process, the idea of the whole is refined -- and. so on until you get fed up).

As we’ve seen, even this exegesis is not enough — it’s both a logical and moral mistake to stop with exegesis. The idea is to reflect upon the text from the point of view of one’s own traditions and projects. This will lead to a recovery of meaning purely for oneself, one’s self understanding is clarified by proper reading of texts which lets them disclose their meaning. The newly aware self then returns to the text, “sees it in a new light” so to speak, and embarks upon new searches for meaning in the text, permitting further disclosures, for self and for text, and so on, round and round in a constant progressive circling. Nice, lyrical notion, no? What literary criticism, or reading Althusser should be like, and can possibly be like once you’re out of here and able to read things purely for the interest? The fact that it doesn’t describe what students actually do when they pick up an assessed text leads to some rather familiar criticisms of the hermeneutic circle as a universal description of 
human understanding, as we’ll maybe see below. But first......

(iv)The example so far refers to the processes of understanding an actual written text. However, “text” has a very general meaning, and here we get on to an important analogy. ‘Text” refers to any human project that is externalised  -- anything written, spoken, acted., dreamed, or even built. We are now in the area referred to briefly above (via Heidegger) -- hermeneutics become the model for understanding all human constructs. This idea is pursued enthusiastically by Ricoeur in the article I recommended, and it leads Ricoeur to propose an amazing synthesis of similar approaches in theology, Weberian sociology, the interpretation of myths in anthropology, Freud’s interpretation of dreams, scientific accounts of natural phenomena, linguistic philosophy.. . . everything. There is something in this, clearly -- all these activities do involve hermeneutic circling in an effort to understand, there are always pre-understandings and cultural traditions involved, both when externalising activity and interpreting it. 

But there are problems with such generalisations too -- does the insistence on seeing all action as text, all understanding as the unconstrained endless circling of our example, blur crucial distinctions between types of action and types of understanding? Crudely, is the model of free recovery of meaning really typical of action and understanding, or is it a rare, idealistic pure possibility? To put it in Habermasian terms - doesn’t hermeneutic circling assume undistorted communication? But is communication typically undistorted? Even great literary works might themselves be distorted by commercial pressures, or by being intimately connected with a barbaric social system (no time to go into this here, but we’ve seen something of this via Adorno, Horkheimer and the critique of high and mass culture, no?). Dreams are to some extent the free expression of subjectivity, since they go on when the censor is asleep, as it were -- but of course, as Freud shows, even dreams are subject to some distortion via condensation, displacement etc. As for action, we know of a wide range of work that shows how action is distorted by the unrealised influence of social constraint and domination, and how, such are the constraints,  actors even come to perceive constraint as spontaneity and freedom. 

These distortions can clearly affect interpretation too -- to appeal for open-ness and self-discovery is laudable, but we know of a range of difficulties in achieving it, from the necessary pragmatism of the “natural attitude” to various kinds of social determinism. In Habermas’ s critique of hermeneutics, the argument is that hermeneutics is reductive, confined to the “interaction” cognitive interest. Hermeneutics as a model for understanding can neither allow for the distortions emanating from the “work” interest, nor really develop as an emacipatory process (and, at amore abstract level, remember Marcuse’s critique of Heidegger). 

The hermeneutic circle is constrained after all, in practice, if not in principle. What is needed is “meta-hermeneutic”, able to operate not only within the tradition/personal meaning circle, but to explain both elements, from the outside, as it were.

This is a fairly familiar theme in social theory. It’s a regrettably familiar theme in everyday experience too, I think -- so writing dissertations is not just a matter of free expression of creativity, is it? It also involves work, technical calculations, a consideration of means and ends. Likewise with our interpretation of your work -- we do circle, and there is interaction -- but there is also assessment, domination, control. In both cases, the hermeneutic circle is distorted, cut off, turned into non-dialogue. In this (common) form of action and understanding, hermeneutic is subordinated to purposive rationality, although the “free dialogue” notion remains as a hopeless, but not really an innocent, myth.

O.K. -- mustn’t get bitter. I have omitted much in this piece (“to understand all is to forgive all” - Gadamer), but you can find all the proper academic bits - the relation with verstehendiesoziologie, structural anthropology, linguistics etc in the books suggested. I want to end with my usual point re the powerful criticisms of hermeneutic mentioned above. They are obviously plausible, but in my view they fail to take seriously enough the epistemological issues raised by hermeneutics - e.g. very simply, have the critics broken out of their own hermeneutic circles with their preunderstandings and traditions? Is it possible to launch an external critique? Aren’t these external critiques themselves simply another twist in the hermeneutic circle of understanding? So there:

Circle round that for a bit..,..,.