In a triumph of early modern hermeneutics, the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla proved in that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery. This was done through intrinsic evidence of the text itself. Thus hermeneutics expanded from its medieval role of explaining the true meaning of the Bible. However, biblical hermeneutics did not die off. For example, the Protestant Reformation brought about a renewed interest in the interpretation of the Bible, which took a step away from the interpretive tradition developed during the Middle Ages back to the texts themselves.

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Jean Grondin Published in M. HERMENEUTICS Traditionally understood as the art of interpretation ars hermeneutica that provided rules for the interpretation of sacred texts, hermeneutics today serves to characterize a broad current in contemporary continental philosophy that deals with the issues of interpretation and stresses the historical and linguistic nature of our world-experience.

Since this characterization is also valid for contemporary thinking as a whole, the boundaries of hermeneutics are difficult to delineate with pinpoint accuracy. In contemporary thought, it is mostly associated with the thinking of Hans-Georg Gadamer , who situates himself in the hermeneutic tradition of thinkers such as Wilhelm Dilthey and Martin Heidegger All three authors unfolded a distinct philosophical understanding of hermeneutics i.

Since their thinking is a radicalization of and reaction to this older conception, it is with it that one must start.

Traditional Hermeneutics : the art of interpretation of sacred texts. Originally, hermeneutics was developed as an auxiliary discipline in the fields that deal with the interpretation of canonical texts, i.

Hermeneutic rules were especially required when one was confronted with ambiguous passages ambigua of Scripture. Since most of these rules had to do with the nature of language, the major thinkers of the hermeneutic tradition, up until the 19th century, 2 borrowed their guidelines from the then still very lively tradition of rhetorics, e.

Supplying such rules, hermeneutics enjoyed a normative or regulatory function for the interpretation of canonical texts. A specific hermeneutics was developed for Holy Scripture hermeneutica sacra , for Law hermeneutica juris and classical texts hermeneutica profana.

The German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher is a foremost example of this tradition, but also an author that points to a more philosophical understanding of hermeneutics, and in at least two ways.

Hermeneutical rules, he urges Hermeneutik und Kritik, ed. A more rigorous methodology of understanding could enable the interpreter to understand the authors as good or even better than they understood themselves, claims Schleiermacher in a well-known dictum.

Dilthey : Hermeneutics as the methodological basis of the human sciences. Most familiar with the thinking and life of Schleiermacher, of whom he was the biographer, Dilthey devoted his life-work to the challenge of a foundation of the human sciences 3 Geisteswissenschaften.

Without such a foundation, their own scientific legitimacy could be called into question : is everything in the human sciences merely subjective, historically relative, and, as we tend to say, but with a touch of derision, a mere matter of interpretation?

If these areas of our knowledge are to entertain any scientific credibility, Dilthey argued, they need to rest on a sound methodology. His argument was almost syllogistic : all human sciences are sciences of interpretation, the traditional discipline of interpretation is hermeneutics; therefore hermeneutics could serve as the bedrock of all human sciences.

Hermeneutics could thus be called upon to fulfil a need that arises out of the emergence of historical conscience and threatens the validity of historical knowledge. Even if it remains largely programmatic in his later texts, the idea that hermeneutics could serve as a universal foundation of the human sciences bestowed upon hermeneutics a philosophical relevance and visibility that it never really enjoyed before Dilthey.

Up to this day, important thinkers such as Emilio Betti and E. Hirsch look upon hermeneutics to deliver a methodical foundation for the truth claim of the humanities and the literary disciplines.

According to them, a hermeneutics that would relinquish this task would miss the point about what hermeneutics is all about. It is the insight that the 4 understanding developed in the humanities is nothing but the unfolding of a quest of understanding that characterizes human and historical life as such.

Life articulates itself, Dilthey says, in manifold forms of expression Ausdruck that our understanding seeks to penetrate by recreating the inner life-experience Erlebnis out of which they sprang. The notion that historical life is as such hermeneutical, i. But Heidegger revealed himself a reader of Dilthey when he stressed that every intuition is hermeneutical.

That meant for him that it is always motivated and replete with anticipations and expectations. Understanding is not a cognitive inquiry that the human sciences would methodically refine, it is our primary means of orientation in the world. There is no understanding without projection or anticipations. We are factually faktisch thrown into existence as finite beings, in a world which we will never fully master. Chronically insecure about anything, yet tormentingly sure of its mortality, human facticity seeks ways to cope, to make do.

Because we are overwhelmed by existence, confronted with our mortality, we project ourselves in ways of intelligibility and reason, that help us keep things in check for a while. A momentous shift in the focus of hermeneutics has silently taken place in the work of Heidegger : hermeneutics is less concerned with texts or a certain type of science, as was the case in the entire previous history of hermeneutics, but with existence itself and its quest of understanding.

There is, first, a hermeneutics that intrinsically belongs to facticity itself genitivus subjectivus : facticity is hermeneutical because it is 1 capable of interpretation, 2 desperately in need of it, and 3 always already thrives on some interpretations that are more or less explicit, but that can be spelled out Heidegger, Ontology - Hermeneutics of Facticity, p.

This leads, secondly, to the more philosophical meaning of the program of a hermeneutics of facticity following the lines of a genitivus objectivus : it is precisely with 6 this hermeneutic condition that a hermeneutical theory is concerned with. Its intention is however by no means merely theoretical. While it remained obvious that human faciticity is forgetful of itself and its interpretative nature, and possibilities, the focus shifted to the question of Being as such.

Such a hermeneutics still aims at a self-awakening of existence, but it does so by promising to sort out the fundamental structures of our understanding of being. Postmodern readings of Heidegger Foucault, Vattimo, Rorty, Derrida drew relativistic conclusions out of this shift of hermeneutics towards the history of being. Hence, the tendency, in recent debates, to amalgamate hermeneutics and postmodernism.

It is a tendency that the hermeneutics of Gadamer both seems to encourage and to combat. An apparent inconsistency that we must now try to understand. While taking anew the dialogue with the human sciences and the open question of their claim to truth, Gadamer calls into question the premise of Dilthey according to which the experience of truth in the humanities depends on method. In seeking a methodological foundation that alone could guarantee their scientific or objective status, Dilthey subjected, Gadamer argues, the humanities to the model of the exact sciences.

Instead of relying on this methodological notion of objectivity, the human sciences would do well to understand their contribution to knowledge out of the somewhat forgotten tradition of humanism and the importance it bestowed upon the notion of Bildung formation and education : the humanities do not seek to master an object that stands at a distance as is the case with the exact sciences , their aim is to develop and form the human spirit.

The truth one experiences in the encounter with major texts and history is one that transforms us, taking us up in the event of meaning itself. Gadamer finds the most revealing model for this type of understanding in the experience of art since we are always involved, absorbed, as it were, by the presentation of an art-work, which Gadamer understands as the revelation of the truth or the essence of something : a play reveals something about the meaning of existence, just as a portrait reveals the true essence of someone.

Yet, it is a truth-experience in 8 which we partake in that it can only unfold through a process of interpretation. It is only in this presentation Darstellung or Vollzug of a meaning to someone, a performance which is always an interpretation, that meaning comes to be realized.

The major point here is that interpretation is not the simple recreation of a meaning that always remains the same and can be methodically verified. Nor is it the largely subjective, and potentially relativistic, bestowing of meaning upon an objective reality because the reality to be understood can only be reached through a renewed attempt of understanding.

In other words : to claim that interpretation is relativistic on the grounds that it implies the subjectivity of the interpreter is to miss the point of what the humanities and the experience of meaning are all about. The objectivistic model of the exact sciences is ill-equipped to do justice to this experience of meaning. Distance, methodical verification and independence from the 9 observer, Gadamer concludes, are not the sole conditions of knowledge.

The instrumental sounding idea of procedure is somewhat suspect for Gadamer : for him understanding is more of an event than a procedure. But these concerns come to us from a tradition and a history that are more often than not opaque to consciousness. His idea is rather that every understanding is at its root an application of meaning, where our experience and background are brought to bear.

Gadamer expands on this idea by comparing understanding to a process of translation. Any meaning I can relate to is one that is translated into a meaning I can articulate. It is not only important to underline the obvious fact that translation always implies an act of interpretation a translator is also called in English an intepreter , but even more so to stress that this interpretation is by no means arbitrary : it is bound by the meaning it seeks to render, but is can only do so by translating it into a language where it can speak anew.

What occurs in the process of translation is thus a fusion of horizons between the foreign meaning and its interpretation-translation in a new language, horizon and situation, where the meaning resonates.

Truth and Method draws on this insight to highlight the fundamentally linguistic nature of understanding. Understanding is always an act of developing something into words, and I only understand, Gadamer argues, to the extent that I seek and find words to express this understanding. Understanding is not a process that could be separated from its linguistic unfolding : to think, to understand, is to seek words for that which strives to be understood.

There is a crucial fusion between the process of interpretation and its linguistic formulation. It will not be the only fusion of horizons that will interest Gadamer in his hermeneutics of language. His thesis goes indeed even further : not only is the process Vollzug of interpreting interpretare linguistically- 11 oriented, what it seeks to understand the interpretandum is also language.

Language also determines the object Gegenstand of understanding itself. Any reality I have access to is linguistically framed. It is striking to note however that Gadamer always resisted this merely relativistic appropriation of his thought. That is because his thesis on the linguistic nature of understanding also goes in another direction. Gadamer sees in this an instrumental and very modern understanding of language. What Gadamer hopes to say by this is that the effort of understanding is, in a way, ordained to the language of the things themselves.

This is why, when one speaks and interprets, one cannot say everything one fancies. One is bound by something like the language of the thing. What is this language? Difficult to say since we can only approach it through our language, and the language of tradition, but it is nevertheless the instance that resists too unilateral or too violent readings of this Being.

It is this language of Being which I seek to understand, and to the extent that understanding succeeds, a fusion of horizons has happened, a fusion between Being and understanding, an event I do not master, but in which I partake.

Gadamer and his critics. The history of hermeneutics after Gadamer can be read as a history of the debates provoked by Truth and Method even though this perspective does not do justice to major figures of the hermeneutical tradition, such as Paul Ricoeur who, to a large extent, developed their hermeneutical perspectives independently from Gadamer.

It can only be presented in a very sketchy manner in what follows. Betti and E. Some of the first responses to Gadamer were sparked by the methodological notion of hermeneutics that prevailed in the tradition of Dilthey. Betti, who was followed in this regard by E. Hirsch in America, opposed the idea that interpretation always entailed an essential element of application to the present, an idea he deemed relativistic. Surely, texts do acquire different meanings or relevance in the course of their reception, but one has to distinguish the actuality or significance Bedeutsamkeit thus garnered from the original meaning Bedeutung of the texts, i.

This hermeneutical insight, he believed, could help free the social sciences, spearheaded by psychoanalysis and the critique of ideology, from an all too objectivistic understanding of knowledge and science. Hermeneutics teaches us, he argued, that our understanding and practices are always motivated and linguistically articulated. Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel drew from this self-transcendence of language the important notion of a linguistic or communicative rationality, which is laden with universalistic assumptions that can form the basis of an ethical theory.

Understanding, viewed as application, does not only have to appropriate naively its subject matter, it can stand at a critical distance from it — a distance that is already given by the fact that the interpretandum is an objectified text, for instance. But such a hermeneutics can only be conducted in the hope of a better and more critical understanding of understanding. We interpret because we are open to the truths that can be gained from the objectivations of meaning in the grand myths, texts and narratives of mankind, in which the temporal and tragic aspects of our human condition are expressed.

Ricoeur drew far-reaching ethical conclusions from this hermeneutics of trust that has learned from the school of suspicion. Gadamer would have been somewhat inconsequential in not acknowledging fully the relativistic consequences of his 15 hermeneutics. To understand this shift in hermeneutical debates Gadamer too relativtic for some, not enough for others , it is important to observe that authors such as Heidegger especially the later Heidegger and Nietzsche play a paramount role for postmodernist thinkers by comparison, Betti, Hirsch, Habermas and Ricoeur were all rather hostile to Heidegger and Nietzsche.

One thinks, in this regard, of the Nietzsche who said that there are no facts, only interpretations, or of the Heidegger who claimed that our understanding was framed by the history of Being.


Jean Grondin



Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics


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