Hermeneutics, hermeneutic circle

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Hermeneutics, hermeneutic circle

Hermeneutics, hermeneutic circle: Originally, hermeneutics was reserved for principles used in interpreting religious writings (often specifically the Bible), but since the nineteenth century the term has been used to refer to the theory of interpretation in general. Modern hermeneutics — which considers the interpretive methods leading to the perception and understanding of texts and their underlying organizing principles, or codes — is grounded in the terminology and strategies of modern linguistics and philosophy.

In the early nineteenth century, German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher first developed a theory of hermeneutics in the general sense of textual interpretation, referring to hermeneutics as “the art of understanding” in The Hermeneutics: Outline of the 1819 Lectures. Wilhelm Dilthey, a German philosopher, built upon and expanded Schleiermacher’s views in the 1890s, using the term hermeneutic circle in works such as “The Rise of Hermeneutics” (1910) to refer to Schleiermacher’s idea that to understand the parts of a whole, one must begin with some general conception of that whole and vice versa. Dilthey argued that our perception and, therefore, our interpretation of both the whole and its component parts are modified as we move through the work. Because of the interdependent relationship between our retrospective comprehension of a work’s constituent parts and an evolving concept of the constituted whole, we can ultimately develop a legitimate interpretation of that work.

Hermeneutics came back into critical fashion during the mid-twentieth century, thanks to a renewed interest in language and meaning, an interest expressed not only by philosophers but also by various formalists. For example, the New Critics, formalists who saw literary works as self-contained, self-referential objects, searched for the intended meaning of a text within the text itself, rejecting reliance on any external source, including the author’s intentions, whether expressed or implied; indeed, they regarded the practice of basing interpretation on an author’s intentions as erroneous, terming it the intentional fallacy.

Subsequently, German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, drawing upon the work of seminal German philosopher Martin Heidegger, took a very different tack, arguing in Truth and Method (1960) that language and the interpretive act pervade and characterize all aspects of living, not just the study of literary texts. For Gadamer, our being (what Heidegger called Dasein, or “being in the world”) involves a sense of time — a history that is past and a future yet to come — for each individual, a “pre-understanding” that forms the “horizons” within which we interpret everything. Gadamer also believed that the reader can interact with the text, produced as it is by another person operating from the common baseline of language and temporality, to cooperatively produce meaning, rather than treating it as a freestanding, fixed object with a specific, predetermined meaning. Gadamer’s approach is thus more like that of reader-response critics who see the determination of meaning as a creative process carried out by the reader under the guidance of the text than like that of traditional hermeneutics.

Shortly thereafter, American educator and literary critic E. D. Hirsch revived the view that an author’s meaning may be objectively determined, arguing in “Gadamer’s Theory of Interpretation” (1965), Validity in Interpretation (1967), and The Aims of Interpretation (1976) that a text means what its author intended it to mean and that the search for the author’s “verbal intention” appropriately limits the otherwise inexhaustible supply of interpretations that may be derived from a single text. Speech-act theory similarly held out the possibility of determinable, determinate meaning. For example, in Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (1969), John Searle asserted that “talking is performing acts according to rules” and argued that locutions (utterances) that conform to linguistic rules and conventions enable a speaker’s intention to be known.