CCR 691: Palmer. Chapter 3: Six Modern Definitions of Hermeneutics.

September 9, 2007

The following are “in roughly chronological order” (33).  Still, each one echoes the importance of hermeneutics.

  1. the theory of biblical exegesis
  2. general philological methodology
  3. the science of linguistic understanding
  4. the methodological foundation of Geisteswissenschaften
  5. phenomenology of existence and of existential understanding
  6. the system of interpretation, both recollective and iconoclastic, used by man to reach the meaning behind myths and symbols.

Hermeneutics as Theory of Biblical Exegesis:

Around 1654, the oldest record of the word “hermeneutics” was present in books regarding the proper biblical interpretation of scripture.  Publications provided a standard “system” for interpretation.  “understanding of the word “hermeneutics” refers to the principles of biblical interpretation” (34).  Exegesis is the actual scripture/text.  Hermeneutics is the interpretation of text (rules, methods, or theories).  Without correct hermeneutics, an individual is unable to “extract hidden meaning” from “obscure” biblical and “symbolic” nonbiblical materials, and will arrive at the wrong interpretations.

 Hermeneutics as Philological Methodology:

“There arose the historical-critical method in theology; both the “grammatical” and “historical” schools of biblical interpretation affirmed that the interpretive methods applying to Bible were precisely those for other books” (38).

“Since the accidental truths of history were viewed as inferior to the “truths of reason,” biblical interpretation held that scriptural truth was above time and above history; the Bible does not tell man anything true which he would not eventually have recognized through using his reason.  It was simply rational, moral truth revealed before its time.  The task of exegesis, the, was to go deeply into the text, using tools of natural reason, and to find those great moral truths intended by the New Testament writers but hidden within different historical terms” (39).


Hermeneutics as Science of Linguistic Understanding:


Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics as “science” or “art” understanding.  “It seeks to go beyond the concept of hermeneutics as an aggregate of rules and to make hermeneutics systematically coherent, a science which describes the conditions for understanding in all dialogue” (40).


The result was “general hermeneutics, whose principles can serve as the foundation for all kinds of text interpretation.  This concept of a general hermeneutics marks the beginning of the nondisciplinary “hermeneutics” . . . For the first time hermeneutics defines itself as the study of understanding itself” (40).


 Hermeneutics as the Methodological Foundation for the Geisteswissenschaften


Geisteswissenschaften: “all disciplines focused on understanding man’s art, actions, and writing.”


In the late 19th Century, Wilhelm Dilthey “asserted, an operation fundamentally distinct from the quantifying, scientific grasp of the natural world; for in this act of historical understanding, what is called into play is a personal knowledge of what being human means.  What was needed in the human sciences, he believed, was another “critique” of reason that would do for the historical understanding what Kant’s critique of pure reason had done for the natural sciences—a “critique of historical reason” (41).


Hermeneutics as the Phenomenology of Dasein and of Existential Understanding:


Walter Heidegger’s ontological dimensions of understanding.  “Hermeneutics in this context refers neither to the science or rules of text interpretation nor to a methodology for the Geisteswissenschaften but to his phenomenological explication of human existing itself. Heidegger’s analysis indicated that “understanding” and “interpretation” are foundational modes of man’s being” (42).


Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Wahrheit und Methode [Truth and Method] “traces the development of hermeneutics in detail from Schleiermacher through Dilthey and Heidegger, providing the first adequate historical account of hermeneutics that encompasses and reflects the standpoint of Heidegger’s revolutionary contributions” (42). 

“Being that can be understood is language. Hermeneutics is an encounter with Being through language” (42).


Gadamer “asserts the linguistic character of human reality itself, and hermeneutics is plunged into the fully philosophical questions of the relationship of language being, understanding, history, existence, and reality.  Hermeneutics is put to the center of the philosophical problems of today; it cannot escape the epistemological or the ontological questions when understanding itself is defined as an epistemological and ontological matter” (42-43).


Hermeneutics as a System of Interpretation: Recovery of Meaning vs. Iconoclasm:


Paul Ricoeur (43) returns to “textual exegesis” and its “theory of rules that govern an exegesis, that is to say, an interpretation of a particular text or collection of signs susceptible of being considered as a text.” [. . . ]  Ricoeur suggests that “Psychoanalysis, and in particular the interpretation of dreams, is very obviously a form of hermeneutics; the elements of the hermeneutical situation are all there: the dream is the text, a text filled with symbolic images, and the psychoanalyst uses an interpretive system to render an exegesis that brings to the surface the hidden meaning.”


Symbolic texts have more than one meaning, carrying both surface and depth understandings.  “Hermeneutics is the system by which the deeper significance is revealed beneath the manifest content” (44).


“Because of these two antithetical approaches to the interpretation os symbols today [Bultmann’s demythologizing and the three demystifiers: Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud], Ricoeur asserts, there can be no universal canons for exegesis but only separate and opposing theories concerning rules of interpretation” (44).