Understanding Hermeneutics

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understanding hermeneutics

Understanding Movements in Modern Thought Series Editor: Jack Reynolds This series provides short, accessible and lively introductions to the major schools, movements and traditions in philosophy and the history of ideas since the beginning of the Enlightenment. All books in the series are written for undergraduates meeting the subject for the first time.

Published Understanding Empiricism Robert G. Meyers Understanding Existentialism Jack Reynolds Understanding Hermeneutics Lawrence K. Schmidt Understanding Phenomenology David R. Cerbone Understanding Poststructuralism James Williams Understanding Virtue Ethics Stan van Hooft

Forthcoming titles include Understanding Ethics Tim Chappell Understanding Feminism Peta Bowden and Jane Mummery Understanding German Idealism Will Dudley Understanding Hegelianism Robert Sinnerbrink Understanding Naturalism Jack Ritchie Understanding Pragmatism Axel Mueller Understanding Psychoanalysis Joanne Faulkner and Matthew Sharpe Understanding Rationalism Charlie Heunemann Understanding Utilitarianism Tim Mulgan

understanding hermeneuticsLawrence K. Schmidt


For Kassandra Reuss-Schmidt

Lawrence K. Schmidt 2006 This book is copyright under the Berne Convention. No reproduction without permission. All rights reserved. First published in 2006 by Acumen Reprinted 2010 Acumen Publishing Limited 4 Saddler Stret Durham DH1 3NP www.acumenpublishing.co.uk ISBN: 978-1-84465-076-7 (hardcover) ISBN: 978-1-84465-077-4 (paperback) British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. Typeset in Minion Pro. Printed by Ashford Colour Press Ltd, UK.


Abbreviations and references Introduction: what is hermeneutics? 1 Schleiermachers universal hermeneutics 2 Diltheys hermeneutic understanding 3 Heideggers hermeneutic ontology 4 Hermeneutics in the later Heidegger 5 Gadamers theory of hermeneutic experience 6 Gadamers ontological turn towards language 7 Hermeneutic controversies Questions for discussion and revision Further reading Index

vii 1 10 29 49 80 95 116 133 173 177 181



Abbreviations and references

CU Jrgen Habermas, The Hermeneutic Claim to Universality, in The Hermeneutic Tradition: From Ast to Ricoeur, Gayle Ormiston & Alan Schrift (eds), 24572 (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1990). DD Diane Michelfelder & Richard Palmer (eds), Dialogue and Deconstruction: The GadamerDerrida Encounter (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1989). DL Martin Heidegger, A Dialogue on Language between a Japanese and an Inquirer, in On the Way to Language, Peter D. Hertz (trans.), 156 (New York: HarperCollins, 1971). GH Theodore Kisiel, The Genesis of Heideggers Being and Time (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993). HC Friedrich Schleiermacher, Hermeneutics and Criticism and Other Writings, Andrew Bowie (ed.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). HF Martin Heidegger, Ontology: Hermeneutics of Facticity, John van Buren (trans.) (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999). LH Martin Heidegger, Letter on Humanism, in Basic Writings, 2nd rev. and expanded edn, David F. Krell (ed.), 21366 (New York: HarperCollins, 1993). IT Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth, TX: Texas Christian University Press, 1976). HFD Paul Ricoeur, The Hermeneutical Function of Distanciation, in From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II., John B. Thompson (trans.), 7588 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1991). R Jrgen Habermas, A Review of Gadamers Truth and Method, in The Hermeneutic Tradition: From Ast to Ricoeur, Gayle Ormiston & Alan Schrift (eds), 21344 (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1990). RC Hans-Georg Gadamer, Reply to My Critics, in The Hermeneutic Tradition: From Ast to Ricoeur, Gayle Ormiston & Alan Schrift (eds), 27397 (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1990).abbreviations and references vii

SF Hans-Georg Gadamer, On the Scope and Function of Hermeneutical Reflection, in Hermeneutics and Modern Philosophy, Brice Wachterhauser (ed.), 27799 (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1986). SSP Jacques Derrida, Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences, in Writing and Difference, Alan Bass (trans.), 27894 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1978). SW Wilhelm Dilthey, Selected Works, 6 vols, Rudolf Makkreel & Frithjof Rodi (eds) (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989 ). SW1 Dilthey, Selected Works Volume 1: Introduction to the Human Sciences (1991). SW3 Dilthey, Selected Works Volume 3: The Foundation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences (2002). SW4 Dilthey, Selected Works Volume 4: Hermeneutics and the Study of History (1996). SZ Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, Joan Stambaugh (trans.) (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1996). The page references are to the German text, Sein und Zeit, and appear in the margins of this translation. TCA Jrgen Habermas, A Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 1, Thomas McCarthy (trans.) (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1984). TH Paul Ricouer, The Task of Hermeneutics, in From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II, John B. Thompson (trans.), 5374 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1991). TM Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd rev. edn, Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (trans.) (New York: Crossroad, 1991). VI E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967). W Martin Heidegger, Words, in On the Way to Language, Joan Stambaugh (trans.), 13958 (New York: HarperCollins, 1971). WL Martin Heidegger, The Way to Language, in Basic Writings, 2nd rev. and expanded edn, David F. Krell (ed.), 393426 (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).


understanding hermeneutics


What is hermeneutics?

When someone asks me what hermeneutics means, I usually just say that it means interpretation. Sometimes I continue by adding that hermeneutics concerns theories for correctly interpreting texts. Hermeneutics and interpretation are derived from the same Greek word. While hermeneutics is not a common word in English, interpretation is. We are well aware that there are interpreters and interpretations in many fields of study. One interprets novels, poems, plays and movies. One interprets the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, the Tao Te Ching and the Brahmasutra. Should one interpret these texts? Can one do anything but interpret them? One interprets the law. The Supreme Court is supposed to interpret the Constitution of the United States. An actor interprets the role she has to portray. A conductor interprets a piece of music. We are also well aware of different theories of interpretation. Aristotles Poetics tells us how to interpret Greek tragedy; he even states some rules. Literary criticism has developed many theories for interpreting literary texts. It would seem we know more about hermeneutics than we thought. Do natural scientists interpret nature or do they explain it? Do they interpret the data collected from experiments? Do you interpret or just understand the motives of your best friend? Do you interpret a sculpture and, if so, how do you go about that? Is there only one correct interpretation of that sculpture or can there be several? Consider Hamlet; are there one or several correct interpretations? When you see a stop sign and stop, is that an interpretation? What if you drove through without stopping? Is that an interpretation? Is Pythagoras theorem an interpretation?introduction: what is hermeneutics? 1

We want to understand what hermeneutics means in contemporary continental philosophy. Contemporary analytic philosophy also discusses language, meaning and understanding texts; however, that analysis would require a separate book. The philosophical meaning of hermeneutics today is primarily determined by Hans-Georg Gadamer in Truth and Method, which was originally to be entitled Fundamentals of Philosophical Hermeneutics. The publisher thought that hermeneutics was not known well enough for that word to be in the title, so the other title was chosen. For Gadamer hermeneutics is the philosophical theory of knowledge that claims all cases of understanding necessarily involve both interpretation and application. What sorts of questions are addressed by hermeneutics? First, we can ask about the range of hermeneutics. It would appear that stop signs do not require interpretation. Either you know what it means when you see one, or you do not. The same is true for Pythagoras theorem. Gravity is not an interpretation of nature but a law or, more accurately, a well-confirmed hypothesis that could be modified if the evidence calls for it. Scientific hypotheses do not seem to be interpretations in the sense that there are several interpretations of Hamlet. If you said to me Watch out, a rattlesnake!, do I need to interpret what you said or do I just jump back? If we were hiking in the Grand Canyon, I would jump; if you said this to me in a restaurant in Paris, maybe I would begin to interpret, and I would surely stare at you. Is it only difficult passages in important texts that require careful interpretation? In the tradition, this is where hermeneutic rules of interpretation were first discussed. What exactly does Hegel mean in the introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit where he speaks of a determinate negation? As we shall discover, Friedrich Schleiermacher argues that hermeneutics is required in all cases of understanding spoken or written language. Gadamer goes even further (as just mentioned) to argue that any case of understanding anything necessarily involves interpretation. We can ask when hermeneutics is required. Do we need to interpret and use the rules of interpretation only when something does not make sense, such as a rattlesnake in the Paris restaurant? It