Intro to Hermeneutics

“Hermeneutics” is derived from the Greek word for interpretation. It has a complex history, with roots in Greek literary interpretation, scriptural interpretation, and Renaissance humanism. In an 1808 work, the German philologist Friedrich Ast formulated a first version of the hermeneutic circle, emphasizing that we encounter a sort of chicken-and-egg relationship between the meaning of the parts and the meaning of the whole in a text. Wilhelm Dilthey (1833 – 1911) promoted a discipline of hermeneutics as the grounding for a distinctive kind of scientific method for the human sciences. In contrast to Dilthey, Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) emphasized that we do not begin from the outside with a theoretical methodology, but rather find ourselves in the world along with the things we seek to understand.

The name most strongly associated with 20th century hermeneutics is Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900 – 2002). Combining neo-Kantian and Heideggerian influences with a strong interest in Platonic and Aristotelian ethics, Gadamer emphasized that all understanding has the character of a dialogue, and dwelt extensively on Aristotelian phronesis, or practical wisdom regarding concrete situations and what to do.

Another major figure is Paul Ricoeur (1913 – 2005), who dwelt on the nature of human beings as responsible ethical agents, while rejecting claims that the self is immediately transparent to itself, or fully master of itself. He sought to understand subjectivity without falling prey to subjectivism or presupposing a sovereign Subject. Both he and Gadamer also emphasized the irreducible role of language in understanding.

At least on these points, there is an interesting convergence with themes I have been pursuing here. I see philosophy as fundamentally hermeneutic, rather than seeking to formulate a “system of the world”. The kind of semantics I have attributed to Aristotle, along with his use of dialectic, seems to me to be the earliest developed philosophical hermeneutics, with roots in Socratic questioning. Brandom’s mix of semantics with what he calls normative pragmatics, in conjunction with his work on Hegel, can be considered as a very original form of hermeneutics within analytic philosophy.