“Hermeneutics” comes from the name of the Greek messenger god, Hermes – the patron of travelers, rogues, liars, and thieves. As the carrier of messages between gods and mortals, Hermes had to be fluent in both of their idioms. It was his task to build and maintain an interpretive bridge between alien worlds. Since he was also a trickster who could deliver messages in garbled form, the Greek verb hermeneuo meant to decipher cryptic or obscure meanings, and, more generally, to explain, translate, and express (Gadamer 1971). The term hermeneutics descends from this root, via the Latin hermeneutica, and has been used in English and German since the late seventeenth century. Today hermeneutics has two main senses: the art of reading texts, and the philosophy of textual interpretation and human understanding. However, forbidding or exotic the term may sound, hermeneutics is a fundamental mode of inquiry into communication and its conditions. Indeed, hermeneutics and communication theory alike focus on how messages span the gaps of human togetherness.
The Art of Textual Interpretation
Hermeneutics is traditionally understood as Biblical interpretation. However, it is an art relevant whenever a canonic text needs to be updated and applied to a concrete situation. Any tradition of practical judgment anchored in classic writings calls for procedures of interpretation, whether in religion, law, or science. The hermeneutic problem is simple: how to draw dim and distant writings into the broad daylight of understanding? This problem faces any interpreter who is historically or culturally removed from a foundational text. Inasmuch as many cultures in the world have canonic texts, there is a great variety of hermeneutic traditions. Elaborate rules and methods of textual interpretation have developed, for instance, in Judaism, Christianity, neo-Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Such methods guide the temporally remote interpreter’s practical relation to authoritative texts. The imperative of interpreting classics is not unique to religious traditions. Hellenistic scholars developed methods for reading Homer and other ancient Greek texts, methods whose central task was the interpretation of allegory. These methods deeply shaped how the Christian church fathers and Jewish scholars read the Bible – traditions that are known as patristics and rabbinics, respectively – and decisively stamped the intellectual history of the west for the past two thousand years.
Though any reading of an old text in a new situation can be understood as a hermeneutic act, perhaps the paradigm case is legal interpretation, in which a particular case needs to be judged in the light of a textual corpus. The need to check the source raises diverse complexities. Before knowing how to read, one must determine what sources are relevant, how to harmonize their contradictions, and what parts of them are superseded or still in force. Hermeneutics can have legal, religious, literary, historical, ethical, linguistic, and philosophical dimensions. In the rabbinic and Muslim legal traditions, for instance, it is impossible to separate legal, historical, and religious interpretations. In the Anglo American common law, legal interpretation is always a reading of historical precedent. Taken as the art of interpretation, hermeneutics is a set of methods for determining legitimate readings. It is a collection of techniques for bridging the communicative gaps between classic texts and novel situations.
The Theory of Human Understanding
Because textual interpretation has often raised larger philosophical questions, the deep history of hermeneutics can be traced to diverse sources. But taken as a name for a more ambitious theory of interpretation and human understanding, hermeneutics started around two hundred years ago in Germany. This tradition, often known as “philosophical hermeneutics” (Grondin 1994), expanded the scope of hermeneutics variously to a method for understanding history, a justification of the disciplinary uniqueness of the humanities, and an account of human existence.
The broader context for the rise of philosophical hermeneutics was near-universal literacy and the rise of positivist paper sciences such as classical philology and history in late eighteenth-century Germany. Classical philologists powerfully felt and systematically discussed their cultural and linguistic distance from classical oratory, literature, and jurisprudence. Their efforts to recover and restore distant texts and traditions shed new light on the problem of historical remoteness. Hermeneutics was the philosophical ancilla for the massive scholarly labor of source criticism in such sciences and arts of textconstitution as philology, papyrology, paleography, archaeology, and historiography. The extremely influential doctrine of historicism made anachronism a hermeneutic crime, thus emphasizing the temporal expanse across which the modern interpreter had to travel. One could no longer receive the Iliad or Genesis as a direct message; one had to read them as ancient productions designed for alien worlds and full of strange notions. Access to meaning became mediated by consciousness of historical distance and cultural difference. Biblical “higher criticism” was one key expression of this distance.
The hermeneutic developments of Protestant theology and the philological traditions of classical scholarship came together in the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher, who added a strong dose of Kantian and post-Kantian philosophy to the mix. For Schleiermacher, hermeneutics was a theory of understanding other minds that are problematically remote in time, language, or culture. He argued that the primary object of understanding is not the meaning entailed in a given text (grammatical content), but the intentional consciousness of its author (technical-psychological content). However, because authorial intention can only appear as an interpretive reconstruction, meaning is always only a function of interpretation itself. This insight led Schleiermacher to the radical conclusion that understanding can never entirely escape the potential for misunderstanding. As a “productive repetition,” interpretation required both a holistic immersion in the world of the original text and a lively sensitivity to the demands of the present.
Schleiermacher’s phenomenology of understanding informed Wilhelm Dilthey’s defense of the human sciences against the emerging dominance of the natural sciences. For Dilthey, hermeneutics was a universal theory of interpretation in and through which to understand sciences that depend crucially on meaning or consciousness. He called these sciences Geisteswissenschaften or human sciences, translating J. S. Mill’s term “moral sciences.” Unlike the natural sciences, which derive knowledge from observations of the outside world, the human sciences derive knowledge from “lived experience” (Erlebnis). Since the act of knowing is indistinguishable from the known object, the human sciences require Verstehen (interpretive understanding) in addition to Erklären (rule-based explanation). For Dilthey, the task of hermeneutics was to disclose the vital link of subject and object in human knowledge, and in so doing to provide an epistemological-logical-methodological foundation for the human sciences. No longer would hermeneutics confine itself to transmitting the authority and normative validity of distant texts and traditions. It was Dilthey’s great achievement to redefine hermeneutics as the universal methodology for making sense of the entire social, historical, and psychological world.
Martin Heidegger took the argument one giant step further. If Dilthey used hermeneutics to free the Geisteswissenschaften from the Naturwissenschaften, Heidegger freed hermeneutics from the tradition of Wissenschaft altogether. The epistemological understanding of the human sciences, he argued, derives from a more basic hermeneutical understanding. Making sense of things was for Heidegger the ontological condition of human existence (Dasein). Understanding is “existential” because it is our fundamental, if often implicit, mode of being in, dealing with, moving through, and caring for the world. More specifically, understanding orients our ability to be in alternate positions in the world, our potential to pursue different life projects. Understanding is the being of this potentiality, and interpretation is its subsequent development. Prior to our possession of any given theoretical knowledge, Heidegger insists, we are inexplicitly yet affectively involved in the world. Thus, hermeneutics is not just a fancy name for what scholars, judges, and clerics do with texts. It is what every human being does by living, thinking, choosing, and acting. Inasmuch as all humans live in time and have no choice but to choose, the human condition is hermeneutic.
More recent hermeneutic thought is dominated by Hans-Georg Gadamer (2004) and Paul Ricoeur (1981), who follow in Heidegger’s wake. Both see hermeneutics as a unique justification for humanistic inquiry, and both see human existence as fundamentally communicative. In expanding the notion of “text” to include any field of enduring meaning, Ricoeur explicitly figures interpretation as an act of communication. Wherever there is unintelligibility, there is a hermeneutic problem. Hermeneutics, like communication, is the general theory of dealing with problematic meanings. It aims to decipher lost sense with an almost therapeutic mission of liberating meanings that have been frozen into muteness or madness by the passage of time or culture. Whereas the rhetorician asks, how will the audience receive this text, the hermeneut asks, how would the author have written this text if they were addressing us now? Hermeneutics is the talking cure for texts that have slipped into darkness, an inventory of ways to make them talk again – and yet again (McCormick 2003). For Ricoeur, hermeneutics is a form of dialogic textuality. It is like exchanging letters with someone who cannot write back, but whose old letters you treasure and whose voice you must supply (Peters 1999). Hermeneuts hold up both ends of a literary correspondence – the then of the text, the now of its recognizability. More specifically, they bridge historical, cultural, and linguistic gaps by mediating the original text through the production of another. In this sense, Ricoeur builds on Schleiermacher’s insight that any reading is a “productive repetition.”
Wider Relevance and Criticism of Hermeneutics
Philosophical hermeneutics has received diverse criticisms since the 1960s. For critical theorists, hermeneutics neglects the social conditions that sustain canonic texts and specialized interpretive labor, and thus has conservative political and methodological consequences (Habermas 1977). This criticism was echoed in the canon skirmishes of the 1980s with a more pointed gender and race dimension, claiming that hermeneutics enshrined an elite pantheon of European male authors. For poststructuralist media theorists, hermeneutics smuggles assumptions into its theories that are in fact reflections of communication systems; “humanity” and “literature” are historical byproducts of data-processing networks (Kittler 1990). For other poststructuralists, hermeneutics separates discourse too far from power (Said 1983), or problematically champions a metaphysics of presence (Derrida 1982). None of these critics denies the need for interpretation in some form; the debate is about its scope, assumptions, and mission. Partly responding to such criticisms, Ricoeur’s notion of the “hermeneutics of suspicion” widens the field to include such central figures of modern thought as Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. The textually deconstructive ambition of this broader sense of hermeneutics complements – or radicalizes – the textually restorative ambition found in the tradition running from Schleiermacher to Gadamer.
Hermeneutics has had some recognition within communication studies, but perhaps not enough. It received a particularly warm welcome in the 1970s, due in large part to the philosophical support it lent to qualitative methodology. With a greater interest in power since the 1980s, communication scholars tended to turn to critical and postmodern theories, though interest in hermeneutics persists as a key to understanding the curiously distanced communicative situation of broadcasting, and abiding questions in rhetorical theory (Hyde 2001). If communication is fundamentally a matter of distance and its bridging, and human existence is fundamentally interpretive, then hermeneutics holds a key to understanding communication in general. Whether taken strictly or broadly, hermeneutics still has much to say about basic communication problems.
- Derrida, J. (1982). Margins of philosophy (trans. A. Bass). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1972).
- Gadamer, H.-G. (1971). Hermeneutik. In J. Ritter (ed.), Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie [Historical dictionary of philosophy]. Basel: Schwabe, pp. 1061–1073.
- Gadamer, H.-G. (2004). Truth and method (trans. J. Weinsheimer & D. Marshall), 2nd rev. edn. New York: Continuum. (Original work published 1960).
- Grondin, J. (1994). Introduction to philosophical hermeneutics (trans. J. Weinsheimer). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Habermas, J. (1977). A review of Gadamer’s Truth and method (trans. F. Dallmayr & T. McCarthy). In F. Dallmayr & T. McCarthy (eds.), Understanding and social inquiry. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, pp. 335 –363. (Original work published 1970).
- Hyde, M. (2001). Hermeneutics. In T. Sloane (ed.), Encyclopedia of rhetoric. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 329 –337.
- Kittler, F. A. (1990). Discourse networks, 1800/1900 (trans. M. Meteer). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- McCormick, S. (2003). Earning one’s inheritance: Rhetorical criticism, everyday talk, and public discourse. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 89, 109 –131.
- Peters, J. D. (1999). Speaking into the air: A history of the idea of communication. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Ricoeur, P. (1981). Hermeneutics and the human sciences: Essays on language, action, and interpretation (ed. and trans. J. B. Thompson). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Said, E. (1983). The world, the text, and the critic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Back to Communication Theory and Philosophy.