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Hermeneutics (Hermeneutic means interpretive), is a branch of philosophy concerned with human understanding and the interpretation of texts. Recently the concept of texts has been extended beyond written documents to include, for example, speech, performances, works of art, and even events.

The word hermeneutics has two derivations. One is from the Greek god Hermes in his role as patron of interpretive communication and human understanding, while the other is from the syncretic Ptolemaic deity Hermes Trismegistus, in his role as representing hidden or secret knowledge.


Medieval hermeneutics

Medieval interpretations of text, incorporated exegesis in several modes, the most familiar being allegory.

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Renaissance hermeneutics

The discipline emerged with the new humanist education of the 15th century as a methodology for analyzing texts. In a triumph of early modern hermeneutics, the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla proved in 1440 that the "Donation of Constantine" was a forgery, through intrinsic evidence of the text itself. Thus hermeneutics expanded from its medieval role explaining the correct analysis of the Bible. In the 19th century Wilhelm Dilthey's more historically conscious methodological hermeneutics sought to produce systematic and scientific interpretations by situating any text within the context of its production. Since Dilthey, the discipline of hermeneutics has detached itself from this central task and broadened its spectrum to all texts, including multimedia and to understanding the bases of meaning. In the 20th century, Martin Heidegger's philosophical hermeneutics shifted the focus from interpretation to existential understanding, which was treated more as a direct, non-mediated, thus in a sense more authentic way of being in the world than simply as a way of knowing.

Advocates of this approach claim that such texts, and the people who produce them, cannot be studied using the same methods as the natural sciences. Moreover, they claim that such texts are conventionalized expressions of the experience of the author; thus, the interpretation of such texts will reveal something about the social context in which they were formed, but, more significantly, provide the reader with a means to share the experiences of the author. Among the key thinkers of this approach are Wilhelm Dilthey, a historian and philosopher; the sociologist Max Weber; the philosopher Martin Heidegger; and the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. Jürgen Habermas attacked the principles of hermeneutics as conservative and advocated critical theory as an alternative, although in contemporary usage one could reasonably call Hermeneutics an aspect of critical theory. Paul Ricoeur has attempted to reconcile and synthesize these two opposing traditions, although his own work is not Hermeneutics in the Gadamerian sense at all.

Rather surprisingly (given its origins) hermeneutics has also become influential on some thinkers in the artificial intelligence tradition who see cognitivist or information processing views of human understanding as being inadequate.

Hermeneutic traditions

Western Hermeneutics, as a general science of text interpretation, can be traced back to the ancient Greek rhetoricians' study of literature, which came to fruition in Hellenistic Alexandria, and to the contemporary Midrash traditions of Biblical exegesis. Scholars in antiquity expected a text to be coherent, consistent in grammar, style and outlook, and they emended obscure or "decadent" readings to comply with their codified rules. By extending the perception of inherent logic of texts, Greeks were able to attribute works with uncertain origin.

Although the Jewish Rabbis and the early Church Fathers deployed similar philological tools, their Biblical interpretation stressed allegorical readings, frequently at the expense of the texts' literal meaning. Their interpretations found within the visible sign a hidden sense in deeper agreement with the intention with which they approached the texts a priori. Scholars in other traditions approached scriptural texts with similar hermeneutics: the Vedas and the Qu'ran and other sacred writings. Prefiguration and allegory seem typical strategies for reconciling texts whose surface banality seems beneath the dignity of an enlightened or moral world view.

Hermeneutics in the Middle Ages witnessed the proliferation of non-literal interpretations of the Bible. Christian commentators could read Old Testament narratives simultaneously as prefigurations of analogous New Testament episodes, as symbolic lessons about Church institutions and current teachings, and as personally applicable allegories of the Spirit. In each case, the meaning of the signs was constrained by imputing a particular intention to the Bible, such as teaching morality, but these interpretive bases were posited by the religious tradition rather than suggested by a preliminary reading of the text. Thus, when Martin Luther and other 16th century reformers argued that Christians could interpret Scripture for themselves, the Catholic Church responded that the authority of tradition was necessary.

With the rationalist Enlightenment of the 18th century and a more objective sense of historical perspective, hermeneutics, especially Protestant exegesis, tended to view Scriptural texts as secular Classical texts were viewed, as responses to historical or social forces, and that apparent contradictions and difficult passages in the New Testament, for example, might be clarified by comparing their possible meanings with contemporaneous Christian practices.

Hermeneutics in Law

Main article is at Legal hermeneutics .

Some scholars argue that law and theology constitute particular forms of hermeneutics because of their need to interpret legal tradition / scriptural texts.

Hermeneutics in Sociology

In sociology, hermeneutics means the interpretation and understanding of social events by analysing their meanings to the human participants and their culture.

Biblical hermeneutics

Main article is at Biblical hermeneutics.

Medieval traditions of extrapolating allegory and other meanings from Scriptural texts continue unabated, within traditionalist and fundamentalist Christian circles.

Hermeneutics of Schleiermacher and Dilthey

The historicist interpretation might rely on an educated empathetic understanding. Indeed, it was just such empathy that Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey raised to a methodological principle in their attempt to form a science of hermeneutics.

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Hermeneutics since Dilthey

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Last updated: 05-07-2005 17:30:44
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04