Tuesday, August 12, 2008

On Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics is a branch of philosophy that can enhance our ability to understand each other.

The following is from a Wikipedia article: “Hermeneutics may be described as the development and study of theories of the interpretation and understanding of texts. In contemporary usage in religious studies, hermeneutics refers to the study of the interpretation of religious texts. It is more broadly used in contemporary philosophy to denote the study of theories and methods of the interpretation of all texts and systems of meaning. The concept of "text" is here extended beyond written documents to any number of objects subject to interpretation, such as experiences. A hermeneutic is defined as a specific system or method for interpretation, or a specific theory of interpretation. However, the contemporary philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer has said that hermeneutics is an approach rather than a method and, further, that the Hermeneutic circle is the central problem of interpretation.

“Essentially, hermeneutics involves cultivating the ability to understand things from somebody else's point of view, and to appreciate the cultural and social forces that may have influenced their outlook. Hermeneutics is the process of applying this understanding to interpreting the meaning of written texts and symbolic artifacts (such as art or sculpture or architecture), which may be either historic or contemporary.”

Another hermeneuticist is R. G. Collingwood. In his The Idea of History he was most concerned with the historian and the way he should approach the writing of history. In earlier periods, historians were much given to applying current standards and understandings to earlier periods. Earlier histories are replete with anachronisms. The historian, according to Collingwood should attempt to write his history as though he were in the period he were writing about. This goal can’t be achieved perfectly. It is impossible for the historian to jettison all his presuppositions, but he should be aware of them and strive to be uninfluenced by them as he writes.

Anything can be a text or parole, that is, speech. The task of a person attempting to understand a text would involve doing something very like the historian, that is, jettisoning preconceptions. If his task is understanding then he will seek to get inside the text or the intention of the person speaking. We gain understanding not by insisting that the parole is the single thing that first occurs to us. Neither do we convey our intention by insisting that no other understanding is possible than our intention. We think we understand what is said and through dialogue, questions and answers, putting the parole in different words, etc. we expect to approach adequate understanding.

On the other hand, to convey understanding, we should realize that we can’t expect to avoid ambiguity, and when someone misunderstands us, we would be well served to explain what we meant in different words and not insist that the original words are perfectly understandable just as they stand and without clarification.

Lawrence Helm

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