|The Hermeneutic Circle|
The tradition of hermeneutic analysis extends far back into ancient philosophy. It is rooted in biblical philology. My focus here, however, is on modern hermeneutics through a non-theological lens. Thinkers one should consider in modern hermeneutics are, among others, Wilhelm Dilthey, the ontological turn of M. Heidegger, and the subsequent contributions of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jurgen Habermas, and Paul Ricoeur. To focus on these thinkers should not deny the influence of others in this tradition such as Spinoza, Weber, Marx, Husserl, Wittgenstein, Schleiermacher, Apel or others. To be sure, this blog post is a very limited sample. For more on these thinkers, one good source is the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
In Philosophical Hermeneutics, Gadamer addressed the scope of hermeneutical reflection and the development of phenomenology, existential philosophy, and philosophical hermeneutics. He pushed away from the rationalist and positivist stance of the natural sciences to develop a humanist approach to science. This takes the observer into consideration as part of the whole, not as a separate entity removed from influence. Gadamer expands on the work of Heidegger along with other historical relationships between semantics, aesthetics, and the nature our use of language to establish the interplay of meaning and understanding in the hermeneutic circle.
Language, Gadamer suggests, is the fundamental mode of operation for our being-in-the-world. Though modern post-humanists would take issue with Gadamer’s elevation of language as the singular mode of operation/understanding among humans, it does play a fundamental role for most humans in the development of meaning and social relations. A person trying to understand a text is, Gadamer suggests:
prepared for it to tell him something. That is why a hermeneutically trained mind must be, from the start, sensitive to the text’s newness. But this kind of sensitivity involves neither ‘neutrality’ in the matter of the object nor the extinction of one’s self, but the conscious assimilation of one’s own fore-meaning and prejudices. The important thing is to be aware of one’s own bias, so that the text may present itself in all its newness and thus be able to assert its own truth against one’s own fore-meanings (1975, p. 238).
This passage aptly describes much of what qualitative textual analysis is about. To not simply bracket one’s own biases absolutely, which is ultimately impossible, but to aim for an interpretation with a high degree of critical reflexivity.
A critical approach to the field of hermeneutic interpretation, initiated by JurgenHabermas (1929 - ), took issue with claims made by both Dilthey and Gadamer (among others). One major critique Habermas had was that Gadamer too easily accepted authority and its traditions. This is untenable, Habermas suggests, as language is itself dependent on social processes which are more than can be summarized by linguistic acuity alone. Invoking a critical stance, Habermas suggested that “language is also a medium of domination and social force. It serves to legitimate relations of organized power….language is also ideological” (Thompson, 1981, p. 82).
As a dialectical social science, the critical hermeneutics of Habermas have attempted to balance the objectivity of historical processes with the motives of those forces acting within that process (Bleicher, 1980). In later works, Habermas would develop a version of the hermeneutic circle with his theory of communicative action.
If you've read this post to this point, congratulations! You're likely one of the few. It should go without saying that the above is but a very, very small slice of what hermeneutics or the philosophies of Gadamer or Habermas are about. A tasty morsel, perhaps, tempting your intellectual taste-buds, and leave you hungry for more.
Bleicher, Josef. (1980). Contemporary Hermeneutics: Hermeneutics as method, philosophy and critique. Routledge & Kegen Paul, New York, NY.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. (1975). Hermeneutics and Social Science. Cultural Hermeneutics, 2(4).
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. (1976). Philosophical Hermeneutics. University of California Press, Ltd., London, England.
Habermas, Jurgen. (1970). Zur Logik der Sozialwissenschaften (The Logic of the Social Sciences; originally, 1967) Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, Germany.
Thompson, J.B. (1981). Critical Hermeneutics: A study in the thought of Paul Ricoeur and Jurgen Habermas. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY.