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Traditionally understood as the art of interpretation (ars hermeneutica ) that provided rules for the interpretation of sacred texts, hermeneutics today serves to characterize a broad current in contemporary continental philosophy that deals with the issues of interpretation and stresses the historical and linguistic nature of our world-experience. Since this characterization is also valid for contemporary thinking as a whole, the boundaries of hermeneutics are difficult to delineate with pinpoint accuracy. In contemporary thought it is mostly associated with the thinking of Hans-Georg Gadamer (19002002), who continues the hermeneutic tradition of thinkers such as Wilhelm Dilthey (18331911) and Martin Heidegger (18891976). All three authors unfolded a distinct philosophical understanding of hermeneutics (that is, interpretation theory) that drew on the more ancient tradition of hermeneutics. Since their thinking is a radicalization of and reaction to this older conception, it is with it that one must start.

The Art of Interpretation of Sacred Texts

Originally, hermeneutics was developed as an auxiliary discipline in the fields that deal with the interpretation of canonical texts, i.e. texts that contain authoritative meaning such as sacred or judicial texts. Hermeneutic rules were especially required when one was confronted with ambiguous passages (ambigua ) of Scripture. Some of the most influential treatises in this regard were St. Augustine of Hippo's De doctrina Christiana (427) and Philipp Melanchthon's Rhetoric (1519). Since most of these rules had to do with the nature of language, the major thinkers of the hermeneutic tradition up until the nineteenth century borrowed their guidelines from the then still very lively tradition of rhetoric, for example, the requirement that ambiguous passages should be understood within their context, a rule that later gave rise to the notion of a "hermeneutical circle" according to which the parts of a text should be comprehended out of the whole in which they stand, such as the whole of a book and its intent (scopus ), of a literary genre, and of the work and life of an author. Supplying such rules, hermeneutics enjoyed a normative or regulatory function for the interpretation of canonical texts. A specific hermeneutics was developed for the Bible (hermeneutica sacra ), for law (hermeneutica juris ), and for classical texts (hermeneutica profana ).

The German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (17681834) is a foremost example of this tradition, but also an author who points to a more philosophical understanding of hermeneutics in at least two ways. First, at the beginning of his lectures on hermeneutics, published posthumously by his pupil Friedrich Lücke (17911855) in 1838, he complains that there are many special hermeneutics and that hermeneutics does not yet exist as a general or universal discipline, i.e. as an art (Kunst, Kunstlehre ) of understanding itself that would establish binding rules for all forms of interpretation. Second, Schleiermacher further laments that hermeneutics has hitherto only consisted of a vague collection of dislocated guidelines. Hermeneutical rules, he urges in Hemeneutics and Criticism, should become "more of a method" (mehr Methode ). A more rigorous methodology of understanding could enable the interpreter to understand the authors as well or even better than they understood themselves.

Hermeneutics as the Methodological Basis of the Human Sciences

Most familiar with the thinking and life of Schleiermacher, of whom he was the biographer, Dilthey devoted his lifework to the challenge of a foundation of the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften ). Whereas the exact sciences had already received, in the wake of Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, a philosophical base and a methodology guaranteeing the validity of their knowledge, the human sciences still lacked such a foundation. Under the motto of a "critique of historical reason," Dilthey sought a logical, epistemological, and methodological foundation for the human sciences. Without such a foundation, their own scientific legitimacy could be called into question: is everything in the human sciences merely subjective, historically relative, and, as we tend to say, but with a touch of derision, a mere matter of interpretation? If these areas of our knowledge are to entertain any scientific credibility, Dilthey argued, they need to rest on a sound methodology.

In some of his later texts (most notably in his essay "The Rise of Hermeneutics," 1900), Dilthey sought such a methodical basis for the humanities in hermeneutics, the old discipline of text interpretation that could receive renewed actuality in light of this new challenge. Hermeneutics could serve as the bedrock of all human sciences and could thus be called upon to fulfill a need that arises out of the emergence of historical conscience and threatens the validity of historical knowledge. Even if it remains largely programmatic in his later texts, the idea that hermeneutics could serve as a universal foundation of the human sciences bestowed upon hermeneutics a philosophical relevance and visibility that it never really enjoyed before Dilthey. Up to this day, important thinkers such as Emilio Betti and E. D. Hirsch look to hermeneutics to deliver a methodical foundation for the truth claim of the humanities, the literary, and the juridical disciplines. According to them, a hermeneutics that would relinquish this task would miss the point about what hermeneutics is all about.

Life articulates itself, Dilthey says, in manifold forms of expression (Ausdruck ) that our understanding seeks to penetrate by recreating the inner life experience (Erlebnis ) out of which they sprang. Dilthey's far-reaching intuition is that interpretation and understanding are not processes that occur simply in the human sciences but that they are constitutive of our quest for orientation. The notion that historical life is as such hermeneutical and interpretatory to the core was buttressed by Friedrich Nietzsche's contemporaneous reflections on the interpretatory nature of our world-experience. "There are no facts, only interpretations," wrote Nietzsche in Fragment 481 of The Will to Power. This first glimpse of the potential universality of the "hermeneutic universe" appeared to call into question Dilthey's dream of a methodical foundation of the human sciences, but it raised a new hermeneutics task.

Heidegger's Hermeneutics of Existence

Seizing upon this idea that life is intrinsically interpretative, the early Heidegger spoke of a "hermeneutical intuition" as early as 1919. His teacher Edmund Husserl (18591938) had reinstated the urgency and legitimacy of primal "intuition" in philosophy. But Heidegger revealed himself a reader of Dilthey when he stressed that every intuition is hermeneutical. Understanding is not a cognitive inquiry that the human sciences would methodically refine, it is our primary means of orientation in the world. Our factual life is involved in this world ("being there": Dasein, as he would later put it) by ways of understanding. Relying here on the German expression sich auf etwas verstehen, which means "to know one's way about," "to be able," Heidegger puts a new twist on the notion of understanding by viewing it less as an intellectual undertaking than as an ability. It is more akin to a "know-how." Understanding is not primarily the reconstruction of the meaning of an expression (as in classical hermeneutics and Dilthey); it always entails the projecting, and self-projecting, of a possibility of my own existence. There is no understanding without projection or anticipations.

We are factually (faktisch ) thrown into existence as finite beings, in a world that we will never fully master. This anxiety for one's own being is for Heidegger the source of understanding. Because we are overwhelmed by existence and confronted with our mortality, we project ourselves in ways of intelligibility and reason that help us keep things in check for a while. Every mode of understanding is related to this "being there" (Dasein ) in this overwhelming world. A momentous shift in the focus of hermeneutics has silently taken place in the work of Heidegger from texts or a certain type of science to existence itself and its quest of understanding.

This rising program was carried over in Heidegger's main work Being and Time (1927), but with some slight modifications (Grondin, 2003). While it remained obvious that human facticity is forgetful of itself and its interpretatory nature, and possibilities, the focus shifted to the question of Being as such. The primary theme of hermeneutics was less the immediate facticity of our Being in this world than the fact that the presuppositions of the understanding of Being remain hidden in a tradition that needs to be reopened (or "destroyed," as Heidegger puts it). Such a hermeneutics still aims at a self-awakening of existence, but it does so by promising to sort out the fundamental structures of our understanding of being.

These structures are temporal in nature (hence the title Being and Time ) and have everything to do with the inauthentic or authentic carrying through of our existence. Heidegger's later philosophy, while relinquishing the notion of hermeneutics as such, nevertheless radicalized this idea by claiming that our understanding of Being is brought about by the event of an overbearing history of Being that commands all our interpretations. Postmodern readings of Heidegger (Michel Foucault, Gianni Vattimo, Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida) drew relativistic conclusions out of this shift of hermeneutics toward the history of Being. Hence, the tendency in recent debates to amalgamate hermeneutics and postmodernism, a tendency that the hermeneutics of Gadamer seems both to encourage and to combat.

Gadamer's Hermeneutics of the Event of Understanding

Hans-Georg Gadamer's project is strongly influenced by Heidegger, but in his masterpiece Truth and Method (1960) his starting point is undoubtedly provided by Dilthey's hermeneutical inquiry on the methodology of the human sciences. While taking anew the dialogue with the human sciences and the open question of their claim to truth, Gadamer calls into question Dilthey's premise according to which the experience of truth in the humanities depends on method. In seeking a methodological foundation that alone could guarantee their scientific or objective status, Dilthey sought to keep the humanities to the model of the exact sciences and would thus have forfeited the specificity of the humanities, where the involvement of the interpreter whose understanding is constitutive of the experience of meaning: the texts that we interpret are texts that say something to us and that are always understood in some way out of our questions and "prejudices." The implication of the interpreter in the "event" of meaning, as Gadamer likes to put it, can only be deemed detrimental from the model of objectivity heralded by the natural sciences. Instead of this outdated notion of objectivity, the human sciences would do well to understand their contribution to knowledge out of the somewhat forgotten tradition of humanism and the importance it bestowed upon the notion of Bildung (formation and education). The humanities do not seek to master an object that stands at a distance (as with the exact sciences), but their aim is rather to develop and form the human spirit. The truth one experiences in the encounter with major texts and history is one that transforms us, taking us up in the event of meaning itself.

Gadamer finds the most revealing model for this type of understanding in the experience of art since we are always involved by the presentation of an art work, which Gadamer understands as the revelation of the truth or the essence of something, so that a play reveals something about the meaning of existence, just as a portrait reveals the true essence of someone. Yet it is a truth-experience in which we partake in that it can only unfold through a process of interpretation. For Gadamer hermeneutics is to be understood, first and foremost, out of the arts we call the "arts of interpretation" or the "performative arts": just as a piece of music must be interpreted by the violinist (that is, never arbitrarily, but with a leeway that has to be filled by the virtuosity of interpretation), a drama by the actors or the ballet by the dancers, a book must be interpreted through the process of reading and a picture must be contemplated by the eye of the beholder. It is only in this presentation (Darstellung or Vollzug ) of a meaning to someone, a performance which is always an interpretation, that meaning comes to be realized. One notices here that "interpretation" refers both to the interpretation of a work of art by the performers and to the "spectators" who attend the performance and must also "interpret" the piece.

The difference between the two forms of interpretation is less important for Gadamer than the fact that the experience of meaning, and the truth experience it brings out, essentially requires the productive implication of the interpreter. The same holds for the interpretation of a text or a historical event, even in the scientific context of the human sciences. The point is that interpretation is not the simple recreation of a meaning that always remains the same and can be methodically verified, nor, for that matter, the subjective, and potentially relativistic, bestowing of meaning upon an objective reality (because the reality to be understood can only be reached through a renewed attempt of understanding). In other words, to claim that interpretation is relativistic on the grounds that it implies the subjectivity of the interpreter is to miss the point of what the humanities and the experience of meaning are all about.

The objectivistic model of the exact sciences is ill-equipped to do justice to this experience of meaning. Distance, methodical verification, and independence from the observer, Gadamer concludes, are not the sole conditions of knowledge. When we understand, we do not only follow a methodical procedure but we are "taken up" as the art experience illustrates, by the meaning that "seizes" us, as it were. The instrumental sounding idea of procedure is somewhat suspect for Gadamer, for understanding is more of an event than a procedure. "Understanding and Event" is indeed one of the original titles Gadamer thought about for his major work, before settling on "Truth and Method," which underlines the very same point that truth is not only a matter of method and can never be entirely detached from our concerns.

But these concerns come to us from a tradition and a history that are more often than not opaque to consciousness. Every understanding stands in the stream of a Wirkungsgeschichte or "effective history," in which the horizons of the past and the present coalesce. Understanding thus entails a "fusion of horizons" between the past and the present, that is, between the interpreter, with all the history silently at work in his understanding, and his or her object. This fusion is not to be viewed as an autonomous operation of subjectivity but as an event of tradition (Überlieferungsgeschehen ) in the course of which a meaning from the past is somehow applied to the present.

This leads Truth and Method to suggest that the best model for the humanities was perhaps offered by disciplines that had been traditionally preoccupied with the questions of interpretation such as juridical and theological hermeneutics, insofar as the meaning that is to be understood in these fields is one that has to be applied to a given situation. In the same way a judge has to creatively apply a text of law to a particular case and a preacher has to apply a text of Scripture to the situation of his or her congregation, every act of understanding involves an effort of "application" of what is understood to the present. Gadamer does not mean by this that one first has to understand a meaning, of a text or a historical event and then apply it to a given situation by bestowing new "relevance" upon it. His idea is rather that every understanding is at its root an application of meaning, where our experience and background are brought to bear. This "application" is, by no means, a conscious procedure. It always happens in the course of understanding to the extent that interpretation brings into play the situation and "prejudices" of the interpreter that are less "his" or "hers" than the ones carved by the effective history in which we all stand.

Gadamer expands on this idea by comparing understanding to a process of translation. "I understand something" means that I can translate it into my own words, thus applying it to my situation. Any meaning I can relate to is one that is translated into a meaning I can articulate. It is not only important to underline the obvious fact that translation always implies an act of interpretation (a translator is also called in English an interpreter ) but even more to stress that this interpretation is by no means arbitrary: it is bound by the meaning it seeks to render, but it can only do so by translating it into a language where it can speak anew. What occurs in the process of translation is thus a fusion of horizons between the foreign meaning and its interpretation-translation in a new language, horizon, and situation, where the meaning resonates.

Truth and Method draws on this insight to highlight the fundamentally linguistic nature of understanding. Understanding is always an act of developing something into words, and I only understand to the extent that I seek (and find) words to express this understanding. Understanding is not a process that could be separated from its linguistic unfolding: to think, to understand, is to seek words for that which strives to be understood. There is a crucial fusion between the process of interpretation and its linguistic formulation. It will not be the only fusion of horizons that will interest Gadamer in his hermeneutics of language. His thesis goes even further: not only is the process (Vollzug ) of interpreting (interpretare ) linguistically oriented, what it seeks to understand (the interpretandum ) is also language. Language also determines the object (Gegenstand ) of understanding itself. In the end there occurs a fusion between the "process" of understanding and its "object" in the sense that no object (Gegenstand ) can be separated from the attempt (Vollzug ) to understand it. Gadamer's famous phrase to express this fusion between the object and the process of understanding itself is: "Being that can be understood is language." This simple, yet enigmatic dictum can be read in two quite different directions: it can mean that every experience of Being is mediated by language, and thus by a historical and cultural horizon (negatively put: "there is no experience of Being without an historical understanding or language"). This would seem to draw Gadamer into the "relativistic camp." It is striking to note, however, that Gadamer always resisted this merely relativistic appropriation of his thought. This has been overlooked by postmodern readers of Gadamer, but in his dictum "Being that can be understood is language," the stress can also be put on Being itself. What Gadamer hopes to say by this is that the effort of understanding is in a way ordained to the language of the things themselves. A difficult and unpalatable notion for postmodernism, to be sure, but one that is essential to Gadamer's hermeneutics: language is not only the subjective, say, contingent translation of meaning, it is also the event by which Being itself comes to light. Our language is not only "our" language, it is also the language of Being itself, the way in which Being presents itself in our understanding. This is why, when one speaks and interprets, one cannot say everything one fancies. One is bound by something like the language of the thing. What is this language? Difficult to say since we can only approach it through our language, and the language of tradition, but it is nevertheless the instance that resists too unilateral or too violent readings of this Being. It is this language of Being that I seek to understand, and to the extent that understanding succeeds, a fusion of horizons has happened, a fusion between Being and understanding, an event I do not master, but in which I partake.

Gadamer and His Critics

The history of hermeneutics after Gadamer can be read as a history of the debates provoked by Truth and Method. Some of the first responses to Gadamer were sparked by the methodological notion of hermeneutics that prevailed in the tradition of Dilthey. After all, it had been the dominant conception of hermeneutics until Gadamer (with the sole, albeit very peculiar, exception of Heidegger's "hermeneutics of existence" that had left behind the older hermeneutic tradition which had been concerned with text interpretation and the human sciences). Since Gadamer, in spite of his Heideggerian roots, took his starting point in Dilthey's inquiry on the truth claim of the humanities, he was often seen and criticized from this tradition. Emilio Betti, the Italian jurist who had published a voluminous General Theory of Interpretation (in Italian) in 1955, which was intended as a methodical foundation of the humanities in the Dilthey tradition, vigorously criticized Gadamer's seeming rejection of the methodological paradigm. If Gadamer's own "method" for the humanities consisted in saying that one just has to follow one's own prejudices, it had to be condemned as a perversion of the very idea of hermeneutics. Betti, who was followed in this regard by E. D. Hirsch in America, opposed the relativistic idea that interpretation always entails an essential element of application to the present. Surely, texts do acquire different meanings or relevance in the course of their reception, but one has to distinguish the actuality or significance (Bedeutsamkeit ) thus garnered from the original meaning (Bedeutung ) of the texts, that is, the meaning of the text in the mind of its author (mens auctoris ), which remains the focus of hermeneutics.

Coming from the Frankfurt School, Jürgen Habermas hailed, for his part, this element of application in understanding, claiming that knowledge is always guided by some interests. This hermeneutical insight, he believed, could help free the social sciences, spearheaded by psychoanalysis and the critique of ideology, from an all too objectivistic understanding of knowledge and science. Hermeneutics teaches us that our understanding and practices are always motivated and linguistically articulated. It is Gadamer's too strong reliance on tradition and the importance of authority in understanding that Habermas opposed. He faulted it for being "conservative"; but Habermas's lasting point, that language can also transcend its own limits, followed an idea that he discovered in Gadamer but turned against him. When Gadamer said that our experience of the world was linguistical, he also stressed, for Habermas, that it is open to self-correction, that is, that it could, to some extent, overcome its own limitations by seeking better expressions or dissolving its own rigidity and was thus open to any meaning that could be understood. Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel drew from this self-transcendence of language the important notion of a linguistic or communicative rationality, which is laden with universalistic assumptions that can form the basis of an ethical theory.

Paul Ricoeur tried to build a bridgea most hermeneutical task and virtue in itselfbetween Habermas and Gadamer, by claiming both authors had stressed different but complementary elements in the tension that is inherent to understanding: whereas Gadamer underlined the belongingness of the interpreter to his object and his tradition, Habermas took heed of the reflective distance toward it. Understanding, viewed as application, does not only have to appropriate naively its subject matter, it can stand at a critical distance from ita distance that is already given by the fact that the interpretandum is an objectified text. This notion of a hermeneutics that seeks to decipher objectivations came mainly from Dilthey, but Ricoeur used it in a productive manner in his decisive confrontations with psychoanalysis (Sigmund Freud) and structuralism (Claude Lévi-Strauss). He linked them to a "hermeneutics of suspicion" that is most useful in that it can help us get rid of superstition and false understanding. But such a hermeneutics can only be conducted in the hope of a better and more critical understanding of understanding. A "hermeneutics of trust" thus remains the ultimate focus of his work: the meaning we seek to understand is one that helps us better understand our world and ourselves. We interpret because we are open to the truths that can be gained from the objectivations of meaning in the grand myths, texts, and narratives of mankind, in which the temporal and tragic aspects of our human condition are expressed. Ricoeur drew far-reaching ethical conclusions from this hermeneutics of trust that has learned from the school of suspicion.

Betti, Hirsch, Habermas (and, to a certain extent, Ricoeur) all faulted Gadamer and hermeneutics for being too "relativistic" (i.e., too reliant on tradition). Postmodernism went, to some degree, in an opposite direction: it welcomed Gadamer's alleged "relativism" but only believed it did not go far enough. Gadamer would have been somewhat inconsequential in not acknowledging fully the relativistic consequences of his hermeneutics. To understand this shift in the hermeneutical debates, it is important to observe that authors such as Heidegger (especially the later Heidegger) and Nietzsche play a paramount role for post-modernist thinkers. One thinks, in this regard, of the Nietzsche who said that there are no facts, only interpretations, or of the Heidegger who claimed that our understanding was framed by the history of Being. The postmodernists lumped this Nietzschean-Heideggerian outlook together with Gadamer's seeming critique of scientific objectivity, his stress on the prejudices of interpretation, and his insistence on the linguistic nature of understanding. Stressing these elements, hermeneutics, they believed, jettisoned the idea of an objective truth. There is no such thing given the interpretatory and linguistic nature of our experience. This lead Gianni Vattimo to "nihilistic" consequences and Richard Rorty to a renewed form of pragmatism: some interpretations are more useful or amenable than others, but none can per se be claimed to be "closer" to the Truth. In the name of tolerance and mutual understanding, one has to accept the plurality of interpretations; it is only the notion that there is only one valid one that is harmful.

Jacques Derrida can also be seen in the "postmodern" tradition, since he too depends heavily on the later Heidegger and Nietzsche, stresses the linguistical nature of our experience, and also urges a "deconstructive" attitude toward the tradition of metaphysics that governs our thinking, an attitude that Paul Ricoeur would classify in the "hermeneutics of suspicion." But his deconstruction does not directly take the direction of the pragmatist tradition of Rorty or the nihilism of Vattimo. Despite the Heideggerian origins of his notion of deconstruction and his pan-linguisticism, Derrida does not identify himself with the tradition of hermeneutics. His "deconstruction" is indeed distrustful of any form of hermeneutics: every understanding, he contends, would involve or hide a form of "appropriation" of the other and its otherness. In his discussion with Gadamer in 1981, he challenged Gadamer's rather commonplace assumption that understanding implies the goodwill to understand the other. What about this will? asked Derrida. Is it not chained to the will to dominate that is emblematic of our metaphysical and Western philosophical tradition? Hence Derrida's mistrust of the hermeneutical drive to understand the other and of the hermeneutic claim to universality. Gadamer was touched by this criticism to the extent that he claimed that understanding implied some form of application, which can indeed be read as a form of appropriation. This is perhaps the reason why, in his later writings, he more readily underlined the open nature of the hermeneutical experience. "The soul of hermeneutics," he then said, "is that the other can be right."

See also Modernity ; Postmodernism ; Relativism .


Bernstein, Richard J. Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983. Sees in the hermeneutical rehabilitation of common sense a parallel to pragmatism and a corrective to the bugbear of relativism.

Betti, Emilio. "Hermeneutics as the General Methodology of the Geisteswissenschaften. " 1962. Reprinted in Contemporary Hermeneutics: Hermeneutics as Method, Philosophy, and Critique, edited by Josef Bleicher. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980. Polemical defense of a methodology of interpretation against Gadamer.

Bleicher, Josef, ed. Contemporary Hermeneutics: Hermeneutics as Method, Philosophy and Critique. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980. Best collection of essays by Betti, Gadamer, Habermas, Apel.

Caputo, John D. Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction and the Hermeneutic Project. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Postmodern, Derridian reading and critique of hermeneutics.

Dilthey, Wilhelm. "The Rise of Hermeneutics." In his Hermeneutics and the Study of History, edited by Rudolf A. Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi, 235258. Vol. 4. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. Seminal study on the significance of hermeneutics for Dilthey.

Dostal, Robert J., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Authoritative collection of essays on Gadamer, with good biographical and bibliographical material.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Philosophical Hermeneutics. Translated by David E. Linge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. Studies that complete Gadamer's opus magnum.

. Truth and Method. Translation revised by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York: Crossroad, 1989. The bible of contemporary hermeneutics.

Grondin, Jean. Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994. History of the hermeneutic tradition from antiquity to the present from the vantage point of the inner word.

. Le tournant herméneutique de la phénoménologie. Paris: PUF, 2003. A study of the different conceptions of hermeneutics espoused by Heidegger, Gadamer and Derrida.

Habermas, Jürgen. "The Hermeneutic Claim to Universality." In Contemporary Hermeneutics: Hermeneutics as Method, Philosophy, and Critique, edited by Josef Bleicher. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980. A famous critique of Gadamer inspired by ideology critique and psychoanalysis.

. "A Review of Gadamer's Truth and Method". In Understanding and Social Inquiry, edited and translated by Fred R. Dallmayr and Thomas A. McCarthy. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper, 1962. Heidegger's main work, based on a hermeneutics of existence.

. Ontology: The Hermeneutics of Facticity. 1923. Translated by John van Buren. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. Seminal text of Heidegger's early hermeneutic conception.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. Validity in Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967. Defends a methodical conception of hermeneutics against Gadamer.

Michelfelder, Diane P., and Richard E. Palmer, eds. Dialogue and Deconstruction. The Gadamer-Derrida Encounter. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. Contains the basic texts of the famous encounter between Derrida and Gadamer.

Palmer, Richard E. Hermeneutics. Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1969. Ground-breaking and clear presentation of the major figures of the hermeneutic tradition.

Ricoeur, Paul. Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action, and Interpretation, edited and translated by John B. Thomson. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

. From Text to Action. Essays in Hermeneutics. Translated by Kathleen Blamey and John B. Thompson. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1991. Both books document the hermeneutic itinerary of a major hermeneutic thinker of our time.

Rorty, Richard. "Being That Can Be Understood Is Language." London Review of Books, 16 March 2000, 2325. A tribute to Gadamer's alleged linguistic relativism.

. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979. Hermeneutics presented as the outcome of philosophy, out of the tradition of American pragmatism.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. Hemeneutics and Criticism and Other Writings. Edited and translated by Andrew Bowie. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Classical texts of the founder of modern-day hermeneutics.

Vattimo, Gianni. Beyond Interpretation: The Meaning of Hermeneutics for Philosophy. Translated by David Webb. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Polity Press, 1997.

. The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Post-modern Culture. Translated by Jon R. Snyder. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1988. Both volumes testify to the postmodern appropriation of hermeneutics.

Jean Grondin

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The problem of interpretation is as old as the written record, even as old as the capacity for human beings to disagree fundamentally. It was raised by Plato. It marked many a conflict in early Christendom. From the Middle Ages to early modernity, cultural texts proliferated. Interpretation was the task of those who were in charge of biblical exegeses and of those who judged a text's originality, authenticity, and truthfulness. As interpretation became an increasingly prominent feature of the modern conundrum, questions about a work's truth and authenticity also prompted the development of philological methods of analysis. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, however, the older concerns for religious authenticity began to give way to a modern hermeneutics that raised new questions about making historical interpretations. In this period Kantian philosophy championed the centrality of the human subject as the foundational problem for all cognition. In addition, the problem of art and the role, function, and purpose of the artist, the concern for the "inner life" (kultur ) (Elias), and the rise of modern selfhood (Taylor) began to affect the study of meaning. By the nineteenth century, philological approaches gave way to a reflexive concern for how epistemology, and more specifically, history, was to be conceptualized, approached, and thus interpreted. This new impulse marked the rise of modern hermeneutics and gave it a special role in understanding how the problem of interpretation is grappled with in the twenty-first century.

The rise of modern hermeneutics is often attributed to the writings of Friedrich Schleiermacher (17681834). Moving beyond philology, exegeses, and art criticism, he posed a new challenge: to understand culture and lived experience. Schleiermacher asked how a denizen of one historical era might understand the meaningful experience of a life or cultural text from another. He shifted hermeneutics toward the problem of experience within a context and argued that a viable interpretation had to proceed through an identification with the subject under study. In doing so, he posed the problem of historical hermeneuticsthe challenge of understanding the meaning held by historically situated actors. Thus, with Schleiermacher, the new conditions placed in context took precedence over the ritual incantation of dogma, received truths, and essences. The concerns of the modern social sciences and humanities owe much to the rise of a historically reflexive hermeneutics.

In the nineteenth century, Wilhelm Dilthey (18331911) expanded methodological hermeneutics, which sought to produce systematic and scientific interpretations by situating a text in the context of its production. According to Dilthey, all manner of cultural textspoetry, the spoken word, art, human actionare meaningful expressions with "mental contents" and human intentionality, and thus worthy of understanding (verstehen ) through critical study. Meanings are also the product of historical constraint; the content and values of cultural texts reflect the period and location of the subject. Understanding thus involves the methodological construction of the hermeneutical circle the connections that lead from the analysis of a cultural text to the author's life and the historical context in which the author is located, and then back to the cultural work.

In the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger (18891976) and Hans-Georg Gadamer (19002002) championed a philosophical hermeneutics by shifting concerns toward an understanding of existential meaning, in which being in the world can be grasped as a direct and unmediated condition of authenticity and subjectivity. One's knowledge and experience constitute a present horizon, which is the fundamental ground on which understanding takes place. This horizon, however, can be extended through exposure to the discourses of others, thus bringing one's own views into relief. It is through language as the core of human activity that subjects share their subjectivity, the basis of traditions, and their evaluation. Understanding has a potentially dynamic quality: it can proceed from one horizon to an emergent horizon, but is nonetheless bound to the traditions embedded in history.

Later, Jürgen Habermas (1929) challenged Gadamer's relativism by arguing for a self-reflexive critical hermeneutics that aims at a comprehensive reconstruction of the social world. Gadamer had claimed a universality for hermeneutics; no form of knowledge can escape the limitations of interpretation and its ties to deeper traditions. Habermas rejected this constraint on interpretation and argued that the human communication process contains transcendental elements. We are not trapped in nature or history because we can know and thus transform our language. In the structure of language, autonomy and responsibility are posited for us. By overcoming the systematic distortions, the legacies of history and tradition that are embedded in language, we are able to envision an emancipated society whose members' autonomy and mutual responsibility can be realized through the development of nonauthoritarian dialogue and reciprocity.

The issues opened up by modern hermeneutics shaped the way interpretation is conceptualized, approached, and carried out in interdisciplinary studies. Indeed, the boundaries between the social sciences and the humanities have never been so porous as they are in the twenty-first century. Just as literary studies influence anthropology and cultural studies, literary theory reaches toward social theories. The convergence and confluence of questions and issues is more characteristic than the maintenance of disciplinary boundaries. With the rise of modern hermeneutics, the problem of interpretation took on a social and historical dimension, which allowed this new concern with meaning to be assimilated by anthropology, literary studies, and later, cultural studies, reception and audience studies, and aspects of feminist theory. By tracking the history of interpretation, we gain an appreciation for the interdisciplinary developments of interpretive theorizing in the twenty-first century.

The Hermeneutic and Interpretive Impulse in the Rise of Social Studies

Karl Marx (18181883) did not address the problems defined by Dilthey, but his approach to the problem of historicism was in some ways continuous with historicist hermeneutics. Marx's theories also had a major impact on social scientific approaches to the study and interpretation of history. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831), the nineteenth-century German idealist philosopher whose views Marx modified, saw history as the unfolding manifestation of the human spirit. According to Hegel, the human spirit will eventually reach a truly revolutionary stage in which it will be able to see through itself for the first time. This radical philosophical view of spirit developing a consciousness of itself was transformed by Marx into sociological language. Knowledge and consciousness can be socially constituted and grounded only in a distinct human subject. But such a reflexive and revolutionary consciousness will not develop in just any subject. The subject and the knowledge for this development has to be specialthat is, specially located in history. For Marx, this historical process can be realized only through the embodied consciousness of a human subject whose social and historical location provides it with the privilege to achieve such awareness. This subject is the proletariat the social class within modern capitalism that embodies the historical forces that will provide it with the capacity to see itself as an object produced by history (Marx and Engels). In this manner, Marx turned the problem of epistemology (the problem of knowledge) into a historicist sociology. All forms of knowledge are expressions of human activity and practice, and such knowledge can be grasped only as manifestations of the historical conditions in which they take their social form. In essence, culture, ideology, ethics, religionthe entire enterprise of knowledge makingis a reflection of the historical mode of human production, a process ultimately rooted in human labor. This history remains unseen, un-grasped, misunderstood, misrepresented by ideology. Thus estrangement or alienationthe inability to see the underlying realitycharacterizes human history and can be overcome only by the historical rise of a human subject situated in ways that enable this kind of critical consciousness to take hold.

Much criticism has been leveled at how Marx privileged economic and material aspects at the expense of the cultural realm. Certainly, the problem of culture was not a central concern for Marx. Culture was relegated to the "superstructure" where ideas, values, ethics, and ideology circulated as fictitious echoes and reflections of the "real" activity of labor and the materialist dimensions of the class struggle. Yet Marx's views are crucial to the modern enterprise of interpretation, especially in the idea that subjects, actors, and texts cannot exist as autonomous entities or things in themselves, but are rather fundamentally immersed in social and historical contexts. In this manner, Marx's sociology, notwithstanding trenchant criticism, consistently challenged interpreters to understand that practices and texts are inseparable from social and historical conditions. The implications for interpretation were profoundly expanded. The most discrete activity was to be connected to the broader material, social, and historical formation. Whether it be a specific tool or element of technology, a cultural ritual, a poem, a scientific treatise, or a social institution under examination, the interpretive task is to understand the element in relation to a social totality (mode of production). Marx's seminal viewthe historicist view of all things in the human worldremains a vibrant aspect of twenty-first century interpretation.

In contrast to Marx's theories, the sociology of Émile Durkheim (18581917) marked the rise of the cultural approach to the social sciences in which the study of symbolic production is central. For Durkheim, the underlying phenomenon to be interpreted is solidarity. Only through representations is human solidarity and society made visible and open to sociological interpretation. Thus, when cultural and religious solidarity is violated, the preeminent indicator of the collective response is repressive/penal law. Punishment expiates the sense of violation. In Durkheim's sociology the realm of cultural life is brought into view and interpreted through the study of symbolic and semiotic practices that express the underlying cultural cohesion but also govern and maintain it. This makes Durkheimian sociology a fundamentally interpretive enterprise. The social and cultural realm can be grasped only through symbolic production, because it is instantiated in and organized through it. Although Durkheim insisted on a social reality instantiated through routine cultural practices that sociology was to ascertain, his major contribution to modern cultural interpretation was his emphasis on the formal study of representations.

The hermeneutic insistence on identifying with the inner logic of a socially embedded subject also shares some traits with what the Scottish moralists David Hume (17111776) and Adam Smith (17231790) called human "sympathy" (A. Smith). It is in Max Weber (18641920), however, that historical hermeneutics finds a direct link to sociology. For Weber, the primary challenge for sociological interpretation is to decipher the modes of meaning and the forms of rationality characteristic of social activity. These forms of organized meaning ultimately have a cultural dimension, but for Weber the task was to grasp them as modes of rationality. The formulation and interpretation of modes of rationality provide the sociological keys to understanding the everyday practices of individuals engaged in organized activity. Drawing on the ideas of Dilthey and Heinrich Rickert (Hughes), Weber argued for a sociology that places interpretation at its core. According to Weber, "interpretive sociology considers the individual and his action as the basic unit, as its 'atom.' The individual is the upper limit and the sole carrier of meaningful conduct. Such concepts as 'state,' 'association,' 'feudalism,' and the like, designate certain categories of human interaction. Hence it is the task of sociology to reduce these concepts to 'understandable' action, that is without exception, to the actions of participating individual men" (Gerth and Mills, p. 55).Weber synthesized both earlier hermeneutic currents as well as Marxian historicism. Yet he did not share Marx's faith in a notion of history that operates inexorably and fatefully to create a privileged subject (the proletariat) and instead placed the emphasis on the underlying rationality that makes every cultural formation a sociologically interpretable phenomenon.

With the work of Karl Mannheim (18931947), the problem of interpretation took a formidable turn toward the "sociology of knowledge." Mannheim shared the concerns of Dilthey, Marx, and Edmund Husserl, who insisted that the act of knowing and interpreting is always bound to social conditions. Thus, for Mannheim all knowledge was partial knowledge. Because of social context, a group can achieve a certain interest-based quality of understanding and generate in turn knowledge and truth claims based on views from its vantage point. These claims, however, can be understood (sociologically) only as elements in a pluralist arena of competing views, which are also relative to their location, social position, and point of view. The interpretation of a cultural expression thus hinges not only on the intrinsic meanings held by actors and subjects but also on a comprehension of the limits imposed by the location and conditions of the subject's social origins. Consistent with pluralist and relativist aspects of Franz Boas's anthropological writings, Mannheim's sociology of knowledge insisted that cultural viewsstatements, beliefs, values, literary productions, and so forthalways bear the stamp of their context.

The Interdisciplinary Challenges of Interpretation

The determinant importance of the social and cultural context that runs from hermeneutics to classic social theory, and certainly from Dilthey to Mannheim, and which shapes as well the way we understand values and meanings held by social actors and the social and cultural texts they produce, continues as part of the formidable framework even within twenty-first century theories of interpretation. This is especially true for the historical importance granted to the context in which cultural texts emerge and are read, appropriated, used, and interpreted and to the limitations such a context imposes. Yet new issues and tensions within interpretive theories have taken hold. They may not represent a serious rupture in relation to earlier paradigms, however, or a revolutionary upheaval in intellect, but may merely be a difference in analytical emphasis.

The work of Michel Foucault (19261984), whose intellectual profile cuts across the social sciences and the humanities, had a major impact on interpretation. In a move as profound as Marx's positing of the concept of mode of production, Foucault insisted that what is at play in the realm of history and human affairs is the construction of discursive regimes that govern every enterprise of knowledge making. In this regard, knowledge and power remain inextricably coupled and constitute the most productive dimensions of human activity. Foucault questioned the very modern category of knowledge and the assumption that knowledge is the product of neutral tools of investigation. According to him, the production of all knowledge is carried out in the constitutive effectivity of the discursive forms that make the knowledge enterprise possible. Thus there is no escape from the forms and modes of discourse; they condition and shape what becomes knowledge. In this regard, Foucault's views undermine the notion that rationality has a universal, transcendental, and foundational status allowing it to claim the transcendental privilege of ascertaining truth. Because of the conditions of discourse, the idea of Truth as a reality to be grasped "out there" through the deployment of the discursive schemas of language must give way to the study of what discourse actually produces"truth effects." This antifoundational approach conditions every act of interpretation, casting it into the position of a continual reflection on its very capacity to frame the problem of meaning. The task set by Foucault is to comprehend the idea of truth and the constructive effects such an idea has on the forms and organizations of social and historical life. He argued that epistemology must be replaced by a genealogy of knowledge forms. Like Mannheim's sociology of knowledge, the study of discursive forms can yield an understanding of what Foucault called epistemes (Mannheim used the term Weltanschauung, or "worldview")a horizon of historicity that represents the cumulative frameworks of knowledge production but is also open to historical ruptures and the ensuing transformations. Likewise, Foucault's insistence on discursive forms as the principal arena for social and historical analysis has links to French sociology's emphasis on representations.

Foucault's influence can be seen in the way cultural interpretation has taken on new perspectives and issues. In the early twentieth century, the problem of culture was largely seen as the prerogative of anthropologists. In the twenty-first century, however, every discipline within the social sciences and the humanities takes culture as a major concern. It is worth noting that within anthropology, the very notion of culture as a set of practices that exist "out there" and can be studied objectively by the social scientist has given way somewhat to a more reflexive notion of culture as a peculiarly problematic intellectual construction. Anthropologists are no longer solely interested in studying the culture of others; they also want to study and interpret culture. This additional interest has its roots in Claude Lévi-Strauss's insistence (drawing from Ferdinand de Saussure, who in turn drew from Durkheim) that culture operates like language and should therefore be studied similarly. The so-called linguistic turn was fully evident in the late 1970s in the work of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926) who, though not influenced by Foucault, nonetheless recast culture primarily as the construction of narratives. The anthropological shift from a concern with a "culture out there" to a preoccupation with the constitutive power of narrative and discursive forms is noteworthy in the work of James Clifford and George Marcus, among others, who emphasize the narrative dimension of writing social science and view cultural interpretation as inextricably tied to the act of inscription. As cultural texts, writings in the social sciences do not so much "discover" the social as construct narratives that in turn condition the social world.

In the wake of Foucault's views, literary theory has converged with social theory around the problem of historical interpretation. This can be seen in the theories affiliated with New Historicism which, in keeping with historicist hermeneutics and the sociology of knowledge, argues that formalist, text-centered approaches to literature need to be replaced by methods that include the social and political circumstances of their production (Greenblatt; Gallagher; Mitchell). In a synthesis of Marx and Foucault, literature is conceptualized not as a distinct category of human production to be studied as an isolated phenomenon but as a historically embedded form. As a situated cultural product, literature can reveal the ideological contours of its conditions of production. A literary work can therefore mean different things to different people who do not share the same context. The shift in the problem of interpretation toward the social conditions that govern cultural appropriation has also influenced the study of the uses of literature and cultural texts. Reader-response theory (Tompkins), theories of interpretive communities (Fish), and reception theory (Holub) do not begin with the presumption that texts have meanings but instead emphasize the social and subjective dimensions of how texts are read and appropriated, an approach that resembles the "uses and gratifications" approach in mass media studies. Texts are thus subordinated to readers and audiences and the social frameworks and dispositions they bring to the act of interpreting cultural texts.

New Historicism is sometimes criticized for conflating history and text and for projecting contemporary issues onto situations from the past. History is not necessarily the cause and source of a literary work; instead, the ties between history and text are reduced to a dialectically recursive problem. The text is interpreted as product and production, end and source of history. In this regard, New Historicism reflects the influence Louis Althusser's structuralist theories of ideological reproduction have had on literary theory and his insistence that all cultural production is "structured in dominance." Contemporary theoretical problems are also sometimes "read back" into a historical context where they may not apply, as when modern social categories are used as analytical devices for interpreting subjects in a quite different historical epoch. Althusserian theories of ideological reproduction can be seen in the important subcultural studies carried out within the field of British cultural studies that emerged in England in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Paul Willis's ethnographic work exemplified the desire to restore a subject-sympathetic analysis of participants in the rich world of subcultures, especially youth subcultures. While this approach privileged the voices and views of his subjects, thus giving the study of a subculture a more human dimension, the subjects of his studyworking-class youthstruggle for a sense of self, autonomy, and dignity only to contribute culturally and unwittingly to their own domination.

The attention to subjects is mired in the constraints of history and social location. But subject-centered interpretive theory also has its redemptive impulses. From the 1970s on, much historical work has retrieved the social lives of various groups hitherto ignored by historiography. Some aspects of feminist theories of interpretation exemplify this retrievalist impulse. While the larger horizon of feminist theory, in its analysis of society and history, has mainly addressed the subjugation of women, there are attempts to recast the narrative of perpetual domination by highlighting subjects in ways that emphasize their capacity for critical resistance. This approach to locating and interpreting critical subjectivity moves toward a revisionist feminist epistemology that begins with a situated knower who has situated knowledge that reflects her perspectives (D. Smith). Known as "standpoint theory," this view has similarities to Mannheim's sociology of knowledge, but the conceptual framework shares more with the ideas of the cultural theorist Georg Lukács (18851971). It was Lukács who argued that a subject's location in society and history provides a "standpoint" that can give epistemological ground to the critical study of consciousness. As a Marxist, Lukács had a historically privileged subject in mindthe proletariat. In early feminist standpoint theory, the privileged historical category shifted from class to gender, and the problem of a gendered subject's knowledge was itself a gendered historical formation (D. Smith; Harstock). The attempt to establish a single feminist standpoint, however, has given way to postmodern theory's pluralist concerns and the acknowledgment of multiple, epistemologically informative situated standpoints (Harding; Collins; Alarcon; Sandoval).

Twenty-first century theories of interpretation reflect significant cross-disciplinary reflection. Although there is merit in approaching the problem of interpretation from distinct disciplines, it is apparent that the boundaries that divide the disciplines within the humanities and the social sciences, and the divisions that occur between the humanities and the social sciences, are obfuscatory. Interpretation has become the core problem within the study of culture; and culture, in turn, has come to occupy a vast area traversing every discipline within the humanities and the social sciences. For these reasons, the problem of interpretation will quite likely continue to be one of the more formidable, persistent, and challenging issues of intellectual inquiry well into the future.

See also Cultural Studies ; Hermeneutics ; Interdisciplinarity .


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Jon Cruz

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The sixty-six "books" which together make the Bible have, more than any others in world history, demanded interpretation. At the start of the early modern period, interpreting the Bible changed radically and permanently. There were two revolutions. The first was firmly within the life and traditions of the church.

The thirty-nine ancient Hebrew books of the Jewish Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament, have always received active reinterpretation, even as part of their earliest daily religious use. Thus the tradition of midrashim, written commentaries on every passage or word, exemplified argumentative, if reverential, discussion down through the centuries. Christians often add fourteen early books found in the Greek version (the Septuagint), not the Hebrew, either printed scattered through the Old Testament or put together between the Testaments as the "Apocrypha."

The twenty-seven books of the New Testament were originally written in everyday (koine) Greek. They are dominated by the four Gospels and the thirteen Epistles, or letters, of Paul. The latter, of the greatest importance in the founding of Christian theology, do not set out to lay down a system, but rather to express the unique revelation of God in Christ by means of elaborate rhetoric, extensions of Hebrew expressiveness in image and symbol. Within those original Epistles, active interpretation is assumed by God's help in the light of the rest of Scripture and by that only. As has been said, Christianity was born in hermeneutics (the theory and methods of interpretation).

Humanist investigation, developed from the new philological scholarship in northern Italy (such as that of Lorenzo Valla, c. 14061457), worked toward establishing scholarly texts of the Hebrew and Greek originals. Soon printed editions of these were widely available, successfully challenging the Latin Vulgate, which was itself later revised. From these recently printed Hebrew, and then Greek, Scriptures, printed translations of the whole Bible into the chief European vernaculars were accomplished by the late 1530sin some countries, of which England was the chief, in the face of ruthless opposition by the church. The church maintained that the Bible, which was only to be known in short passages, was too difficult a book to be understood without the highest learning or a special grace of understanding given to priests. Wide dissemination of manuscripts of the whole Bible in English in the 1380s, under the aegis of the Oxford scholar John Wycliffe, triggered a violent response: the church denounced reading the Bible in the vernacular as a heresy. Such "heretics" were handed over to the civil authorities for the severest punishment, often to the extreme of burning them alive.


Within the church, interpretation of the Bible was at two levels. Addressing the common people remained, as it had been for over a thousand years, subordinate to the liturgy of the church. The Bible had authority, but alongside traditions and practices, including the "unwritten verities." The aim wasthrough the people's attentive participation in ceremoniesto enable true penitence, lamentation for sins, and the healing brought by the seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, marriage, penance, holy orders, and extreme unction). These would strengthen the bulwark of thorough Christian conduct. To this end, small and digestible selections of the Bible called pericopes, read in Latin in the Catholic Mass, were used as a basis for translation and exposition in the vernacular. Such passages to be interpreted could be a few words, a verse or a short paragraph; they were occasionally longer treatments in cycles based on a particular book. The purpose was always to underpin existing practice. Such sermons reinforced, as aids to pious reflection, the presentation of key Bible events such as the story of Adam and Eve, Noah's ark, and the Crucifixion and Resurrection in paintings on church walls and in stained glass windows, in occasional, and severely local, plays, and, for the wealthy, little books of piety. All these, as well as the readings (in Latin) in the liturgies, contained a great deal that was not in the Bible at all.

University lectures, printed Bible annotations and commentaries, and theological works (always in Latin) also showed considerable movement. At the end of the fifteenth century, John Colet (1466/14671519) gave lectures in Oxford (they have not survived) on Paul's Romans and 1 Corinthians. In them a corner had been turned in biblical interpretation, not because Colet dismissed the standard and hallowed method of allegory in Bible interpretation in favor of the literal Greek text (he did not, and in fact knew no Greek), but because he gave lectures on Paul at all and because he associated the apostle with the Christian life. His lectures were not, as could then have been assumed, on one of the basic theological works of the time, based largely on Scholastic method derived from Aristotle's logic, such as the nonbiblical Sentences of the twelfth-century Italian theologian Peter Lombard. Though Colet's Paul was on New Testament grounds unrecognizable, being mainly a moralist, he was at least present for himself in Scripture, and that was new. The chasm between medieval Scholasticism and exegesis was beginning to be crossed.


The great Dutch humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1466?1536) met and disputed with Colet while lodging in Magdalen College, Oxford. In the summer of 1504, in the Premonstratensian monastery at Louvain, Erasmus read Lorenzo Valla's Adnotationes in Novum Testamentum and discovered the possibility of a new humanist exegesis based on scientific philology (he caused that book to be reprinted in 1505). He had already found the commentaries of St. Jerome and the Egyptian Christian Origen's great third-century parallel edition of six versions of the Hebrew Scriptures, his Hexapla. Erasmus awoke to his life's work, to nourish moral and spiritual reform by the public renewal of biblical theology, based on scientific understanding of the original texts, linked to his fresh evaluations of the principal church fathers. The most influential result was his 1516 edition of the original Greek New Testament, the first ever printed.

The new philology set out to establish the original texts for study. In Spain Cardinal Francisco Ximénez de Cisneros gathered together the scholars who produced the remarkable four volumes of the Complutensian Polyglott, which printed the New Testament in Greek, and the Old Testament in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic alongside the Latin Vulgate, with elaborate further commentary. The New Testament was ready by 1514, but not printed, lacking the pope's imprimatur, which was not given until 1522.


In 1530, the French Bible translation (from the Latin) made by the humanist scholar Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples (c. 14551536) in Paris was part of his larger intention of initiating Catholic reform through Bible preaching. He was attacked by the church authorities for giving the Word of God to "the humble," a criticism compounded by his not being an academic theologian. One of a circle of Catholic reformers, he wrote in favor of the then novel (later accepted) idea that neither the penitent sinner who anointed Christ's feet (Luke 7:37) nor Mary the sister of Martha (Luke 10:3842) should be identified with Mary Magdalen (Luke 8:23, 23:49, 24:10). His generally trenchant views, expressed in prefaces to his 1523 New Testament translation, led, in spite of his royal protection by Marguerite de Navarre, the sister of King Francis I, to his Bible translation later being put on the Index of Prohibited Books. In the Catholic University of Louvain, Frans Titelmans, a lecturer on Scripture, provided in 1533 for Thomas Herentals's Den Speghel des kersten levens (The mirror of the Christian life) to be printed with his own Den Schat des kersten Gheloofs (The treasure of the Christian faith) with marginal references newly indicating the biblical sources of Catholic teaching and practice. Lefèvre's earlier New Testament in French had been printed in Antwerp in 1525. Though from the Latin, it was condemned on 25 August 1525 by the Paris Faculty of Theology, together with Erasmus's 1516 new Latin translation, his Novum Instrumentum. The latter had caused wide offense by its many corrections of the Vulgate text of the New Testamenthe dared to open St. John's Gospel ("In the beginning was the Word . . .") with sermo, 'everyday speech', for the Word, instead of verbum, 'declaration'. At Luke 10:21, Christ thanked the Father for revealing the secrets of the kingdom not to babes but to stulti, 'fools'. These and many more caused scandal.

Yet the triumphant fulfilment of Erasmus's aims of reform came increasingly, and then overwhelmingly, outside the church, although that was something he did not wish. He unleashed the second revolution in Bible interpretation by printing in 1516 that New Testament in Greek noted above, setting it alongside his Latin New Testament to justify his many changes. Easily available to scholars throughout Europe, this work became at once the basis for quite fresh translations of the New Testament into all the vernaculars. Within twenty years, ordinary people could read for themselves, or hear read, the whole New Testament.


In the chief vernaculars, Martin Luther was first in 1522: his large and beautiful German Septembertestament (September testament) became a bestseller. A Dutch New Testament followed in 1526, the same year as William Tyndale's very influential English New Testament, which had been printed in Worms and was smuggled into England. Pierre-Robert Olivétan's French Bible of 1535 included a New Testament from Erasmus's Greek. And so it continued.

Revised and always massively reprinted, in the first sixty years of the sixteenth century these and others rapidly widened the scope and shifted the methods and function of Bible interpretation and have never been seriously opposed since. The guiding principle was access to what the text says in the original language, as precisely as possible, rather than the elaborations, often fanciful, permitted by earlier hallowed doctrine or practice.


Opposing the pope and Catholic tradition as sole authorities, Protestants understood from Scripture itself that it should be exposited to all believers in their own language as a whole text. For Protestants the entire New Testament was paramount, particularly the Epistles of Paul. They declared that the New Testament authorized only two sacraments (the Lord's Supper and baptism), not seven, and that neither purgatory nor the concomitant system of indulgences was biblical. They believed that, following the model of the earliest congregations described in Acts and the Epistles, and newly visible to all readers, the Holy Spirit led the faithful into comprehension of Scripture without an intermediary priest. The words of Jesus were first addressed to the lowly: even plowboys were capable of understanding. The Bible was no longer in a remote language, nor declared to be so difficult that only those lengthily educated (in Latin) could interpret small portions of it for the parvuli, the little people attending the liturgies. Preachers could assume in the hearers detailed knowledge of the whole Bible. That knowledge was the new element.


The Protestant Reformation was university-led, but biblical theology in its new development was not, as before, consumed only within college walls. Erasmus wanted everyone to read and study the Scripturesweavers, plowboys, Turks and Saracens, and even women. Erasmus's influential Paraphrases of the New Testament in English, published in the 1520s and 1530s and often reprinted, elucidating the Greek text for every New Testament book except the Apocalypse (Revelation), were, after 1549, by royal command to be placed in every English parish church, adjacent to an English Bible.

In Protestant Europe, the new vehicle of interpretation was the whole of Scripture in the vernacular for everyone (massively bought and studied) with prologues, marginal cross-references and commentaries, elaborate concordances, pictures, and maps. Theological teaching now focused on Paul, taken as a whole, with special emphasis on the sinner's justification by his own faith, without intermediary priest, but supported by his local congregation. Martin Luther's Paul in, for example, his Prologue to the Epistle to the Romans in successive New Testaments, or in his influential printed sermons in German, is indeed fully present, almost overwhelmingly, as the touchstone of all Christian faith. Luther's Preface to Romans in English was one of the two earliest Protestant documents circulating in England. He found in Paul not only "justification by faith alone" but the imperative to educate the German-speaking people in the new biblical theology, under the banner of sola gratia, sola fides, sola scriptura ('grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone'). His huge output as a theological writer was matched by a similarly large readership.

Sixteenth-century leaders of Bible interpretationPhilipp Melanchthon, Martin Bucer, Huldrych Zwingli, Johannes Oecolampadius, and othersall wrote with the aim of elucidating Scripture. John Calvin (15091564) approached the Bible text as a lawyer: not for nothing was a Bible first divided into verses in his Geneva, a convenience for identifying texts in a network of references internal to Scripture. More than Luther, Calvin was a linguist and scholar of ancient languages. The output of Bibles from Geneva in European languages was a response to the desire of Calvin and his colleagues to combine a scrupulous new accuracy of text and the widest popular dissemination.

Under Calvin, Luther's sola scriptura reached its full power. Every reader of Geneva Bibles, in French or English, was taught, by means of the marginal annotations and cross-referencing, that Scripture should only be interpreted in the light of Scripture. As Tyndale put it, the kingdom of heaven is the word of God. Calvin's greatest value lay in his insistence that theology, which now meant biblical theology, uniquely revealed not this church practice or that, but the overarching sovereignty of God.


It is important to recognize that fresh interpretation of the Bible in early modern Europe was done, to by far the greatest extent, in the annotations in vernacular Bibles, read in vast numbers (well over a million English Bibles, mostly Geneva versions, were bought before 1640). Individual study, alone or in groups, at home, in the back of the church, or in the field, allowed absorption of marginal interpretation, which was almost entirely direct textual elucidation toward a literal understanding or internal cross-referencing.

See also Calvin, John ; Calvinism ; Church of England ; Erasmus, Desiderius ; Humanists and Humanism ; Luther, Martin ; Lutheranism ; Melanchthon, Philipp ; Reformation, Protestant ; Zwingli, Huldrych.


Cambridge History of the Bible. Vol. 2, The West, from the Fathers to the Reformation. Edited by G. W. H. Lampe. Cambridge, U.K., 1969. Vol. 3, The West, from the Reformation to the Present Day. Edited by S. L. Greenslade. Cambridge, U.K., 1963.

Daniell, David. The Bible in English: Its History and Influence. New Haven and London, 2003.

Moeller, Berndt. "Scripture, Tradition and Sacrament in the Middle Ages and in Luther." In Holy Book and Holy Tradition, edited by F. F. Bruce and E. G. Rupp, pp. 113135. Manchester, U.K., 1968.

Peel, Albert. "The Bible and the People: Protestant Views of the Authority of the Bible." In The Interpretation of the Bible, edited by C. W. Dugmore, pp. 4973. London, 1946.

Prickett, Stephen. "Introduction." In Reading the Text: Biblical Criticism and Literary Theory, edited by Stephen Prickett, pp. 111. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1991.

Shuger, Debora Kuller. The Renaissance Bible: Scholarship, Sacrifice, and Subjectivity. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1994.

Wood, James D. The Interpretation of the Bible: A Historical Introduction. London, 1958.

Zim, Rivkah. "The Reformation: The Trial of God's Word." In Reading the Text: Biblical Criticism and Literary Theory, edited by Stephen Prickett, pp. 64135. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1991.

David Daniell

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Hermeneutics is a German word of Greek origin translated as interpretation in English. In the modern period it was originally used to refer to biblical interpretation and later to the general approach to literary and legal studies. In the past fifty years it has described an alternative to positivist approaches to the study of society. Positivist social science subscribes to methodological monismthe idea that there is a single scientific method, modeled after the natural sciences, that is the means for accumulating objective knowledge about the social and political world. As science, it looks to exclude normative and moral claims or evaluations about the social world. While acknowledging the importance of a scientific understanding of some aspects of the social world, hermeneutics rejects the methodological privilege that positivism ascribes to the natural sciences. Hermeneuticists argue that a more fundamental understanding and explanation of social life may be found in the meaning that action has for social and political actors. The emphasis on meaning implies that social behavior be construed as a text or text-analogue to be interpreted, according to Paul Ricoeur in Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences (1981), rather than as an object of scientific and technological understanding. In this respect hermeneuticists hold that the study of social life is more closely related to explanation and understanding of literary texts than to the objective study of physical objects or biological processes. Moreover, proponents argue that hermeneutics shows that the explanation of social life has a necessary moral or normative dimension to it.

Two of the earliest proponents of hermeneutics were Friedrich Schleiermacher (17681834) and Wilhelm Dilthey (18331911). Schleiermacher argued that the understanding of literary texts, legal documents, religious practices, or works of art require that one start with the object of interpretation and work backward to ascertain the intention of the author. Dilthey, building on Schleiermachers work, argued that historical events as well as works of art are the meaningful embodiment of the subjective intention of social actors and authors. Both thinkers, according to Hans-Georg Gadamer (19002000) in Truth and Method (1989), strove to develop an approach to interpretation that would uncover the objective meaning of the object of inquiry.

Schleiermacher and Dilthey formed the basis of what became known as the hermeneutics of recovery. The hermeneutics of recovery presupposes that the task of social inquiry is to capture the original intention or meaning that motivates and informs social action. This presupposes that there is an original, intended meaning that is determinate of social behavior and institutions. This version of hermeneutics often presupposes that empathy is a primary requirement for understanding social action and that explanations are to be couched in the subjective beliefs and intentions of actors.

A second approach, the hermeneutics of suspicion, is grounded in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900), Karl Marx (18181883), and Sigmund Freud (18561939), according to Ricoeur. It takes what proponents argue is a more critical approach to interpretation than found in the hermeneutics of recovery. The hermeneutics of suspicion maintains that the subjective intentions or conventional understanding of social actors is misleading and a distortion of social reality. Whether it is the conventional accounts of morality (Nietzsche), the ideology of the capitalist political economy (Marx), or the self-misunderstandings of individuals concerning the genuine motivations for their behavior and particularly their neuroses (Freud), the conscious, subjective, and prevailing understandings of society and social relations remain at the level of mere appearances and function to obscure and distort the reality that the social investigator needs to uncover to reveal the true meaning behind the apparent world.

More recently, two thinkers who have had the greatest impact on hermeneutics have been Martin Heidegger (18891976) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (18891951). Both Heidegger and Wittgenstein emphasize the priority of language for understanding human existence. For both, language is not just a tool that human beings possess. What is distinctive about human beings is that their experience of the world and their social relations are constituted by and expressed in language. Conversely, language gets its sense from the way of life (Wittgenstein) or the historical horizon (Heidegger) within which it evolves. Hence, there is a close connection between language and the social reality it helps to constitute and embody; the two are intertwined. The meaning of social action must be explained in terms of the linguistic tradition within which it is located, and the linguistic tradition in turn is explicated by reference to the meaningful behavior of social actors. This to-and-fro movement of interpretation is what is meant by the hermeneutic circle.

Heidegger and Wittgenstein have influenced a wide range of interpretive social scientists (Hiley, Bohman, and Schusterman eds. 1991). Perhaps the two most important are Hans-Georg Gadamer (1989; see also Malpas, Arnswald, and Kertscher eds. 2002) and Charles Taylor (b. 1931) (1985, 1995), both of whom go beyond the hermeneutics of recovery and of suspicion. Building on Heideggers accounts of language and historicity, Gadamer argues that because human behavior and human understanding are historically and linguistically situated, a persons understanding of the world is always both enabled and constrained by the persons linguistic-historical tradition. This means that the prejudices or prejudgments of that tradition are an inescapable and necessary part of peoples attempts to understand themselves as well as other historical traditions. This does not, however, mean that people are trapped in a prison of language. Rather, Gadamer argues that a dialogue with the other encourages openness to the experience of other historical traditions. The result is a fusion of horizons that transcends previous understandings.

Taylor makes a similar point concerning language. Drawing on both Heidegger and Wittgenstein, he argues that language and the social practices in which it is embedded form a social imaginary that serves to express an understanding of the possibilities for human beings and for social and political life. Because that understanding is often inchoate, tacit, and imperfectly articulated, the goal of the social theorist is to give an expression to that social imaginary. Taylor ties this reformulation of the self-understanding of social life to the possibility of deep forms of moral and political evaluation and reflection on the part of social and political actors (Taylor 1985a, 1985b, 1995). Moreover, building on the work of Gadamer, Taylor argues that Gadamers account of the fusion of horizons is pertinent not just for the understanding of other historical situations. It is also important in understanding other contemporary cultures and ways of life. The dialogical process that takes place in such efforts makes mutual understanding possible, though not guaranteed. Moreover, it makes greater reflective understanding of ourselves possible as well (Taylor in Malpas, Arnswald, and Kertscher 2002, 277298)

The most recent significant development in hermeneutics is found in the work of Italian philosopher and social theorist Gianni Vattimo. In Beyond Interpretation: The Meaning of Hermeneutics for Philosophy (1997), Vattimo argues that taking the anti-essentialism of Nietzsche more seriously enables a more radical approach to hermeneutics and interpretation. He looks to challenge the distinction between the natural and the human sciences and to encourage a dialogue among science, art, religion, and ethics. Perhaps most important, along with Taylor he sees a more robust role for religion in the public sphere in what some hermeneuticists describe as a post-secular society.


Despite what proponents see as the promise of interpretive approaches to the study of social life, a number of criticisms have been offered of hermeneutics. One criticism continues to be advanced by conventional social scientists. Focusing on earlier forms of hermeneutics, they claim that empathic understanding may be a useful tool in formulating better hypotheses, but it does not exhaust the range of behavior that is of interest to social science. Moreover, it is not a criterion of verification in the research process, according to those committed to scientifically defined social inquiry.

A second criticism originates with critical theory and the work of Jürgen Habermas. In his debate with Gadamer, Habermas argues that despite its importance for social inquiry, the hermeneutic emphasis on tradition, prejudices, and internal standards of rationality limits its critical leverage on prevailing ideologies that mask the social reality and specifically the exercise of power (Habermas 1987). Critical theorists maintain that this reflects an inherent, politically conservative bias.

A third criticism, from a perspective reminiscent of Michel Foucault (19261984), argues that hermeneutic/interpretive theory is still committed to conventional conceptions of truth and the self that are constituted by dominant discursive practices of the self and politics. These, in turn, deploy categories and practices of identity and difference that privilege some forms of human beings and understanding and marginalize or disqualify others. Hermeneutics fails to acknowledge the extent to which it is implicated in prevailing notions of the self and politics.

Needless to say, interpretive theorists have responded to each of these criticisms. To the first they point out that the emphasis on language and its relation to social practice requires explanation that goes beyond empathic understanding. It involves the investigator in what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1987) calls depth interpretation. To the second and third criticisms, thinkers such as Gadamer and Taylor acknowledge the limitations of hermeneutics. Consequently, each argues that no historical prejudgments can be allowed to go unchallenged and that one needs to be aware of the ways that prevailing practices of politics and the self influence the possibilities of social explanation. What is perhaps most important, however, is not so much the specific responses of hermeneutics to its critics as the hermeneutic claim that because of the self-interpreting nature of human beings, social science is best understood as a form of practical reason analogous to Aristotles fourth-century BCE discussion of practical wisdom in Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics. This, according to Gibbons (2006), commits hermeneuticists to a dialogue with social actors and competing perspectives as the most promising response to theoretical contestation and pluralism.

SEE ALSO Anthropology, Linguistic; Essentialism; Freud, Sigmund; Geertz, Clifford; Literature; Marginalization; Marx, Karl; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Philosophy; Positivism; Social Science


Aristotle. 2000. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. and ed. Roger Crisp. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. (Orig. created fourth century BCE.)

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 1989. Truth and Method. 2nd ed. Rev. Trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York: Crossroad.

Geertz, Clifford. 1987. From the Natives Point of View: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding. In Interpreting Politics, ed. Michael T. Gibbons, pp. 133147. New York: New York University Press.

Gibbons, Michael T. 2006. Hermeneutics, Political Inquiry, and Practical Reason: An Evolving Challenge to Political Science. American Political Science Review: Centennial Edition 100 (4): 563571.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1987. The Hermeneutic Claim to Universality. In Interpreting Politics, ed. Michael T. Gibbons, pp. 175202. New York: New York University Press.

Hiley, David R., James F. Bohman, and Richard Shusterman, eds. 1991. The Interpretive Turn: Philosophy, Science, Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Malpas, Jeff, Ulrich Arnswald, and Jens Kertscher, eds. 2002. Gadamers Century: Essays in Honor of Hans-Georg Gadamer. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1981. Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action, and Interpretation, ed. and trans. John B. Thompson. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, Charles. 1985a. Human Agency and Language. Vol. 1 of Philosophical Papers. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, Charles. 1985b. Philosophy and the Human Sciences. Vol. 2 of Philosophical Papers. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, Charles. 1995. Philosophical Arguments. Cambridge, MA:Harvard University Press.

Vattimo, Gianni. 1997. Beyond Interpretation: The Meaning of Hermeneutics for Philosophy. Trans. David Webb. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Michael T. Gibbons

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Interpretation seeks to bring out, within the confines of the analytic method, the latent meaning of a subject's words and behavior; its aim is to reveal unconscious desires and the defensive conflicts that are linked to them. Technically, interpretation consists in making manifest this latent meaning, in accordance with the rules dictated by the various phases of the treatment.

The first version of the theory of interpretation was delineated by Sigmund Freud in his psychoanalytic study of dreams (1900a) and is applicable to other products of the unconscious, such as parapraxes, slips of the tongue, and symptoms. For Freud, psychoanalysis was an art of interpretation, but he preferred the term "construction" as a description of the core of the psychoanalytical method, that is, the unveiling of the unconscious. This "construction" of the unconscious is entirely a matter of applying successive interpretations to the different aspects of a case. The interpretations allow an overall perspective to emerge and thus define a strategy for the treatment; however, it might also be tactically necessary at times to adjust to unforeseen developments.

Interpretation is not just a matter of what needs to be expressed and its actual utterance: it conveys its own meaning, one that disturbs that defensive arrangements meant to maintain the effectiveness of repression. Care must be taken not to provide a premature "translation" of unconscious content, as this risks discouraging the patient, reinforcing his resistance and creating a purely intellectualized understanding. Firstly, the affects associated with these defensive structures need to come to expression, and this implies a struggle of wills. While interpretation is characterized by the necessary intelligibility of its formulationsits reductivenessas well as by its closeness to manifest representation, generalization, and theorization, it also has a darker and more complex dimension that relates to the polysemy of language, personal symbolism, or the history of the affects involved. Bringing out these affects opens up an economic dimension in which instinctual energy forces the representation into the open. This is made possible, first of all, through the workings of the transference and the counter-transference.

In "The Dynamics of Transference," Freud insisted that interpretation should not begin before the appearance of the transference, and specified that the goal in interpreting the patient's transference is "to compel him to fit these emotional impulses into the nexus of the treatment and of his life-history, to submit them to intellectual consideration and to understand them in the light of their psychical value. This struggle between the doctor and the patient, between intellect and instinctual life, between understanding and seeking to act, is played out almost exclusively in the phenomena of transference. It is on this field that victory must be won" (1912b, p. 108).

What the interpretations communicate to the patient in terms of the construction of the unconscious, and on the basis of the transference, is indissociable from the analyst's reconstruction which is based on the analysis of his own counter-transference. The analyst responds to the transference demands with only a minimum of authority, allowing him to make the counter-transference into a tool for exploring the unconscious of the patient. For Freud, the unconscious of the patient is consequently revealed through the unconscious of the analyst.

The primary goal of interpretation is the lifting of resistance: the cure is not the result of a premature recognition of whatever has been repressed, but occurs through a victory over the resistances at the source of this ignorance. Thanks to the love-transference and the psychoanalyst's patience, the analysand should be able to accept the psychoanalyst's "translation" without these revelations about their unconscious adding to their conflicts or symptoms. Freud rejected any interpretation that is isolated from the symbolic material issuing from the unconscious, and indicated that it would be a mistake to think that the interpretation of dreams is central to all analyses.

As Michel Fain wrote, "While the turning of 1920 [Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1920g] shattered the metapsychology of 1915, conceptions from the first topic continued to influence Freud's conception of interpretation" (1983). It would seem useful to emphasize the necessary complementarity of the two topics, neither being able alone to account for the theoretical role of interpretation.

"The path that starts from the analyst's construction ought to end in the patient's recollection; but it does not always lead so far. . . If the analysis is carried out correctly, we produce in him an assured conviction of the truth of the construction which achieves the same therapeutic result as a recaptured memory" (Freud, 1937d, pp. 265-66).

Interpretation has recently become one of the latest focuses in the epistemological debate over the status of psychoanalysis. The "experimental" point of view, in which interpretation is conflated with a generalizable scientific truth that results from verifiable protocols and can be duplicated within the context of multidisciplinary research, includes certain models from psychoanalytical theory, comparing them with other developmental models or conceptual tools from psychopathology.

Conversely, the "hermeneutic" point of view results in a purely relative, narrative, and pragmatic conception of truth, whereby the interpretation is only a new version of the life story that makes the patient feel better. Consequently it tends towards a language of action that valorizes the conscious dimension. Highlighting the narrative point of view obviously involves challenging the status of metapsychology (Schafer, Roy, 1983), but the "scientific" point of view ultimately leads to the same tendency.

A closely related notion, often mentioned when clinical cases are being discussed, is that of "intervention." It is often used by default, when the analyst wants to utter words that are deemed appropriate, without the elements of the construction justifying those words being clearly established. It is given that analysts do not merely proffer interpretations during the sessionin addition they may request a clarification, verify an element already referred to in the treatment, encourage the patient to continue speaking, and the like.

However, because of the transferential situation, it is impossible to predict the outcome of these interventions, whose inoffensive, innocent, or insignificant character cannot be affirmed a priori. Jean Cournut has criticized the illegitimacy of this notion, adding that, in his view, "the term 'intervention' should be eradicated from the lexicon of psychoanalysis" (1983).

Jacques Angelergues

See also: Amnesia; Bernfeld, Siegfried; Construction de l'espace analytique (La-) (Constructing the analytical space) ; Construction-reconstruction; "Constructions in Analysis"; Dream interpretation; Hermeneutics; Interpretation of dreams (analytical psychology): Interpretation of Dreams, The ; Over-interpretation; Psychoanalytical treatment; Technique with adults, psychoanalytic; Technique with children, psychoanalytic; Transference; Transference and counter-transference; Translation; Violence of Interpretation, The: From Pictogram to Statement .


Fain, Michel. (1983). Introduction. Revue Française de Psychanalyse, 67, 3, 707-716.

Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. Part I, SE, 4: 1-338; Part II, SE, 5: 339-625.

. (1912b). The dynamics of transference. SE, 12: 97-108.

. (1937d). Constructions in analysis. SE, 23: 255-269.

Schafer, Roy. (1983). The analytic attitude. London: Hogarth.

Further Reading

Britton, Ronald, Steiner, John. (1994). Interpretation: Selected fact or overvalues idea?, International Journal of Psychoanalysis 75, 1069-1078.

Busch, Fred. (2000). What is a deep interpretation? Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 48, 237-254.

Friedman, Lawrence. (2002). What lies beyond interpretation, and is that the right question?, Psychoanalytic Psychology,19, 540-551.

Ogden, Thomas. (1997). Reverie and interpretation. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 66, 567-595.

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interpretation, interpretive sociology In one sense, any statement is an interpretation: if I call this thing in front of me a desk (rather than a dressing table) then I am interpreting a battery of sense impressions; if I say I feel happy (rather than, say, drunk) then I am interpreting certain physical sensations and a mental state. Not all sociologists recognize such a wide use of the word. Some, for example, use it more narrowly as in the sense of interpreting statistical data.

Interpretive sociology is a term usually confined to those sociological approaches which regard meaning and action as the prime objects of sociology. These differ in the extent to which they view interpretation as problematic. symbolic interactionism and much Weberian sociology, for example, generally interprets meaning on a commonsense level. Phenomenological sociology possesses a quite elaborate theory of interpretation, as do ethnomethodology, hermeneutics, and structuralism. Interpretive theories differ as well in the degree to which they go beyond the actor's own understanding of what he or she is doing.

For Max Weber (The Methodology of the Social Sciences, 1904–17), verstehen (or understanding) of people's actions is the method par excellence of sociology. Understanding and interpretation are closely related, and most sociologists would now recognize that some interpretation is involved in all acts of understanding, although some maintain a more naïve view that there are unproblematic meanings in social reality which can be directly understood. Weber distinguishes descriptive understanding (for example ‘John is walking across the room and opening a window’) and explanatory understanding (‘He is opening the window in order to ventilate this stuffy room’). In fact, both statements require an interpretation of what is happening, the second merely going rather further than the first. It is argued that the more complete our understanding or interpretation, the closer we are to a full explanation of an action. Alfred Schutz (in The Phenomenology of the Social World, 1932) develops a more elaborate conception by extending Weber's work and exploring the formation of goals from the stream of experience. This leads him to distinguish ‘because’ motives (which lie in past experience) from ‘in order to’ motives (which point to a future state of affairs that the actor wishes to bring about).

Most modern sociological conceptions of understanding recognize that it is also a process of interpretation. Some try to avoid this, by arguing that what we should be searching out are the rules by means of which we understand and interpret, since these remain the same whatever the content of interpretations. This lies behind Peter Winch's idea that all social action is rule-following; as well as the ethnomethodological focus on conversational rules; the concerns of structuralism with the rules which enable the production of meaning from an underlying structure; and, less obviously, the interest of post-structuralism in the constant and shifting play of meanings. Anthony Giddens (in The Constitution of Society, 1984) argues that all explicitly formulated rules become sites for interpretation, and the rules that are most basic to human action and interaction are not formulated, but rather, as far as the actor is concerned, are pre-conscious. They are, therefore, like the rules that govern mathematical progressions, and tell us how to proceed in the same way. Thus, given the beginning of a sequence (say 2, 4, 6, 8), we know how it continues (10, 12, 14) without necessarily knowing the rule which governs this progression.

Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation and maintains an interest in the content as well as the form of what is being interpreted. The term itself originated with the practice of interpreting sacred texts. It works on the principle that we can only understand the meaning of a statement in relation to a whole discourse or world-view of which it forms a part: for example, we can only understand (say) the statements of monetarist economics, in the context of all the other contemporary cultural phenomena to which they are related. We have to refer to the whole to understand the parts and the parts to understand the whole—the so-called hermeneutic circle. This in turn involves putting ourselves in the position of the author of the text and looking at the meaning of what is produced in relation to its context. Whereas biblical interpretation aimed at the correct meaning, it is now generally acknowledged that there is no such entity, although many philosophers hold that an approximation to the truth is possible. The German hermeneutic philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, for example, argues this is possible through a shared tradition (Truth and Method, 1960).

It should be evident by now that the systematic investigation of interpretation is largely the province of the philosophy of social science, and its influence on sociological investigation is variable. Perhaps its most important contribution has been to the problem of understanding other cultures, given the possibilities for cultural relativism. If we take Winch's position, for example, we must understand a culture in its own terms, through its own rules, and without imposing the framework of our own culture. In a classic paper on ‘Understanding a Primitive Society’ (in B. Wilson , Rationality, 1970)
he argues that we cannot make any judgement about the truth or otherwise of Azande beliefs about witchcraft. In Azande society, there are witches and witchcraft, whereas in our society we have science and scientists. The two are just different and one is not superior to the other by any transcendent standard: for us, science is better, but for the Azande witchcraft is better. All we can do is understand, this being made possible by the fact that we share a common human condition, since each society has to find a way of regulating and dealing with the birth of new members, sexual relations, and death.

For those approaches that posit the existence of a social structure independent of people's conception of their social world, the problem of the nature of understanding is much less important.

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Hermeneutics (Gk., hermeneutikos, ‘interpretation’, from Hermes, the Greek messenger of the gods). The discipline arising from reflection on the problems involved in the transmission of meaning from text or symbol to reader or hearer. Since there is no privileged or ‘correct’ meaning of an utterance, hermeneutics has sometimes been summarized in the question, ‘whose meaning is the meaning of the meaning?’ —i.e., there are many possible and legitimate meanings to be found in any text.

The modern discussion of hermeneutics derives from the early Romantic movement. Kant's emphasis on understanding was essential: Verstand (understanding) is the underlying human capacity for thought and experience, and Verstehen (acts of understanding), which are present in all thought and experience, are the expression of the distinctively human rationality. For Schleiermacher (the key figure in the development of hermeneutics), hermeneutics could no longer be a matter of uncovering a single given meaning in a text by chipping away at the obstacles which at present obscure it. Rather, hermeneutics ‘is an unending task of understanding’. Every utterance, verbal or nonverbal, belongs to a linguistic system (Sprache), but it belongs also to the lived experience (Erlebnis) of the one who utters. There is thus a hermeneutical circle which it is the task of hermeneutics, conceived of as the art of understanding, to close.

Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911) took what he understood of Schleiermacher much further. His On the Construction of the Historical World in the Human Sciences (1910) abandoned the view that understanding rests in human language-competence, and claimed instead that it rests in the whole life-process: it is a Lebenskategorie (a category of life). By this he meant that the process of life is a constant ‘scan’ of circumstances so that they can be understood and so that appropriate reactions can be initiated. What has to be ‘understood’, therefore, by the scientist of human behaviour is always a life-expression (Lebensausserung), which points back to a lived experience (Erlebnis) as its source. The expressed meaning (Ausdruck) can be apprehended only by relating the two, but that in itself is a ‘lived experience’ on the part of the one who apprehends, part indeed of a continuing ‘lived experience’ which constitutes a ‘pre-understanding’. The closing of the hermeneutical circle now becomes the connecting of two culturally and historically embedded lives, not to achieve ‘the meaning’, but to create a new horizon of meaning from the connection, the fusion of horizons. For Emilio Betti (1890–1968), this offered the best hope for a tolerant society, since there is no one meaning, closed to all revision, ever to be attained.

Against what may seem to be a steady drift toward subjectivism (‘meaning is for me’), ontological hermeneutics (associated especially with the later Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode …, 1972, ‘Truth and Method’, 1975) has sought to integrate the truth which lies behind language and which alone makes intelligible utterance possible. While it seems obvious to say that ‘what are true are sentences’, Gadamer insists (as do critical realists in the natural sciences) that there is what there is ‘over and above our wanting and doing’. Gadamer argues that ‘the truth finds us’. Language is the surface where truth becomes visible.

While hermeneutics is thus an issue in many disciplines, it is central to the interpretation of religious utterance, and of religious and sacred texts. In the Christian tradition, there have in fact been many different styles of exegesis of the Bible. In the medieval period, scripture was expected to yield a fourfold meaning: the literal (letter) sense; the allegorical or typological sense (the meaning in the context of the drama of salvation); the moral sense (the practical meaning in terms of conduct); the anagogical sense (the meaning in relation to the purposes of God in eternity). For the Reformers, much of this had produced eisegesis (reading meaning into the text) rather than exegesis. The fusion of horizons between text and reader reconciles these extremes by allowing the continuing creativity of the Holy Spirit to bring God's truth and the truth of God to the surface of a particular moment.

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The term hermeneutics is used broadly to describe the process of justifying interpretation through exposing the criteria used to produce it. The form is also used, by extension, to designate a twentieth-century philosophy for which interpretation is either a condition for accessing meaning through thought, and therefore a condition of every science of mind as such, thus implicating the normativity of logic, or the praxis of thought itself, no product of thought being capable of escaping infinite reinterpretation since it would then no longer be living thought but dead thought.

In a limited sense, Logic, as understood by Aristotle's Organon, has been and remains the framework of hermeneutics. "Hermeneia," Paul Ricoeur writes, "in the fullest sense, is the meaning of the sentence"and goes on to criticize an "overly 'lengthy' concept" of interpretation. But this is also the case when "hermeneutics" is understood as biblical exegesis (an "overly restricted" sense). Here it is theology, understood as an exclusive theory and therefore as a preestablished doctrine, that conditions truth and falsehood, and thus access to the determination of meaning. It should not be surprising therefore to find within the result of the interpretation what we were trying to find from the start.

Understood as philosophy, hermeneutics rejects the fact that logical concepts, in the Hegelian sense, can present and determine meaning, or that the "logic of the concept" can be its concretization; nor can the concept serve as a criterion of signification. However, hermeneutic finality can remain with the concept in the sense of discourse, or, on the contrary, an interpretation that falls short of the separation of words and things, an interpretation of the constitution of a possible world by each and for all, or even a fundamental process of "leveling" the language of the unconscious.

Freud considered that analytic interpretation, at the clinical situation, transmutes the patient's dreams into the true creative and critical power of subjectivity. For this reason interpretation is not and could not be an "extension" of the dream, as Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed, believing to have found in this a critique of the unscientific nature of Freudian "hermeneutics." Since, according to Wittgenstein, to interpret a dream is to prolong it, Freud's method of dream interpretation remains within the dream from the point of view of its scientific value. Thus one can also say that hermeneutics risks arbitrariness or relevancy that is only superficial to the extent that it can drift into an imaginary free association of ideas in connection of symbiotic or "esoteric" object, whereas this free association must itself be the object of a rigorous interpretation with reorganized and shared criteria; so hermeneutics also runs the risks of falling into a "delirium of interpretation," a psychotic hermeneutics used by the schizophrenic, who cultivates a discourse of paradoxes in order to protect himself from ambivalence and conflict (Paul-Claude Racamier).

Dominique Auffret

See also: Amplification (analytical psychology); Deferred action; Interpretation; Philosophy and psychoanalysis.


Ricoeur, Paul. (1965). History and truth. (Charles A. Kelbley, Trans.). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. (Original work published 1955)

. (1970). Freud and philosophy: An essay on interpretation. (Denis Savage, Trans.). New Haven: Yale University Press. (Original work published 1965)

. (1974). The conflict of interpretations (Don Ihde, Ed.). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. (Original work published 1969)

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The art or process of determining the intended meaning of a written document, such as a constitution, statute, contract, deed, or will.

The interpretation of written documents is fundamental to the process and practice of law. Interpretation takes place whenever the meaning of a legal document must be determined. Lawyers and judges search for meaning using various interpretive approaches and rules of construction. In constitutional and statutory law, legal interpretation can be a contentious issue.

Legal interpretation may be based on a literal reading of a document. For example, when john doe signs a will that names his wife, Jane Doe, as his personal representative, his intent to name her the administrator of his estate can be determined solely from the specific language used in the will. There is no need to consider the surrounding facts and circumstances that went into his choice.

When the intended meaning of the words in a document is obscure and conjecture is needed to determine the sense in which they have been used, mixed interpretation occurs. In such a case, the words express an individual's intent only when they are correctly comprehended. If John Doe refers only to "my wife" in his will, a probate court will have to determine who his wife was at the time of his death. How a lawyer or judge ascertains intent when words are unclear is typically governed by rules of construction. For example, the general definition of a word will govern interpretation, unless through custom, usage, or legal precedent a special meaning has been attached to the term.

When a court interprets a statute, it is guided by rules of statutory construction. Judges are to first attempt to find the "plain meaning" of a law, based solely on the words of the statute. If the statute itself is not clear, a court then may look to extrinsic evidence, in this case legislative history, to help interpret what the legislature meant when it enacted the statute. It is now common practice for statutes to contain "interpretation clauses," which include definitions of key words that occur frequently in the laws. These clauses are intended to promote the plain meaning of the law and to restrict courts from finding their own meaning.

Concern over whether courts apply strict or liberal methods of interpretation has generated the most controversy at the constitutional level. How the U.S. Supreme Court interprets the Constitution has been widely debated since the 1960s. Critics of the warren court, of the 1950s and 1960s, charged that the Court had usurped the lawmaking function by liberally interpreting constitutional provisions.

This criticism led to jurisprudence of "original intent," a philosophy that calls on the Supreme Court and other judges to seek the plain meaning of the Constitution. If plain textual meaning is lacking, the justices should attempt to determine the original intentions of the Framers. Those who advocate an original intent method of interpretation also emphasize the need for the justices to respect history, tradition, and legal precedent.

Opponents of original intent jurisprudence argue that discerning the intent of the Framers is impossible on many issues. Even if the original intent is knowable, some opponents believe that this intent should not govern contemporary decision making on constitutional issues. In their view the Constitution is a living document that should be interpreted according to the times. This interpretive philosophy would permit justices to read the Constitution as a dynamic document, with contemporary values assisting in the search for meaning.


Judicial Review; Plain-Meaning Rule.

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The review Interprétation was born in 1967 of a meeting between the desire to challenge the practice and teaching of psychiatric thinking in Canada, on the part of a team of the Research and Teaching Service of the Laurentides Hospital (directed by Marcel Lemieux),and the passion and commitment of the psychoanalyst who became its editor-in-chief, Julien Bigras.

Having taken from the very beginning the course of interdisciplinarity, for the purpose of furthering reflection through the encounter of the various human sciences, the review, independently of any school, opened itself up equally to literary and artistic milieux, making much room for foreign authors, especially French. Conrad Stein was editor for France between 1967 and 1971. The editorial committee for the first numbers of the review comprised: André Saint-Jean, Claude Lagadec, Pierre Mathieu, Carlo Serlin, Laurent Santerre, Rémi Savard, andÉlizabeth Bigras. After a break of seven years, the review began publishing again, with the same editor-in-chief and a new editorial committee, including Jean-Jacques Couvrette, François Peraldi, and Josette Garon.

The review has published many articles on specifically psychoanalytical themes, such as, for example, the psychoanalytic process, fantasy life, and psychoses, or on the question of the training, education, and commitment of psychoanalysts, as well as on the theories and works of Freud and authors who have written about and after him. There have been also a number of articles relating to anthropology, sociology, literature, pedagogy, semiology, philosophy, theology, and the theory of communication.

This review has published texts of many different forms: clinical and theoretical articles, translations, conferences, and congress reports. Exchanges have taken the form of letters, discussions, and responses; authors have also published original creative works, such as poems, stories, and theatrical scenarios. The review has organized encounters and colloquia, playing an important catalytic role in the Quebec milieu. A crossroads of the human sciences, it has kept open the question of the wealth, but also the limits of interdisciplinarity, as well as that of the limits of psychoanalysis.

Josette Garon

See also: Bigras, Julien Joseph Normand; Canada.

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interpretation in mus. is merely the act of perf., with the implication that in it the performer's judgement and personality have a share. Just as there is no means by which a dramatist can so write his play as to indicate to the actors precisely how they should speak his lines, so there is no means by which a composer can indicate to a performer the precise way in which his mus. is to be sung or played—so that no two performers will adopt the same slackenings and hastenings of speed (incl. rubato), the same degree of emphasis on an accented note, and so forth. The matter is further complicated by composers’ latitude in use of metronome markings as applied to a term such as allegro or moderato (e.g. varying in one work from   = 160 to   = 100 for allegro). Thus there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ interpretation in the strict sense, but in matters of style and taste, a performer's ‘interpretation’ may be felt by listeners to be out of sympathy with, or a distortion of, the composer's intentions.

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hermeneutics, the theory and practice of interpretation. During the Reformation hermeneutics came into being as a special discipline concerned with biblical criticism. The Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher expanded the discipline from one concerned with removing obstacles preventing readers from gaining the proper understanding of a text to one concerned in addition with analyzing the necessary conditions for readers coming to any understanding of a text. The philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey expanded the discipline still further by conceiving of all of the human and social sciences as hermeneutical enterprises and trying to construct a method uniquely for them, instead of borrowing one from the natural sciences. In the 20th cent. hermeneutics has been developed by the philosophers Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur.

See D. Hoy, The Critical Circle: Literature, History, and Philosophical Hermeneutics (1978); K. Mueller-Vollmer, ed., The Hermeneutics Reader (1985).

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interpretation The process of attaching meanings to the expressions of a formal language – or the meanings so attached. Without interpretation, expressions are purely formal entities, neutral with respect to meaning; this neutrality allows one to separate syntatic from semantic concerns, and to consider different interpretations for one formal language. The following are examples: propositional logic interpretations attach Boolean values to primitive symbols; predicate logic interpretations involve relations or functions over some underlying set; algebras similarly attach sets and functions to the symbols of a signature. Interpretations are made in the semantics of programming languages. An interpretation can give completely arbitrary meanings to primitive symbols. By contrast, a model must also satisfy certain logical sentences.

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hermeneutics (her-mĕ-newt-iks) n. the study of interpretation as a human experience and activity. Originally concerned with clarifying the meaning of biblical texts, it has since broadened and is now applied to the exploration, description, and interpretation of human phenomena to uncover hidden meanings and enhance understanding.

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hermeneutics science of interpretation. XVIII. — modL. hermēneutica — Gr. hermēneutikḗ, sb. use of fem. sg. of adj. (see -IC, -ICS), f. hermēneutḗs, agent-noun f. hermēneúein interpret, f. hermēneús interpreter.

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her·me·neu·tics / ˌhərməˈn(y)oōtiks/ • pl. n. [usu. treated as sing.] the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, esp. of the Bible or literary texts.

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hermeneutics the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts.

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hermeneutics See INTERPRETATION.

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