views updated May 14 2018


This article is arranged according to the following outline:

definition of terms
bible exegesis
Substance of Bible Exegesis in Jewish Law: Creative Interpretation and Integrative Interpretation
Halakhic Creativity by Means of Interpretation (Midrash)
Evidence of Creative Interpretation in Ancient Halakhah
Midrash and Roman Law Interpretatio
Different Literary Forms for Creative and Integrative Interpretation
Biblical Exegesis and its Place in Formulating Halakhah
Development of Bible Exegesis
    until hillel the elder
    r. nehunyah b. ha-kanah and r. nahum of gimzo
    r. ishmael and r. akiva and their academies
    r. eliezer b. yose ha-gelili
    in the amoraic period
    in the post-talmudic period
Thirteen Middot of R. Ishmael
Elucidative Interpretation
    kelal u_ferat
    davar she-hayah ba-kelal ve-yaẒa min ha-kelal
    davar ha-lamed me-inyano, davar ha-lamed mi-sofo
    shenei ketuvim ha-makhhishim zeh et zeh
    interpretation of words and phrases
Analogical Interpretation
    kal va-Ḥomer
    gezerah shavah
    binyan av
    hekkesh ha_katuv
Logical Interpretation
Restrictive Interpretation
interpretation of the halakhah
Use of the Principles of Bible Exegesis for Interpretation of the Halakhah
Restrictive and Expansive Interpretation
Interpretation of the Halakhah in Post-Talmudic Times
interpretation of documents
Doreshin Leshon Hedyot ("interpreting human speech")
Ha-Kol Holekh Aḥar ha-Taḥton ("all according to the latter reference")
Yad Ba'al ha-Shetar al ha-Taḥtonah ("the holder of a deed is at a disadvantage")
Interpretation le-Fi Leshon Benei-Adam ("according to the common usage of the people")
Interpretation of Contracts
    interpretations based on assessing the parties' intent.
    presumption of a document's validity.
    interpretation in accordance with context and custom.
interpretation of takkanot ha-kahal
Entrustment of Interpretative Authority
Interpretation of Takkanot le-Fi Leshon Benei Adam ("in accordance with their common usage")
Interpretation in Accordance with the Language of the Takkanah
Circumstances in Which the Background to a Takkanah and Its Motivating Factors May Be Taken into Account
Conflicting Provisions and Ambiguity in the Text
Judicial Interpretation – Judgment in Perfect Truth

definition of terms

In Jewish law interpretation is called Midrash – a word deriving from the verb darosh, meaning study and investigation of the inner and logical meaning of a particular text as opposed to its plain and literal reading. The word darosh is also used in the same sense to denote investigation of the true and "unrevealed" position as regards a particular factual event (Deut. 13:15; "Ve-darashta ve-ḥakarta ve-sha'alta heitev" – "you shall investigate and inquire and interrogate thoroughly" – hence the term derishah va-ḥakirah with reference to the interrogation of *witnesses). For the act of interpretation the word talmud is sometimes used (e.g., Sanh. 11:2; cf. Avot 4:13), and also the word din (e.g., Mak. 5b). In the field of the halakhah, the concept of Midrash has a meaning similar to interpretatio in Roman law and to "interpretation" in English law. The term parshanut was originally used in the sense of commentary (i.e., elucidation), generally amounting to a rephrasing or translation of the text into simpler and more easily understood terms; however, in the course of time the term parshanut also came to be employed in Jewish law in the sense of interpretation, and at the present time has both meanings. The interpretative process is often executed with the aid of fixed rules by which the exegete is guided; these are "the middot by means of which the Torah is interpreted" (see below). The process of interpretation began with Midrash of the Torah (i.e., Bible exegesis) and was followed by Midrash of the halakhah, i.e., of the Mishnah, both Talmuds, and post-talmudic halakhic literature (see below). In addition there evolved, from very early days, a system for the interpretation of various legal documents (see below), and after the redaction of the Talmud for the interpretation of communal enactments also (takkanot ha-kahal; see below).

bible exegesis

Substance of Bible Exegesis in Jewish Law: Creative Interpretation and Integrative Interpretation

A reading of halakhic literature reveals that very many halakhot are stated in midrashic form, i.e., the particular halakhah is integrated into and interwoven with a biblical passage (this is the form adopted in the *Midreshei Halakhah, halakhic literature on biblical passages, some details of which are mentioned below) and is not stated in the form of an abstract halakhah which stands by itself (as is the accepted and general form in the Mishnah). Scholars have expressed different opinions on the substantive nature of this form of interpretation. According to some, it is a merely literary device for a manner of studying the halakhot, i.e., the essential halakhic rule was not created in consequence of the interpretation of a particular scriptural passage but had already been in existence (having originated from other legal sources of the halakhah, such as kabbalah ("tradition"), *takkanah ("enactment"), *minhag ("custom"), etc.) and the scholars merely found support for the existing halakhic rule through allusion to a biblical passage. Such allusion was made for two reasons:

(a) in order to facilitate recall of a rule which, in ancient times, had never been reduced to writing but studied orally and hence had to be studied together with the relevant biblical passage;

(b) in order to stress the integral connection between the Oral and the Written Law, since the latter constituted the basic norm of the entire halakhic system. Another view is that Bible exegesis is much more than a mere literary device for studying the halakhah; on the contrary, the biblical passage into which the halakhic rule is integrated constitutes at the same time the source of the rule; i.e., the rule was created out of the study and examination of the particular passage and without such an interpretation of the passage the rule would never have existed at all. Some scholars suggest that at first Midrash served as a source for the evolution of the law and that in later times it ceased to serve this purpose, while other scholars take the contrary view.

It is clear that even the scholars who hold that Bible exegesis served as a source for the evolution of the law do not regard that fact as meaning that in every case of Bible exegesis the halakhic rule in question necessarily evolved from such exegesis. Thus as regards a certain section of the biblical expositions, it is specifically stated that they are in the nature of *asmakhtabe-alma (i.e., simply allusion to a particular passage; see, e.g., Ber. 41b; Er. 4b: "They are but traditional laws for which the rabbis have found allusions in Scripture," cf. Tosef. Ket. 12:2; TJ, Git. 5:1). Thus the scholars emphasize that the halakhot do not derive from the Bible exegesis, but from some other legal source of the halakhah, and are merely supported by allusions to particular biblical passages. This is also so in the case of numerous other halakhot arrived at by way of interpretation; even though they are not said to be in the nature of asmakhta alone, it cannot be determined with certainty whether in each case they derived from the particular interpretation of the biblical passages concerned, or whether they evolved from some other legal source and were merely integrated into the relevant biblical passages.

Halakhic Creativity by Means of Interpretation (Midrash)

It appears that from the inception of the halakhah and throughout its history, Midrash has served as a creative source of Jewish law and as an instrument in its evolution and development (see Yad, introd. and Mamrim 1:2). In point of time and importance, it constitutes the primary legal source of Jewish law (see *Mishpat Ivri). Throughout the history of the halakhah, scholars had to face the two fold problem of (a) reconciling difficulties emerging from the study of biblical passages, and (b) resolving new problems arising in daily life, particularly in consequence of changed economic and social realities.

The evolution of new halakhot was a natural outcome of the use of Midrash by the scholars in their efforts to overcome difficulties in the elucidation of Scripture, and Midrash led to great creativity, especially when applied to the solution of new problems. Although other means of solving such new problems were available (e.g., through the enactment of takkanot), the scholars nevertheless first and above all sought to find the solutions in Scripture itself, by endeavoring to penetrate to its inner or "concealed" content. In the eyes of the scholars Midrash was also to be preferred over the takkanah as a means of resolving new problems: the takkanah represented intentional and explicit lawmaking, designed to add to, detract from, or otherwise change the existing and sanctified halakhah, whereas in the case of Midrash the new halakhah derived from the scriptural passage concerned was not designed to add to the latter and certainly did not stand in contradiction to it. The link between the new halakhah and the Written Law was seen as a natural one of father and offspring, and the halakhah evolved from Scripture was, as it were, embedded in the latter from the beginning. Hence it may reasonably be assumed that the halakhic scholars would first have turned to Midrash in their search for solutions to the new problems that arose, and only when this offered no adequate or satisfactory answer would they turn to other legal sources of the halakhah.

Evidence of Creative Interpretation in Ancient Halakhah

From early tannaitic sources it may be inferred that Midrash already served as a creative legal source of the halakhah. Thus the description is given of how the judges would deliberate the relevant scriptural passage in each case before they gave judgment: "And if he had committed murder, they deliberated the passage dealing with murder; if he had committed incest, they deliberated the passage dealing with incest" (Tosef. Sanh. 9:1); similarly as regards the legal order of succession. The Pentateuch prescribes the order as son, daughter, brother, brothers of the father, and then the nearest kin of the deceased (Num. 27:6–11); the father is not mentioned as an heir but this omission is rectified in the Mishnah, where his place in the order is determined as falling after the children of the deceased and before the latter's brothers (bb 8:1). The scholars arrived at this result by interpreting the above-mentioned pentateuchal passage in this manner: "Ye shall give his inheritance unto his kinsman that is next to him of his family, 'that is next to him' – the nearest relative takes preference." Even though the above is only enjoined after the brothers of the deceased and his father's brothers are mentioned as heirs, the scholars nevertheless ranked the father above the latter since "the Torah has authorized the scholars to interpret and say: 'whoever is nearest in kinship takes preference in inheritance'" (Sif. Num. 134). At times differences of opinion amongst the scholars regarding the manner of interpreting the verse naturally also led to different legal conclusions (e.g., Git. 9:10 and Mid. Tannaim to 23:15, concerning the grounds for divorce; also, as regards the taking of a pledge from a rich widow, see bm 9:13 and bm 115a; and see below).

Midrash and Roman Law Interpretatio

In Roman law also and by a similar process in other legal systems – at the beginning and after the Twelve Tablesinterpretatio fulfilled an eminently creative function which, according to R. Sohm (The Institutes (19703), 55f.), evolved and even changed the law without affecting the written letter of it. The purpose of interpretatio in Roman law has been described by Dernburg: "It is true that the content of a law should be expressed in the document wherein it is contained, but it is not necessary that this content must be derived directly from the words of the law; often the general wording of a law leads one to conclusions that are not expressed in so many words in this law, but which nevertheless are undoubtedly the correct conclusions to be drawn there from; interpretatio must there for erecognize as an authoritative conclusion from the law, not only that which derives from what is explicitly and directly stated in the law but also that deriving from what is indirectly stated therein; this may be referred to as the 'concealed content' of the law" (H. Dernburg, Pandekten, 1, pt. 1 (19006), 73).

Different Literary Forms for Creative and Integrative Interpretation

The existence of the two forms of Midrash, differing in function and objective, also led to a differentiation in their literary expression. When the object of the interpretation was not to create halakhah but simply to integrate existing halakhah into a scriptural verse, this could be achieved even by means of forced and symbolic modes of interpretation – such as analysis of seemingly superfluous words and letters – since this sufficed for the integrative purpose. Such artificial associations also represented an accepted literary device in other ancient civilizations (see S. Lieberman, in bibl., p. 62f., 77f.; in recent generations efforts have been made to explain these symbolic modes of interpretation in an orderly and systematic manner and much was done in this field by Meir Loeb *Malbim). On the other hand, when the interpretation was made in order to evolve a particular halakhah, this was generally effected solely through rational modes of interpretation in the wider sense of the term, i.e., within the framework of the "concealed content" of the scriptural verse (although there are also instances in which halakhot were evolved through symbolic modes of interpretation, and this was particularly the case in the academy of R. Akiva; see, e.g., Sanh. 51b and see below).

[Menachem Elon]

Biblical Exegesis and its Place in Formulating Halakhah

Research into biblical exegesis has produced further conclusions regarding its place in the creation and formulation of halakhah since ancient times. Thus, it has examined the manner in which the exegetical method was utilized to interpret biblical verses to adjust them to the prevailing Jewish law. Allusions to this manner of interpretation are already found within the biblical corpus, such as in the Book of Chronicles (see Bibliography, Seeligmann). For a detailed discussion of research of tannaitic and amoraic exegesis, see *Midrash; *Midreshei Halakhah.

[Menachem Elon (2nd ed.)]

Development of Bible Exegesis


The process of exegesis began immediately after the law-giving, since in turning to the Written Law the halakhic scholars necessarily had to have recourse to various modes of interpretation for the purposes of its elucidation and application to the new problems that arose. However, the earliest clear literary references to exegetical activity only date back to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. With reference to Ezra's efforts to direct the returned exiles back to the law of the Torah, it is stated: "For Ezra had set his heart to interpret (lidrosh) the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and ordinances" (Ezra 7:10). The people were taught the law: "And they read in the book, in the law of God, distinctly; and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading" (Neh. 8:8), i.e., they interpreted the Torah by way of deep study, in order to understand its contents and laws. Ezra is called ha-sofer ("the scribe"; Ezra 7:11), a name which has also adhered to his contemporaries and to the succeeding scholars and which has been explained thus: "Therefore the rishonim were called soferim because they used to count all the letters of the Torah" (Ḥag. 15b; Kid. 30a). The Midrash of the scribes, or soferim, was not mere interpretatio doctrinalis, with no legal and binding validity attaching to the conclusions derived from it, but was in the nature of interpretatio authentica, and the conclusions derived from it constituted an integral and binding part of the halakhah itself. This was so even though it was derived outside the context of the law's being decided in a concrete case (see *Ma'aseh).

Evidence of the interpretative process can be found in the Septuagint Bible translation and in the Book of *Ben Sira (e.g., 39:1–3); the process received a sharp impetus in the time of the *zugot (pairs of scholars), when the *Pharisees, in their struggle against the *Sadducees, sought to prove the correctness of the Oral Law with the aid of interpretation. Thus, for instance, of the fourth scholarly pair it was said, "the two greatest men of our generation, Shemaiah and Avtalyon … are great sages and great interpreters" (darshanim; Pes. 70b), and of Hillel, a member of the fifth scholarly pair, it was said that he "expounded seven middot [rules of interpretation] before the elders of the sons of Bathyra" (introd. to Sifra, Baraita of R. Ishmael, concl.; see also Tosef. Sanh. 7:11; arn1 37, 110). These middot, or rules, were not innovations of Hillel; he simply crystallized them, although he may have provided some of the names which adhere to them (Sifra, loc. cit.).


Toward the end of the first century a difference of approach to Bible exegesis was asserted by two of Johanan b. Zakkai's pupils. Nehunyah b. ha-Kanah took the view that a rational standard (by way of the rule of kelal u-ferat, i.e., the general and the particular: see below) had to be maintained in the conclusions drawn from the modes of interpretation; while Nahum of Gimzo favored drawing wide conclusions from the modes of interpretation (by way of ribbui u-mi'ut, i.e., inclusion and exclusion), even when the conclusion was not altogether in keeping with the general meaning of the verse (Tosef. Shevu. 1:7; Shevu. 26a).


These two different approaches to the interpretative method were fully developed by the pupils of each of these scholars. Both R. Ishmael – a pupil of R. Neḥunyah – and R. Akiva – a pupil of R. Nahum – followed his teacher's method and founded his own academy. These established two different schools of Bible exegesis and complete works containing the Midrashim of each are extant. From the academy of R. Ishmael there remains the Mekhilta to Exodus (mekhilta meaning middot, i.e., measures; see Isa. 40:12), Sifrei to Numbers, Sifrei to Deuteronomy (until 11:26), etc.; and from the academy of R. Akiva, the Mekhilta of R. Simeon b. Yoḥai to Exodus, Sifra to Leviticus (Torat Kohanim), Sifrei Zuta to Numbers, Sifrei to Deuteronomy (from 11:26 on), etc. R. Ishmael and his academy endeavored to uphold modes of interpretation that would maintain the legal and logical meaning of the scriptural passages concerned. Thus, for instance, they laid down the rule that "the Torah speaks in the language of men" (Sif. Num. 112; Sanh. 64b, etc.; in the tj, "a language of synonym, employed by the Torah"; Shab. 19:2, 17a). That is to say, just as the language of synonym occurs in the narrative part of Scripture for purposes of reinforcement and emphasis – because this is the phraseology adopted by men in their discussions (e.g., Gen. 31:30; 40:15) – so in the legal part of the Torah there ought to be no interpretation of such repetition (e.g., Lev. 19:20). R. Akiva and his academy took a different approach and adopted modes of interpretation that widened the meaning of Scripture far beyond the terms of the written text, expounding every seemingly superfluous word or phrase (see bk 41b), and the occurrence of every synonym or repetition of a word or even letter (see Yev. 68b). Often the dispute between the two schools is found to relate not to the actual legal principle involved, but to the question of how to integrate such a principle with the scriptural verse (from this period onward this type of Midrash continued to expand). R. Ishmael's method was to integrate the halakhah with the scriptural verse by means of interpretation that remained within the meaning of the text, while R. Akiva integrated the same halakhic ruling by interpretative devices based on the apparent redundancy of words, or even a single letter, such as a vav. For an example of the two respective methods compare R. Ishmael and R. Akiva on the rule that a bill of divorcement need not be delivered into the hands of the wife personally, but is valid if placed within her reshut ("domain"; tj, Git. 8:1, 77a; Sif. Deut. 269; tj, Git. 8:1, 49b). Similarly, in a case where R. Ishmael found no suitable interpretative device to aid him in his integration of an existing halakhah with the appropriate verse, he would forego such midrashic integration ("in three places the halakhah bypasses Scripture": tj, Kid. 1:2; Sot. 16a; etc.); in the same circumstances R. Akiva nevertheless effected the integrative process by enlisting the method of "redundancy" (Sif. Deut. 122 and 269; Sifra, Aḥarei Mot, 11:10).

There are even instances in which R. Akiva and his academy also created halakhah through the interpretative method based on the analysis of redundancy, a fact that met with strong opposition from R. Ishmael and his academy (see, e.g., Sanh. 51b, concerning the case of adultery committed by a priest's daughter). On more than one occasion such symbolicmode of interpretation from Akiva's academy provoked sharp scholarly reaction (see Sifra, Va-Yikra, 4:5; Ẓav, 5:11; Tazriʾa 13:2; Sif. Num. 75; Men. 29b). Although opposed to modes of interpretation that departed from the logical sense of the scriptural text, R. Ishmael expanded the middot of Hillel and fixed their number, thereby establishing the 13 well-known hermeneutical rules (see below). In principle the 13 rules of R. Ishmael are contained within Hillel's seven, except that the former are further subdivided and amplified (thus, e.g., R. Ishmael subdivided Hillel's rule of kelal u-ferat (see above) into four middot).


To R. Eliezer, one of the generation succeeding R. Ishmael and R. Akiva, is attributed the baraita of the 32 rules of Bible exegesis. However, this subdivision was made primarily for the purpose of aggadic and not halakhic Midrash (the baraita is printed in tb, after Ber.). The accepted number of hermeneutical rules remained at 13, but other exegetical principles were stated, also in the field of the halakhah, which are not embraced in the 13 middot.


For the amoraim, Bible exegesis generally served as interpretation intended to integrate already known halakhot with the relevant scriptural texts. They too regarded themselves as competent to engage in Bible exegesis in order to decide the halakhah in accordance with their own interpretation, but in practice during this period Bible exegesis had ceased to serve as a source for the continued creativity of the law. The change came about because Scripture no longer constituted the sole authoritative source within the halakhic system for the deduction of legal conclusions, since meanwhile collections of Mishnayot and halakhic Midrashim (Midreshei Halakhah) had been compiled. In particular the Mishnah – since its redaction by R. Judah and its acceptance at the end of the tannaitic period and the beginning of the amoraic period – had become the legal codex to be studied and interpreted and serve as the basis and starting point for the creation and continued evolution of the halakhah. Of course the Written Law remained the primary source of the halakhah, occupying the highest rung on its scale of values and authority, yet the Mishnah and other tannaitic works now became the immediate source for purposes of study and adjudication in daily life. For the same reason there was a decline in interpretation aimed at integrating existing halakhah with scriptural texts; once the Mishnah had become an authoritative book of halakhah there was no longer a need for such integration in order to lend validity to a particular halakhic ruling, since the very inclusion of the latter in the Mishnah, and its integration into this authoritative compilation, sufficed to invest it with full legal-halakhic recognition and authority. Thus it is found that at times one amora was surprised by the efforts of another to integrate a known halakhah with a scriptural verse, when such halakhah could equally have been founded on logical deduction (see *Sevarah): "Do we need Scripture to tell us this? It stands to reason" (bk 46b; Ket. 22a), a question never asked in tannaitic times even when the aim was merely to integrate a particular halakhah with a scriptural verse.


The redaction of the Talmud was followed by a general decline in Bible exegesis, even in the form of the integrative interpretation of existing halakhah. The link with the Written Law became a spiritual one, whereas in practical life adjudication was based on the talmudic halakhah as crystallized in the halakhic Midrashim, the Mishnah, the Tosefta, and both Talmuds. At the same time, it may be noted that sometimes the statements of the geonim and rishonim contain various interpretations of scriptural verses which are not recorded in the extant halakhic Midrashim. In some cases it transpires that such interpretations were taken from midrashic compilations available to the rishonim which are no longer extant (see e.g., Yad, Avadim 2:12, concerning the matter of a slave who falls ill, where the origin of an interpretation mentioned there remained unknown until the publication of the Mekh. Sb-Y to 21:2). However, sometimes it also happened that the post-talmudic scholars had recourse to Bible exegesis in seeking support for a new law derived from sevarah or enactment (takkanah); "Whenever it is known that a certain matter has been truly stated, but without ascertainment of the scriptural support, then everyone is free to interpret and advance such support" (Aaron ha-Levi of Barcelona, quoted in Nimmukei Yosef, bk, commencement of Ha-Ḥovel). The practical application of this procedure is illustrated in a number of instances (see, e.g., Yad, Arakhin 6:31–33 and Ravad, ad loc.; Resp. Maharshal no. 89; Resp. Radbaz no. 1049).

[Menachem Elon]

In addition to the aforementioned, there are instances in which post-talmudic halakhic authorities relied on halakhot based on communal enactments or logical inference; there are even cases in which new laws were established in accordance with exegesis of biblical verses. For example, during the geonic period, it was established that when the brother of a deceased Jew is an apostate, the wife of the deceased is not bound by the laws of yibbum (levirate marriage) or ḥaliẓah if that brother changed his faith before the couple wed (see *Apostate, *Levirate Marriage). Rabbinic exegesis of the verse in the section dealing with yibbum, "If brethren dwell together" (Deut. 25:5), is that "brotherhood must reign between them at the time of marriage" (Ginzei Schechter, 1929, 2:173). It was therefore determined that an apostate, regarding whom no "brotherhood" reigns between himself and his biological brother, is not included in the positive precept of yibbum. Similarly, some of the geonim stated that in other cases as well there is no need for yibbum, for example, where the deceased himself changed his faith.

There are likewise cases of legal innovation in Maimonides' Code based on biblical exegesis. Thus, Maimonides rules that consuming human flesh is prohibited by dint of a positive precept, based upon his exegesis of the verse in Leviticus 11:2: "'These are the animals which you may eat' – anything outside that category may not be eaten." From here one may infer that consuming human flesh is prohibited by a positive precept. This exegesis has no basis in talmudic literature, and provoked criticism by other rishonim (Resp. Rashba, Ket. 20a).

Among other medieval Sages who gave halakhic rulings based on exegesis of biblical verses are Sefer Yere'im (Sefer Yere'im ha-Shalem 309) and Nahmanides, in his Commentary on the Torah (Deut. 21:16).

Recent halakhic authorities also ruled on the basis of exegesis of the biblical text. Rabbi Meir Simḥah ha-Kohen of Dvinsk expounds the verse, "Go, return into Egypt; for all the men are dead that sought your life" (Exodus 4:19). From this, he inferred that one is not obligated to endanger his life in order to save the public at large, reasoning that Moses was not commanded to return to Egypt to save the People of Israel until his pursuers had died (Or Same'ah on Maim., Yad, Roze'ah 7:8). In another context he deduces that a thief must pay for what he stole, based on the verse "If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft" (Exodus 22:2). On the basis of the location of this phrase in the chapter as a whole, he derives the rule that a thief may be sold as a slave for his theft only when he removed the object from the owner's property with his own hands, but not where he retained possession of an object temporarily given to him, with intent to steal it.

[Menachem Elon (2nd ed.)]

Thirteen Middot of R. Ishmael

The 13 hermeneutical rules of R. Ishmael (for a detailed enumeration see Sifra introd. and Ravad ad loc.; and see *Hermeneutics) belong mainly to two general categories of interpretations: one of elucidative interpretation (midrash hameva'er) – i.e., that which is concerned with the explanation and elucidation of scriptural passages; and the other of analogical interpretation (midrash ha-mekish) – i.e., that which is concerned with the drawing of analogous conclusions from one matter to another with a view to widening the law and solving new problems. The first category is akin to interpretatio grammatica in Roman law, but is much wider and more comprehensive, while the second is akin to analogia.

Elucidative Interpretation

This category includes the last ten of R. Ishmael's 13 hermeneutical rules, which are further subdivisible into four groups.

kelal u-ferat

("the general and the particular"; middot 4–7): The central problem dealt with by the first three rules in this group may be stated as follows: when a law lays down a certain direction, which such a law renders operative both in particular and in general and the general includes the particular, must the direction be held to apply only to the particular expressly mentioned and the general be interpreted as including only such a particular and no more, or must it be held that the direction applies to everything embraced by the general and that the particular is quoted only in illustration of the general and not in exhaustion of it? This question is answered by the said three rules in different ways depending on the juxtaposition of the general and the particular (for illustrations of each of these rules, see Sifra introd.; bk 62b). The fourth rule deals with the case in which the general and the particular serve neither to amplify nor to limit, but the one is merely in elucidation of the other, i.e., the two are mutually interdependent (see Sifra introd.; Bek. 19a).

davar she-hayah ba-kelal ve-yaẒa min ha-kelal

(middot 8–11: "the particular stated separately after forming part of the general"): The central problem to which the rules of this group provide help in finding an answer is: when there are two separate directions on a common matter (and not a simple direction with a generality and a particularity, as in the previous group) – the one a general direction (lex generalis) and the other a special direction (lex specialis) – what is the relationship between the two classes of directions and for what reason has the special direction been stated separately from the general one? The main and most commonly applied rule in this group is the eighth (see Mekh. Shabbata 1; Shab. 70a).

davar ha-lamed me-inyano, davar ha-lamed misofo

(middah 12; "inference from the context"): This rule prescribes that a doubtful direction is to be determined from the context in which it occurs, either from other parts of the same subject matter, or from the adjacent subject (see Mekh. ba-Hodesh 8, Sanh. 86a).

shenei ketuvim ha-makhhishim zeh et zeh

(middah 13; "two passages which contradict each other"): This rule is applied in case of a contradiction between two passages dealing with the same topic (e.g., Sif. Deut. 279; bm 110b); between two passages in the same parashah (e.g., Mekh. Mishpatim 20); or even between two different parts of the same verse (Mekh. Mishpatim, end of 7). Such contradiction, the rule prescribes, must be reconciled by reference to a third passage which will determine the issue, or, when this is impossible, by the decision of the halakhic scholars according to their understanding of the matter (Sifra, introd.; tj, Ḥag. 1:1).

interpretation of words and phrases.

Also belonging to the category of elucidative interpretation are many Midrashim purporting to explain various terms and concepts appearing in scriptural verses, and as an outcome also the content and scope of the scriptural direction (e.g., Mekh., Nezikin 1, explanation of the term shevi'it; Ber. 1:3, dispute between Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel concerning interpretation of the words be-shokhbekha u-ve-kumekha in the context of keri'at Shema). Similarly there are various exegetical rules dealing with matters such as the construction of conjunctive words and letters (e.g., Sanh. 66a, dispute between R. Joshia and R. Jonathan), the question of whether or not mention of the masculine gender includes the feminine (e.g., bk 15a; Tos. to Kid. 2b; Yad, Edut 9:2; and Kesef Mishneh there to), and similar grammatical and syntactical constructions.

Analogical Interpretation

Analogical Interpretation (midrash ha-mekish): This category of interpretation is the subject matter of the first three of the 13 middot enumerated by R. Ishmael.

kal va-Ḥomer

(an a fortiori inference, a minori ad majus or a majori ad minus): The basis of this middah is found in Scripture itself (Gen. 44:8; Deut. 31:27) and the scholars enumerated ten pentateuchal kallin va-ḥomarim (Gen. R. 92:7). The rule of kal va-ḥomer (for correct reading of the term, see Schwarz, bibl. p. 8ff.) is a process of reasoning by analogy whereby an inference is drawn in both directions from one matter to another, when the two have a common premise – i.e., it can be drawn either from the minor to the major in order to apply the stringent aspect of the minor premise also (bm 95a), or from the major to the minor in order to apply the lighter aspect of the major premise to the minor premise (Beẓah 20b). Material to this rule is the principle dayo la-ba min ha-din lihyot ka-niddon (Sifra, loc. cit.; bk 25a, etc.), i.e., it suffices when the inference drawn from the argument (ha-ba min ha-din) is equal in stringency to the premise from which it is derived (the niddon), but not more so, not even when it might be argued that logically the inference should be even more stringent than the premise from which it is derived.

gezerah shavah

("inference from the analogy of words"): Scholars have given much thought to the etymology as well as the scope and content of this hermeneutic rule (see Lieberman in bibl.; Albeck, Mishnah, Kod., pp. 403f.). Lieberman translates the term as "a comparison with the equal" (ibid., p. 59; in Scripture and halakhic literature the meaning of the term gezerah is "decision" or "decree"; cf. the meaning of the parallel Greek term, Lieberman, ibid.). Originally, gezerah shavah meant the analogy and comparison of two equal or similar matters, but later this rule came to refer "not to analogy of content but to identity of words" (i.e., verbal congruities in the text, Lieberman, ibid., p. 61), even in the absence of any connection in content between the two matters. Some scholars held that an analogy was not to be drawn from one matter to another by way of a gezerah shavah unless the term in question was mufneh ("vacant," empty of content) in either of the matters (Nid. 22b; Sif. Deut. 249). This mode of interpretation – involving the deduction of halakhic inferences from analogous words only without regard for similarity of content between two separate matters – was likely to lead to comparisons for which there were no logical foundations and to strange and unusual halakhic conclusions (e.g., tj, Pes. 6:1). However, this was avoided by the determination in talmudic tradition of the rule that "no one may infer by gezerah shavah on his own authority," i.e., this exegetical rule was to be applied only in cases where a scholar received a tradition from his teacher that the particular word or phrase might be interpreted by that method (tj, Pes. 6:1; Nid. 19b and Rashi thereto; see also Nahmanides Commentary to Sefer ha-Mitzvot, 2ndshoresh).

binyan av

(a principle "built up" from biblical passages): This middah is enumerated by R. Ishmael in two parts: binyan av mi-katuv eḥad (e.g., Sanh. 30a; Sot. 2a) and binyan av mi-shenei ketuvim (e.g., Mekh. Mishpatim 9). It appears from the halakhic literature that the application of this rule was also extended to derivation of a principle from three passages (e.g., Sif. Num. 160) and even from four passages (e.g., bk 1:1). By this rule, a principle is constructed from one passage, or a characteristic common to several passages; the av is the basic premise, and the binyan is the principle constructed.

hekkesh ha-katuv

(analogy drawn in the Bible itself): To the category of exegetical principles by analogy must be added a further rule, which often appears in talmudic literature although it is not included in the 13 middot enumerated by R. Ishmael. This is known as hekkesh ha-katuv, or simply hekkesh (Zev. 49b; Sanh. 73a), and also as (hishvah) ha-katuv (Kid. 35a), etc. It is distinguished from the other three analogic middot by the fact that in their case it is the halakhic scholars who draw the analogy whereas hekkesh ha-katuv represents an analogy drawn in the Bible itself. From this point of view the rule has been of fundamental importance to the process of Bible exegesis, since it enabled halakhic scholars to find in the Bible itself the basis for reasoning by analogy for purposes of drawing legal conclusions. A classic example of this form of analogy is found in the scriptural passage dealing with the violation of a betrothed maiden (na'arah me'orasah, see *Marriage) which enjoins that the maiden, even though she is betrothed, must suffer no punishment: "But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death – for as when a man riseth against his neighbor, and slayeth him, even so is this matter" (Deut. 22:26). Here, through analogy with the murderer's victim, Scripture holds the violated girl blameless, and the halakhic scholars pursued the analogic argument from the two cases, deriving additional halakhot from them (Sanh. 74a). Sometimes hekkesh ha-katuv occurs in implicit rather than in explicit form (Sif. Deut. 208).

For further particulars concerning the 13 middot, see *Hermeneutics.

Logical Interpretation

This third category of Midrash (i.e., in addition to the elucidative and analogic) plays an important role in the modes of interpretation in Jewish Law, although it is not enumerated among the 13 middot. Known as midrash ha-higgayon, it is similar to the Roman law interpretatio logica. In substance and objective, it is akin to the elucidative category, since its main purpose is to explain and contribute toward logical understanding of Scripture, and its application often led to the determination of new halakhot and legal principles. Thus, for instance, in the matter of the violation of a betrothed girl, the statement that nothing should be done to her, "For he found her in the field; the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none to save her" (Deut. 22:25–27), was interpreted in this way: the word field is not to be understood literally, but the measure of the damsel's innocence or guilt must be determined by her resistance or lack of it. "Shall it be said, in the city she is liable, in the field she is exempt? We are taught: 'she cried … and there was none to save her'; if there was none to save her whether in the city or in the field, she is exempt, and if there was someone to save her whether in the city or in the field, she is liable" (Sif. Deut. 243). Similarly, the enjoinder, "No man shall take the mill or the upper millstone to pledge; for he taketh a man's life to pledge" (Deut. 24:6) was interpreted as follows: "They spoke not only of the mill and the upper millstone, but of aught wherewith is prepared necessary food, as it is written 'For he taketh a man's life to pledge'" (bm 9:13; Sif. Deut. 272).

In this form of interpretation reliance is sometimes placed on logical reasoning which is circumscribed by factors of practical reality. Thus, from the enjoinder concerning the paschal sacrifice – "and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it" (Ex. 12:6) – R. Joshua b. Karḥa deduced the following legal principle: "Does then the whole assembly really slaughter? Surely only one person slaughters? Hence it follows that a man's agent is as himself " (Mekh. Pisḥa 5; Kid. 41b). In other words, as the verse cannot be literally interpreted since such would be physically impossible, it may be inferred that the act of one person can be attributed to another and regarded as his act and the same is true even of an entire assembly; this constitutes the principle of principal and agent. The mode of interpretation thus exemplified is akin to the rerum natura in Roman law.

Restrictive Interpretation

Just as Midrash served to extend the scope of the halakhah by the addition of new laws, so it sometimes served to narrow, to a varying extent, the operation of a particular law through a process of restrictive interpretation. Thus, for instance, the prohibition, "An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation shall none of them enter into the assembly of the Lord forever" (Deut. 23:4), was restrictively interpreted by the scholars as applying to men only, thus rendering women acceptable immediately if they converted. Some scholars explained this law on the basis that the prohibition was enjoined "because they met you not with bread and with water on the way, when you came forth out of Egypt" (Deut. 23:5), a reason which was inapplicable to women because, for reasons of modesty, they are not in the habit of going out to meet other men; other scholars reasoned that the prohibition reads "an Ammonite but not an Ammonitess, a Moabite but not a Moabitess" (Yev. 8:3; Sif. Deut. 249; Yev. 77a). The scholars dated this interpretation to the time of the prophet Samuel, who anointed David king over Israel (i Sam. 16:13), and held it to be the explanation for David's entry "into the assembly of the Lord," even though he was descended from Ruth the Moabitess (Yev. 77a).

At times the text was so restrictively interpreted as to make any practical application of the law impossible from the start. This is illustrated in the matter of the stubborn and *rebellious son, of whom it was said that he must be brought before the city elders and stoned to death (Deut. 21:18–21). The relevant verses were interpreted as meaning that the law only applied if the son committed the transgression within three months of his reaching the age of 13 years – and even then he was to be held exempt, unless the proceedings against him were completed within the same period (Sanh. 8:1; Sanh. 68b–69a). In addition, the passage was interpreted as requiring the existence of various preconditions relating to the qualities of the parents (ibid.). The practical impossibility of having all these conditions fulfilled is recognized in tannaitic tradition: "There never has been a stubborn and rebellious son, and never will be. Why then was the law written? That you may study it and receive reward" (Tosef. Sanh. 11:6; Sanh. 71a). A similar interpretation was given by the scholars to the passage concerning the destruction of a city condemned for idolatry (Deut. 13:13–17; Sif. Deut. 92; Sanh. 16b; 71a; 111b; 113a; Tosef. Sanh. 14:1).

interpretation of the halakhah

Use of the Principles of Bible Exegesis for Interpretation of the Halakhah

Just as the middot and other rules for Bible exegesis served the scholars as a source for the shaping of the halakhah and its continued creativity and development, so the scholars engaged in the same interpretative activity – and with the same objective – with regard to the available halakhic material. This activity may be referred to as Midrash Halakhah as opposed to Midrash Torah which has been dealt with so far. Interpretation of the halakhah continued to be engaged in throughout the history of Jewish law, and at times, for purposes of a particular exegetical rule, the scholars distinguished between modes of interpreting the Bible and those of interpreting the halakhah. The term Midrash was even used by the scholars to describe the latter. Thus, for instance, in early halakhah – until the middle of the second century – the duty of a father to maintain his children was in the nature of a religio-moral obligation only and not a legal one (Ket. 49a–b); the question arose whether the absence of a legal obligation applied to sons only, and whether such a duty did not in fact exist in respect of daughters, in the same way as they were entitled to be maintained out of the estate of their deceased father. The answer was arrived at in this way: "The father is not liable for the maintenance of his daughter. R. Eleazar b. Azariah gave this exposition (zeh midrash darash) at Kerem be-Yavneh. 'The sons shall be heirs and the daughters shall be maintained.' As the sons only inherit after the death of their father, so the daughters are not entitled to maintenance except after the death of their father" (Ket. 4:6). The dictum that "the sons shall be heirs and the daughters shall be maintained" derived from an ancient rabbinical enactment relating to the laws of succession (bb 9:1, 131b) and R. Eleazar, reasoning that the two component halakhot of the dictum were analogous, concluded that both were applicable at a common stage – namely after the death of the father.

Restrictive and Expansive Interpretation

Many halakhot were derived from both restrictive and expansive interpretation. Thus for instance the Mishnah records a dispute between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai on whether the then existing halakhah concerning the trustworthiness of a woman's declaration of her husband's death (so as to enable her to remarry) had to be narrowly or widely interpreted (Yev. 15:1–2). Similarly, as regards the legal capacity of a minor to acquire lost property he found himself, the amora Samuel gives the term katan ("minor"), which appears in the Mishnah (bm 1:5), a restrictive interpretation referring to biological minority, holding that no minor is capable of acquiring for himself lost property; R. Johanan, on the other hand, gives the same term the liberal interpretation of referring only to those who are maintained by their fathers, and therefore "a minor who is not maintained by his father is regarded as a major" (bm 12a–b). A further illustration is to be found in the different interpretations given by the amoraim of Ereẓ Israel and of Babylonia to the Mishnah, bk 3:1 (see bk 27b).

Interpretation of the Halakhah in Post-Talmudic Times

In post-talmudic times the scholars of every generation continued to apply all the different modes of interpretation to the existing halakhah. For this purpose they even resorted to some of the 13 middot (see, e.g., Resp. Abraham, son of Maimonides, nos. 78 and 97; Resp. Rambam (in Assaf, Sifran shel Rishonim), no. 3; Resp. Rashba vol. 2, no. 14; Resp. Maharam of Rothenburg, ed. Prague, no. 85; Resp. Rosh, 78:1, 3). In one instance a 15th-century scholar expounded the responsum of an earlier scholar by the rule of kelal u-ferat in order to solve a basic legal problem in the field of the public law, one concerning the power of the communal representatives (Resp. Judah Mintz no. 7).

interpretation of documents

In early times there had already evolved a further category of Midrash – that concerning the interpretation of the text of various legal documents in daily use, such as the *ketubbah deed and deeds of *acquisition (kinyan), indebtedness, testamentary disposition, and the like. The documents, the text of which was sometimes determined by the scholars and sometimes by popular usage, became integrated into the overall Jewish legal system, extending and developing it. In their study of such documents, whether theoretically or for the practical purpose of deciding the law, the scholars were faced with the need to elucidate and understand their contents, and to this end, they had recourse to interpretative norms used in the exegesis of the Bible and the halakhah, and, in the course of time, developed additional – and sometimes different – interpretative norms.

Doreshin Leshon Hedyot ("interpreting human speech")

Interpretation of documents was originally referred to as doreshin leshon hedyot (Tosef. Ket. 4:9ff.; tj, Ket. 4:8, 28d; tj, Yev. 15:3, 14d; bm 104a), since the scholars "used to analyze and interpret the language used by men in writing their deeds, as they would do with Scripture … and not according to the literal meaning" (quoted in the name of Hai in Nov. Ramban to bm 104a and in commentary of Zechariah b. Judah Agamati to bm loc. cit., p. 143 – a photographic reprint of the Ms. published by Jacob Leveen, London, 1961). The term leshon hedyot came to be used in contradistinction to leshon Torah (in a similar manner to mamon hedyot ("property of human beings") and mamon gavohah ("sacred property"), in Kid. 1:6; see Agamati, loc. cit.), since even documents formulated by the scholars, such as the ketubbah deed, fall within the rule's applicability. In the Talmud, various examples are quoted of documents interpreted in accordance with leshon hedyot, for instance deeds of ketubbah, lease of a field, pledge, etc. (Tosef., tj, and tb, loc. cit.), and in this manner problems of principle were sometimes solved. Thus it is recorded that in Alexandria, Egypt, there occurred cases of women who entered into kiddushin with a particular man but prior to completion of the marriage (the nissu'in) married another man; in these circumstances the children born of the latter marriage had to be regarded as mamzerim, since their mother was already an eshet ish, a woman already married (see *Marriage; *Mamzer). However, Hillel the Elder studied the ketubbah deeds of the women in Alexandria and interpreted "leshon hedyot," finding it written in the ketubbah that the kiddushin was to be regarded as valid only if followed by a marriage (ḥuppah) between the parties – and since the condition remained unfulfilled in the case of the first kiddushin it followed that the latter was no kiddushin at all and therefore the children born of the husband to whom she was actually married were not to be regarded as having any blemish of status (Tosef., tj, and tb, loc. cit.). The concept of doreshin leshon hedyot was also held to be a principle applicable to the laws of *custom.

Ha-Kol Holekh Aḥar ha-Taḥton ("all according to the latter reference")

There has also been extensive discussion in Jewish law of various problems relating to the interpretation of legal documents, aimed at the elucidation of the text and of various terms which appear in them as well as the reconciliation of conflicting passages in the same document. The following are some of the rules of principle derived for this purpose. If there are two conflicting references to the same subject, for instance first a figure of 100 is mentioned and thereafter a figure of 200, then the rule is, "all according to the latter reference," since it is to be assumed that what is first stated has been retracted (bb 10:2; Yad, Malveh 27:14; Sh. Ar., Ḥm 42:5; see also Nov. Ri Migash bb 166b). It was laid down that if there is a possibility of reconciling a divergence between two different parts of a deed, "we must endeavor, in whatever way possible, to uphold both as being in agreement with each other … even if the possibility is somewhat strained" (Resp. Ribash no. 249; Sh. Ar., Ḥm 42:5 and Sma thereto, n. 10). Sometimes the first reference is to be followed as the decisive one. Thus, for instance, if at the beginning of a deed there is a detailed enumeration of the items composing the total amount and at the end the total amount is set out and it is at variance with the enumerated details, it has to be assumed that an error was made in the calculation of the total amount and the detailed enumeration must be regarded as decisive – i.e., the first reference is followed (R. Isaiah, quoted in Tur, Ḥm 42:8 and in Sh. Ar., Ḥm 42:5).

Yad Ba'al ha-Shetar al ha-Taḥtonah ("the holder of a deed is at a disadvantage")

Another rule is that in case of doubt over the correct interpretation of a document "the holder of a deed is at a disadvantage," i.e., the interpretation that is less onerous for the person in possession must be followed, since the burden of proof rests on the claimant – who is the holder of the deed (Ket. 83b; bb 166a; Yad, Malveh 27:16; Sh. Ar., Ḥm 42:8). This rule also applies when the doubt arises from conflicting references in different parts of the deed if in the particular circumstances the rule of "all in accordance with the latter reference" has no reasonable application in the matter. Thus, for example, if the words "100 which are 200" are written in a deed, there will be no possibility of saying that the second reference (200) is a retraction of the first (100), and therefore the holder of the deed will be at a disadvantage and entitled to recover 100 only (bb 10:2; Yad, Malveh 27:14). However, the rule is applied only if it does not have the effect of prejudicing the validity of the deed even when it is interpreted in accordance with the statement of particulars which is less onerous for the person in possession. If the choice is between upholding the deed or invalidating it entirely, the holder of the deed must not be deemed to be at a disadvantage, but on the contrary at an advantage, "for we must at all times seek all possible ways of upholding the validity of a deed, even if in a circuitous manner" (Resp. Ribash no. 345). For this reason it was held by Asher b. Jehiel that in a deed in which A undertook to give B 15 zehuvim "after Passover" – and not "after next Passover" – the undertaking must be interpreted as intended to mean "after next Passover," otherwise it would have to be said that the reference was to the last Passover before the end of the world, an interpretation that would deprive the deed of all meaning and validity (Resp. Rosh, no. 68:14; Sh. Ar., Ḥm 42:9). Clearly, in the case of a legal error in the formulation of a deed – for instance mention of an inappropriate *kinyan – the deed will be invalid (Resp. Maharik no. 94; Rema, Ḥm 42:9).

Interpretation le-Fi Leshon Benei-Adam ("according to the common usage of the people")

The terms which appear in a deed are to be given their ordinary meaning as used by people in their everyday speech and not interpreted according to their meaning in the language of the Torah or of the scholars. Thus it was laid down that a person who bequeathed his property to his sons thereby excluded his grandsons from the estate, since it was not customary for people to refer to a grandson as a "son" (ben) even though the word had this meaning in biblical language (bb 143b and Rashbam ad loc.; Yad., Zekhiyyah 11:1; Sh. Ar., Ḥm 247:3). The scholars drew a parallel between the interpretation of terms in documents and those used by a person in making a vow (bb 143b; Ned. 63a) – since in each case the meaning which the person attaches to the document he has prepared or the vow he has made is of decisive importance. In the case of a vow the rule is: "the speech of men is followed" (aḥar leshon benei adam; Ned. 51b, et al.). This rule was interpreted to mean the speech of men "in the place, in the language, and at the time the vow was made" (Yad, Nedarim 9:1, 13; Sh. Ar., yd 217:1), i.e., according to the meaning of the term employed by the person taking the vow, so as to take into account any possible change in the meaning of a particular term – even in the same locality – from time to time (see Yad, Nedarim 9; Sh. Ar., yd 217). In the responsa literature this rule is discussed extensively, along with its influence in bringing about differences between certain rules relating to the exegesis of the Bible and the halakhah and those relating to the interpretation of documents (see, e.g., Resp. Maharik no. 10; Resp. Rashba, vol. 3, no. 26; vol. 5, no. 260; Resp. Maharashdam EH no. 45; see also *Wills).

Interpretation of Contracts

interpretations based on assessing the parties' intent.

In addition to the rule discussed above whereby meaning is determined by common usage, another approach to interpretation of contracts is that of presumption based on the parties' express statements (umdana be-gilui da'at; see *Evidence). Despite the principle that "words of the heart, if unexpressed, are not words" (Kid. 49b, see update to *Mistake), there are still certain kinds of stipulations that need not be expressed, because we may presume a person's intent (see *Evidence). By dint of these presumptions, the court may determine that a particular condition is not "unexpressed," but rather "universally talked about and understood to apply" (Rabbenu Nissim, on the folios of Rif, Kid. 20b; Tosafot at Kid. 49b). It was further determined that the rule by which matters not expressed explicitly are considered "words of the heart," and thus not to be taken into account, only applies to those matters that are normally explicitly expressed in formulating legal documents. Where it can be presumed that the parties to a contract did not feel compelled to give written expression to certain matters by reason of their being manifestly clear even without being recorded, they may be treated as valid, and the rule that words of the heart are not words does not apply (Hiddushei Ha-Rashba, Kid. 50a, in the name of Sefer Yere'im).

The Supreme Court of the State of Israel discussed the position of Jewish Law on interpreting a contract in accordance with the presumed intent of the parties in the Hazan case (ca 893/03 Bank Le'umi v. Hazan; per Justice Eliakim Rubenstein). In that case, it was clear that, when the contract was concluded, the two parties had differing subjective understandings of a certain matter; the plaintiff requested that the Court interpret the contract objectively, in accordance with its purpose, even if it was contrary to the intention evidenced by its wording. The Court discussed the sources quoted above regarding unexpressed words and conditions, and observed that even in Jewish Law there are certain extreme situations in which the court interprets a person's words while consciously ignoring that person's own contrary intention. An example of this is where the Court administers lashes to a recalcitrant husband until he says he "wants" to give his wife a get (see: *Divorce; Piskei Maharit ha-Ḥadashim 2). In this particular case, the Court decided that it was not unreasonable to interpret the contract solely in accordance with its language, and neither did this divest the contract of its meaning. Accordingly, a purposive construction of the contract in accordance with the plaintiff 's understanding of its objective, and of the parties' intention, would be one based upon "words of the heart" where there was no evidence that such was really their intent. Hence the contract could not be interpreted that way.

presumption of a document's validity.

The aforementioned principle, whereby a document must be given an interpretation that retains its effectiveness, also applies to the invalidation of a document. When a document bears two possible interpretations, one of which renders it invalid, the interpretation that retains its validity should be adopted. In accordance with this principle, the Tosefta determines that, if the date recorded on a bond of debt is the Sabbath or Yom Kippur, which clearly indicates that the date is a mistake, the date is to be fixed as later than the date on which the debt was actually created, thereby allowing for validation of the bond. In such a case we do not say that the debt was created later than the date recorded in the bond, which would render the bond invalid (Tosef. Makk. 1:3; bb 171a; Yad, Malveh ve-Loveh 23:4). In this kind of case, where the question is whether the entire document is invalid, the regular legal presumptions are not applied. In other words, there is no application of the evidentiary rules under which "the burden of proof lies on the claimant" (bk 35a) and "the holder of the deed is at a disadvantage" (bb 173a). Rather, the law is that precisely the party that seeks to invalidate the document – i.e., the party holding the money – is at a disadvantage (Rashbam, ad loc.).

Nonetheless, where the interpretive doubt pertains to the law, or to a mistake in the law, rather than to a doubt regarding the factual situation, the document does not enjoy a presumption of validity. Rather, the normal rule that "the holder of the deed is at a disadvantage" will apply. Thus, for example, a case arose in which a person undertook a contractual obligation, and a disagreement arose over whether or not the contract's wording was valid and binding. Rabbi Joseph ben Solomon Colon (Resp. Maharik 94.7) ruled that the person standing to gain by virtue of the contract was at a disadvantage, and would have to adduce proof that the law sided with him.

interpretation in accordance with context and custom.

When a document can be interpreted in two different ways, but a certain interpretation appears more reasonable according to the prevailing custom in a particular location, then the rule that the holder of the deed is at a disadvantage and that the plaintiff bears the burden of proof is not applied. Application of these rules would mean accepting a less plausible interpretation to the manner of fulfilling the obligations created by the document. Rather, the deed ought to be interpreted in accordance with prevailing custom in that place (Resp. Rashbash, no. 354). The Israel Supreme Court relied on this principle in interpreting a contract in the Katan case (hc 442/77 Katan v. the City of Holon, pd 32(1) 494, page 498, per Justice Menachem Elon). The Court concluded:

This is the essence of one of the underlying principles governing the doctrine of custom in Jewish law: "Any halakhah which is not firmly entrenched in the practice of the bet din and whose nature you do not know, go and observe the practice of the public and abide by their practice" (tj, Peah 7:5 [34a]; Ma'aser Sheni 5:2 [30a]).

Similarly, Rabbi Solomon ben Simeon *Duran (15th century), ruled regarding the interpretation of documents: "Whenever the wording in a document is unclear, follow local custom with respect to all of the matters in which they customarily deal" (Resp. Rashbash, ad loc.).

In that case, the Court also resorted to the principle of doreshin leshon hedyot (ascertaining lay usage: Tosef. bb 11:7), and ruled that the contractual provision in question should be interpreted in terms of the substantive context in which it appears, in accordance with the 12th of Rabbi Ishmael's 13 canons of Talmudic exposition of the Scriptures – "davar ha-lamed me-inyano" – that an ambiguous word or passage is explained on the basis of its context (ibid.).

[Menachem Elon (2nd ed.)]

interpretation of takkanot ha-kahal

The interpretation of takkanot ha-kahal ("communal enactments," i.e., takkanot enacted by the community or its representatives in the fields of civil and criminal law (see *Takkanot ha-Kahal)) constitutes a category which is related to the interpretation of documents. Communal enactments appeared in Jewish law mainly from the tenth century onward, with the increasing importance of the Jewish community in the various centers of the Diaspora, and are parallel to legislative activities by the public and its representatives in other legal systems. As in the case of statutes, regulations, etc., in any other legal system, in the course of their practical application in daily life the Jewish communal enactments also led to the development of an imposing system of norms for their interpretation.

Entrustment of Interpretative Authority

In the main, authority to interpret communal enactments was entrusted to the halakhic scholars before whom an issue between parties would be aired. The issue was sometimes between individuals, sometimes between an individual and the community, and sometimes between different communities. In a considerable proportion of the responsa literature dealing with matters of public, civil, and criminal law, there are detailed discussions by the scholars on the interpretation of the communal enactments at issue. At times – in the takkanah itself – authority to interpret a takkanah was vested in the halakhic scholars (see, e.g., Takkanot Medinat Mehrin, no. 292), and at others in the communal leaders (see Resp. Rashba, vol. 3, no. 409; vol. 5, nos. 221, 289). However, interpretative authority would be vested in the communal leaders only if doubt existed about the meaning of any particular term, but the leaders would have no authority to depart from the reasonable meaning of the term; the authority to determine the existence, or otherwise, of any doubt concerning the meaning of the term would once again be entrusted to the halakhic scholars (see Resp. Ritba, no. 134).

Interpretation of Takkanot le-Fi Leshon Benei Adam ("in accordance with their common usage")

In dealing with the interpretation of communal enactments, the halakhic scholars laid down many rules for the interpretation of statutes. For the interpretation of both communal enactments and documents, there was a common rule, requiring that they be interpreted according to "the speech of men," i.e., in accordance with the common usage of the terms employed (Ritba, loc. cit.). Thus it was decided that a reference in a takkanah to the term shetar ("deed") could not be interpreted as embracing a wife's get ("bill of divorce"), even though this was sometimes the case in the language of the scholars (e.g., Git. 10b; Kid. 5a–b), since "in common usage the term get is particularly and solely applied to bills of divorcement for women, and other shetarot are never called by the name of get, nor is a woman's get ever called a shetar" (Resp. Ribash, no. 304). Clearly, there was not always necessarily a variation between common usage and that of the scholars and sometimes there may exist a continuing identity of meaning in the language of Scripture, that of the scholars, and the common usage of the people (Resp. Rashba, vol. 4, no. 312). Since the communal enactments were of far more substantive and general significance and validity than were the documents of individuals, it follows that more fundamental and comprehensive norms came to be determined for the interpretation of the former. Some of these are outlined below.

Interpretation in Accordance with the Language of the Takkanah

It was laid down that a takkanah must be interpreted according to the view and understanding of those qualified to do so, in accordance with the ordinary meaning of the text (Resp. Rashba, vol. 4, no. 308; vol. 5, no. 247), and not according to the intention of those who enacted it (ibid., vol. 3, no. 409), nor to the supposed motivating reasons of the latter (ibid., vol. 4, no. 268). This rule is much discussed in the interpretation of takkanot in various legal fields, particularly family law (Resp. Rosh, no. 50:10), the law of hire (Tashbez 2:61), and tax law (Rashba, vol. 5, no. 282, see also *Taxation). However, the text of the takkanot may be contradicted if it may reasonably be assumed that a scribal error was made when it was drafted (Resp. Rosh, no. 6:8).

Circumstances in Which the Background to a Takkanah and Its Motivating Factors May Be Taken into Account

In circumstances where the intention of a takkanah may be presumed as a matter of "common cause" (kavvanot muskamot la-kol), the takkanah may be interpreted accordingly (Resp. Rashba, vol. 3, no. 409). Thus where it was enacted that the taxpayers had to submit their declarations at "the synagogue" – which served as the central gathering place for the community – it was held that not the synagogue itself was intended, but areas such as the courtyard or the upper floor, even though these had distinctive names, since the matter at issue was not one of prayer (Resp. Rashba, vol. 5, no. 222). It was also laid down that rigid formalism was to be avoided in the interpretation of a takkanah (ibid., vol. 3, nos. 407, 408).

For purposes of understanding the objective of a takkanah, its preamble was also sometimes relied on even though it was not an integral part of the enactment (Rashba, vol. 5, no. 287; Resp. Ribash, no. 331). Similarly, it was held that in cases where the text allows for two possible interpretations, the one beneficial to the public and the other prejudicial to it, the former must be adopted since the general objective of every takkanah is to increase the public good and not the contrary (Resp. Rashba, vol. 5, no. 287). Hence it was decided that a certain takkanah purporting to prohibit public worship in all but certain places could not be assumed to have intended the prohibition of public worship in a synagogue to be erected in the future. It must be interpreted only as prohibiting such worship in the homes of individuals – even though such an interpretation was a strain on the text – for otherwise the takkanah would "prevent many from fulfilling a mitzvah" and amount to something "distorted and improper" (Resp. Ribash, no. 331). In such a case it was held permissible to consult the community about its intention in enacting the takkanah, but the explanatory remarks should only be accepted if it was stated that at the time of enactment of the takkanah it was thought that the relevant intention was actually expressed in the text. If at that time it was known that the meaning of the text varied from the avowed intention of those who enacted it, the explanation would not avail and the takkanah must be interpreted within the ordinary meaning of the text (ibid.).

Conflicting Provisions and Ambiguity in the Text

Conflicting provisions in the text of a takkanah must be interpreted, in the case of a suit between two parties, in favor of the defendant (Resp. Rashba, vol. 3, no. 397; vol. 5, no. 281). In other cases, for instance a takkanah dealing with the authority of the trustees of the community chest to make expenditures, it was held that the rule of "all according to the latter reference" (see above) must be followed, but the attempt should be made to reconcile, as far as possible, conflicting referencesto the same matter, as in the interpretation of documents (see above; Resp. Rashba, vol. 3, no. 386). At times such conflicts were held to be completely irreconcilable and it was decided that perhaps they had to be ascribed to clerical error (Resp. Rashba, loc. cit.). In case of doubt about the meaning of the text, an interpretation must be preferred which excludes any matter of halakhic controversy from the area of the application of the takkanah, and in interpreting the meaning of a takkanah it is permissible to be guided by the manner of its practical application in daily life for a certain period after its enactment (Resp. Ribash, no. 304). In their interpretation of communal enactments, the halakhic scholars were much guided by a comprehensive study of the entire collection of takkanot in which the enactment in question appeared, in order to draw analogies from one provision to another, either to distinguish between them or to apply to the one the terms of the other. Not only the analogic modes of interpretation were applied to communal enactments but also those of elucidative interpretation (see above; for an illustration of the interpretation of a takkanah by the rule of kelal u-ferat, see Resp. Rashba, vol. 3, no. 396); they also dealt in detail with interpretation of words and phrases. In the course of these discussions by halakhic scholars, the Jewish legal system was enriched by the addition of many and varied canons of interpretation (see further Resp. Rashba, vol. 5, nos. 126, 277, 279, 284, 285, 288, 290; vol. 6, no. 7; Resp. Rosh, no. 55:9; Resp. Ritba, no. 50; Resp. Ribash, no. 249). These offer profitable jurisprudential sources concerning interpretation of laws and statutes.

[Menachem Elon]

An example of the principle that communal enactments should be interpreted according to their wording rather than their unstated objective appears in a responsum of Rashba. Rashba was asked regarding a communal enactment concerning taxes, whose objective was to enable more extensive collection of taxes from the population. But in fact the enactment created a situation in which a particular citizen paid less than what he would have paid without the enactment. The community argued that the enactment should be interpreted in terms of its objective, i.e. the intent of the community that enacted it, even if this absolutely contradicts its explicit language. Rashba rejected their claim, ruling that these (the community's claims) are unexpressed intentions, and that an unexpressed intention is of no legal weight (lit. "words in the heart are not words"), and that the clear language of the enactment is therefore binding (Resp. Rashba 5:282).

The Supreme Court of the State of Israel relied on the Rashba's comments in its interpretation of legislation. In the Bank Leumi case (hc 333/78 Bank Leumi Trust Company v.the Estate Tax Authority, pd 32(3) 202, per Justice Menahem Elon), the Court ruled, in accordance with the Rashba's responsum, that the law should be interpreted "according to what can be inferred from it, and not according to the intent that the legislator may have had, when that intent cannot be elicited from the law's unequivocal wording" (ibid., page 214; see also ca 460/00, Maman v. the Customs Authority, pd 57(2) 461, page 473, Justice Y. Turkel). Similarly, the Supreme Court ruled that the interpretation of a legal term must be rendered in accordance with the meaning afforded it by common usage, in accordance with the manner of interpreting communal enactments in Jewish law (ca 534/79 Efrat v. the State of Israel, pd 35(4) 729, page 734).

Judicial Interpretation – Judgment in Perfect Truth

The phrase "din emet le-amitto" (judgment in perfect truth) coined by the Sages, apparently during the amoraic period, is a highly instructive one. The Sages said, "A judge who delivers a judgment in perfect truth causes the Divine Presence to dwell in Israel" (Sanh. 7a) and, "It is as though he was made a partner to God in the Creation act" (Shab. 10a).

One interpretation of this phrase was provided by Rabbi Joshua Falk Katz (Derisha, Ḥm 2; Poland, 17th century). He explained:

"Judgment in perfect truth" means judging in accordance with the time and place, where the truth depends on these factors, as distinct from judgment that is always in accordance with the strict law of the Torah. Sometimes the judge has to rule lifnim mi-shurat ha-din (beyond the letter of the law) in accordance with the times and the context …

An example of the judicial application of this rule in the State of Israel is provided by the ruling in the Hoffman case (hc 257/89 Hoffman v. the Custodian of the Western Wall, 48 (2) 265). In that case, a petition was submitted by a group of women who sought to pray at the *Western Wall Plaza dressed in prayer shawls and carrying Torah scrolls. Their attempts to do so at that location provoked rioting and disturbances by a large number of worshipers there, as what they were doing contradicted the laws and customs of prayers prevailing there. One of the focuses of the ruling was Regulation 2(a) (1a) of the Protection of Holy Places Law, which forbids "conducting a religious ceremony not in accordance with the custom of the place …," the question being how to interpret the expression "custom of the place." In his judgment, Justice Elon ruled that "due to the uniqueness of the Western Wall and the tremendous sensitivities prevailing at the Jewish people's holiest site, prayer must be conducted at this special place in accordance with a common denominator that accommodates the prayers of every Jew, whoever he may be – namely, the local custom that has prevailed there throughout the generations" (page 290 of the ruling). Justice Elon concluded his comments by relating to the above-cited ruling of Rabbi Joshua Falk Katz:

Where the issue is a sensitive, crucial matter in the world of Jewish Law, regarding the most holy place for Judaism and Israel, throughout the generations since the destruction of the Temple, it is right and proper to conduct oneself lifnim mi-shurat hadin, in accordance with the common denominator applying to all Jews, whoever they may be, so that they can all approach the Kotel at all times, whispering their prayers before their Maker, for the welfare and integrity of Jerusalem their capital. And may we deliver judgment in perfect truth (ibid., page 351).

Regarding the interpretation of laws in the State of Israel in accordance with Jewish Law, see *Mishpat Ivri – Jewish Law in the State of Israel.

[Menachem Elon (2nd ed.)]


Samson b. Isaac of Chinon, Sefer Keritut; Z.H. Chajes, The Student's Guide through the Talmud (19602); D.Z. Hoffmann, Zur Einleitung in die halachischen Midraschim (1887); Hebrew translation, and additional notes by H.S. Horowitz in: Mesillot le-Torat ha-Tanna'im (1928), ed. by A.Z. Rabinowitz, 1–91; A. Schwarz, Die hermeneutische Analogie in der talmudischen Litteratur (1897); idem, Der hermeneutische Syllogismus in der talmudischen Litteratur (1901); idem, Die hermeneutische Induktion in der talmudischen Litteratur (1909); idem, Die hermeneutische Antinomie in der talmudischen Literatur (1913); idem, Die hermeneutische Quantitaetsrelation in der talmudischen Literatur (1916); idem, Der hermeneutische Kontext in der talmudischen Literatur (1921); idem, in: MGWJ, 72 (1928), 61–66; Weiss, Dor, 1 (19044), 76–78, 132–6, 144–6, 155–61; 2 (19044), 39–49; Frankel, Mishnah, 17–21, 106–9, 112–4; J.M. Guttmann, in: HaZofeh leHokhmat Yisrael, 5 (1921), 17–34, 113–29; idem, Mafte'aḥ 3, pt. 1 (1924), appendix; also published separately; idem, Beḥinat Kiyyum ha-Mitzvot (1931), 19–29; M. Ostrowski, Ha-Middot she-ha-Torah nidreshet bahen (1924); H.G. Enelow (ed.), The Mishnah of Rabbi Eliezer … (1933); Ch. Tchernowitz, Toledot ha-Halakhah, 1, pt. 1 (1934), 37–66; 4 (1950), 68–97; J. Neubauer, in: Sinai, 22 (1947/48), 49–80; D. Daube, in: huca, 22 (1949), 239–64; S. Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (1950), 47–82; A. Karlin, in: Sinai, 29 (1951), 133–45; 31 (1952), 163–76; et, 4 (1952), 1–12; 5 (1953), 546–64; 6 (1954), 553–60, 728–48; 7 (1956), 77–82; 10 (1961), 557–75; J.N. Epstein, Mevo'ot le-Sifrut ha-Tanna'im (1957), 501–44; E.E. Urbach, in: Tarbiz, 27 (1957/58), 166–82; Ḥ. Albeck, Mavo laMishnah (1959), 40–62, 88–98; L. Finkelstein, in: Sefer ha-Yovel le-Yiẓḥak Baer (1960), 28–47; B. de Vries, Toledot ha-Halakhah ha-Talmudit (1962), 9–36; idem, Meḥkarim be-Sifrut ha-Talmud (1968), 161–4; B. Cohen, in: htr, 47 (1954), 197–203; reprinted in his: Jewish and Roman Law (1966), 58–64; addenda, ibid., 767f.; M. Elon, in: Mehkerei Mishpat le-Zekher Avraham Rosenthal (1964), 51–53; idem, Mafte'ah, 233–41; idem, in: ilr, 2 (1967), 542–4. add. bibliography: M. Elon, Jewish Law, Cases and Materials (1999), 65–70; idem, Ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri (1988), 1:243–390; idem, Jewish Law (1994), 1:275–473; idem, "Din Emet le-Amitto," in: Sefer Shamgar, 2:391–421; idem, The Status of Women (Heb., 2005), 119–93; M. Elon and B. Lifshitz, Mafte'aḥ ha-She'elot ve-ha-Teshuvot shel Ḥakhmei Sefarad u-Ẓefon Afrikah (legal digest) (1986) (2), 362–76; B. Lifshitz and E. Shochetman, Mafte'ah ha-She'elot ve-ha-Teshuvot shel Ḥakhmei Ashkenaz, Ẓarefat ve-Italyah (legal digest) (1997), 255–61; D. Boyarin, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash (1990); M. Fishbein, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (1985); Y.D. Gilat, "Midrashha-Ketuvim bi-Tekufah ha-Batar Talmudit," in: Mikhtam le-David (1978), 210–31; E. Goldberg, "Ha-Midrash ha-Kadum ve-ha-Midrash ha-Me'uḥar," in: Tarbiz, 50 (5741), 94–106; A. Hacohen, "Parshanut Takkanot ha-Kahal be-Mishpat ha-Ivri" (Diss., 2003); M. Halbertal, Mahapekhot Parshaniyot be-Hithavvutam (1997); M.Y. Kahana, Ha-Mekhiltot le-Parashat Amalek (1999), 15–19; S. Lieberman, Yevanimve-Yavanut be-Ereẓ Yisrael (1962), 185–201; L. Shiffman, Halakhah, Halikhah u-Meshihiyyut be-Kat Midbar Yehudah (1993), 71–75; idem, The Halakha at Qumeran (1975), 54–60; M. Baumgarten, Studies inQumran Law (1977); A. Nimdar, "Parshanut Takkanot ha-Kahal bi-Teshuvot ha-Rashdam," in: Mimizraḥ u-mi-Ma'arav, 1 (1994), 295–331; I.L. Seeligmann, "Niẓanei Midrash be-Sefer Divrei ha-Yamim," in: Tarbiẓ, 49 (1980), 14–32; S. Warhaftig, Dinei Ḥozim ba-Mishpat ha-Ivri (1974), 262–90.


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HERMENEUTICS . The term hermeneutics is derived from the Greek verb hermēneuein ("to interpret") and refers to the intellectual discipline concerned with the nature and presuppositions of the interpretation of human expressions.


The Greek term has etymological associations with the name of the Greek god Hermes, the messenger of the gods and the deity of boundaries. Some have seen this association as reflecting the inherently triadic structure of the act of interpretation: (1) a sign, message, or text from some source requires (2) a mediator or interpreter (Hermes) to (3) convey it to some audience. So considered, this deceptively simple triadic structure implicitly contains the major conceptual issues with which hermeneutics deals: (1) the nature of a text; (2) what it means to understand a text; and (3) how understanding and interpretation are determined by the presuppositions and beliefs (the horizon) of the audience to which the text is being interpreted. Serious reflection on any of these three issues reveals why interpretation is itself a philosophical issue and a subject of interpretation.

Since interpretation is fundamental to all the intellectual disciplinesto the natural sciences as well as the humanitiesone might have expected hermeneutics to have arisen earlier in Western culture than it did. Although there were many controversies within Judaism and Christianity concerning the interpretation of the Biblejust as pre-Reformation humanists were concerned with the exegesis of the texts of antiquityit was not until the middle of the last century that modern hermeneutics was born. Friedrich Schleiermacher (17681834) is generally acknowledged to be the founder of modern hermeneutics, but it was Wilhelm Dilthey (18331911) who first dreamed of developing a foundational discipline for the cultural sciences (Geisteswissenschaften ) that would render their conclusions as objective and as valid as those of the natural sciences.

Dilthey's dream was overtaken by the rapid emergence and proliferation of the many specialized disciplines that are now recognized and preserved by the organizational structure of the modern universityart history, anthropology, economics, history, the various literatures, political science, psychology, philosophy, and so on. Each of these disciplines rapidly developed its own intellectual interests and normative procedures for the presentation and adjudication of arguments within them. Methodologies rather than hermeneutics dominated intellectual life.

In recent years, however, powerful intellectual currents have brought hermeneutics once again to the fore, so that interest in it has burgeoned among literary critics, sociologists, historians, anthropologists, theologians, philosophers, and students of religion. These currents include (1) new theories of human behavior in the psychological and social sciences in which human cultural expressions are regarded as manifestations of unconscious and instinctual drives or as reflections of class interests; (2) developments in epistemology and the philosophy of language that have led to claims that what counts as reality for a given culture is a function of the linguistic structures superimposed on experience; and (3) the arguments advanced by philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger that all human experience is basically interpretative, and that all judgments take place within a context of interpretation mediated by culture and language behind which it is impossible to go. Underlying all these currents is the assumption that human consciousness is situated in history and cannot transcend itan assumption that raises important questions concerning the role of cultural conditioning in any understanding.

It would be an error, however, to conclude from this new interest in hermeneutics that Dilthey's dream of a universal foundational discipline for the cultural sciences is about to be realized. Even a superficial glance at the contemporary intellectual scene reveals little agreement concerning how hermeneutics is conceived or how the discipline should proceed. The intellectual disciplines constituting the modern university have themselves been fractured into parties, each of which has its own method and mode of interpretation. In psychology, for example, there are behaviorists, cognitive psychologists, Freudians, Jungians, and Gestaltists, just as in the social sciences there are functionalists, structuralists, ethnomethodologists, and Marxists.

Paradoxically, it is just this proliferation of parties that partially accounts for the resurgence of interest in hermeneutics in the early twenty-first century. Diversity and conflict of interpretations historically have provided the stimulus and the urgency for acquiring understanding and agreement. Dilthey pointed out, for example, how the rise of modern hermeneutics was itself closely connected with the post-Reformation debates among Protestants and Catholics over the interpretation of Scripture, just as Schleiermacher's own attempt to establish a universal hermeneutics was admittedly prompted by the attempt to overcome misunderstanding. The incommensurate perspectives that disciplines may adopt concerning the same object (such as a text, language, or human nature) raise profound questions about the nature of human conceptualization, objectivity, understanding, explanation, and translation. Hence it is not surprising that, for many intellectuals, hermeneutics is increasingly coming to occupy the role that epistemology did a few decades ago.

The problems of hermeneutics are more unavoidable in the scholarly study of religion than in many other academic disciplines, for reasons both conceptual and historical. Conceptually, religions themselves may be regarded as communities of interpretation, so that the scholarly study of them takes the form of an interpretation of an interpretation. Since the scholarly interpretation of religion most often rests on different assumptions than the religious interpretation itself, the religious participant frequently regards the scholar's interpretation as reductionistic and alien. Hence there is a perennial debate among scholars of religion regarding the degree to which the scholarly interpretation of religion must do justice to the believer's own point of view.

Historically, the scholarly study of religionas well as the rise of modern hermeneuticsis closely associated with the religious tradition of liberal Protestantism. Indeed, liberal Protestantism might be said to have emerged through a series of bitter hermeneutical debates concerning the application of historical-critical methods to the Christian Bible. These debates illustrate the phenomena discussed at the beginning of this paragraph, since orthodox Christians regarded the application of these methods to the Bible as an alien mode of interpretation. Liberal Protestantism resolved the issue by defining the essence of religious faith as experience rather than doctrine or historical belief.

Schleiermacher, the founder of hermeneutics as well as of liberal Protestantism, was particularly influential in articulating the outlines of this compromise. He regarded the various religions as culturally conditioned forms of an underlying and universal religious sensibility. Thus he not only moved the locus of faith from belief to experience, but also laid the foundations for a descriptive science of religion to which Rudolf Otto (18691937), Joachim Wach (18981955), and others were to contribute. This close connection between liberal Protestantism and the scholarly study of religion partially accounts for the fact that liberal theologians have been particularly sensitive to theories of interpretation.

Many scholars would insist that, to answer the many questions arising from the activity of interpretation, it is important to have a hermeneutical theory. Others, however, would insist that the great mistake distorting all modern hemeneutics is precisely the lust for some such theory. Rather than prejudice the issue from the outside by describing alternative hermeneutical theories, this article shall roughly delineate four ways in which modern hermeneutics may be conceived, each of which is dominated by a distinctive question:

  1. What is it to understand a text and what are the conditions of its possibility?
  2. How are the cultural sciences distinct in method and form from the natural sciences?
  3. What are the conditions that make any sort of human understanding possible?
  4. How can one resolve certain conceptual puzzles associated with concepts like understanding and meaning, and how might such a resolution help one to understand the task of interpretation?

Each of these questions, and the conception of hermeneutics it yields, often overlaps with the others, and a theorist of one type may also deal with issues characteristic of another. Nevertheless, these four ways are sufficiently distinctive to be a useful heuristic device for organizing what follows.

Hermeneutics as Inquiry into the Interpretation of Texts

Modern hermeneutics had its origins in attempts to solve problems and conflicts concerning the interpretation of texts; Schleiermacher is usually regarded as the originating figure. Although there were debates before his time concerning the difference between sacred and profane interpretation, it was Schleiermacher whom Dilthey properly called the "Kant of hermeneutics," because Schleiermacher argued that Scripture required no special type of interpretative procedure, and grasped that the fundamental issue was to develop the basic grammatical and psychological conditions necessary for the understanding of any text whatsoever. It was Schleiermacher again who saw that the nature of language was the crucial theoretical issue confronting hermeneutical theory, because one could gain access to another person's meaning only through the medium of language.

Authorial Intention

Schleiermacher's hermeneutical theory is organized around two foci: (1) the grammatical understanding of any characteristic modes of expression and the linguistic forms of the culture in which a given author lived and which conditioned that author's thinking and (2) the technical or psychological understanding of the unique subjectivity or creative genius of that author. Both these foci reflect Schleiermacher's own indebtedness to Romantic thinkers who had argued that any individual's mode of expression, however unique, necessarily reflects a wider cultural sensibility or spirit (Geist ). A correct interpretation requires not only an understanding of the cultural and historical context of an author, but a grasp of the latter's unique subjectivity. This can be accomplished only by an "act of divination"an intuitive leap by which the interpreter "relives" the consciousness of the author. By seeing this consciousness in the larger cultural context, the interpreter comes to understand the author better than the author understands himself or herself.

Schleiermacher's hermeneutics have not had a great influence on secular literary criticism in either England or the United States, although most literary criticism until the 1920s generally assumed that the aim of interpretation was to discover the intention of the author. In the last several decades, however, most literary criticism has been built on the assumptionclassically enunciated by T. S. Eliot in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919) but argued on other grounds by Freudians, Marxists, New Critics, structuralists, and deconstructioniststhat a literary text has its own afterlife independent of the author, and that to understand it has little or no relationship to understanding the author's intentions when writing it. In recent years, however, some critics have rediscovered Schleiermacher and reaffirmed his view that some form of authorial intent must be the foundation of a theory of objective meaning. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., for example, has argued in Validity in Interpretation (1967) that, if interpretation is to avoid pure subjectivity and arbitrariness, there must be some criteria for determining the correct meaning of a text. This in turn, says Hirsch, requires some theory of determinate meaning. Anyone concerned with objectivity will be driven logically to some discriminating norm, and "the only compelling normative principle that has ever been brought forward is the old-fashioned ideal of rightly understanding what the author meant" (p. 26). This has led Hirsch and others to deal with the many problems this position raises. However, while this view represents the common sense of most laypersons, it is not now widely shared by most literary critics, who have developed hermeneutical theories rejecting authorial intent as the norm of meaning.

Schleiermacher and the Interpretation of Religion

So far as the interpretation of religion is concerned, Schleiermacher's influence is to be found less in his hermeneutical theory, which is dominated by the problem of recovering the author's meaning, than in his views that (1) religiosity is an essential and a priori aspect of human nature and (2) language is the medium of all understanding. The first assumption has elicited many attempts to develop what Paul Ricoeur has called a "regional hermeneutics": rules governing the interpretation of religious expressions as a unique and autonomous type. One of the earliest and most influential of these attempts was Rudolf Otto's analysis of the "numinous" in his famous book Das Heilige (1917; Eng. trans., The Idea of the Holy ).

Less explicitly indebted to Schleiermacher, but based on the same assumption of the universality of human religiosity, was the very influential work of Mircea Eliade. He argued that the basic structure of religiosity can be seen most clearly in archaic religions in which human life is regarded as part of a living cosmos. Profound connections are said to exist between the rhythms of human and cosmic life. Myths and religious symbols are systems of micro-macrocosmic correspondences and analogies. Human fecundity, for example, is seen as recapitulating the pattern of divine fecundity. All human activities are thus sanctified and made meaningful. This assumption led Eliade to explore the many variants of certain recurring symbols in the world's religions, as for instance the sacred tree, stones, snakes, fish, and water.

Hermeneutics as Foundation for the Cultural Sciences

A second way of thinking about hermeneutics is to regard it as providing a foundational discipline for the cultural in contrast to the natural sciences. This discipline would presumably establish the boundary lines separating the various generic types of interpretationliterary, artistic, philosophical, legal, religious, and so forthand would establish the methods and normative canons of objectivity and validity for each type. It would, in short, be a universal hermeneutics. Wilhelm Dilthey is generally regarded as the most important exponent of this view of hermeneutics, and the Italian historian of law Emilio Betti is perhaps its best-known contemporary advocate. Although profoundly influenced by Schleiermacherat an early age he wrote a prize essay on Schleiermacher's hermeneutics, and later a monumental biography of himDilthey rejected Schleiermacher's assumption that every work of an author is an outgrowth of an implicit principle contained in the author's mind. Dilthey considered this assumption to be profoundly antihistorical, because it does not sufficiently take account of the external influences at work or the author's development. Moreover, Dilthey thought that a universal hermeneutics required the elaboration of epistemological principles that would serve the cultural sciences in the way that Kant's principles accounted for Newtonian physics. If Kant developed a "critique of pure reason," then Dilthey devoted his life to a "critique of historical reason."

Cultural versus Natural Sciences

Dilthey's hermeneutics quite obviously rests on a sharp distinction between the methods of the cultural and those of the natural sciences. The distinctive method of the cultural sciences is understanding (Verstehen ), whereas that of the natural sciences is explanation (Erklärung ). The natural scientist explains events by employing universal laws, whereas the historian neither discovers nor employs such laws but, rather, seeks to understand the actions of agents by discovering their intentions, purposes, wishes, and character traits. Such action is intelligible because human actions, in contrast to natural events, have an "inside" that others can understand because they too are persons. Understanding, then, is the discovery of the "I" in the "Thou," and it is possible because of a shared universal human nature.

Insofar as Dilthey's hermeneutics rests on understanding as a distinctive act that requires an imaginative identification with past persons, one can discern the influence of Schleiermacher. But Dilthey developed an elaborate and complex theory of experience (Erlebnis ) and its relationship to various forms of expression that constitutes nothing less than the philosophical anthropology and epistemology he thought necessary to establish hermeneutics as a foundational discipline of the cultural sciences. Dilthey was never able to complete this enterprise in a way satisfactory to himself or others, and its complexities defy any brief exposition here. Suffice it to say that it contained a sophisticated analysis of the temporality of experience and the way in which human experience is bound together by units of meaning that are subconscious and prereflective. These meanings become objectified in human expressions. He held that one's knowledge of one's own experience as well as of the experience of others is available only through these objectified expressions. Consequently, one comes to know human nature through historical knowledge, that is, through understanding the varieties of objectified forms in which humanity has expressed its own experience of life. Ultimately, history is the variety of ways in which human life has expressed itself over time. Indeed, one can grasp one's own possibilities only through historical reconstruction and understanding. Through understanding (Verstehen ) of the life-expressions (Lebensäusserungen and Erlebnisausdrücke ) of past persons, one comes to understand the humanity of which one is a part.

Weber and Wach

Like Dilthey, the German sociologist Max Weber (18641920) was preoccupied with establishing the objectivity of the results of the cultural sciences, but he was even more interested in the status of generalizations in political economy and sociology. His work therefore stands at the juncture between the humanities and the social sciences. He was interested in the logical relationships between understanding and explanation. Though sympathetic to Dilthey's attempts to establish the autonomy of understanding, he was also interested in generalizations about human collective actionsgeneralizations he hoped could be made as objective and scientific as those in the natural sciences. His analysis and classification of types of social actions, and his delineation of ideal types, are attempts to solve these conceptual problems. Unlike Dilthey, he was especially interested in the interpretation of religion. His Sociology of Religion (19041905) is one of the great works in the comparative study of religion, and his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1922), although now dated in important respects, is one of the influential books in modern sociology.

The significance of Dilthey and Weber for hermeneutics lies primarily in (1) their minimalization of the concern for recovering the author of the text, and their extension of hermeneutics to cover all forms of cultural expression and actions; (2) their efforts to work out the logic of understanding as an activity unique to the cultural sciences; and (3) their attempts to ground the possibility of understanding in some theory of the structure of human nature and its expressions (Dilthey) or of types of social action (Weber).

The hermeneutical theories of Schleiermacher, Dilthey, and Weber deeply influenced the work of Joachim Wach, a German sociologist of religion who immigrated to the United States in 1935. Wach wanted to establish the interpretation of religion as an objective descriptive discipline free of the normative claims of Christian theology. For him as for Dilthey, the proper starting point for such a discipline was the establishment of the necessary conditions for understanding (Verstehen ). Wach, like Schleiermacher, believed that Verstehen generally requires a type of empathy, but that in religion it specifically presupposes a basic "sense for religion" that Wach then explicated in terms of Schleiermacher's notion of an inherent religious propensity in human nature. Wach argued that religions are the expressions of this sense for religion. The challenge of religious studies, then, is to develop a logic of the forms of religious expression, a theory of religious symbolism and language. Wach himself concentrated on arranging and classifying the forms of religious expressionsfor example, the theoretical, practical, and sociological, which he then further subdivided and explored.

The attempt to construct a universal hermeneutics for the cultural sciences inevitably leads the theorist to propound some theory of human nature and its expressions. Having uncovered the radically different forms of consciousness and belief exemplified in history, for example, Dilthey then thought it important to develop a psychology that would account for this diversity of worldviews while affirming the "unity of human nature" that made it possible for an interpreter in one culture to understand a person in a strange and different culture. But, it may be asked, how can the appeal to some abstract principle such as the "unity of human nature" aid an interpreter who is actually confronted with cultural expressions so different and strange that a sympathetic act of understanding seems impossible? Dilthey never solved this problem.

Psychological Theories

The degree to which one's hermeneutics is a function of one's view of human nature is most dramatically illustrated by modern psychological theories such as those of Freud and Jung. Here human expression and behavior are explained and understood in terms of unconscious psychical forces. As Paul Ricoeur has shown, Freud's theory of the unconscious led him not only to broaden the theory of human expressions so as to include dreams and slips of the tongue as "texts" but also to propose a hermeneutics in which art and religion were also seen as containing unconscious meaning. According to Freud, for example, religion is best understood as the expression of unconscious wishes rooted in infantile helplessness and molded by the "family romance" in which Oedipal sexual wishes play an important role. Consequently, religion is regarded as a collective neurosis and evaluated negatively. Thus not only does Freud's hermeneutics reject "authorial intent" as a superficial category, but it proposes a different meaning for the classical hermeneutical dictum that the interpreter can better understand an author than the author understands himself. For Schleiermacher and Dilthey, this dictum meant that the interpreter better understands the cultural and linguistic context that conditions the author, and of which the author is unaware. For Freud, this dictum means that the interpreter has the theoretical key to unlock the unconscious meanings of which no past author could possibly be aware. The interpreter understands more scientifically the unconscious drives, instincts, and mechanisms of repression that determine a given form of expression. Texts are semiotic codes for which the scientific interpreter alone holds the key.

Hermeneutics as Reflection on the Conditions of All Understanding

Given the way in which reflection on understanding necessarily drives one to consider basic epistemological and anthropological issues, it should not be surprising that the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (18891976) has been so influential at the turn of the twenty-first century. In Being and Time, Heidegger, although profoundly influenced by Dilthey, argues that Dilthey was finally unable to overcome the subjectivistic tendencies of Western thought since Descartestendencies that have led to a peculiar dilemma in epistemology, and to a seductive preoccupation with the cognitive ideals of the natural sciences and technology. Crucial to Heidegger's analysis is the argument that human beings already find themselves in a world made intelligible to them by virtue of what he called "the forestructure" of understanding, that is, the assumptions, expectations, and categories that one prereflectively projects on experience and that constitute the "horizon" of any particular act of understanding. An analysis of "everydayness" reveals that what is regarded as problematic as well as intelligible becomes so only against the backdrop of the tacit, prereflective understanding one already possesses. In all explanation one discovers, as it were, an understanding that one cannot understand; which is to say, every interpretation is already shaped by a set of assumptions and presuppositions about the whole of experience. Heidegger calls this the hermeneutical situation. He means that human existence itself has a hermeneutical structure that underlies all one's regional interpretations, even those in the natural sciences. One's prereflective understandings are modified and corrected as they become more self-conscious in the encounter with texts, objects, and other interpretations.

Heidegger's thought has been influential in several directions, two of which are important for religious studies: the interpretation of religion and the conception of hermeneutics generally. Rudolf Bultmann (18841976), a German New Testament scholar and theologian, saw in Heidegger's analysis of human existence the conceptual basis for an exegesis of the New Testament whereby its basic religious insights could be extracted from the mythical thought-forms of the first century, in which it was originally expressed. To the complaint that this exegesis employed modern presuppositions, Bultmann replied that all exegesis is determined by certain philosophical presuppositions; the only question is whether these are correct. He believed Heidegger to be correct because Heidegger had discovered the inherent historicity of human existence; that is, how it is essentially constituted by acts of decision rooted in a self-understanding oriented toward the future. Moreover, Heidegger had shown that genuine historical understanding requires the encounter with past expressions of human self-understanding that can modify one's own. In this sense, the act of historical understanding has an element that resembles the act of appropriation of a religious message. Although Bultmann was primarily interested in the implication of Heidegger's work for the interpretation of the New Testament understanding of faith, the same hermeneutical procedure could be employed on other religious phenomena, as Hans Jonas has done in his well-known work The Gnostic Religion (1958).

It is Hans-Georg Gadamer (19002002), however, who in a major work, Truth and Method (1960), has done more than any other thinker to reconceive hermeneutics along Heideggerian lines. His theory also involves a criticism of previous conceptions of hermeneutics such as those of Schleiermacher and Dilthey. The difficulty with Schleiermacher's hermeneutics, apart from its limitation to the interpretation of texts, is that Schleiermacher (and Dilthey too) assumed that the historical and cultural distance of the interpreter from the phenomena being interpreted necessarily occasions misunderstanding. Gadamer argues, following Heidegger, that interpretation also assumes a context of intelligibility, and that the presuppositions and assumptionsone might say prejudicesof the interpreter are precisely what enable understanding as well as misunderstanding. Consequently, one's own assumptions and beliefs are not necessarily barriers to understanding but preconditions of it. The quest for a presuppositionless understanding is futile. Every text or object is interpreted from some standpoint in a tradition that constitutes the horizon within which anything becomes intelligible. This horizon is continually modified as it encounters objects, but there is no final and objective interpretation.

Gadamer has been criticized by Emilio Betti for destroying any possibility of distinguishing between a subjective and a universally valid interpretation. Betti argues that texts and cultural expressions have meanings independent of the interpreter's opinions, and that the interpreter can provide no canon for distinguishing right from wrong interpretations. Gadamer replies that the task is not to provide norms and rules for interpretation but to analyze the inherent structure of understanding itselfan analysis that reveals interpretation to be as Gadamer describes it.

Hermeneutics as an Analytic and Mediating Practice

There is a fourth way of thinking about hermeneutics that is less easily characterized than the others, because it involves no theory of hermeneutics. Those who think in this fashion are not interested in establishing rules for the interpretation of texts nor in providing foundations for the cultural sciences. Their aims appear to be more piecemeal: to analyze, to clarify, and if possible to resolve conceptual issues surrounding explanation and interpretation in the various contexts in which they are employed; to establish the logical connections between meaning, truth, and validity; to discover the various normative uses of language; to ascertain what is meant by rationality and irrationality, especially as it bears on the possibility of translation and the problem of relativism. No one of the various thinkers who think and work in this way may necessarily discuss all these problems systematically, yet the various proposed solutions often bear directly on those problems normally associated with classical hermeneutical theory. For example, some thinkers concerned with the philosophy of science, such as Mary Hesse, have argued that no sharp distinction can legitimately be drawn between explanation and interpretation, since explanations in the natural sciences are as interpretative as those in the cultural sciences. Or again, some philosophers have argued that, since there is no realm of the given to which theories can correspond, the attempt by philosophers since Kant to formulate epistemological theories is a mistake. There is no one right or wrong way to interpret anything, including texts, hence the quest for agreement is not a desideratum.

Generally, this type of thinking about hermeneutics owes much to the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein (18891951), whose later works deal extensively with issues such as "What does it mean to understand?" and "How does one know that another person is in pain?" It was characteristic of Wittgenstein's approach that no simple summary of his views can be given, since he argued that the function of a philosopher is to analyze carefully the concrete uses in specific contexts of words like understanding. He believed that it was a mistake to attempt to provide a general theory of understanding. The mind easily becomes bewitched by such general theories, and this bewitchment is itself the source of most philosophical difficulties and illusions. Instead, one should look at how such words are actually employed and embedded in concrete practices. A few students of religion have argued that this approach has important implications for the interpretation of religion. For example, it has been asserted that the hermeneutical theory of Joachim Wach has excessively constricted interpretation by superimposing a single model upon it.

Although Wittgenstein's philosophy is often said to be alien to Heidegger's, there are affinities at surprising points, not the least of which is the notion that explanation and interpretation make sense only within a horizon of presuppositions, practices, and assumptions that individuals' culture mediates to themtheir tradition, so to speak. Wittgenstein, like Heidegger, also saw the human situation itself to be hermeneutical. But unlike Heidegger, he did not think this fact justified the construction of an ontology. Rather, he felt it should be the occasion for the painstaking exploration of the concrete forms of discourse"language games"in which human beings engage. There can be only regional explorations of the grammar governing specific forms of expression. Presumably, then, the interpretation of religion ought to devote itself to carefully mapping and exploring those characteristics of the distinctively human form of life one calls religious: its structure, presuppositions, and forms of expression.

See Also

Anthropology, Ethnology, and Religion; Biblical Exegesis; Buddhist Books and Texts, article on Exegesis and Hermeneutics; Literature, article on Literature and Religion; Phenomenology of Religion; Structuralism; Study of Religion; Tafsir; Women's Studies in Religion.


Bauman, Zygmunt. Hermeneutics and Social Science. New York, 1978. A discussion of the significance of hermeneutics when conceived as inquiry into the nature and objectives of historical knowledge and of the social sciences. There are chapters on Marx, Weber, Mannheim, Husserl, Schutz, and Heidegger.

Bernstein, Richard J. Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis. Philadelphia, 1983. A very useful critical discussion and overview of the debates concerning relativism in recent philosophy, with special attention to the philosophy of science and the hermeneutical tradition represented by Gadamer.

Betti, Emilio. Teoria generale della interpretazione. 2 vols. Milan, 1955. Translated into German by its author as Allgemeine Auslegungslehre als Methodik der Geisteswissenschaften (Tübingen, 1967). A criticism of the hermeneutics of Gadamer and the Heideggerian tradition, and a defense of the classical position on objectivity in interpretation. A shorter manifesto is to be found in his Zur Grundlegung einer allgemeinen Auslegungslehre (Tübingen, 1954).

Bultmann, Rudolf. "Is Exegesis without Presuppositions Possible?" and "The Problem of Hermeneutics." In New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings, selected, edited, and translated by Schubert M. Ogden. Philadelphia, 1984. Characteristically lucid attempts by a famous New Testament critic to deal with the problem of objectivity from an existentialist perspective influenced but not determined by Heidegger.

Dilthey, Wilhelm. Gesammelte Schriften. 18 vols. in 20. Stuttgart, 19571977. Volumes 57 are especially important for understanding Dilthey's view of historical understanding.

Eliade, Mircea. "Methodological Remarks on the Study of Religious Symbolism." In The History of Religions: Essays on Methodology, edited by Mircea Eliade and Joseph M. Kitagawa with a preface by Jerald C. Brauer, pp. 66107. Chicago and London, 1959. A statement of the hermeneutical principles governing research on religious symbols by an influential historian of religion.

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. New York, 1959. A more general work on the nature of religion.

Eliot, T. S. Selected Essays. New York, 1950. This volume brings together a number of Eliot's influential writings, including the essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919), which debunks the "fallacy" of authorial intention.

Ermarth, Michael. Wilhelm Dilthey: The Critique of Historical Reason. Chicago, 1978. A fine scholarly discussion of Dilthey's attempt to provide theoretical foundations for the human sciences in the light of the exigencies of his own life and the intellectual crisis of the time.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. New York, 1975. Perhaps the most influential book in hermeneutical theory of the late twentieth century. Beginning with a critique of aesthetic theory, Gadamer engages in a far-reaching critique of Schleiermacher and Dilthey before exploring the implications of Heidegger's thought for hermeneutics.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. New York, 1962. Regarded by many as one of the most influential philosophical works of the last century, especially as regards hermeneutics.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. Validity in Interpretation. New Haven, Conn., 1967. A modern statement of the classical view that the aim of literary interpretation is truth and agreement.

Norris, Christopher. Deconstruction: Theory and Practice. New York, 1982. A useful introduction to the literary theories of deconstructionist critics, especially Jacques Derrida, that reject the assumptions of classical hermeneutical thought.

Palmer, Richard E. Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer. Evanston, Ill., 1969. After a useful classification of six modern definitions of hermeneutics and a discussion of the debate between Betti and Gadamer, the author discusses the four major theorists of the title. Contains a very helpful bibliography.

Ricoeur, Paul. Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, Cambridge, 1982. With roots in the French phenomenological tradition, Ricoeur has exerted a significant influence on Protestant theology and hermeneutical theory through his analysis of religious symbolism and his examination of the hermeneutical significance of Freud's view of human nature.

Robinson, James M., and John B. Cobb, Jr. The New Hermeneutic. New York, 1964. A collection of essays by German and American theologians dealing with the hermeneutical developments in the Bultmannian school as represented by Gerhard Ebeling and Ernst Fuchs.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. Hermeneutics: The Handwritten Manuscripts. Edited by Heinz Kimmerle, translated by James Duke and Jack Forstman. Missoula, Mont., 1977. An English translation of the various handwritten manuscripts found after Schleiermacher's death, including aphorisms dated as early as 1805 and formal addresses as late as 1829. There is an extremely helpful introduction by Heinz Kimmerle tracing the development of Schleiermacher's thought on interpretation.

Toulmin, Stephen. Human Understanding, vol. 1, The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts. Princeton, N.J., 1972. Intended to be the first of three volumes. The author interprets conceptual change in the sciences as rooted in "changing populations of concepts and procedures" that function within intellectual communities. Especially useful for its discussion of the way in which, since Kant, two paradigms of knowing have dominated the Western mind: relativism and formalism.

Wach, Joachim. Das Verstehen: Grundzüge einer Geschichte der hermeneutischen Theorie im 19. Jahrhundert. 3 vols. Tübingen, 19261933. A massive three-volume history of the problem of hermeneutics that, unfortunately, has yet to be translated. Primarily descriptive and historical, it nevertheless reflects the influence of Schleiermacher and Dilthey.

Weber, Max. The Methodology of the Social Sciences. Glencoe, Ill., 1949. Contains some of Weber's methodological essays dealing with the problems of objectivity and value-freeness in the social sciences and the logic of the cultural sciences.

Weber, Max. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretative Sociology. 2 vols. Berkeley, Calif., 1978. This unfinished masterwork of Weber contains his Katagorienlehre, his basic theory of types and categories of social and economic action, as well as his sociology of religion. There is an extremely useful introduction by Guenther Roth.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. 2d ed. Oxford, 1958. Although not directly concerned with hermeneutics as traditionally understood, the revolutionary view of language proposed here has had a profound effect on modern philosophy generally. The analysis of meaning and understanding cannot be ignored by anyone dealing seriously with these issues.

Wood, Charles Monroe. Theory and Religious Understanding: A Critique of the Hermeneutics of Joachim Wach. Missoula, Mont., 1975. A published doctoral dissertation; an eminently readable critique of Wach and, by implication, of the classical hermeneutical tradition from a Wittgensteinian point of view.

Van A. Harvey (1987 and 2005)


views updated May 29 2018


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


views updated May 14 2018


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 ContemporaryHermeneutics: 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


views updated May 17 2018


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 theBible, 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


views updated May 29 2018


In its most general sense hermeneutics refers to the art and theory of interpretation, particularly the interpretation of texts. The history of hermeneutics from antiquity until today has been governed by the universal problem that truth exceeds its expression and that "discourse always lags behind what one wants or has to say" (J. Grondin). This gives rise to the parallel recognition that some method is necessary to understand the "inner truth" expressed in discourse without thereby delegitimating the expression, which is a necessary precondition for this understanding.

The term is derived from the Greek verb hermēneuein (to interpret, to explain, to translate), which in turn has been connected with the messenger of the Greek gods, Hermes, whose role was to proclaim divine oracles that lay beyond human understanding in a form accessible to human intelligence. The earliest uses of hermēneuein and its cognates (hermēneus [interpreter], hermēneia [interpretation, explanation]) carry the wider connotation of a process of bringing something from ambiguity or unintelligibility to understanding, primarily through the use of language. The earliest recorded use of the term "hermeneutics" to describe a methodology or a set of "scientific" criteria seems to have been in J. C. Dannhauer's Hermeneutica sacra sive methodus exponendarum sacrarum litterarum (1654), where it referred to principles and methods of interpretation that were independent of and provided the foundation for the activity of scriptural commentary (exegesis).

Premodern Hermeneutics. In antiquity and in the medieval world the principles of interpretation were understood to apply most often to texts, particularly religious texts, and especially to individual textual cases where the meaning was unclear or difficult to extract. Greek philosophers, for example, employed allegory to interpret difficult passages within the Homeric traditioni.e., they assumed that there was a "hidden sense" within these texts that could be reached only by employing an interpretative strategy from outside the text. plato suggests an even broader usage of hermēneuein: in Ion he calls poets "the interpreters of the gods" (hermēnēs tōn theōn, 435e) and the rhapsodes who perform their poems "interpreters of the interpreters" (hermēneōn hermēnēs, 535a), thus bringing hermeneutics in close proximity to divination. Post-Aristotelian philosophy, particularly the Stoics (see stoicism), emphasized the use of allegory to rationalize passages in the mythic traditions that seemed objectionable or offensive. The Stoa in turn influenced Jewish and Christian writers in antiquity. Early Christian theologians developed principles for the "spiritual" or "mystical" interpretation of biblical texts. For them, interpretation of the Bible had a twofold purpose: to demonstrate how the eternal word of God was mediated through contingent literary forms, and to display the unity of Scripture despite the fact that there were two different Testaments. The preferred interpretative tool was allegory, especially in the form of typological interpretations that viewed various Old Testament events as types or prefigurements of Christ and His saving actions, thereby interpreting the New Testament as the fulfillment of the prophecies found in the Hebrew Scriptures and appropriating the Hebrew Scriptures for the Christian canon. The allegorical method ultimately derived from the Stoa and more immediately from the Alexandrian school and Jewish writers such as Philo, and was taken up by Origen, Augustine, and Jerome, although the more literal interpretations proposed by the Antiochene school (e.g., Theodore of Mopsuestia, John Chrysostom) also played a role (e.g., both types are present in the Symbol of the Council of Chalcedon [451]). The classic compendium of early Christian interpretative principles is augustine's De doctrina christiana, which develops the fundamental distinction between signum (the material sign) and res (the transcendental reality that is prior to and the referent of the sign). In the medieval period the various interpretative principles were codified and often expressed in the form of the famous schema of the fourfold sense of Scripture (literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical [eschatological]). While allegorical interpretation was dominant earlier in the medieval period, later thinkers tried to rein in the allegorical by associating it more closely with the literal. For example, thomas aquinas, in his discussion of the fourfold sense (Summa theologiae Ia, q. 1, a. 10), is careful to note that the meanings disclosed by the latter three senses (the "spiritual" senses) are rooted in the literal sense. Thus, although the Scriptures are not univocal but multivalent, these varied meanings are not contradictory since they are signs pointing to the truth intended by the Scriptures' divine author.

Early Modern Hermeneutics. In early modernity hermeneutics began to develop into an independent discipline dealing with the general principles that governed the authentic interpretation of various types of texts. One major catalyst was the Reformation's rejection of the Catholic use of church authority, tradition, and allegory to interpret Scripture. Following Martin luther's principle of sola scriptura, Protestant authors insisted that the Bible was its own interpreter (sui ipsius interpres ) and developed principles to demonstrate the Bible's selfsufficiency and noncontradictory nature while at the same time helping to decipher difficult passages without recourse to any authority outside the Scriptures. Matthias Flacius Illyricus's Clavis scripturae sacrae (1567) is decisive in this regard. Flacius constructed an interpretative key (clavis ) to the Scriptures by insisting that a thorough linguistic and grammatical training in the biblical languages was necessary for exegesis and by formulating a system of rules (based on the ancient rhetoric, patristic authors, and Augustine) for explicating ambiguous passages in the light of the wholeness of Scripture, thus avoiding any need to appeal to church authority. Renaissance humanist scholars pursued similar goals in their study of classical Greek and Roman texts and legal documents. They devised various philological-critical methods, applicable to wide varieties of texts, in order to assist them in establishing a text's authenticity and determining its correct (for them, the original) version. The development and distillation of hermeneutic principles into a separate humanistic discipline, applicable to religious and nonreligious texts alike, was furthered in the 17th and 18th centuries by Benedictus de Spinoza's insistence on grounding biblical exegesis in natural history and reason rather than faith (Tractatus theologico-politicus, 1670) and by authors such as Dannhauer, Johann Martin Chladinius (who defined hermeneutics as "the art of interpretation" according to rational rules, aimed at a complete understanding of "reasonable discourses and writings"), and Johann August Ernesti (who sharply distinguished between the task of general hermeneutics to understand the language and thus the meaning of any text and the task of theology to grasp the content and thus the truth of biblical texts).

Modern Hermeneutics: Schleiermacher and Dilthey. Modern hermeneutics begins with Friedrich schleiermacher. While influenced by previous attempts to craft a general hermeneutics, his own theory decisively surpassed them. He departed radically from his predecessors in two ways: (1) by shifting the central focus of hermeneutics from the meaning of texts to the conditions for the possibility of all understanding, thus reenvisioning hermeneutics as philosophy and not merely as technique; (2) by assuming that misunderstanding was not rare but rather was the interpreter's normal situation, and that understanding must be worked out by attempting to overcome obstacles and grasp the whole. Schleiermacher defined hermeneutics as "the historical and divinatory, objective and subjective reconstruction of the given utterance" (Hermeneutics and Criticism, introd., #18) and characterized it as an "art." He based his theory upon the reciprocal relationship between thought and speech, and saw the immediate goal of the interpretation to be the reproduction of the author's or speaker's thought that originally gave rise to expressionin other words, the reconstruction of the author's intention. The two necessarily interlocking moments of interpretation are the grammatical (objective), aimed at clarifying the texts' specific linguistic aspects, and the psychological (subjective or "divinatory") by which one "empathetically" grasps the author's inner life, which gets expressed in the text as a whole. If the goal of discourse is to communicate thought and feeling, then the goal of interpretation is to reproduce and reexperience that thought and feeling. This immediate task is carried out in a circular fashion: "even within a single text the particular can only be understood from out of the whole" (ibid., #23) and yet the whole can only be grasped once the parts are understood. The grammatical and psychological are also reciprocally related: the "divination" of the author's experience is not independent of the linguistic elements, yet the meaning of a text exceeds what any purely grammatical interpretation may disclose.

Beyond this, Schleiermacher saw that the more fundamental goal of hermeneutics was to examine the overall art of understanding and to articulate its elements. Thought and speech are almost two sides of the same coin: thought is linguistic, and discourse is expressed thought. "Almost," for there is a difference as well: the same thought can be expressed in a variety of ways, and is thus somewhat detachable from language. The hermeneutical problem arises precisely at this juncture of "same" and "different": how does one understand the other (here, the author) when the other is like myself yet expresses an individuality which is unlike my own? The text, too, is a conjunction of same and different: it is an "individual universal," a network of shared grammatical conventions and linguistic rules applied by the author in a uniquely individual way in order to constitute a new and meaningful whole in a particular "style," which nonetheless communicates to others. The text also expresses the author's individual experience that participates in and clarifies those human experiences shared by all. Schleiermacher argued that interpretation is an infinite task where no absolute understanding of a text (and hence of any author) is ever possible, since the grammatical always deals with the "infinity" of linguistic choices and the psychological with the "infinity" of the author's intuition. But a high degree of understanding can be reached; indeed, the goal remains "to understand the utterance at first just as well and then better than its author" as we "seek to bring much to consciousness that can remain unconscious" to the author (ibid., #18). This understanding also takes place in a circular manner: the author's inner life is glimpsed through one particular text, while the particular text is understood as meaningful when interpreted in the context of an author's whole life-experience and the whole of the semantic system within which it has been conceived. Schleiermacher's hermeneutic "revolution," then, consists of seeing hermeneutics as a philosophical "meta-discipline" that articulates the circular nature of all understanding, discloses the interplay of the rule-bound and the non-rule-bound in all authentic and meaningful interpretation, and recognizes the necessary risk of empathy in any attempt to understand the other.

Wilhelm dilthey developed hermeneutics even further as a philosophical discipline in the service of his "philosophy of life" (Lebensphilosophie ). He widened its focus from textual expressions to historically situated cultural expressions of all kinds. Influenced by his research into Schleiermacher's work, he endeavored to provide a firm methodological basis for the human sciences over against the growing dominance of the natural sciences and to support the objective value of their truth claims over against historical skepticism. He argued that there is a crucial methodological difference between the natural sciences (characterized by the explanation of natural phenomena according to a mechanistic model) and the human sciences (which aimed at understanding human life from within). The key point is Dilthey's description of "life" as a process, a complex mixture of individual lives lived in time, which constitutes the social and historical fabric of humankind and whose truth can be grasped solely through its objective historical expressions. The range of expressions can include gestures, actions, legal codes, historical artifacts, works of art, and whole cultures. Only understanding, rather than explanation, can be adequate to the study of inner human life objectified in these expressions; by deriving its categories from life itself, it is sensitive to the temporal flow of individual experience (Erlebnis ) that links past (memory) and future (anticipation) with the present. The goal of understanding is the reconstruction and reexperiencing of this individual inner world of experience behind the expression and in turn the overall life-process of which the individual is only a part.

Dilthey's hermeneutics unites these three elements (experience, expression, and understanding) into the methodological foundation of the human sciences. Temporal lived experience, as a self-aware, pre-rational act, demands objective historical expression in order to understand itself. Expressions are objectifications of lived experience, symbols of inner life that can be adequately understood only when interpreted within their historical context. The highest and fullest expression is art, revealing not simply the artist's personal experience but embodying the deepest aspects of all human experience. The art with the greatest disclosive power is literature, which permanently fixes experience in language. Understanding is the reverse of expression: by interpreting these expressions within their historical context, it attempts to reexperienceindeed, to re-create or relivethe lived experience of the other person and thus of the life-process within which they participate. The immediate goal of understanding is to bridge the gap between the other and myself through my empathetic reexperiencing of their "mental life." The ultimate goal is to understand all of human life, of which the individual is only a part. The meaning of the "whole," whether a person's whole life, a whole culture, or the whole of life itself, can be derived only from the study of its individual parts. The parts, moreover, can be understood only in reference to the whole whose unity is presupposed and that determines the function and meaning of the parts. Dilthey explicitly articulates the "hermeneutic circle" already alluded to by Schleiermacher and others. The meaning that arises from the circle is the result of a real historical relationship between the interpreter and the objectified expressions of life and is always contextual, changing with one's temporal perspective. Dilthey's hermeneutics is thus left with an inherent dilemma: he abhorred relativism and wanted to render the truths of the human sciences as objectively as those of the natural sciences, yet he demonstrated that self-understanding is never the result of direct introspection but is always indirect, mediated by historical expressions and temporally shifting syntheses.

Contemporary Hermeneutics. Contemporary hermeneutics is dominated by the figures of Martin heidegger and Hans-Georg gadamer. Heidegger's early work, especially Being and Time (1927), shifted the hermeneutical focus yet again, this time away from texts and cultural expressions to the human person as both interpreted and interpreting. Being and Time, among other issues, presents a "hermeneutics of facticity," a phenomenological description of Dasein (Heidegger's term for the human being) that interprets the person's everyday way-of-being in order to reach an understanding of Being as such. Dasein is portrayed as thoroughly hermeneutical, both in the way it lives its ordinary life (interpreting entities as meaningful within a previously constituted "world" or "totality of involvements" as well as over against a pre-understanding of the meaning of Being) and in the way it understands itself as an incomplete historical "project," constituted in the present by its facticity (past) and its "projection" into its possibilities (future). Because Dasein is its own project and because it both constitutes and discloses its being by the actualization of its own possibilities, interpretation and understanding are not actions Dasein chooses to perform but are rather two of Dasein's basic modes of being ("existentials") from the outset. Heidegger surprisingly changes the traditional polarity: one does not first interpret in order to understand, but rather understands in order to interpret. Understanding is the power by which Dasein discloses what its existential choices have already presupposed, namely a grasp of its own future possibilities-for-being and "of the whole of Being-in-the-world" (Being and Time, §32). Dasein thus understands its own true being as radically temporal and projected over time rather than being merely a present "object." Interpretation (Auslegung ) is the laying-out (aus-legen ) or the actualizing of the possibilities already disclosed in understanding. Its operation is guided by a threefold "fore-structure" of prejudgments: a fore-knowledge of the appropriate context (Vorhabe ), a "fore-sight" or situated point of view (Vorsicht ), and a pre-understanding of the whole-to-be-actualized (Vorgriff ). This fore-structure is the pivot upon which the hermeneutic circle turns, guiding the relationship between understanding and interpretation: what is interpreted must be already understood to some degree (to even awaken our interest in interpreting it), while understanding is articulated, actualized, and deepened by interpretation. Understanding is determined by the anticipations of meaning generated by the fore-structure, while interpretation must be guided by the fore-structure provided by understanding. "Any interpretation which is to contribute understanding, must already have understood what is to be interpreted" (ibid. ). This circularity cannot be avoided; it is intrinsic to all human knowing and is itself an expression of one of Dasein's basic modes of being. The necessity of a pre-understanding (Vorgriff ) means that there is never any presuppositionless understanding or interpretation. Thus the meaning of entities within the world (what Being and Time calls their "as-structure") and of Dasein itself is the result of a disclosure effected by Dasein, occurring within an interpretation guided by pre-understanding. This Heideggerian version of the hermeneutic circle, which considers the circularity of understanding to be ontological and not merely epistemological, has become extremely influential in both philosophy and theology.

Hans-Georg Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics draws from several sources, including Schleiermacher's quest for a general hermeneutics, Dilthey's emphasis on historicity and the recuperation of the human sciences, and the Heideggerian themes of the hermeneutics of facticity, the hermeneutic circle, and the ontological basis of understanding. His magnum opus, Truth and Method (1960), has become the touchstone for all subsequent approaches to hermeneutics, both pro and con. Behind his overt desire to critique modernity's objectivist methods and rehabilitate the model of understanding promoted by the humanities lies a deeper concern to analyze the process of human understanding itself and to demonstrate its fundamental openness to others and to the past: "the way we experience one another, the way we experience historical traditions, the way we experience the natural givenness of our existence and of our world, constitute a truly hermeneutic universe, in which we are not imprisoned, as if behind insurmountable barriers, but to which we are opened" (Truth and Method, xxiv).

All understanding begins with prejudices, anticipatory prejudgments that are grounded in previous experiences. Prejudices are not disabling, distorting biases (as the Enlightenment claimed) but rather are enabling; they allow us to begin understanding by projecting a meaning upon something (e.g., a text) on the basis of our partial experience of it, and then to either confirm or deny that understanding in the course of further experience. These interpretative projections are both ontological and rooted in the interpreter's situation, which is formed by the tradition or history of effects (Wirkungsgeschichte) within which the interpreter stands. Thus the present temporal horizon of expectations is constituted by both the past from which it develops (the authoritative tradition that addresses us and "is already effectual in finding the right questions to ask " [Truth and Method, 301]) and the future to which it opens (new understandings that will confirm, expand upon, or deny our prejudgments). The history of effects is constituted by classics, works that embody experiences and interpretations that have endured over time and whose significance occurs within history yet appears to be timeless because they are always timelyi.e., their significance applies to situations in historical epochs beyond their own. What allows us to tell the classics from the period pieces is temporal distance, which encourages us to test our prejudgments of their enduring significance and thus permits their authoritative and universal nature to appear.

This schema allows Gadamer to make two major claims. First, the true goal of understanding is to have a "consciousness of being effected by history" (ibid., 301), the awareness that the present historical horizon is always already effected by the truths disclosed previous to the present in the history of effects. This awareness occurs by the fusion of horizons, where "old and new are always combining into something of living value, without either being explicitly foregrounded from the other" (ibid., 306). Interpretation is not the attempt to leave one's own historical epoch in order to understand a work from the past and thereby seek to erase the historical difference that plainly exists. Rather, the interpreter's present horizon is tested and expanded by coming into contact with the "otherness" that the past horizon represents. Temporality, rather than being an obstacle to understanding, enables understanding to occur: "it is the supportive ground of the course of events in which the present is rooted" (ibid., 297) and in which our prejudgments are formed. Secondly, the key to hermeneutical understanding is the application that occurs in the fusion of horizons. To interpret a work from the past is to understand it, but "understanding always involves something such as applying the text to be understood to the interpreter's present situation" (ibid., 308). The three moments are inseparable and simultaneous. Understanding, which is fundamentally linguistic, thus has the character of a moral decision: just as in ethics the general principle and the particular situation are understood in light of each other in a prudential judgment, so too the truth of a past text is grasped in the moment of application to the present situation, whose truth is disclosed by the difference represented by the past and challenged to expand its expectations in the light of this difference.

In addition to Heidegger and Gadamer, Paul ricoeur has made important contributions to contemporary hermeneutics. Among these are his emphasis on the productive character of texts, the power of metaphor to evoke new meanings, and the character of narrative, each of which is involved in the disclosure of new possibilities of meaning. The objectifying nature of writing already assures that the finished text is autonomous, distanced from the intention of the author. This "distanciation" is productive; the work breaks free of its limited temporal horizon to be recontextualized in any number of new situations of reading, thereby disclosing the multiple possibilities of authentic interpretation (the world "in front of the text") beyond the original authorial experience (the world "behind the text") and challenging the reader to expand his horizons. Metaphors, by means of the clash of literal meanings that they embody, are a semantic signal of the "surplus of meaning" that exceeds the literal meaning and creatively subverts the reader's expectations, disclosing new possibilities of existential meaning for the reader. Narratives, as Ricoeur has claimed in his later work, are the most fundamental form that human activities take and are the necessary mediation of all self and social identity. Fictional narratives configure characters and actions according to a certain emplotted order that, however, plays out over time in unexpected ways with the final meaning intelligible only at the conclusion; the truth of the narrative is available only in a retrospective interpretation. Human identity can be similarly interpreted: it is a temporal "configuration" of concordance and discordance, of sedimented identity that is open to innovation and unforeseen responses to others, and thus to constructive "refiguration" over time that allows for self-identity to be reinterpreted without being dispersed.

Hermeneutics in Recent Catholic Theology. Hermeneutics has played an extremely important role in contemporary Roman Catholic theology, especially in fundamental or foundational theology. For example, in his Christology Edward Schillebeeckx has employed a fundamental theory of experience and a hermeneutics of tradition very similar to Gadamer's in order to articulate the relationship between divine revelation and the historically situated human experience in which it occurs, and to explain the connections between the disciples' original interpreted experience of the revelation of God in Jesus and the present-day interpreted experience of Jesus as Lord. David Tracy has used the normative status of classics to argue that the Christian tradition is constituted by its religious classics (especially the classic person, Jesus Christ), i.e., historically situated events that disclose a "radically and finally gracious mystery" (Analogical Imagination, 163). Thus systematic theology is inherently hermeneutical: by interpreting the Christian classics, it seeks to make publically accessible both the meaning of the tradition that mediates this disclosive power and the modes of reception (application) of this power within the present. Francis Schüssler Fiorenza has argued against a foundationalist approach to theology that what is essential to foundational theology is a "hermeneutical reconstruction" of the integral Christian tradition, seen as a "history of effects" composed of diverse historically situated beliefs and practices. Models of stasis, decay, or unilateral progress which search for a timeless "essence of Christianity" fail in the face of this empirical diversity. Only a hermeneutical reconstruction, attuned to the ongoing historical reception of the truth of revelation, can render intelligible the unifying Christian identity that exists in the midst of this diversity and can take into account the varying background theories, retroductive warrants, and various communities of discourse that contribute to the continual constitution and reconstruction of Christian identity over time.

See Also: exegesis.

Bibliography: f. schÜssler-fiorenza, Foundational Theology: Jesus and the Church (New York 1984); "History and Hermeneutics," in j. c. livingston et al., Modern Christian Thought, 2d ed. Volume II: The Twentieth Century, 341385 (Upper Saddle River, N.J. 2000). h.-g. gadamer, Truth and Method, 2d rev. ed., tr. j. weinsheimer and d. g. marshall (New York 1989). j. grondin, Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics, tr. j. weinsheimer (New Haven, Conn. 1994). m. heidegger, Being and Time, tr. j. macquarrie and e. robinson (New York 1962). k. mueller-vollmer, ed., The Hermeneutics Reader (New York 1988). p. ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, ed. and tr. j. b. thompson (Cambridge 1981); Time and Narrative, 3 v., tr. k. mclaughlin and d. pellauer (Chicago 198488). j. risser, Hermeneutics and the Voice of the Other: Re-reading Gadamer's Philosophical Hermeneutics (Albany, N.Y. 1997). e. schillebeeckx, Interim Report on the Books "Jesus" and "Christ," tr. j. bowden (New York 1981). f. schleiermacher, Hermeneutics and Criticism and Other Writings, tr. and ed. a. bowie (Cambridge/New York 1998). n. h. smith, Strong Hermeneutics: Contingency and Moral Identity (London 1997). a. c. thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids 1992). d. tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (New York 1981).

[a. j. godzieba]


views updated May 14 2018




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


views updated May 11 2018


HERMENEUTICS , the science of biblical interpretation. The rabbis saw the Pentateuch as a unified, divinely communicated text, consistent in all its parts. It was consequently possible to uncover deeper meanings and to provide for a fuller application of its laws by adopting certain principles of interpretation (middot; "measures," "norms"). There are three formulations of such principles: the seven rules of *Hillel (Sifra, introd. 1:7; arn1 37, 55; Tosef., Sanh. 7: end); the 13 rules of R. *Ishmael (Sifra, introd. 5); the 32 rules of R. *Eliezer b. Yose ha-Gelili (chiefly aggadic and generally considered to be post-talmudic). The indications are that the rules are earlier than Hillel (who lived in the first century b.c.e.). It is debatable whether (as suggested by the 12th-century Karaite author Judah *Hadassi) any Greek influence can be detected, though terminologically some of the rules have Greek parallels. R. Ishmael's rules are basically an amplification of Hillel's, so that the best method of studying rabbinic hermeneutics is to consider each of R. Ishmael's rules in detail.

The Thirteen Rules of R. Ishmael

(1) Kal va-ḥomer (more accurately kol va-ḥomer): an argument from the minor premise (kal) to the major (ḥomer). The Midrash (Gen. R. 92:7) traces its use to the Bible (cf. Gen. 44:8; Ex. 6:12; Num. 12:14 – not explicit but see bk 25a; Deut. 31:27; i Sam. 23:3; Jer. 12:5; Ezek. 15:5; Prov. 11:31; Esth. 9:12). The following two examples may be given: (a) It is stated in Deuteronomy 21:23 that the corpse of a criminal executed by the court must not be left on the gallows overnight, which R. Meir takes to mean that God is distressed by the criminal's death. Hence, R. Meir argues: "If God is troubled at the shedding of the blood of the ungodly, how much more [kal va-ḥomer] at the blood of the righteous!" (Sanh. 6:5). (b) "If priests, who are not disqualified for service in the Temple by age, are disqualified by bodily blemishes (Lev. 21:16–21) then levites, who are disqualified by age (Num. 8:24–25), should certainly be disqualified by bodily blemishes" (Ḥul. 24a). Example (a), where the "minor" and "major" are readily apparent, might be termed a simple kal va-ḥomer. Example (b) might be termed a complex kal va-ḥomer. Here an extraneous element (disqualification by age) has to be adduced to indicate which is the "minor" and which the "major." Symbolically the two types can be represented as simple: If A has x, then B certainly has x. complex: If A, which lacks y, has x, then B, which has y, certainly has x. Schwarz (see bibliography) erroneously identifies the Aristotelean syllogism with the kal va-ḥomer. First, the element of "how much more" is lacking in the syllogism. Second, the syllogism inference concerns genus and species:

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore Socrates is mortal.

Since Socrates belongs in the class "man" he must share the characteristics of that class. However, in the kal va-ḥomer it is not suggested that the "major" belongs in the class of the "minor" but that what is true of the "minor" must be true of the "major" (Kunst, in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 10 (1942), 976–91). Not all of the thirteen principles are based on logic as is the kal va-ḥomer. Some are purely literary tools, while the gezerah shavah is only valid if received through the transmission of a rabbinic tradition.

The principle of dayyo ("it is sufficient"), that the conclusion should advance only as far as the premise and not beyond it, is a qualification of the kal va-ḥomer (bk 2:5). It must not be argued that if A has x, then B has x + y. The kal va-ḥomer suffices only to prove that B has x, and it is to go beyond the evidence to conclude that it also has y. R. Tarfon rejects the dayyo principle in certain instances (bk 25a).

(2) Gezerah shavah: comparison of similar expressions. It is probable that etymologically the word gezerah means "law" – as in Daniel 4:4, 14 – so that gezerah shavah would mean a comparison of two similar laws (Beẓah 1:6; see however S. Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, 193ff.); if the same word occurs in two Pentateuchal passages, then the law applying in the one should be applied to the other. Bergman argues (Sinai 71, 1972) that a gezerah shavah is the application of the laws in one instance to a second instance to achieve a unified legal principle, irrespective of the differences between the cases, more often than not by finding a word that appears in both instances. For example, the word be-mo'ado ("in its appointed time") is used both in regard to the Paschal lamb (Num. 9:2) and to the tamid, the daily offering (Num. 28:2), which is offered on the Sabbath as well. Thus it can be inferred that the term be-mo'ado includes the Sabbath and hence the Paschal lamb may be offered even on the Sabbath, although work normally forbidden on the Sabbath is entailed (Pes. 66a). The gezerah shavah, as may be seen from the above example, was originally a purely logical principle. It is reasonable to suppose that a law clearly stated in one passage can shed light on a similar law in a different passage. In the schools, however, the gezerah shavah threatened to become a formal principle whereby a mere similarity in words was sufficient warrant for positing similar laws in the respective passages. To prevent the abuse of this method, rules were laid down to qualify its use. A man cannot advance a gezerah shavah independently, but must receive it by tradition from his teachers (Pes. 66a); both passages must be from the Pentateuch (bk 2b); the words of the gezerah shavah must not only be similar but also superfluous (mufneh, "free") in the context in which they appear, so that it can be argued that they were placed there for the express purpose of the gezerah shavah (Shab. 64a). It would appear that the school of R. Akiva disagrees with that of R. Ishmael and does not require mufneh (tj, Yoma 8:3, 45a).

Similar to the gezerah shavah but not identical with it are the rules of hekkesh ("comparison") and semukhim ("juxtaposition"). Hekkesh refers to the presence of two laws in the same verse, from which it may be inferred that whatever is true of one is true of the other. For example, "Thou shalt eat no leavened bread with it; seven days shalt thou eat unleavened bread therewith" (Deut. 16:3). Although women are exempt from carrying out positive precepts associated with given time, they are nevertheless obliged to eat unleavened bread on Passover since the verse, by combining the two laws compared the duty to eat unleavened bread with the prohibition against eating leaven, which, being a negative precept, is binding on women (Pes. 43b). Semukhim refers to the juxtaposition of two laws in two adjacent verses. For example, "Thou shalt not suffer a sorceress to live; Whosoever lieth with a beast shall be put to death" (Ex. 22:17, 18). Just as one who lies with a beast is put to death by stoning, so, too, a sorceress is put to death by stoning (Ber. 21b). R. Judah, however, rejects the universal application of the semukhim rule: "Just because the two statements are juxtaposed, are we to take this one out to be stoned?" (ibid). The semukhim rule, according to R. Judah, is to be applied only in Deuteronomy (ibid).

(3) Binyan av mi-katuv eḥad and binyan av mi-shenei khetuvim: an inference from a single verse, and an inference from two verses. (A construction – binyan – in which the premise acts as a "father" – av – to the conclusions drawn from it.) Examples: (a) "He shall pour out the blood thereof and cover it with dust" (Lev. 17:13) – just as the pouring out of the blood (the act of slaughter) is performed with the hand, so must the covering be done with the hand, not with the foot (hekkesh). R. Joseph derives from this that no precept may be treated disrespectfully. He observes: "The father of all of them is blood," i.e., from the law that the precept of covering the blood must be carried out in a respectful manner it is learnt that all precepts must be so carried out (Shab. 22a). (b) According to the rabbinic interpretation of Deuteronomy 23:25f., a farm laborer, when working in the field, may eat of his employer's grapes and standing corn. May he likewise eat of other things growing in the field? This cannot be derived from the case of the vineyard, for the owner of a vineyard is obliged to leave the gleanings to the poor (Lev. 19:10), and it may be that since the owner has this obligation, he also has the other. Nor can it be derived from the case of standing corn, for the owner of standing corn is obliged to give ḥallah, the priest's portion of the dough (Num. 15:17–21). Taking the two cases together, however, others can be derived from them. For the decisive factor in the case of the vineyard cannot be the gleanings, since the law of gleanings does not apply to standing corn. Nor can the decisive factor in the case of standing corn be ḥallah since ḥallah does not apply to a vineyard. The factor common to both vines and standing corn is that they are plants, from which it may be inferred that the law applies to all plants (bm 87b). The peculiarities of each case cannot be decisive since they are different from each other; the common factor is decisive. Symbolically they can be represented as:




(According to some commentators a simple analogy of type (a) is not to be reckoned among R. Ishmael's principles, both of which are of type (b), the difference being that in binyan av mi-katuv eḥad both the cases from which the induction is made are in the same verse whereas in binyan av mi-shenei khetuvim they are in separate verses – Sefer Keritut 1:3.)

(4) Kelal u-ferat; general and particular. If a law is stated in general terms and followed by particular instances, only those instances are covered by the law. Example: "Ye shall bring an offering of the cattle, even of the herd and the flock" (Lev. 1:2). Even though the term "cattle" normally embraces the "beast" (i.e., non-domesticated cattle), the latter is excluded by the particular limitation, "the herd and the flock" (Sifra, introd. 7).

(5) Perat u-khelal: particular and general. If the particular instances are stated first and are followed by the general category, instances other than the particular ones mentioned are included. Example: "If a man deliver unto his neighbor an ass, or an ox, or a sheep, or any beast" (Ex. 22:9) – beasts other than those specifically mentioned are included (Sifra, introd. 8).

(6) Kelal u-ferat u-khelal i attah dan ella ke-ein ha-perat: general, particular, general – you may derive only things similar to those specified. Example: "Thou shalt bestow the money for whatsoever thy soul desireth [kelal] for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink [perat] or for whatsoever thy soul asketh of thee [kelal]" (Deut. 14:26). Other things than those specified may be purchased, but only if they are food or drink like those specified (Sifra, introd. 8).

(7) Kelal she-hu ẓarikh li-ferat u-ferat she-hu ẓarikh li-khelal: the general requires the particular and the particular the general. Specification is provided by taking the general and the particular together, each "requiring" the other. An example is, "Sanctify unto Me all the first-born" (i.e., males – Deut. 15:19), "whatsoever openeth the womb" (Ex. 13:2). A first-born male would have been understood as included in the term "all the first-born" even if a female had previously been born to that mother. Hence, the particular limiting expression "whatsoever openeth the womb" is stated. But this term would not have excluded one born after a previous Caesarian birth, hence the general term "all the first-born" (Bek. 19a).

(8) Davar she-hayah bi-khelal ve-yaẓa min ha-kelal lelammed lo le-lammed al aẓmo yaẓa ella le-lammed al ha-kelal kullo yaẓa: if a particular instance of a general rule is singled out for special treatment, whatever is postulated of this instance is to be applied to all the instances embraced by the general rule. For example, "A man, also, or a woman that divineth that by a ghost or a familiar spirit, shall surely be put to death; they shall stone them with stones" (Lev. 20:27). Divination by a ghost or familiar spirit is included in the general rule against witchcraft (Deut. 18:10f.). Since the penalty of stoning is applied to these instances, it may be inferred that the same penalty applies to all the other instances embraced by the general rule (Sanh. 67b).

(9) Davar she-hayah bi-khelal ve-yaẓa liton to'an eḥad she-hu khe-inyano yaẓa lehakel ve-lo lehaẓmir: when particular instances of a general rule are treated specifically, in details similar to those included in the general rule, then only the relaxations of the general rule and not its restrictions are to be applied in those instances. For example, the laws of the boil (Lev. 13:18–21) and the burn (Lev. 13:24–28) are treated specifically even though these are particular instances of the general rule regarding plague-spots (Lev. 13:1–17). The general restrictions regarding the law of the second week (Lev. 13:5) and the quick raw flesh (Lev. 13:10) are, therefore, not be applied to them (Sifra 1:2).

(10) Davar she-hayah bi-khelal ve-yaẓa liton to'an aḥer she-lo khe-inyano yaẓa lehakel-lehaḥmir: when particular instances of a general rule are treated specifically in details dissimilar from those included in the general rule, then both relaxations and restrictions are to be applied in those instances. For example, the details of the laws of plague in the hair or beard (Lev. 13:29–37) are dissimilar from those in the general rule of plague spots. Hence, both the relaxation regarding the white hair mentioned in the general rule (ibid., 13:4) and the restriction of the yellow hair mentioned in the particular instance (ibid. 13:30) are to be applied (Sifra 1:3).

(11) Davar she-hayah bi-khelal ve-yaẓa lidon ba-davar heḥadash i attah yakhol lehaḥaziro li-khelalo ad she-yaḥazirennu ha-katuv li-khelalo be-ferush: when a particular instance of a general rule is singled out for completely fresh treatment, the details of the general rule must not be applied to this instance unless Scripture does so specifically. For example, the guilt offering of the leper requires the placing of the blood on the ear, thumb, and toe (Lev. 14:14). Consequently, the laws of the general guilt offering, such as the sprinkling of the blood on the altar (Lev. 7:2) would not have applied, were it not for Scripture's stating: "For as the sin offering is the priest's, so is the guilt offering" (Lev. 14:13), i.e., that this is like other guilt offerings (Yev. 7a–b).

(12) Davar ha-lamed me-inyano ve-davar ha-lamed misofo: the meaning of a passage may be deduced: (a) from its context (mi-inyano), (b) from a later reference in the same passage (mi-sofo). As an example of (a), "Thou shalt not steal" in the Decalogue (Ex. 20:13) must refer to the capital offense of kidnapping, since the two other offenses mentioned in the same verse, "Thou shalt not murder" and "Thou shalt not commit adultery," are both capital offenses (Mekh., Ba-Ḥodesh, 8, 5). In example of (b), "I put the plague of leprosy in a house of the land of your possession" (Lev. 14:34), refers only to a house built with stones, timber, and mortar, since these materials are mentioned later in verse 45 (Sifra, introd. 1:6).

(13) Shenei khetuvim ha-makhḥishim zeh et zeh ad sheyavo ha-katuv ha-shelishi ve-yakhri'a beineihem: two verses contradict one another until a third verse reconciles them. For example, one verse states that God came down to the top of the mountain (Ex. 19:20), another that His voice was heard from heaven (Deut. 4:36). A third verse (Ex. 20:19) provides the reconciliation. He brought the heavens down to the mount and spoke (Sifra 1:7).

Other Rules

Among other rules found in the literature are ribbui ("inclusion") and mi'ut ("exclusion"). When found together these terms denote a variation of the kelal u-ferat rules (bk 86b; Shev. 26a). The term ribbui is also used to denote that the Hebrew particles af, gam, et indicate an inclusion or amplification, and the term mi'ut to denote that the particles akh, rak, min indicate an exclusion or limitation. This method of interpretation, used particularly in the school of R. Akiva, proceeds from the premise that every word of Scripture has significance. For instance, the particle et begins the verse "Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God" (Deut. 10:20). This implies that the application of the verse is extended to include reverence for scholars (Pes. 22b). According to Akiva's school the use of the infinitive absolute (which repeats the verb) implies an amplification. An example is "That soul shall utterly be cut off " (Num. 15:31) – "hikkaret tikkaret." R. Akiva remarks, "Hikkaret in this world, tikkaret in the world to come," but R. Ishmael demurs, "The Torah speaks in human language," i.e., the duplication of the verb is according to regular Hebrew usage and therefore carries no additional implication (Sif. Num. 112). The word kol ("all") is treated as a ribbui. For example, the duty of recalling the Exodus "all [kol] the days of thy life" (Deut. 16:3) devolves upon one at night as well as by day (Ber. 1:5).

Dots (nekuddot) found over certain letters are interpreted as calling attention to some special feature, e.g., over va-yishakehu, ("and he kissed him"; Gen. 33:4), to teach, according to one opinion, that Esau was completely sincere (Gen. R. 78:9). *Gematria refers to the numerical equivalent of a word, e.g., the name Eliezer, Abraham's servant, has the same numerical value as the number of soldiers (318) Abraham takes out to battle (Gen. 14:14). The Midrash therefore states that Abraham sent only Eliezer into the battle (Gen. R. 43:2). In *notarikon ("shorthand") the letters of a word represent the initial letters of other words. Some examples are: nimreẓet ("grievous"; Kings 2:8) alludes to no'ef ("adulterer"), mo'avi ("Moabite"), roẓeaḥ ("murderer"), ẓorer ("enemy"), to'evah ("abomination"; Shab. 105a). Al tikrei ("do not read… but") is a change of reading to convey a different meaning, e.g., banayikh ("thy sons"; Isa. 54:13) is read as bonayikh ("thy builders"; Ber. 64a). Where the vocalization differs from the consonantal form of the text, there is a debate as to which is to be followed in order to determine the law (Sanh. 4a). Two general rules found frequently are ein mukdam u-me'uḥar ba-Torah ("the Torah does not proceed in chronological sequence"; Pes. 6b) and ein mikra yoẓe mi-ydei feshuto, "a Scriptural verse never loses its plain meaning," i.e., regardless of any additional interpretation (Shab. 63a; Yev. 24a).

R. Ishmael and R. Akiva

It is stated (Shev. 26a) that R. Ishmael followed his teacher, R. *Neḥunya b. ha-Kanah, in expounding Scripture according to the rules of kelal u-ferat and that R. Akiva followed his teacher, *Nahum of Gimzo, in expounding by the rules of ribbui and mi'ut. The latter method is more inclusive and less confined by the plain meaning of the text. From this and some of the other examples given above it will be seen that the school of R. Ishmael was more restrictive in its use of hermeneutical principles than that of R. Akiva. Two further points of departure must be noted. According to R. Ishmael a matter itself derived from Scripture by means of one of the hermeneutical principles cannot serve as a premise for the derivation of an additional conclusion through the operation of these principles, whereas according to R. Akiva one may "learn from a matter itself derived from Scripture" (lamed min ha-lamed; Zev. 57a). According to R. Ishmael the principles of kal va-ḥomer and binyan av cannot be implemented toward the imposition of a penalty (ein oneshim min ha-din), a view to which R. Akiva takes exception (tj, Yev. 11:1, 11d; J.N. Epstein, Prolegomena (1957) 525–6). Despite the appearance of two distinct approaches to the use of the hermeneutical rules, a closer reading of the talmudic sources reveals that R. Ishmael did employ R. Akiva's rules of ribbui and mi'ut. At the same time, R. Ishmael is not quoted in talmudic sources as having used each and every one of the thirteen principles. Thus, the Sifra might be attributing the thirteen principles to R. Ishmael and his school rather than actually quoting him.

The use of the these hermeneutic principles spread because of the increase in Torah study coupled with the increase in disagreements both among the rabbis and between them and the other Second Temple Jewish sects. The use of the principles also gave greater authority to the link between the Pentateuchal text and the law, especially when the law is not stated outright in the text. Over time, as the Mishnah became an authoritative halakhic text, the application of these rules slowly petered out.


H.G. Enelow (ed.), Mishnat R. Eliezer (1933), introd.; H. Strack, Introduction to Talmud and Midrash (1945), 289 n. 2–3; Daube, in: huca, 22 (1949), 239–64; S. Lieberman, Hellenismin Jewish Palestine (1950), 47–82; A. Schwarz, Hermeneutischer Syllogismus in der talmudischen Litteratur (1901); Samson b. Isaac of Chinon, Sefer Keritut, ed. by Sofer (1965); I. Horowitz, Shenei Luḥot ha-Berit (1649), ch. 2 beginning; M. Ostrowski, Ha-Middot she-ha-Torah Nidreshet ba-Hen (1924); Z.H. Chajes, Student's Guide through the Talmud, ed. by J. Schachter (19602); L. Jacobs, Studies in Talmudic Logic and Methodology (1961); A.J. Heschel, Torah min ha-Shamayim be-Aspaklaryah shel ha-Dorot, 2 vols. (1962–65); Zeitlin, in: jqr, 54 (1963/64), 161–73. add. bibliography: Y. Krispin, Sefer Eḥad be-Eẓad: Bi'ur le-beraitah de-Rabbi Yishmael (2000); Levi ben Gershom, Sefer Sha'arei Ẓedek: Peirush al Shelosh Esrei Middot she-ha-Torah Nidreshet Bahen (1994); Aharon ben Avraham ibn Ḥayyim, Sefer Middot Aharon (1994); Shemuel ibn Sirilio, Sefer Kelalei Shemuel (1990); Zerahia ben Yizḥak ha-Levi, Sefer Ha-Zavah (1997); A. Schwartz, Ha-Gezerah Shavah (tr… from Ger., 1975); B. de Vries, in: Sefer Yovel Li-Khvod ha-Rav Doktor Yisrael Elfenbein (1962), 95–98; B. Rosensweig, in: Tradition, 13:1 (1972), 49–76; S. Norman, in: Jewish Law and Current Legal Problems (1985), 125–39; M. Chernick, in: Jewish Quarterly Review, (new series) 70 (1979–80), 96–116; idem, Le-Ḥeker ha-Middot Kelal u-Ferat u-Khelal ve-Ribbui u-Mi'ut (1984); G. Porton, in: Religion,Literature and Society in Ancient Israel (1987), 3–18; M. Kahana, in: Meḥkarim be-Talmud u-ve-Midrash (2005), 173–216; Y. Eitam, in: Gulot, 5 (1997), 142–59; D. Cohen, in: Shema'atin, 119 (1994), 106–15; Y.M. Levinger, in: Bekhol Derakhekha Da'eihu (1997), 81–100.

[Louis Jacobs /

David Derovan (2nd ed.)]


views updated Jun 27 2018


While there is already a general sense of the word "hermeneutics" in ancient Greek thought, where it refers to the problems of interpretation and understanding, the first real consolidation of its meaning comes in the medieval world when the peculiar task of interpreting the Bible is theorized. The first systematic form of hermeneutic theory emerged out of the effort to supply methods and rules for biblical commentary. Hermeneutics as a theory of biblical exegesis was subsequently widened to include the concerns of interpreting juridical texts, where the jurist faces the problem of applying a universal rule to particular cases. Over time, the domain of hermeneutic methodology was broadened to include any text the meaning of which could be disputed. Although a wide range of texts became the objects of hermeneutics, theological and legal texts long remained its preeminent concerns. In its primary concern for textual exegesis, hermeneutics tended to develop methods for interpretation and understanding based upon the rhetorical principles, and thus helped to define the difference between the humanities and modern natural science with its own emphasis on a method linked with mathematics.

The hermeneutic tradition underwent significant expansion and modification in the nineteenth century when first Friedrich Schleiermacher and Friedrich von Schlegel, and then Wilhelm Dilthey, expanded the scope of hermeneutical concerns while probing the character of the foundations of hermeneutic practices. Following in the wake of Immanuel Kant's critical philosophy, wherein both the conditions that render experience possible and the ineradicable limits of knowledge are exposed, the Romantics argued that all understandingnot simply the understanding of textsis always already interpretive. In Romanticism, hermeneutics thus begins to take on the contours of the new meaning that it acquired in the twentieth century: it is no longer simply a matter of a strategy directed to the interpretation of a special domain of texts, rather it is now understood to be concerned with the character of any form of understanding that may emerge from human experience. In addition to this is the claim that all understanding takes place within language, making language thus one of the chief concerns of any hermeneutic theory. The plurality of languages, their history, and the problem of translation replace a concern with the word of God and the word of law dominating earlier conceptions of hermeneutics. Dilthey, for his part, elevated hermeneutics into a methodology for the entirety of the human sciences by insisting that the understanding of the historical life expressions, which encompass human experiencing, requires a methodology distinct from that of natural science. Dilthey maintained that whereas the natural sciences explain nature, the task of the human sciences is to understand historical life.

By the end of the nineteenth century, "hermeneutics" had ceased to designate simply a methodology or doctrine concerned with decoding the meaning and truth claims of texts. Instead, it had become the name for a broader methodology and a philosophical approach to experience that was sensitive to the limits of language and history. Hermeneutics at this stage of its development came to be especially attentive to those experiences directly challenging the possibility of understanding; for example, the translation of foreign languages, the comprehension of foreign cultures, and, in particular, the interpretation of other historical periods.

Martin Heidegger took the decisive steps in formulating the contemporary shape of philosophical hermeneutics as it is understood today, achieving this by gathering together and radicalizing the concerns dominating its prehistory while adding a new dimension whereby hermeneutics became the name for a full-fledged ontology. Heidegger does this under the rubric of a "hermeneutics of facticity." That notion, which Heidegger worked out in his lecture courses during the 1920s (above all in his courses dealing with Aristotle), is consolidated in his 1927 magnum opus, Being and Time. There Heidegger argues that understanding is not simply a cognitive task, but that it names one of the basic ways (existentialia) of being-in-the world. In short, understanding is now taken to be concerned with an experiencing that subtends methodological procedure. The form of such lived experience proper to human beings, for whom being is always a question and always defined by death and the ineluctability of nonbeing, is what Heidegger refers to as "factical life."

When Heidegger speaks of the hermeneutics of factical life it is a way of acknowledging both that the concerns of hermeneuticslanguage, history, and finitudeand the manner in which it takes truth to be a matter of interpretation rather than objectivity are especially well suited for the attempt to theorize factical life. The phenomenology of lived experience is now said to have the character of a hermeneutics. This means that lived experience is taken to be the working out of the factical conditions upon which any understanding whatsoever can be founded. The analysis of existence thus takes the form of a hermeneutics that traces the action of these conditions of understanding. The most important aspect of this new development is that now even self-understanding comes to be presented as a hermeneutic task. Hermeneutics is thus the manner in which existence discloses the truth of a world that is lived and it is the form by which self-understanding is achieved.

After Being and Time, Heidegger uses the word "hermeneutics" less frequently. It will be left to one of Heidegger's students from those lecture courses of the 1920s, Hans-Georg Gadamer, to systematically develop the notion of hermeneutics as a philosophical standpoint. Gadamer, whose name is most closely associated with the idea of contemporary philosophical hermeneutics, does this most extensively in his magnum opus, Truth and Method (1982).

The title Truth and Method alludes to the early sense of hermeneutics, where it was understood as a method for getting at the truth of texts. But the argument of that book entails both a fundamental rethinking of the notion of truth and a powerful critique of the idea that a method can ever yield it. In Truth and Method, Gadamer identifies hermeneutics with the insight that the concept of method is inappropriate for the task of understanding in the domain of the human sciences. Other guideposts take the place of method in the effort to unfold a truth that is understood as belonging to the realm of a historical event rather than objective fact: Language, tradition, questioning, and conversation become the leading concerns of Gadamer's hermeneutics.

Gadamer creatively draws upon several sources for his formulation of a systematic philosophical hermeneutics. In addition to those figures already mentioned, Aristotle's notion of phronesis (prudence or practical wisdom) in his Ethics, the logic of question and answer as it is found in the Platonic dialogues, Kant's understanding of judgment as well as the relation of art and truth in his Third Critique, and G. W. F. Hegel's notion of the formation of traditions all play pivotal roles in Gadamer's hermeneutics. Without any significant departure from Heidegger's way of opening up the notion of philosophical hermeneutics, Gadamer places a greater emphasis on the relevance of three themes for hermeneutics: the role of art in the disclosure of truth, the force of the prejudices of tradition in any understanding, and the importance of the question in the opening of the restrictions of such prejudices and in the liberation of understanding to the new and the foreign.

Gadamer understands hermeneutics not as a method, but more as a sort of dialogue or conversation in which understanding increases insofar as one becomes aware of the formative roles of history and language in one's self-understanding. In such a genuine dialogue with others, one's self-understanding is challenged to reflect upon and reach beyond the limits that are inscribed in its own roots in tradition and language. With Gadamer, hermeneutics comes to refer to a philosophical sensibility that has a deep commitment to exposing the ways in which all forms of understanding, rooted in self-understanding, is finite and so remains always at best a task and an ideal.

One other key figure in the field of contemporary hermeneutics is Paul Ricoeur. Ricoeur's work has been marked both by its extension of hermeneutic concerns to include psychoanalysis, literary criticism, and linguistic analysis, as well as by the details of his treatment of issues such as problems in semantics, metaphor, narrative, and temporal structures. In his earlier work Ricoeur attempted to reintegrate the role of explanation into hermeneutics theory by relying on the insights from linguistic structuralism, while in his later writings Ricoeur was less prone to pursue methodological questions. The originality of Ricoeur's hermeneutics has taken shape primarily as a matter of practices and studies of special themes, rather than as a theory of hermeneutics proper. What one sees most in those studies is how the workings of language and time have come to dominate his sense of the task of hermeneutic reflection.

See also Dilthey, Wilhelm; Gadamer, Hans-Georg; Heidegger, Martin; Phenomenology; Ricoeur, Paul; Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst.


Bruns, Gerald. Hermeneutics: Ancient and Modern. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Heidegger's Ways. Translated by John Stanley. New York: SUNY Press, 1994.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Philosophical Hermeneutics. Translated by David Linge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. Translated by Garrett Barden and John Cumming. New York: Crossroad, 1982.

Grondin, Jean. The Sources of Hermeneutics. New York: SUNY Press, 1995.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by Joan Stambaugh. New York: SUNY Press, 1996.

Heidegger, Martin. OntologyThe Hermeneutics of Facticity. Translated by John van Buren. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Makkreel, Rudolf. Dilthey: Philosopher of the Human Sciences. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Ricoeur, Paul. From Text to Action: Essays on Hermeneutics. Translated by Kathleen Blamey and John Thompson. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1991.

Ricoeur, Paul. Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences edited by John Thompson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Risser, James. Hermeneutics and the Voice of the Other. New York: SUNY Press, 1997.

Smith, Christopher. Hermeneutics and Human Finitude. New York: Fordham University Press, 1991.

Dennis, J. Schmidt (2005)


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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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