Sauk Valley Community College

Humanities 210

Hermeneutics (Herman Who?)

© 2002 Kris A. Murray

( As you read this section, try to keep the question- "Why does the instructor think I should learn about this?"- in mind. Also, as you read along, try to think of examples of how you have used hermeneutics in your everyday experiences.)

While the word hermeneutics may sound a little strange, it happens to be the term for something which we all do every day. In fact, people who might say "Herman who?" after hearing the word are doing it. Or if you were trying to relate the word to something you knew or something that sounded similar, you were doing it too. That is, you were trying to interpret the word, to understand it in relation to something you already know. In fact, that is what the word hermeneutics means- it is the ancient Greek word for "interpret" or "interpretive understanding."  The most obvious example of the word interpret is what an interpreter does when he or she translates something from one language into another language. But, while this is a good example of interpret, it is not the only way we use the word. We also say things like- "I interpreted the doctor's orders differently than you," or "I interpreted the ending to last night's episode of The Simpsons differently than my dad- he thought it was sick and I thought it was funny." 

We also use the word interpret when we talk about performances- "Mel Gibson's interpretation of Hamlet was better than/not as good as Richard Burton's," or "Eric Clapton's acoustic interpretation of 'Layla' was better than/not as good as his original version." In other words, we are talking about the decisions actors and musicians make about how to perform their roles or their music. But we also interpret their performances to ourselves- that is, we make comparisons between this performance and other performances we have seen. We also do this with the other arts, so interpretive thinking, or hermeneutical thinking, is very important for us as we study the subject of this course. Although we don't as commonly use the word interpret when we talk of what we like or dislike about things we experience, that is what we are doing. We are making decisions based upon information, and that information comes from previous experiences we have had. Therefore, we are all practicing hermeneutics all the time. That is, we are all hermeneuts, which is the term for people who do hermeneutics. (Sort of sounds like something off of Star Trek, doesn't it? "Captain, the Hermeneuts are hailing us." "On screen, Mr. Whorf.") But what really makes someone a hermeneut is being aware that making comparisons is how we think. Now this idea of making comparisons may seem pretty obvious, but, until someone pointed it out to me, I admit I hadn't really thought about how I thought. But when I did, I realized that the idea made perfect sense. However, I have also found out that, like everything else, it isn't quite as simple as it sounds. To know that we think by making comparisons doesn't necessarily help us become better hermeneuts. And it doesn't necessarily make us better interpreters of the arts. First, we must get a little more familiar with hermeneutics, and acquire the tools we will need to become better hermeneuts and to get more out of our experiences with the arts.


The word hermeneutics comes to us from the name of the Greek god Hermes. Hermes was Zeus' messenger, the one he would send down to the world of humans whenever he wanted to tell the ancient Greeks something. That is, Hermes would have to interpret Zeus' wishes to the humankind. As you can imagine, this wasn't an easy task. First, Hermes would have to be sure that he understood what Zeus' message was, which he would do by asking Zeus questions to make sure he understood. Then he would have to find just the right words to communicate the message to the Greeks, that is, he would have to interpret the message to them, so that there were no misunderstandings (if there were, Zeus could get pretty angry). So, coming from Hermes' name, the original use of the word hermeneut was for someone who interpreted messages. 

But the word hermeneutics wasn't really used as the name for a way of interpreting until many centuries later, in the 1500's, when what is known as the Protestant Reformation took place. At that time, many people felt that the Church had too much control over what people were supposed to think about the Bible. This was because it was always written in Latin and only members of the clergy could read Latin. But during the Reformation (1500's), certain priests and scholars translated the Bible into the languages of the various European nations so that others could read it. And many people did because this was also the time of the invention of the printing press, an event that many people think is the second most important thing which ever happened in history. The only event more important is the development of reading and writing itself. 

Now that the Bible was available to everyone, arguments about what it said became common. So hermeneutics was developed as the way to interpret the Bible. It was not meant to settle all the arguments or to produce only one interpretation; rather, it was developed to prevent people from saying that the Bible said this or that based only upon personal whims or needs. In later epochs, because of the success of hermeneutics in interpreting the Bible, it began to be applied to the law and literature. Finally, in the 1800's this method of interpretation was broadened to include all of the humanities. Since then, hermeneutics has become, for many thinkers, the cornerstone of their disciplines, which include anthropology, psychology, the cognitive sciences, the arts, philosophy, and even the natural sciences. 

As it became more and more recognized that the natural way of thinking is interpretive, that is, making comparisons, hermeneutics has also come to be seen as a way of interpreting how we live our lives. Since we "interpret" all the time, people now understand that it just makes good sense to learn how to do it the best that we can. And it also makes good sense for us to study hermeneutics because of the large role it plays in our understanding of the arts.

Dialectical Hermeneutics

The style of hermeneutics which we will be studying is known as dialectical hermeneutics and its main practitioner is a German philosopher and teacher, Hans-Georg Gadamer. (He used the term dialectical, which means back and forth, like a conversation, because he saw how we understand as being like a conversation. But more on that later). He developed his style of hermeneutics by studying Plato and Aristotle (some of the original hermeneuts) as well as modern philosophers and by noticing what was the same and what was different between the way the ancient Greeks thought and the way we think today. He also makes connections between the way we think and the way we interact with the arts. But in order to really understand what Gadamer discovered, we need to understand some of his key ideas.

Hermeneutical Circle

When we read, a very interesting thing happens. In order to know what a sentence means, we need to know what the individual words mean. But we can't be sure what the individual words mean until we know what the sentence means. This is because words need a context in order to mean something. Words by themselves may have definitions, but they are not meaningful until they are put together into sentences. For example, the word line has a general definition, but think about the different meanings the word takes on in the following sentences-

    "Get to the back of the line, buddy."
    "The Bears' defensive line needs a lot of help this year."
    "And that line drive is going to be caught!"
    "He has always bought into the party line." (Political party)
    "Thank God they don't have party lines anymore." (Several households sharing the same phone line.)
    "The telephone lines are down."
    "I couldn't draw a straight line if you paid me."
    "The line of communication between Jordan and Israel has been established."
    "Would you line up those glasses for me?"

I'm sure you get the point- the word line doesn't take on any meaning until it is used in a sentence. But- how can we make sense out of the sentence if we can't make sense out of the words until they are used in a sentence? In other words, which comes first, the words or the sentence? Consider the following sentence-

        at the        
            of the    

What did you see when you first read the word "bat?" For some, the word bat may have conjured up the image of the animal known as bat. The first time I read the sentence, that is exactly what I saw in my mind's eye. But at some point, the image must change to that of a baseball bat in order for the sentence to be meaningful. This usually happens when we read the word "batter." But almost everyone starts out seeing the animal and then switches to a baseball bat at the end. And if the sentence were written out normally, in a straight line, the switch would happen so fast that we wouldn't even notice.  It is only by stringing the sentence out over and down the page to slow us down that we really notice how our mind works when we read.

Now most sentences aren't this potentially confusing, but it does serve as a good example of what happens to one degree or another every time we read a sentence. In other words, we "guess" at the meaning of the words until we have read enough of the sentence to know for sure whether our guesses are right or not. But as our guesses are either confirmed or disconfirmed, the meaning of the sentence changes and we have to modify our guesses yet again. That is, we have to constantly move back and forth between the words and the sentence. And this happens, whether we realize it or not, every time we read. We are always going back and forth in order to make the words mean something so that the sentence means something. Or should we say that we are always going back and forth in order to make the sentence mean something so that the words mean something? This process can also be described as going back and forth between the particulars or parts (the words) and the whole (the sentence). And this going back and forth between the particulars and the whole is what we do whenever we try to understand anything, not just words and sentences. This then is what Gadamer means by the hermeneutical circle. It is the back and forth (dialectical) movement between the parts and the whole that leads to understanding. Let's take another example-

Hermeneutical Football

You are watching a football game. If you only watch the quarterback, you only see one particular aspect of the game. It may be an exciting aspect of the game, but it certainly isn't enough to understand how the game itself is going. You must pull back and watch the play of the teams in order to get a sense of which way the game is going. Yet if you only looked at the play of the game as a whole, you wouldn't understand the individual efforts made by the various players. But then you wouldn't appreciate the efforts of the individual players if you couldn't also see what they do within the context of the whole game. That is, Herschel Walker's ability to gain yardage wouldn't be any big deal if we couldn't see that he was doing it against some pretty big and mean defensive linemen. So, even when watching a football game, we engage in the hermeneutical circle.

Looking at paintings is another example of the hermeneutical circle. Although we can take in the entire picture at once, our real understanding of the picture doesn't begin until we also look at the details and then back to the whole. Look at the painting, The Education of the Virgin , which is also on the home, or first, page of the HUM 210 site, for example.

Education of the Virgin (click on picture to see larger version)

Although physically it is possible to look at the painting in one glance, to have any sense of what the picture really means, you must look at various parts of it- the two women, the book, the basket in the background, the play of light. But, in order for these details to have meaning, you must pull back and look at the picture as a whole once again. If you were to truly study the picture, you would go back and forth many times before you felt you had a really good sense of what the picture is all about. And yet, many people never bother to look at the details of pictures because no one ever told them that it is necessary to do so in order to really interpret the painting. (You will have a chance to do a hermeneutical circle on Georges Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of Grande Jatte in Unit Three.)

The method Heinrich Wolflin used, for example, to develop his analysis of paintings (see Lecture Note Two) was hermeneutics. And you can bet he used the hermeneutical circle to determine how the details (parallel planes, vertical and horizontal lines, shading, lighting, etc.) of a painting effect the overall impact of the painting on viewers. This is why hermeneutics is useful to us. It teaches us first that we can engage in the hermeneutical circle anytime that we have to interpret something, and second, it teaches us how to engage in the circle; for, as Gadamer says,

"We must come into the circle in the right way."



Please use Google for your research. (Be sure to click WWW for searches beyond this site.)