Does the ‘hermeneutic circle’ make all understanding subjective?

By Colman Cassidy

Abstract

IMG_20150413_141307_kindlephoto-1889644This paper explores whether the ‘hermeneutic circle’ makes all understanding subjective.
In framing an answer to this question, some of the salient features of hermeneutic theory are addressed.  The first revolves around the definition of hermeneutics: its basic distinctive claim – what it postulates as the aim and method of understanding human beings in society.  The distinctive nature of the human sciences as portrayed by hermeneutic theory (its claims concerning the positive potential of the human sciences) is examined – with reference to the classical hermeneutic theory, notably identified with Dilthey as well as modern hermeneutics deriving from Heidegger, Gadamer and Ricoeur, in particular.  The paper explores some of the difficulties for the human sciences posed by the ‘hermeneutic circle’, recognition of which is seen to threaten the possibility of any form of provable objectivity in the theories of interpretation put forward.

Part I – Definition and Scope

In a 1971 study of the interpretation and the human sciences, Taylor defines hermeneutics as an attempt to make clear, to make sense of an object of study: “This object must… be a text, or a text-analogue, which in some way is confused, incomplete, cloudy, seemingly contradictory – in one way or another unclear.  The interpretation aims to bring to light an underlying coherence or sense.”1)Taylor, Charles, ‘Interpretation and the sciences of man’, The Review of Metaphysics, Vol.XXV, No.1, 1971.  He argues that the object of a ‘science of interpretation’ must be to distinguish sense from expression, “which is for the subject”. 2)Ibid.  And therefore, it is impossible to avoid the necessity for a common understanding of the language (the expressions) involved.  This introduces the notion of the ‘hermeneutic circle’ – in an attempt to establish a certain reading of text or expressions: the grounds for this particular reading can only be other readings.

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The finite world of man (Heidegger’s Dasein) can be understood only by asking questions.  The form a question takes, however, is determined by the underlying considerations pertaining to it so that the outcome is partially pre-determined by a degree of interpretation of the subject under review.  Dasein is organised as an existential structure, which a priori, contains within itself a basis for interpreting the world.

Or again, the hermeneutic circle may be seen in terms of ‘part-whole’ relations – as demonstrated through attempts to establish a reading that encompasses the entire text.  This might involve an analysis of its particular expressions.  Such an analysis will depend upon the partial expressions of other parts of the text – and ultimately, of the entire text: “We can only convince an interlocutor if at some point he shares our understanding of the language concerned.  If he does not, there is no further step to take in rational argument.” 3)Ibid.  Taylor concludes that in general, the ’empiricist’ approach is hostile to the conduct of inquiry that is based on interpretation – and which encounters the hermeneutic circle, as described.  It cannot cope with the dictates of intersubjective non-arbitrary verification that it considers essential to science: in tandem with this is the ontological notion that reality must be assessed through the prism of Verstehen (understanding) and the resulting explanation understood.

The claims of hermeneutic theory, if they conflict with the natural sciences, would, eo ipso, constitute criteria for judging the natural sciences.  It is arguable, in the event of such a conflict, that the natural sciences would have to defer to the human sciences.  This is because of the a priori position necessarily allocated to human understanding, in the scheme of things: for instance, before any a priori and/or methodological ‘priority’ may be established in any human being, it is first necessary to go through the formulation of human understanding.  It is from this that the relativism of natural sciences as simply ‘one other narrative emerging through post-modernism’ comes about.

Essentially, let us recall that hermeneutics (derived etymologically from ‘Hermes’, messenger of the gods) is the theory and practice of interpretation.  It is the systematic formulation of the principles that should underlie the interpretation of messages – or more accurately, the interpretation of meaning.  In effect, it is a play on the ambiguity of meaning – from utterances denoting the meaningfulness of the action underlying the extension of hermeneutics, which traditionally was concerned with the theory of historical understanding.

Part II – The ‘First’ Hermeneutics

At first it was construed as the interpretation of texts (whole works).  Theorists of nature and those concerned with the fundamental methodology of history began to suggest that what historians were producing was nothing less than an attempt to unfold the meaningfulness of contemporary society so that the social facts could be seen as something entirely apart from the natural sciences: social facts were complexes of human behaviour that were internally meaningful (in the sense advocated by Peter Winch on the one hand, and Max Weber, on the other).  To find out what was going on at a particular period in history was to understand what a particular text meant.
The first major stage in its development was the philosophic reflection on the philological translation practices that were developed, for example, the translations and interpretations of The Bible.  Research into the so-called ‘canon and anatomy of the text’ prescribed that the fundamental rules of such interpretation must be related to the text itself – and not, primarily, to translation.  Significantly, these rules for interpretation must be the rules that were relevant at the time that the original text was compiled – underlining the crucial importance given to the historicality of interpretation.

From this focus the problem of the principles governing inadequate interpretation arose in hermeneutics.  The 19th century German theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), in particular, was involved in the translation of the sacred texts.  The problem of interpretation was further broadened by Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) who began to see the task of history as taking much of the surviving traces (mainly textual) and re-constructing the forms of life (reminiscent of Winch’s re-constructions from Wittgenstein) that produced those traces.  From this it is obvious that there is a philosophical profundity between the interpretation of history and the interpretation of society as a whole.  What underlay that was the principle of hermeneutic understanding.  In simple terms, if the concepts under review partly constitute what a person is doing at any time (as Winch would have it), then what he or she is doing may only be understood if knowledge of those concepts is available: in hermeneutics one comes to understand the text when one knows how it has been constructed. 4)In an epistemological sense, the person who wrote the text under review will have used certain rules in its construction: philological polemical rules, rules that identify the lexicon of language, grammatical syntax, rules for combining words in a lexicon, syntactic rules, rules that related to the understood world and so on.    Hermeneutics is therefore concerned with the determination of sense in the elements within a text, within which something written can vitally affect meaning.   It is concerned with other features of the text, too, such as the fact that what is written actually means that it says it means – as well as phonologically descriptive and pragmatic considerations.  Somebody using a test (utterances) is using (even unconsciously) these rules.  There are complex rules of what constitute sound rules/lexicography in the formulation of formulae etc. for a particular language.

For Dilthey, the social sciences differ fundamentally from the natural sciences: the term, Geisteswissenschaften (human studies), literally translates as ‘study of the human spirit’ and has come to have a specific meaning since Dilthey adopted it.

It explores the complex of concepts integral to Verstehen – as, for example, in the perception of one human being by another, and extending to all social and historical phenomena.

For Dilthey, as well, all the social sciences share essentially the same subject-matter, denoted through expressions of mind (or the ‘mind-created world’).  Access is through Verstehen (later postulated by Weber as the distinguishing mark of the social sciences), which “penetrates the observable facts of human history to reach what is not accessible to the senses and yet affects external facts and expresses itself through them”. 5)Dilthey – quoted in Parkinson, G.H.R. (ed.), An Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge, 1988, p.791.
Language as an objective expression of mind, is for Dilthey, paradigmatic – specifically written texts: “In language alone, human inwardness finds its complete, exhaustive and objectively comprehensible expression… The art of understanding therefore centres on the interpretation of written records of human existence.”6)Ibid.  Hence, he proposes hermeneutics as the methodology of textual interpretation (Auslegung) to be the basic model for understanding in the human sciences – with social phenomena in general being treated as texts to be interpreted.  The view that there is an unavoidable hermeneutical component in the human sciences, first raised by Dilthey, has surfaced in more recent times in the work of Heidegger, Gadamer and Ricoeur.

Part III – The ‘Second’ Hermeneutics

The basic premisses of modern hermeneutics proclaim that scientific explanation is not the only type of understanding and that the human world may be understood only through answers to questions that are directly asked of it.  Significantly, the form and content that a question takes is shaped by the interest that underlies it – since the question already embodies within itself a partial interpretation of the answer it is seeking.  This, once again, conjures up the notion of the ‘hermeneutic circle’ – the idea that no interpretation is possible until interpretation has already begun.

Thus, it may be argued that hermeneutic theory is hardly distinguishable in its essential context from the views expressed by Peter Winch on the idea of a social science; neither is it so different from Weber’s analysis of the human sciences as attempting to provide theories of meaningful action, that is, meaningfulness – there is, indeed, a series of complex links between Winch, Weber and the hermeneutic tradition.7)Hermeneutic tradition, even more explicitly than Winch, roots its orientation in linguistic theory.  Also, it articulates its theories in a much more detailed and systematic fashion than Winch.  In a systematic sense, hermeneutics is saying much the same as Winch, particularly 20th century hermeneutic theorists such as Heidegger, Gadamer and Ricoeur.  There is, however, a basis to hermeneutic theory that is much more wide-ranging, philosophically, than the arguments expressed in Winch’s seminal work on the social sciences, first published in 1958.8)cf. Winch, Peter, The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958/1990.  His philosophic theory does not reveal the same scope and breadth as, say, the meta-ontology of Heidegger.   9)Within the profound ontology formulated by Heidegger, there is much greater stress on relating hermeneutics back to its 19th century tradition, than in Winch: there is, almost explicitly, the collapse of the human sciences into history – or at least, the claim that the most important dimension of the human sciences is the historical dimension.

Heidegger was to give an ontological formulation to the notion of a ‘self-knowledge’ that allows us to understand the thoughts of other human beings.  What he does, essentially, is to combine “the radical individualism of Nietzsche’s aesthetic perspectives and Kierkegaard’s notion of genuineness in a transcendental structure that is at once Kantian and Hegelian”. 10)cf. Rosen, Stanley, Hermeneutics as Politics. Oxford University Press, 1987, p.156.  Thus, the finite world of man (Dasein) is organised as an existential structure, which a priori, contains within itself a basis for interpreting the world.  Dasein presupposes that creatures with a ‘radical’ temporality, that is, human beings ‘meaningful in consciousness’, are orientated into a world we know.  And this structure is temporal or historical in the ontological sense.  This is the Hegelian element in Heidegger’s ontology, according to Rosen, which he argues does not blend with the Kantian notion of a transcendental structure of ‘onto-logical’ (sic) categories: “Heidegger was never able to explain discursively (Sein und Zeit is a discursive or ‘academic’ work of ontology) the ground of his existential categories.” 11)cf. Rosen, p.158.  In that sense, says Rosen, he was unable to progress much beyond Nietzsche and hence Heidegger’s early ontology is an interpretation of the world rather than phenomenological description.

Heidegger is saying, in effect: Dasein is in every case what it can be, and in the way in which it is its possibility.  The being-possible which is essential for Dasein, pertains to the ways of its solicitude for others and of its concern with the ‘world’ as characterised; and in all these, and always, it pertains to Dasein’s potentiality-for-being towards itself, for the sake of itself.  The being-possible which Dasein is, existentially, in every case, is to be sharply distinguished both from empty logical possibility and from the contingency of something present-at-hand – in so far as the present-at-hand this or that can ‘come to pass’. 12)cf. Heidegger, Martin, ‘Phenomenology and fundamental ontology: the disclosure of meaning’ in Mueller-Vollmer, Kurt (ed.) The Hermeneutics Reader.  NY: Continuum, 1985, p.236.

For Heidegger ‘understanding’ is a fundamental existentiale that is neither a definite species of cognition distinguishable from explaining and conceiving, nor indeed, any cognition at all in the sense of grasping something thematically: “Understanding constitutes rather the Being of the ‘there’ in such a way that, on the basis of such understanding, a Dasein can, in existing, develop the different possibilities of sight, of looking around and of just looking.” 13)Mueller-Vollmer, p.32.

Mueller-Vollmer, in his introduction to The Hermeneutics Reader, notes that terms such as ‘understanding’, ‘interpretation’ and ‘explication’ assume a key position in Heidegger’s philosophy of Being and Time, (Sein und Zeit): his investigation of familiar concepts has changed the very character of traditional hermeneutics and “disclosed new vistas for it, moving it away from traditional methodological concerns”. 14)Mueller-Vollmer, p.33.  He argues that Heidegger’s existential analysis was necessary to clear the way for the true problem at hand – the problem of Being. 15)The second part of Being and Time, which was to include the formal interpretation of the meaning of Being, he notes, never appeared – and he insists that Heidegger’s seminal work, published in 1927, must still be regarded as a hermeneutic philosophy in its own right par excellence.  cf. Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time.  Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. NY: Harper & Row, 1962. (English translation of Sein und Zeit.)

Part IV – Language

Let us now examine in more detail the pivotal role of language in hermeneutic theory in the light of the foundation laid by Heidegger: for Gadamer, Heidegger’s work did not end with the transcendental schema that motivated the concept of self-understanding in Being and Time: “The real question is not in what way being can be understood but in what way understanding is being, for the understanding of being represents the existential distinction of Dasein.” 16)Quoted in Mueller-Vollmer, p.32.  Language is, for Gadamer, the continuous ‘occurrence’ (Geschehen) of dialogue comprising interpersonal understanding which facilitates the relaying of ‘tradition’ that comprises our Dasein – and our history.  Thus, building on the Heideggerian foundation, the focal point of his hermeneutics is the historicality of Dasein conceived as temporality. 17)cf. Markus Gyorgy, ‘The paradigm of language: Wittgenstein, Levi-Straus, Gadamer’, in Fekete, John (ed.), The Structural Allegory: Reconstructive Encounters with the New French Thought. Manchester University Press, 1984, pp.104-129.

What Markus calls ‘the first hermeneutics’ (closely linked to German idealism from Schleiermacher to Dilthey) had come to regard ‘historical consciousness’ as a means of freeing the individual from being forced to embrace prescribed norms that appeared ‘natural’ at certain historical junctures.  This tradition identified the inherent meaning of social activities with the subjective psychological intentions of the agents carrying out these activities – with explanation a function of hermeneutic understanding.
The ‘second’ hermeneutics, rooted in Heidegger and especially Gadamer, “starts from a compelling critique of the naive presuppositions of this ‘historical enlightenment’, above all, from criticism of the belief that it is possible to transcend the perspectival character (Standortgebundheit) of thought through purely theoretical acts and thereby to fund an ‘adequate’, neutral standpoint over and beyond history.”  There are close links here with Wittgenstein whose own analysis of language undermined the psychologistic theory of meaning. 18)Markus Gyorky, p.107. cf. Note 4.  It is the grammatical rules of language that determine meaning. The best account may be arrived at by staying on the level of structural linguistics and looking at the Chomskyan outline of semantic theory.  Chomsky does not go into great detail about philological rules, but concentrates, instead on the grammar.  These are complex rules that constitute a particular text. Grammar and the semantic dimension comprise the elements of language.  Chomsky says, in effect: the rules through which grammar can construct need to be articulated.  If the scope of interpretative understanding is extended from the text to human society, to produce an understanding, one must be able to construct the thing in question.  One must be able to imagine oneself performing the action, just as in the simplest case of a particular utterance; to know what the utterance means is to know when it would have been said. 19)cf. Chomsky, Noam, Topics in the Theory of Generative Grammar. Hague: Mouton, 1966.
For Gadamer, all forms of human community are forms of linguistic community: even more, they constitute language. 20)Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Truth and Method (2nd ed.) NY: Seabury, 1975, p.404.  And (with particular relevance to our question) concerning the subjectivity of interpretative understanding, Gadamer is unequivocal: he objects strongly to the view that historicity is accidental within the essence and function of language – on the grounds that this renders language artificial.  The means of expression, which appear in a language in order to say certain things, are not accidental.  On the contrary, it is in this way that a definite articulation of the world is constructed.  Thus, he underlines what Markus refers to as the ‘objectifying’ character of language: “…language has its true being …in the exercise of understanding between people.” 21)Ibid.  In arguing strongly, as he does against contemporary ‘subjectivism’, he highlights the latent intersubjectivity behind the hidden relationship of individual subjects to objects.

The resonance of Gadamer’s interpretative philosophy is seen in the work of Paul Ricoeur.  For Ricoeur, to interpret is to appropriate here and now the intention of the text: “The intended meaning of the text is not essentially the presumed intention of the author, the lived experience of the writer, but rather what a text means for whoever complies with its injunction..to explain is to bring out the structure, that is the internal relations of depend which constitute the statics of the text…to place oneself en route towards the orient of the text.” 22)Valdes, Mario J. (ed.), A Ricoeur Reader. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991., p.17. He sees ‘post-structuralist thought’ as deriving from Heidegger’s conception of Being that rules out any possibility of “an errorless reliable origin”. 23)Ibid. p.25. The reader’s elucidation of the text comes about when he or she discerns its ‘knowing appropriateness’.  This is a key concept that Ricoeur has taken from Gadamer and which he defines in these terms: “The boundary between configuration and refiguration has not yet been crossed as long as the world of the work remains a transcendence immanent to the text.” 24)Ibid. pp.25-26.  Ricoeur is seen to offer an alternative to deconstruction within post-structuralism.  In post-structuralist hermeneutics the reader “does not project the a priori of his or her own understanding, nor does he or she interpolate this a priori into the text”.  Ricoeur’s philosophy gives us the means to transcend the finite character of being-in-the-world and to celebrate the participation of text and readers in the community of commentary. 25)Valdes, p.30.
For Ricoeur the idea of interpretation ‘appropriation’ lies at the extremity of the hermeneutic arc (circle): “It is,” he says, “the final brace of the bridge, the anchorage of the arch in the ground of lived experience. 26)Ricoeur, Paul, ‘What is text?’ in A Ricoeur Reader. pp.43-64.

Conclusion

A social science which wishes to fulfil the requirements of the empiricist tradition tends to concentrate on the reconstruction of social reality on the basis of ‘brute data’ alone, as Taylor argues: “What this excludes is a consideration of social realty as characterised by intersubjective and common meanings.” 27)Taylor, op. cit.  He suggests that the result of such a course may be “disastrous to a science of comparative politics”, in that we interpret all other societies in the categories of our own: “Ironically, this is what seems to have happened to American political science.   Having strongly criticised the old institutional-focused comparative politics for its ethnocentricity (or Western bias), it proposes to understand the politics of all society in terms of such functions…The not surprising result is a theory of political development which places the Atlantic-type polity at the summit of human political achievement. 28)Ibid. Also, cf. MacIntyre, Alasdair, ‘How is a comparative science of politics possible?’ in Against the Self-Images of the Age. London, 1971.
This may be partially explained thus, by reference to a simple example, Morse code: it is the pre-existence of some form of understanding that constitutes the ‘hermeneutic circle’.  A coded message is received and a principle of interpretation is called for, but the codes may be wrong!  An assumption is made on how the message is to be decoded, nonetheless.  If something meaningful emerges and yet seems wholly irrational, one says: “I must have got the rules wrong.”  One only knows one is  right if one gets a sensible interpretation and can put it in a meaningful context – as with ‘Atlantic-type’ political science.
But what determines what is meaningful?  In the end we must revert to Heidegger’s Dasein – persons, meaningful in consciousness must be orientated into a world we know.

Colman Cassidy ©;

References   [ + ]

1. Taylor, Charles, ‘Interpretation and the sciences of man’, The Review of Metaphysics, Vol.XXV, No.1, 1971.
2, 3, 21. Ibid.
4. In an epistemological sense, the person who wrote the text under review will have used certain rules in its construction: philological polemical rules, rules that identify the lexicon of language, grammatical syntax, rules for combining words in a lexicon, syntactic rules, rules that related to the understood world and so on.    Hermeneutics is therefore concerned with the determination of sense in the elements within a text, within which something written can vitally affect meaning.   It is concerned with other features of the text, too, such as the fact that what is written actually means that it says it means – as well as phonologically descriptive and pragmatic considerations.  Somebody using a test (utterances) is using (even unconsciously) these rules.  There are complex rules of what constitute sound rules/lexicography in the formulation of formulae etc. for a particular language.
5. Dilthey – quoted in Parkinson, G.H.R. (ed.), An Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge, 1988, p.791.
6. Ibid.
7. Hermeneutic tradition, even more explicitly than Winch, roots its orientation in linguistic theory.  Also, it articulates its theories in a much more detailed and systematic fashion than Winch.
8. cf. Winch, Peter, The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958/1990.
9. Within the profound ontology formulated by Heidegger, there is much greater stress on relating hermeneutics back to its 19th century tradition, than in Winch: there is, almost explicitly, the collapse of the human sciences into history – or at least, the claim that the most important dimension of the human sciences is the historical dimension.
10. cf. Rosen, Stanley, Hermeneutics as Politics. Oxford University Press, 1987, p.156.
11. cf. Rosen, p.158.
12. cf. Heidegger, Martin, ‘Phenomenology and fundamental ontology: the disclosure of meaning’ in Mueller-Vollmer, Kurt (ed.) The Hermeneutics Reader.  NY: Continuum, 1985, p.236.
13. Mueller-Vollmer, p.32.
14. Mueller-Vollmer, p.33.
15. The second part of Being and Time, which was to include the formal interpretation of the meaning of Being, he notes, never appeared – and he insists that Heidegger’s seminal work, published in 1927, must still be regarded as a hermeneutic philosophy in its own right par excellence.  cf. Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time.  Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. NY: Harper & Row, 1962. (English translation of Sein und Zeit.)
16. Quoted in Mueller-Vollmer, p.32.
17. cf. Markus Gyorgy, ‘The paradigm of language: Wittgenstein, Levi-Straus, Gadamer’, in Fekete, John (ed.), The Structural Allegory: Reconstructive Encounters with the New French Thought. Manchester University Press, 1984, pp.104-129.
18. Markus Gyorky, p.107. cf. Note 4.
19. cf. Chomsky, Noam, Topics in the Theory of Generative Grammar. Hague: Mouton, 1966.
20. Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Truth and Method (2nd ed.) NY: Seabury, 1975, p.404.
22. Valdes, Mario J. (ed.), A Ricoeur Reader. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991., p.17.
23. Ibid. p.25.
24. Ibid. pp.25-26.
25. Valdes, p.30.
26. Ricoeur, Paul, ‘What is text?’ in A Ricoeur Reader. pp.43-64.
27. Taylor, op. cit.
28. Ibid. Also, cf. MacIntyre, Alasdair, ‘How is a comparative science of politics possible?’ in Against the Self-Images of the Age. London, 1971.

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