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An Introduction to Interpretive Theory
By Stanley E. Porter Jason C. Robinson
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Copyright © 2011 Stanley E. Porter and Jason C. Robinson
All right reserved.
Chapter One What Is Hermeneutics?
Hermeneutics has a long and complex history with many surprising twists and turns. As a discipline in its own right it is relatively modern, yet the idea of hermeneutics may be traced as far back as the ancient Greeks. In its most basic sense hermeneutics refers to the many ways in which we may theorize about the nature of human interpretation, whether that means understanding books, works of art, architecture, verbal communication, or even nonverbal bodily gestures. Indeed, as we shall see in the following chapters, the nature of human understanding, and therefore our ideas about hermeneutics and interpretive theory, face a number of interesting challenges that make a complete description of "what it means to understand" difficult.
What do we mean when we say that we understand something? While most of us may pick up an apple and immediately know that it is red and that, if we take a bite, it tastes delicious, we are unable to answer how it is that we know what we know. Few of us stop to consider what is going on when we experience things. An apple is self-evident to each of us who holds one. We do not need to be convinced that it exists and that it has properties we see, taste, and touch. Yet what makes our interaction with the apple possible remains a mystery. From a hermeneutical perspective, this is not just a question about how our senses work in relation to our cognitive processes. Perhaps the eating of a candied apple at a fair or circus represents an experience that holds special meaning. If it does, then the question of perceiving the object, the candy apple, clearly involves a unique context — a history, an event, a specific micro-world — that only the individual involved knows. It is a context that influences how one experiences that object. And now, as we think about it, it is a context that conditions our recollection. In a similar way, our experiences of people, books, social events, and so on, are all conditioned by surrounding circumstances. We do not merely hold a book in our hands, see the letters on the page, and understand the sentences and paragraphs as they exist in front of us. We experience the meaning in relation to our own histories, desires, memories, imaginations, etc. Thus the question of what it means to understand becomes a very large one. Hermeneutics attempts to answer the question by examining closely the hidden realm of activity behind the scenes of our own lives. The aim is to make the structure, or perhaps the lack of structure, of human understanding as explicit as possible.
There are many different explanations as to what might be transpiring in the act of human understanding, e.g., sociological, psychological, biological, chemical, neurological. Some of these have met with more success than others. There are also many different hermeneutical descriptions, many of which do not agree with one another or with the more scientific explanations. One of the unique claims of hermeneutics is that it goes beyond the biological, psychological, etc., because it looks at what makes all of them possible. Most importantly, hermeneutics tries to avoid reducing "understanding" to its lowest common denominator, e.g., describing it only in terms of specific neural networks working in specific electro-chemical ways within the brain. Hermeneutics is successful only to the degree that it is able to include as much of what makes us human as possible, e.g., our social, historical, linguistic, theological, and biological influences. Broadly speaking then, to think hermeneutically means to ask what we mean by human understanding universally, i.e., what we all do naturally, regardless of our specific cultures, languages, or traditions. However, most hermeneutical descriptions also pay close attention to how our cultures, languages, and traditions influence the ways in which we understand. In short, hermeneutics asks three important questions. What is understanding? How might we describe it best? And how might we understand better?
"Hermeneutics" comes from the Greek verb hermeneuein, which means "to interpret" or "to translate." Today it refers to the science, theory, and practice of human interpretation. The term has an interesting historical association with the Greek god Hermes. Hermes, a character in the ancient Greek poems the Iliad and Odyssey, played a number of interesting roles — one of them was to deliver messages from the gods to mortals. He was a medial figure that worked in the "in-between" as an interpreter of the gods, communicating a message from Olympus so humans might understand the meaning. In this way, Hermes, son of Zeus, was responsible for fostering genuine understanding — comprehension — which required more effort than if he merely transliterated (interpreting letter for letter, word for word without any modification or adaptation). Hermes had to interpret the meaning of the messages on behalf of his listeners and in doing so had to go far beyond merely repeating the intended truth. He had to re-create or reproduce the meaning that would connect to his audience's history, culture, and concepts in order to make sense of things. In like manner, hermeneutics tries to describe the daily mediation of understanding we all experience in which meaning does not emerge as a mere exchange of symbols, a direct and straightforward transmission of binary code, or a simple yes or no. Rather, meaning happens by virtue of a "go-between" that bridges the alien with the familiar, connecting cultures, languages, traditions, and perspectives that may be similar or millennia apart. The go-between is the activity of human understanding that, like Hermes, tries to make sense of the world and the heavens. It is an intricate and complex activity that sometimes gets things wrong. Our goal in this book is to consider some of the most popular ways in which this hermeneutical activity has been conceived and some of the things we may do to improve our chances of getting interpretation right.
In its earliest modern forms, hermeneutics developed primarily as a discipline for the analysis of biblical texts. It represented a body of accepted principles and practices for interpreting an author's intended (and inspired) meaning, as well as providing the proper means of investigating a text's socio-historical context. This form of hermeneutics was focused on the many dynamics that exist between author, text, and reader. It was assumed that in order to achieve a clear and accurate reading of a text one had to employ definitive rules of interpretation to clarify and safeguard the proper untangling of a rather obvious and commonsense relationship; that is, someone (at a specific place, at a specific time, with a specific language) had written something with the intention of having a later reader understand what he or she had in mind. In fact, the relationship between author, interpreter, and the interpreted material may seem so straightforward that some may doubt whether hermeneutics and interpretive theories are even necessary. After all, most of us engage in conversations daily without any specific hermeneutical aids or external methods, and we read novels, newspapers, magazines, and the like with few serious difficulties or misunderstandings. However, as we shall soon see in the chapters that follow, making sense of this seemingly elementary relationship between author, text, and reader has proven to be extremely difficult, especially when the text in question may be thousands of years old and written in ancient languages. Engaging a text or person in close proximity to one's own historical and cultural situation is easier than if there are temporal, spatial, and linguistic gaps. Yet even when we intently look below the surface of our casual and everyday encounters we find a sense of otherness or distance between ourselves and the text or other person. How many times have we been sure that we understood what was just read or heard, only to discover later on that we had been entirely mistaken? Hermeneutics thrives upon the inherent ambiguity and otherness that we face daily, and is used to foster a common accord when there is misunderstanding or lack of agreement. Whether reading an ancient text such as the Bible — where hermeneutical questions continue to be important — or trying to make sense of a current best-selling novel, our interpretive experience will be one in which hermeneutical reflection is always relevant.
One of the ongoing debates in hermeneutics has been over which elements to emphasize in the tripartite relationship of author, text, and reader, for the purpose of bridging gaps in understanding — whether between (1) the author and his or her intention placed within the text, (2) the text and its cultural-historical context, or (3) the reader's present situation and socio-historically conditioned way of understanding the text. Focusing on one element over the others runs the risk of creating an imbalance or, at the very least, rendering an incomplete picture. For instance, emphasizing a search for an author's originally intended message will often mean that the circumstances that influence the reader's own perspectives on the text — that is, what the reader is likely to have "read into" the text, "between the lines" so to say — are potentially overlooked. Conversely, many contemporary hermeneuts (hermeneutical thinkers) accept the "death of the author" in favor of emphasizing the dynamics between reader and text for, it is argued, we simply do not have access to an author's original intention. This does not mean that we should entirely ignore the author, only that we should not regard authorial intention as something to be sought like a secret plot or mystery behind the words themselves. We may never fully put ourselves into the shoes of another, so there will always be some uncertainty. Moreover, some hermeneuts have gone much further and argued that the basic tripartite depiction of author, interpreter, and interpreted is flawed from the start. They have abandoned it for something they believe is more fundamental. One of the more popular versions of this approach argues that finding the "ideal" source of human understanding, attained through principles and rules of interpretation that offer methodologically sound and objectively reliable knowledge, is an impossible quest. Instead, what we should examine is our "way of being" in the world, for which method and objectivity have only minor roles to play at most.
Whether for legal, philological (the historical study of languages), or theological applications, early hermeneutical thinking was dominated by attempts to find the right method or technique for ensuring correct understanding. Since then the different hermeneutical applications have given way to more generalized hermeneutical approaches that go beyond the scope of disciplinary boundaries. Hermeneutics now applies to every subject area within the social, human, and natural sciences. It has ceased to be a special philosophy, method, or way of interpreting sacred literature, and has become a universal means of thinking by which we attempt to clarify the conditions of all human understanding. Strictly speaking, contemporary hermeneutics is not a discipline in the typical sense. True to its mediating heritage, hermeneutics does not attempt to establish itself as a philosophical scheme or discipline on its own. Rather, it endeavors to describe the already present structure of human understanding and to highlight the conditions for clearer insight and comprehension. Hermeneutics does not directly seek to set up a new way of seeing the world; that is, it does not prescribe how we "ought" to reflect upon and think about things (although there is a very real sense in which such changes may result from thinking hermeneutically), but to describe how we already do reflect and think.
Some contemporary hermeneutical investigations still function chiefly as the application of techniques and methods for the sake of facilitating understanding; that is, they continue to rely on prescribed rules and principles for bolstering a specific kind of reliable comprehension. As we shall observe, such attitudes and posturing toward interpretation, while perhaps serving valuable roles in their own right, have held more modest positions among contemporary hermeneutics, which perceives itself as describing what it is to understand in the first place, prior to any secondary and "externally applied" means toward truth. In sum, hermeneutics — once something characterized by specific tools of thought within a handful of disciplines — has become a general theory of understanding for all spheres of human awareness.
This fundamental shift represents a very important repositioning of interests in regard to the nature of human understanding. An obvious example is that most hermeneuts no longer try to answer what a particular passage "really means" in a complete and total way or what an author "really intended." Few today would be so bold as to claim to know "the Truth" beyond a shadow of doubt. This is due in large part to the perceived failure of the many previous interpretive theories and methods. Indeed, in surveying the history of hermeneutics and interpretive theory one cannot help but be struck by a growing sense of modesty and humility. The activity of interpretation and how we might best do it remains an open question. It is not surprising then that some, e.g., radical deconstructionists, have simply given up, or at the very least have become radically skeptical about ever having a comprehensive theory of interpretation or a hermeneutic.
Recent generations of hermeneuts are similar to the old in that they endeavor to bring about meaningful agreement — a sharing of a common meaning among people — but, unlike their predecessors, they seek to bridge the gap between interpreter and interpreted by illuminating the conditions under which agreement may be reached through dialogue in all areas of human pursuit, whether biblical, theological, philosophical, scientific, and so on. Hermeneutics does not and cannot guarantee the fixed meaning of a text, a laboratory experiment, or a work of art. Thus the very goals of hermeneutics, and not only the methods and practices, have been thrown open to debate and discussion. Part of the challenge in thinking about hermeneutics is deciding which debates and discussions are worthy of engagement, and which are unlikely to be fruitful. Our hope is that readers will find something of value in each chapter, and that the questions they take away will help inform their own field, discipline, or vocation.
So what might this general theory of human understanding offer us today? We shall answer this in due course. For now let us take note of the fact that hermeneutics is an umbrella movement with many different themes that have evolved into a surprising array of theories, most dramatically so since the late nineteenth century. Fortunately for students of hermeneutics, there is a strong tradition of shared interest in concepts and motifs such as language, creativity, experience, authority, history, tradition, freedom, application, knowledge, understanding, and science. So while there may be little in the way of universally accepted properties and even less that may be recognized as linear and gradual development in hermeneutics, i.e., clear steps of progress that have led uniformly to the present, there are still many common themes, historical stages, and enduring questions that we may critically examine.
For our purposes there are six distinct hermeneutical trends that, while overlapping in many areas, are worth examining in detail: romantic, phenomenological and existential, philosophical, critical, structural, and poststructural (deconstruction). In addition to studying these major hermeneutical movements, we will also examine what we consider to be some of the most influential and important adaptations of these interpretive theories, in order to gain greater insight into the intricate problems and questions in modern hermeneutics, as well as to become aware of the more practical difficulties experienced when one tries to apply hermeneutical theories theologically and biblically. To that end, we will examine hermeneutic phenomenology, dialectical theology and exegesis, theological hermeneutics, and literary hermeneutics. The dependency of these adaptations upon the major hermeneutical trends should become clear in their individual discussions. However, the order and style of presentation will not be as simple as these lists indicate. We focus upon key figures within each movement and integrate the approaches into an order that we think makes their relationships clear.
At this point, we wish to introduce the major trends and adaptations that we treat in this volume.
Excerpted from Hermeneutics by Stanley E. Porter Jason C. Robinson Copyright © 2011 by Stanley E. Porter and Jason C. Robinson. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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