Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger and Gadamer

Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger and Gadamer

by Richard E. Palmer


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This classic, first published in 1969, introduces to English-speaking readers a field which is of increasing importance in contemporary philosophy and theology—hermeneutics, the theory of understanding, or interpretation.

Richard E. Palmer, utilizing largely untranslated sources, treats principally of the conception of hermeneutics enunciated by Heidegger and developed into a "philosophical hermeneutics" by Hans-Georg Gadamer. He provides a brief overview of the field by surveying some half-dozen alternate definitions of the term and by examining in detail the contributions of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey. In the Manifesto which concludes the book, Palmer suggests the potential significance of hermeneutics for literary interpretation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810104594
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 06/01/1969
Series: SPEP Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 283
Sales rank: 660,974
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Richarde E. Palmer is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion at MacMurray College.

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Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer

By Richard E. Palmer

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 1969 Northwestern University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-0459-4



HERMENEUTICS is a word heard increasingly in theological, philosophical, and even literary circles. The New Hermeneutic has emerged as a dominant movement in European Protestant theology, asserting that hermeneutics is the "focal point" of today's theological issues. Three international "Consultations on Hermeneutics" have been held at Drew University, and several recent books in English are available on hermeneutics in the theological context. Martin Heidegger, in a recently published group of essays, discusses the persistently hermeneutical character of his own thinking, both early and late. Philosophy itself, Heidegger asserts, is (or should be) "hermeneutical." And in 1967 the splendid isolation of American literary criticism from hermeneutics was shattered by E. D. Hirsch's book Validity in Interpretation. A full-dress essay in hermeneutics, Hirsch's treatise offers major challenges to widely held ideas in prevailing criticism. According to Hirsch, hermeneutics can and should serve as a foundational and preliminary discipline for all literary interpretation.

With these contemporary claims for the central importance of hermeneutics in three humanistic disciplines — theology, philosophy, and literary interpretation — it is becoming ever more clear that this field will figure importantly on the frontiers of American thinking in the next few years. But the term is not a household word in either philosophy or literary criticism; and even in theology its usage often appears in a restricted sense that contrasts with the broad usage in the contemporary theological "new hermeneutic." Hence the question is often asked: What is hermeneutics? Webster's Third New International Dictionary says: "the study of the methodological principles of interpretation and explanation; specif: the study of the general principles of biblical interpretation." Such a definition may satisfy those who merely wish a working understanding of the word itself; those who hope to gain an idea of the field of hermeneutics will demand much more. Unfortunately, there is as yet in English no full-length expository treatment of hermeneutics as a general discipline, although there are some very good introductions to "hermeneutic" (without the s) in the context of theology. But even these sources do not claim to furnish an adequate foundation for comprehending the nature and significance of hermeneutics as a general, nontheological discipline.

There is a pressing need, therefore, for an introductory treatment of hermeneutics in a nontheological context which will be directed at clarifying the meaning and scope of the term. The present study attempts to meet this need. It will give the reader some idea of the fluidity of hermeneutics and the complex problems involved in defining it, and it will discuss the basic issues which have concerned four of the most important thinkers on the subject. It will also furnish the basic bibliographical references for further exploration.

For its author, however, this book stands in the context of another project — that of moving toward a more adequate approach to literary interpretation. In German hermeneutical theory can be found the philosophical foundations for a radically more comprehensive understanding of the problems in literary interpretation. Thus, the aim of exploring hermeneutics has in this book been conformed to another purpose: to delineate the matrix of considerations within which American literary theorists can meaningfully reopen the question of interpretation on a philosophical level prior to all considerations of application in techniques of literary analysis. Put programmatically, this book's purpose is to call upon American literary interpretation to reexplore in a phenomenological context the question: What is interpretation? This study ultimately suggests a specific orientation to the question — the phenomenological approach. It sees in phenomenological hermeneutics, as over against other forms, the most adequate context for exploring the question.

In light of the programmatic purpose of this study in relation to literary interpretation, the following two sections present some preliminary remarks on the condition of American literary criticism and the need in American literary thinking for a philosophical reappraisal.


LITERARY INTERPRETATION in England and America operates, philosophically speaking, largely in the framework of realism. It tends to presuppose, for instance, that the literary work is simply "out there" in the world, essentially independent of its perceivers. One's perception of the work is considered to be separate from the work itself, and the task of literary interpretation is to speak about the "work itself." The author's intentions, too, are held rigidly separate from the work; the work is a "being" in itself, a being with its own powers and dynamics. A typical modern interpreter generally defends the "autonomy of being" of the literary work, and sees his task as that of penetrating this being through textual analysis. The preliminary separation of subject and object, so axiomatic in realism, becomes the philosophical foundation and framework for literary interpretation.

The tremendous fruitfulness of such a framework shows itself in the highly developed art of recent textual analysis. In its technical power and subtlety, this art cannot be compared to anything in the history of Western literary interpretation. Yet the time has come to question the foundation of presuppositions upon which it rests. This is best done not from within the realistic perspective itself but by going outside it and holding it up for inspection. One movement in European thinking which has submitted a radical critique of realistic conceptions of perceiving and interpretation is phenomenology. By furnishing the key to a reevaluation of the presuppositions upon which English and American literary interpretation is based, phenomenology could provide the impetus for the next decisive advance in American theory and practice of interpretation.

A study of phenomenology makes especially apparent the essential kinship between realism and the "scientific" perspective, and the extent to which literary interpretation has fallen into the scientist's ways of thinking: his down-to-business objectivity, his static conceptualizing, his lack of an historical sense, his love of analysis. For, with all its humanistic pretensions and flamboyant defenses of poetry in an "age of technology," modern literary criticism has itself become increasingly technological. More and more, it has imitated the approach of the scientist. The text of a literary work (despite its autonomous "being") tends to be regarded as an object — an "aesthetic object." The text is analyzed in strict separation from any perceiving subject, and "analysis" is thought of as virtually synonymous with "interpretation."

Even the recent rapprochement with social criticism in some sort of enlightened formalism only broadens the definition of the object to include its social context in the analysis. Literary interpretation, by and large, is still generally seen as an exercise in the conceptual "dissection" (a biological image!) of the literary object (or "being"). Of course, since this being or object is an "aesthetic" object, dissecting it is somehow thought to be vastly more "humanizing" than dissecting a frog in a laboratory; yet the image of a scientist taking an object apart to see how it is made has become the prevailing model of the art of interpretation. Students in literature classes are sometimes even told that their personal experience of a work is some kind of fallacy irrelevant to the analysis of the work. And professors, gathered in huge conventions, ritually bewail the fact that their students find literature "irrelevant"; but their technological conception of interpretation, with its undergirding metaphysics of realism, actually promotes the very irrelevance they ineffectually lament.

"Science manipulates things and gives up living in them," the late French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty tells us. This, in one sentence, is what has happened to American literary interpretation. We have forgotten that the literary work is not a manipulatable object completely at our disposal; it is a human voice out of the past, a voice which must somehow be brought to life. Dialogue, not dissection, opens up the world of a literary work. Disinterested objectivity is not appropriate to the understanding of a literary work. The modern critic, of course, pleads for passion — even surrender to the "autonomous being" of the work — yet all the while he is treating the work as an object of analysis. Literary works are best regarded, however, not primarily as objects of analysis but as humanly created texts which speak. One must risk his personal "world" if he is to enter the life-world of a great lyric poem, novel, or drama. What is needed for this is not some scientific method in disguise, or an "anatomy of criticism" with the most brilliant and subtle typologies and classifications, but a humanistic understanding of what interpretation of a work involves.


THE TASK OF INTERPRETATION and the meaning of understanding are different — more elusive, more historical — in relation to a work than in relation to an "object." A "work" is always stamped with the human touch; the word itself suggests this, for a work is always a work of man (or of God). An "object," on the other hand, can be a work or it can be a natural object. To use the word "object" in reference to a work blurs an important distinction, for one needs to see the work not as object but as work. Literary criticism needs to seek a "method" or "theory" specifically appropriate to deciphering the human imprint on a work, its "meaning." This "deciphering" process, this "understanding" the meaning of a work, is the focus of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the study of understanding, especially the task of understanding texts. Natural science has methods of understanding natural objects; "works" require a hermeneutic, a "science" of understanding appropriate to works as works. Certainly the methods of "scientific analysis" can and should be applied to works, but in doing so the works are treated as silent, natural objects. Insofar as they are objects, they are amenable to scientific methods of interpretation; as works, they call for more subtle and comprehensive modes of understanding. The field of hermeneutics grew up as an effort to describe these latter, more specifically "historical" and "humanistic" modes of understanding.

As will be seen in succeeding chapters, hermeneutics achieves its most authentic dimensions when it moves away from being a conglomeration of devices and techniques for text explication and attempts to see the hermeneutical problem within the horizon of a general account of interpretation itself. Thus it involves two different and interacting focuses of attention: (1) the event of understanding a text, and (2) the more encompassing question of what understanding and interpretation, as such, are.

One of the essential elements for an adequate hermeneutical theory, and by extension an adequate theory of literary interpretation, is a sufficiently broad conception of interpretation itself. Consider for a moment the ubiquity of interpretation, and the generality of the usage of the word: The scientist calls his analysis of data "interpretation"; the literary critic calls his examination of a work "interpretation." The translator of a language is called an "interpreter"; a news commentator "interprets" the news. You interpret — or misinterpret — the remark of a friend, a letter from home, or a sign on the street. In fact, from the time you wake in the morning until you sink into sleep, you are "interpreting." On waking you glance at the bedside clock and interpret its meaning: you recall what day it is, and in grasping the meaning of the day you are already primordially recalling to yourself the way you are placed in the world and your plans for the future; you rise and must interpret the words and gestures of those you meet on the daily round. Interpretation is, then, perhaps the most basic act of human thinking; indeed, existing itself may be said to be a constant process of interpretation.

Interpretation is more encompassing than the linguistic world in which man lives, for even animals exist by interpreting. They sense the way they are placed in the world. A piece of food sitting before a chimpanzee, a dog, or a cat will be interpreted by the animal in terms of his own needs and experience. Birds know the signs that tell them to fly south.

Of course constant interpretation on many nonlinguistic levels is woven into the fabric of all human living together. Human existence is conceivable without language, observes Joachim Wach, but not without mutual comprehension of one man by another — i.e., not without interpretation. Yet human existence as we know it does in fact always involve language, and thus any theory of human interpreting must deal with the phenomenon of language. And of all the variegated symbolic media of expression used by man, none exceeds language in communicative flexibility and power, or in general importance. Language shapes man's seeing and his thought — both his conception of himself and his world (the two are not so separate as they may seem). His very vision of reality is shaped by language. Far more than man realizes, he channels through language the various facets of his living — his worshiping, loving, social behavior, abstract thought; even the shape of his feelings is conformed to language. If the matter is considered deeply, it becomes apparent that language is the "medium" in which we live, and move, and have our being.

Interpretation, then, is a complex and pervasive phenomenon. Yet how complexly, how deeply, does the literary critic conceive it in his understanding? We need to ask whether critics do not tend to equate analysis with interpretation. We need to ask whether the realistic metaphysics and assumptions underlying modern criticism in most of its forms do not present an oversimplified and even distorted view of interpretation. A work of literature is not an object we understand by conceptualizing or analyzing it; it is a voice we must hear, and through "hearing" (rather than seeing) understand. As the coming chapters will suggest, understanding is both an epistemological and an ontological phenomenon. Understanding of literature must be rooted in the more primal and encompassing modes of understanding that have to do with our very being-in-the-world. Understanding a literary work, therefore, is not a scientific kind of knowing which flees away from existence into a world of concepts; it is an historical encounter which calls forth personal experience of being here in the world.

Hermeneutics is the study of this latter kind of understanding. It tries to hold together two areas of understanding theory: the question of what is involved in the event of understanding a text, and the question of what understanding itself is, in its most foundational and "existential" sense. As a German current of thought, hermeneutics came to be profoundly influenced by German phenomenology and existential philosophy. And of course its significance for American literary interpretation is enhanced by the application of such thinking to the issues of text interpretation.

The constant effort to deal with the phenomenon of understanding as it goes beyond mere textual interpretation gives to hermeneutics a potentially broad significance for all those disciplines customarily called the humanities. Hermeneutics, when defined as the study of the understanding of the works of man, transcends linguistic forms of interpretation. Its principles apply not only to works in written form but to any work of art. Since this is so, hermeneutics is fundamental to all the humanities — all those disciplines occupied with the interpretation of the works of man. It is more than merely interdisciplinary, for its principles comprise a theoretical foundation for the humanities; its principles should be a required fundamental study for all the humanistic disciplines.

The contrast made above between scientific and what we may call historical, or hermeneutical, understanding brings to greater clarity the distinctive character of the interpretive task in the humanities. And by contrast, it also clarifies the character of interpretation in the sciences. Through a study of hermeneutical theory, the humanities can achieve a fuller measure of self-knowledge and a better understanding of the character of their task.


Excerpted from Hermeneutics by Richard E. Palmer. Copyright © 1969 Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

Part I. On the Definition, Scope, and Significance of Hermeneutics
1. Introduction
2. Hermeneuein and Hermeneia: The Modern Significance of Their Ancient Usage
3. Six Modern Defintions of Hermeneutics
4. The Contemporary Battle over Hermeneutics Betti versus Gadamer
5. The Meaning and Scope of Hermeneutics

Part II. Four Major Theorists
6. Two Forerunners of Schleiermacher
7. Schleiermacher's Project of a General Hermeneutics
8. Dilthey: Hermeneutics as Foundation of the Geisteswissenschaften
9. Heidegger's Contribution to Hermeneutics in Being and Time 
10. Heidegger's Later Contribution to Hermeneutical Theory
11. Gadamer's Critique of Modern Aesthetic and Historical Consciousness
12. Gadamer's Dialectical Hermeneutics

Part III. A Hermeneutical Manifesto to American Literary Interpretation
13. Toward Reopening the Question: What Is Interpretation
14. Thirty Theses on Interpretation


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