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Hermeneutics is the study of interpretation theory. Traditional hermeneutics - which includes Biblical hermeneutics - refers to the study of the interpretation of written texts, especially texts in the areas of literature, religion and law. Contemporary or modern hermeneutics encompasses not just issues involving the written text, but everything in the interpretative process. This includes verbal and nonverbal forms of communication as well as prior aspects that impact communication, such as presuppositions, preunderstandings, the meaning and philosophy of language, and semiotics.[1]

For lessons on the topic of Interpretation, follow this link.

Philosophical hermeneutics refers primarily to Hans-Georg Gadamer's theory of knowledge as developed in Truth and Method, and sometimes to Paul Ricoeur.[2] A hermeneutic (singular) refers to one particular method or strand of interpretation.

Traditional Hermeneutics

Traditional hermeneutics involves interpretation theories that concern the meaning of written texts. These theories focus on the relationships found between the author, reader and text. E.D. Hirsch argued that the meaning of a text is determined by the author's intent.[3] Hans-Georg Gadamer argued that the meaning of the text goes beyond the author, and therefore the meaning is determined by the point where the reader and the writer meet.[4] Paul Ricœur argued that the text is independent of the author's intent and original audience, and therefore the reader determines the meaning of the text.[5]

Biblical hermeneutics is sometimes divided into two sub-categories - general and special hermeneutics. General hermeneutics is the study of those rules that govern interpretation of the entire biblical text, including grammatical, historical-cultural, contextual, lexical-syntactical, and theological aspects. Special hermeneutics is the study of rules that apply to specific genres, such as parables, allegories, types, and prophecy.[6] Biblical hermeneutics is often defined as both a science and an art. It is considered a science with regard to its prescribed set of rules, and an art because meaning is not found in a mechanical and rigid application of rules.[7]


The word hermeneutics is a term derived from the Greek word ἑρμηνεύω (hermeneuō, 'translate' or 'interpret'), and is of uncertain origin.[8] It was introduced into philosophy mainly through the title of Aristotle's work Περὶ Ἑρμηνείας (Peri Hermeneias, On Interpretation, more commonly referred by its Latin title De Interpretatione). It is one of the earliest (c.360 BC) extant philosophical works in the Western tradition to deal with the relationship between language and logic in a comprehensive, explicit, and formal way. It is often suggested that the Greek word root is etymologically related to the name of the Greek mythological deity Hermes, which is also of uncertain origin[8], but may be cognate to a corrupted composite borrowing from Hebrew Har [ha]Emet (Emes) referring to the Biblical Mount Sinai where Moses interpreted the Jewish Law (known as haEmes - the Truth) to the people.[9]


In the last two thousand years, the scope of hermeneutics has expanded to include the investigation and interpretation not only of oral, textual and artistic works, but of human behaviour generally, including language and patterns of speech, social institutions, and ritual behaviours (such as religious ceremonies, political rallies, football matches, rock concerts, etc.).It interprets or inquires into the meaning and import of these phenomena, through understanding the point of view and 'inner life' (Dilthey) of an insider, or the first-person perspective of an engaged participant in these phenomena.

Contemporary hermeneutics

Hans-Georg Gadamer's hermeneutics is a development of the hermeneutics of his teacher, Heidegger. Gadamer asserts that methodical contemplation is opposite to experience and reflection. We can reach the truth only by understanding or even mastering our experience. Experience according to Gadamer isn’t fixed but rather changing and always indicating new perspectives. The most important thing is to unfold what constitutes individual comprehension. And Gadamer says that it is the hermeneutical circle. Gadamer points out that we should not overcome our prejudices because the man is always a man of concrete tradition. Being alien to a particular tradition is a condition of understanding. Gadamer points out that we can never step outside of our tradition; all we can do is try to understand it.

Andrés Ortíz-Osés has developed his Symbolic Hermeneutics as the Mediterranean response to north European Hermeneutics. His main statement regarding the symbolic understanding of the world is that the meaning is the symbolic healing of the real injury.

Critical theory

Jürgen Habermas criticized the conservatism of previous hermeneutics, especially Gadamer, because the focus on tradition seemed to undermine possibilities for social criticism and transformation. Habermas also criticized Marxism and previous members of the Frankfurt School for missing the hermeneutical dimension of critical theory. Habermas incorporated the notion of the lifeworld and emphasized the importance of both interaction and communication as well as labor and production for social theory. For Habermas, hermeneutics is one dimension of critical social theory.


Hermeneutic circle

The hermeneutic circle describes the process of understanding a text hermeneutically. It refers to the idea that one's understanding of the text as a whole is established by reference to the individual parts and one's understanding of each individual part by reference to the whole. Neither the whole text nor any individual part can be understood without reference to one another, and hence, it is a circle. However, this circular character of interpretation does not make it impossible to interpret a text, rather, it stresses that the meaning of text must be found within its cultural, historical, and literary context.

With Schleiermacher, hermeneutics begins to stress the importance of the interpreter in the process of interpretation. Schleiermacher's hermeneutics focuses on the importance of the interpreter understanding the text as a necessary stage to interpreting it. Understanding, for Schleiermacher, does not simply come from reading the text, but involves knowledge of the historical context of the text and the psychology of the author.

For Postmodernists, the Hermeneutic Circle is especially problematic. This is the result of the fact that in addition to only being able to know the world through the words we use to describe it, we are also confronted with the problem that "whenever people try to establish a certain reading of a text or expression, they allege other readings as the ground for their reading" [18]. In other words, "All meaning systems are open-ended systems of signs referring to signs referring to signs. No concept can therefore have an ultimate, unequivocal meaning" [19].


The possibility of communication between different beings depends on them being able to agree on the meanings of the signs they may exchange. The great question is, how do we know whether someone else understands the same thing we do when we use language to try to communicate with them, and how do we know that we understand the language the same way the other person did when they issued it? This question has immense practical importance in every field, particularly in such fields as law.

One approach to this is discussed in what has come to be called the theory of mind, or the part of it concerned with building internal mental models of the minds of others, and finding ways in which their understandings of words is similar to or different from our own.

Neurologists and others have found that the facility for doing that can be located at a particular site in the brains of human beings, and that damage to that site can render the person unable to understand the behavior of others or how their thinking and feeling might differ from one's own. Some persons may also have enhanced ability to understand the minds of others, compared to most other people.

Much postmodern thought treats all meaning as conventional among contemporaries, but sometimes we need to understand words the way they were understood by people no longer available to interrogate until we can be satisfied that our understandings agree, and we want to be as certain as we can that we understand the words the way the originators did. This includes such things as judicial interpretation of constitutions, statutes, contracts, treaties, and historical interpretation of the historical record, especially writings.


Hans-Georg Gadamer describes the process of interpreting a text as the fusion of one's own horizon with the horizon of the text. He has defined horizon as "The totality of all that can be realized or thought about by a person at a given moment in history and in a particular culture."[citation needed]


  1. Ferguson, Sinclair B; David F Wright, J. I. (James Innell) Packer (1988). New Dictionary of Theology. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press. ISBN 0830814000.
  2. Grondin, Jean (1994). Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics. Yale University Press. ISBN 0300059698. p. 2
  3. Hirsch, E. D. Eric Donald (1976). The Aims of Interpretation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226342409.
  4. Gadamer, HansGeorg (1994). Truth and Method (2nd rev. ed. / translation revised by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall ed.). New York: Continuum. ISBN 0826405851.
  5. Ricoeur, Paul (1976). Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press.
  6. Henry A. Virkler. Hermeneutics. Baker Books. p. 15, 16. ISBN 0-8010-2067-0.
  7. Bernard Ramm. Protestant Biblical Interpretation (3rd rev. ed. ed.). Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI. p. 1.
  8. a b p.344, Klein
  9. pp.116-117, Alcalay
  10. see, e.g., Rambam Hilkhot Talmud Torah 4:8
  11. a b Bjorn Ramberg Kristin Gjesdal. "Hermeneutics". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2007-12-04.
  12. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.21, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.xxii.html?scrBook=Jer&scrCh=22&scrV=24#ix.iv.xxii-p34.1, see also as examples II.34 and IV.9
  13. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 103, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.viii.iv.ciii.html?scrBook=Hos&scrCh=10&scrV=6#viii.iv.ciii-p4.1, see also 111, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.viii.iv.cxi.html?scrBook=Isa&scrCh=53&scrV=7#viii.iv.cxi-p2.1
  14. Martin Jan Mulder, ed., Mikra: Text Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 743.
  15. Ebeling, Gerhard, The New Hermeneutics and the Early Luther, page 38
  16. Forster, Michael. "Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  17. "Wilhelm Dilthey". Philosophy Professor. Retrieved 2007-12-04.
  18. Adler, 1997: pp.321-322
  19. Waever, 1996: page 171
  20. Jones, L. 2000. The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture: Experience, Interpretation, Comparison, p.263;Volume Two: Hermeneutical Calisthenics: A Morphology of Ritual-Architectural Priorities, Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press
  21. Vesely, D. 2004. Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation: The Question of Creativity in the Shadow of Production, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  22. Perez-Gomez, A. 1985. Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  23. Snodgrass, A., and Coyne, R. 2006. Interpretation in Architecture: Design as a Way of Thinking, London: Routledge, pp165-180.
  24. Ibid. pp.29-55
  25. Snodgrass, A.B., and Coyne, R.D. 1992. "Models, Metaphors and the Hermeneutics of Designing." Design Issues, 9(1): 56-74.
  26. Coyne, R. 1995. Designing Information Technology in the Postmodern Age: From Method to Metaphor, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  27. David L. Rennie. "Hermeneutics and Humanistic Psychology". Retrieved 2009-07-07.
  28. Donald Taylor. "The hermeneutics of accidents and safety". Retrieved 2009-10-09.
  29. Wallace,B., Ross, A., & Davies, J.B.. "Applied Hermeneutics and Qualitative Safety Data". Retrieved 2009-07-10.
  30. Willis, W. J., & Jost, M. (2007). Foundations of qualitative research; Interpretive and critical approaches. London: Sage. Page 106
  31. see Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Truth and Method, 1960


  • Text of On Interpretation, as translated by E. M. Edghill
  • Aristotle, On Interpretation, Harold P. Cooke (trans.), in Aristotle, vol. 1 (Loeb Classical Library), pp. 111–179. London: William Heinemann, 1938.
  • Ebeling, Gerhard, "The New Hermeneutics and the Early Luther", Theology Today, vol. 21.1, April 1964, pp. 34–46. Eprint.
  • Plato, Ion, Paul Woodruff (trans.) in Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997, pp. 937–949.
  • Ramberg, Bjørn, and Gjesdal, Kristin, "Hermeneutics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Eprint.
  • Klein, Ernest, Dr., A complete etymological dictionary of the English language: dealing with the origin of words and their sense development thus illustrating the history of civilization and culture, Elsevier, Oxford, 2000
  • Alcalay, Reuben, The complete Hebrew-English dictionary Vol.1, Chemed Books, New York, 1996

External links