Textual Hermeneutics: A Critical Investigation

Rob Harle, writer, artist and reviewer

Keywords: exegesis, Spinoza, Gadamer, textual analysis, Dilthey, hermeneutics, authorial intent, Heidegger.


This paper gives a general background to exegesis and hermeneutics, then a critical analysis of the problems with existing methods and suggests an holistic methodology for deconstructing texts. Sacred texts are used as examples but the analysis, discussion and conclusions apply equally to all forms of literary texts. The contributions of Spinoza, Heidegger, Dilthey, Gadamer and Schleiermacher are acknowledged and discussed.

In this paper I look briefly at the history of the various modern theories of hermeneutics and then discuss in detail the main points which characterise these theoretical systems. I show through critical analysis that all these theories contain flaws and that none are definitive or can have the last word in the art or fledgling science of hermeneutics. From this critique I then offer, tentatively, an holistic approach to textual analysis including philosophical hermeneutics, with some guidelines from which to work. The holistic approach shows that texts, authors and words cannot be analysed independently of each other and certainly not without reference to the historical period in which they were created.

            Hermeneutics can be defined as, “the theory or method used to interpret or understand the meaning of a text”. Although hermeneutics can be applied to understanding works of art and life (Being), it is primarily used for textual interpretation. In this paper I confine my discussion to textual hermeneutics with a slight emphasis on scriptural or sacred texts, mainly because these texts (or works of literature) were the first to be analysed in the post-reformation period. My analysis and discussion applies to all literary works including poetry, fiction, biography, philosophical treatises and scientific texts.

            Modern hermeneutics developed from interpretation of religious texts, particularly Biblical exegesis in the 16th century. There were a number of important causes of the Protestant Reformation, one of these was that reformers wanted to remove the privilege of interpretation from the specialist clergy and translate the Bible, “…into the vernacular so that “ordinary” Christians as well as the priests and the aristocracy could read the words of scripture.” (Weeks, 1996. p.7). The Church had decided in the early centuries of Christianity that the Bible should be seen as unique to the religious tradition itself. The main point to realise from this is that the Church was not and could not have been neutral, “Truth was what the Church taught on the basis of its traditions and its holy scriptures (Ling, 1968. p.318).

            The Protestant Reformation theme of the “priesthood of all believers” and the growth of a large number of disparate branches of Protestantism show clearly that it is possible to interpret the Bible in different ways, even as committed Christians. In an effort to bring some balanced approach to Biblical interpretation, Spinoza developed guidelines for interpretation which are contained in his, “A Theologico-Political Treatise”, Spinoza’s main thesis is that, “…interpretation of scripture does not widely differ from the method of interpreting nature” (Spinoza, 1951. p.99). Just as the knowledge of nature is sought from nature so we must gain knowledge of scripture from scripture alone.

The universal rule, then, in interpreting Scripture is to accept nothing as an authoritative Scriptural statement which we do not perceive very clearly when we examine it in the light of its history. (Spinoza, 1951. p.101)

            By history Spinoza means: (1) the language in which the Bible was written, by knowing this the interpreter can compare “every expression” (Biblical) with common language usage. In this case the interpreter must be competent in Hebrew. (2) An analysis of each book and its arrangement under headings of content, so comparison for ambiguity, obscurity and contradictions can be made. Spinoza insists that an interpreter must search for the meaning of the passages, not the truth, “…we must examine it solely by means of the signification of the words…” (ibid). (3) The circumstances of each book (Biblical), each author’s conduct, who he [sic] was and the provenance of each book. (ibid. pp.99-103). Spinoza insists that no matter how foreign to our reason a passage seems, we must not decide its meaning by using reason, we can only proceed using the above outlined procedure. He believed this method would show whether the intention of the author was metaphoric or literal and whether the text is direct reportage of historical events or whether it is second-hand reflective narrative and so on.

            I think Spinoza’s great contribution to exegesis, not especially stressed in the literature, is that he shows there is a distinct difference between truth and meaning. Understanding the true meaning of the text is one thing, the truth of that meaning is a different matter. A matter properly located in philosophical debate, I discuss this further on.

            Before looking at Schleiermacher, generally considered the founder of modern hermeneutics, it is instructive to note that these attempts to interpret the Bible were contemporary with the “Age of Scientific Reason”, and as such, the meaning of almost everything was evaluated in this new way of understanding (Weeks, 1996. p.11-12). It is almost impossible for us today to comprehend a world where meaning is not evaluated in a scientific way. We are so conditioned by scientific proof that to appreciate an alternative system, such as that of the Australian Aborigines, requires a courageous and intense mental effort.

            Following Spinoza, with great influence from Kant and Hegel, the Romantic Movement or Romanticism developed. Perhaps the most important feature of Romanticism was the emphasis placed on self-expression and individual creativity, together with a rejection of the purely mechanical rules implicit in the Cartesian, “Age of Reason”. The vital influence for hermeneutics to come from this period was the new sense of history, that is, history was seen as essentially and distinctively human (ibid. p.14).

            From Romanticism came the development of the Higher Criticism. It would seem obvious that to get to the true meaning of a text, that text should be an accurate version of the original. This requirement had not been addressed until the Higher Criticism, this movement was specifically interested in establishing,”…the original wording of Biblical texts from faulty copies” (Baldick, 1990. p.99).

            Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics can be characterised by an analysis of authorial intention. He believes to understand a text we must understand psychologically the uniqueness of the author. And secondly, understand the influence of the cultural milieu upon the author, including such matters as the prevailing modes of expression and linguistic forms in use. Schleiermacher believed, “nature of language” was vitally important for hermeneutics because only through language could an interpreter gain access to “another person’s meaning”. As Eliade notes, in the early 20th century, “…the aim of interpretation was to discover the intention of the author” (Eliade, 1987. p.281). Schleiermacher’s methods had notably, insignificant influence on secular literary criticism

            Although Schleiermacher’s methods were within the spirit of the “Enlightenment”, it was Dilthey who proposed a discipline for the cultural sciences, the analysis of which would put them on a par with the natural sciences. Dilthey’s hermeneutics distinguished between these, in that cultural science is understood and natural science is explained. Whereas natural sciences are governed by Universal Laws, the analysis of cultural science, “…seeks to understand the action of agents by discovering their intentions, purposes, wishes and character traits” (ibid. p.282).

            Dilthey maintains we cannot understand a text properly without a sense of history, that is, “…without understanding the external influences at work or the author’s development” (ibid.). Dilthey’s method could be termed, “a critique of historical reason”. He claims that because humans have a “shared universal human nature”, historical understanding is possible. The term Erlebnis means lived experience whereas, Erfahrung means scientific experience. Lived experience is what for Dilthey enables one human to understand another human’s life-experience, lived experience is that which contains new experiences which mediated by past experience anticipates the future (Warnke, 1987. pp.27-29). This obviously implies that an interpretation at age thirty, will necessarily be different than at age fifty. The consequences of this are, that it is possible, perhaps impossible to avoid, that a single text may be interpreted differently by the same interpreter at different times.

            Even though Dilthey was concerned to show the distinction between cultural and natural science, Heidegger maintains that, “Dilthey was finally unable to overcome the subjectivistic tendencies of Western thought since Descartes…” (Eliade, 1987. p.284). Heidegger introduced clearly the notion that;

In all explanation one discovers, as it were, an understanding that one cannot understand; which is to say, every interpretation is already shaped by a set of assumptions and presuppositions about the whole

            This for me is the single most important point to understand in the practice of hermeneutics. Bultman and Heidegger were close contemporaries , applying the Heideggerian concept of presuppositions and the “inherent historicity of human existence” Bultmann attempts to demythologise the New Testament. He shows how it is important, in practical terms, to minimise presuppositions. The interpreter must attempt to understanding what vested interests he or she brings to the textual analysis (historical, psychological and so on). He is not suggesting that these presuppositions should, or actually can, be eradicated, only that an awareness of these will qualify the resultant exegesis. Bultmann insists that texts such as sacred texts must be analysed in an existential way. That is in the light of human existence in the here and now.

            Gadamer builds on Heidegger’s hermeneutics and shows that, “The quest for a presuppositionless understanding is futile. Every text or object is interpreted from some standpoint in a tradition that constitutes the horizon within which anything becomes intelligible” (ibid.). Gadamer argues that hermeneutics is not to provide rules for interpretation but to, “analyze the inherent structure of understanding itself…” (ibid. p.285).

            This axiom lands us squarely in the contemporary debate of hermeneutics and the second part of this essay, where I discuss the problems with past hermeneutical theories and offer some suggestions for future hermeneutical practice. Despite Gadamer’s admonition, I believe it is possible and essential to articulate certain guidelines or rules.

The first is that I believe hermeneutics should be approached on three levels. These levels though distinctive need not be mutually exclusive, in fact, grey areas necessarily have to exist. All levels need to be investigated to gain a comprehensive, though not essentially ultimate or absolute understanding of the text. This understanding is not to be confused with the basic meaning of the text.

            The first level is the lower level, that of ordinary communication via the meaning of words. The second or higher level is the hidden meaning, if any. This would correspond to the deep and superficial meanings articulated by Chomsky and some Structuralists. There is not always a hidden meaning, when someone says, “Gee, it’s cold today”, for most people most of the time there is no more to it than a comment on the day’s temperature. Hermeneutics must endeavour to assess if and when there is or is not deep meaning. As a brief, simple example, a left-wing newspaper may print, “Politician Bashes Striker!”, this headline has four immediately obvious possible low level meanings: a worker on strike was verbally abused or physically hit; or the goal-kicker of a soccer team was verbally or physically abused by a politician. However, the deeper “intended meaning” may have been to show the politician as an aggressive, anti-unionist. Why this should be so is not the business of low level hermeneutics. As Spinoza insists, we must extract the meaning from the text not the truth.

       The third level or philosophical level can only be approached after the first two levels have been examined. The philosophical efforts of Gadamer to understand understanding itself, although a noble enterprise, has produced a rift in classic hermeneutics and led to a kind of uncertain obscurantism. A kind of vicious hermeneutical circle.

The meaning of hermeneutics which is familiar to philosophers, theologians or jurists, according to which it is the art of interpreting classical, sacred or legal texts, consequently seems derivative in relation to the primary sense. (Bubner, 1981. p.27)

        Heidegger’s philosophical “primary sense” may see interpretation of classical hermeneutics as seemingly derivative but I believe without the lower levels of textual analysis the primary level has no relationship to textual interpretation. This is why I believe, to arrive at a comprehensive understanding of a text, we need the three levels of interpretation. It is the post-Heideggerian philosophy and philosophers such as Gadamer, Derrida and the Structuralists that have led basic textual interpretation astray.

         The second guideline is to ascertain the authorship and type of text to be interpreted. Texts of antiquity such as the Upanishads are considered authorless in the sense that the authors can never be known. Texts of the Bible have both known and unknown authors but we can only know about them in a very limited way. Looking at texts such as, “Being and Nothingness”, we know many details about the author, Jean-Paul Sartre.

        According to Muslims the author of the Qur’an was God. Mohammed memorised and then transmitted orally the very meaning and words told to him by Gabriel the angel. One of the claims to authenticity of God’s authorship is that Mohammed was a relatively uneducated man and could not have authored, what came to be the written Qur’an, by himself. So Schleiemacher’s, “understanding the psychological subjectivity of the author”” in this case would be impossible.

        It can be seen from these examples that Schleiemacher and to an extent Dilthey’s idea of knowing the author intimately (or at all), as being essential to textual interpretation, is at best limited and at worst absurd. Even when we know the author, it is problematic if we can know the author better than the author knows him or herself. This knowledge depends on the type of text being examined, if there is little or no biographical information about the author, then we cannot approach textual analysis from the psychoanalytical understanding of the author’s intentions. If however we know the author, such as Freud, we may be reasonably safe in ascertaining that Freud’s work was driven by his own neuroses and this helps get a better understanding of his work. A further problem presents itself to this procedure. Which psychological or psychoanalytical system do we judge the author by: Freudian, Jungian, Rogerian and so on? A further interesting point to note is that sometimes the text may have multiple authors, as an example, newspapers. One author is the owner of the publication, his or her bias is combined with the individual journalist’s and probably the editor’s respective biases.

            The third guideline is, if we wish to understand the original meaning of the author we must read the text in that author’s original language. Again, Spinoza’s foresight is evident. The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, then translated to Greek and then to English. All but the most scientific texts lose or gain something in translation, some words are virtually non-translatable and we note this regularly in philosophical texts, one such example is Dasein. As the Bible should be interpreted from the original Hebrew, so should the Qur’an be interpreted in Arabic and the various Indian scriptures in Sanskrit. This of course implies that the hermeneuticist be familiar with and fluent in the language used at the time of the creation of the text.

        The fourth guideline concerns the cultural milieu in which the text was created and that in which it is being interpreted. Most hermeneutical theories agree that an awareness of the cultural milieu in which the text was created is essential. It is also essential for the interpreter to be aware of the cultural conditions of which he or she is a part. As mentioned previously it is extremely difficult for late 20th century Western interpretation to take place outside a scientific paradigm and perhaps I should add a capitalist ethos as well. This is a general rather than specific presupposition.

            The fifth guideline is that the interpreter must be aware of his or her specific presuppositions. Whilst Bultmann has covered this area, with its penchant for creating gross distortion of textual analysis quite extensively, it cannot be stressed how important it is for the interpreter to be aware of their own biases, agendas and perhaps even the ideological pressures they are working under.

            In conclusion, it can be seen from the above look at hermeneutics, that it is a very complex subject, one which we still have much to learn about. I must agree with Weeks, in that Spinoza is, “…one of the formative figures behind the invention of modern Biblical and literary criticism” (Weeks, 1996. p.13). I hope I have shown in this essay that we can and must distinguish between basic textual analysis, through which we may arrive at the meaning proposed by the author and the philosophical interpretation of that meaning. The philosophical interpretation equates with Spinoza’s “truth”. The hermeneuticist of the future will ideally approach interpretation in this holistic way and be a scholar trained in the cross-cultural disciplines of: linguistics, history, psychology and philosophy, and if interpreting sacred texts, comparative religion.

Works Cited:

Baldick, C. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. 1990. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Bubner, R. Modern German Philosophy. 1981. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Cross-cultural Investigations and Hermeneutics. 1996. Deakin University, Victoria.
Eliade, M. (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Religion 1987. MacMillan, London.
Flew, A. The Dictionary of Philosophy. 1979. Pan, London.
Ling, T. A History of Religion East and West. 1968. Macmillan Press, Hampshire.
Lucy, N. Debating Derrida. 1995. Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.
Panikkar, R. Myth, Faith and Hermeneutics: Cross-Cultural Studies. 1979. Paulist Press, New York.
Shapiro, G. & Sica, A. (ed.) Hermeneutics: Questions and Prospects. 1984. University of Massachusetts Press.
Warnke, G. Gadamer: Hermeneutics, Tradition and Reason. 1987. Polity Press, Cambridge.
Weeks, I. Cross-cultural Investigations and Hermeneutics. 1996. Deakin University, Victoria.

Rob Harle is a writer, artist and reviewer. He writes poetry, short stories, academic essays and reviews. His work is published in journals, anthologies, online, and in books. He is on the editorial board of a number of international literary journals. Please see www.robharle.com.

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