Introduction to Hermeneutics

As Stanley Porter explains in Hermeneutics[1], “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” (Porter, 1). Hermeneutics therefore tries to understand how we understand, or as Porter puts it, “it endeavors to describe the already present structure of human understanding and to highlight the conditions for clearer insight and comprehension” (Porter, 5). Hermeneutics is a complex task since we must rely on the very structures of understanding themselves in our effort to try to make sense of these same structures. Any rational or scientific conclusions that we may eventually reach through this endeavor are largely suspect since there is no truly objective lens through which we can observe the phenomenon. We are constantly interpreting, it is how we go about making sense of things in our minds each time we interact with others, pick up a book or walk through a museum. As Porter explains, the structures of human understanding are already present; they are unconscious mechanisms which operate behind the scenes to deliver an end product in the form of an understanding or interpretation of some object or act. Attempting to analyze or expose these structures of understanding in a rational and scientific way is somewhat paradoxical since it is these very structures that will produce whatever interpretation we eventually come up with.

In his phenomenology, Heidegger rightfully points out that we cannot reflect in a purely objective way about our hermeneutics or how we go about interpreting or understanding things. As Porter explains, “for Heidegger, an analysis or description of pure consciousness misses the fundamental truth that we are always already being-in-the-world. The world cannot be bracketed or judgment about actually existent things suspended, for the meaning that things have is known in the context of our relationships to them within the world. Things are perceived and understood as they are encountered and practically used during the course of an ordinary day, and, therefore, known in ways that the act of bracketing would preclude” (Porter, 60).  Everything that we know and understand in the world is determined by our existence in the world and our relationships to people and things within it. Heidegger is justified in his attack against hermeneutical approaches which do not acknowledge this fundamental limitation and which proceed as if the structures of understanding were separable from us and the world. Our relationships to things in the world make it possible for us to understand them in the first place; the world provides the necessary context for interpretation and without the relationships which we constantly engage in within it, there would simply be nothing to understand or interpret.

As Porter further explains, in relation to Heidegger’s phenomenology, “we are thrown into a world in which language, culture, and institutions of life are already given, so no matter where or when we find ourselves we will always be conditioned by our own historical situatedness” (Porter, 61). All aspects of our research into hermeneutic structures such as the methods and approaches of investigation we adopt, the culture and the institutions to which we and our subjects of investigations belong, the history of scientific research and its current general orientation, and even the words we employ to describe phenomena, are all already invested with a certain hermeneutical disposition. Therefore, investigations of this kind are destined to finally reveal no other hermeneutical structures than the ones already deeply established within the observer’s point of view. As Porter further explains, still in relation to Heidegger, “to be being-in-the-world is to be more like actors than neutral and objective knowers. We are participants in and not observers of the world through an abstract and distanced perception of things” (Porter, 61). The being-in-the-world is in constant interaction with the world and these interactions continuously reinforce a specific, pre-existing hermeneutical schema. In this sense, the being-in-the-world is simply acting out a predefined script on a predefined stage, or to put it differently, translating a continuous flow of sights and sounds into knowledge and information that is coherent within the grander scheme of things. It is impossible for the actor to step off the stage and proceed to evaluate what is happening there from an external standpoint; it is always within the confines of the set stage that the being-in-the-world must procede with investigations of any kind.

[1] Porter, S., & Robinson, J. (2011). Hermeneutics: An introduction to interpretive theory. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans.


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