AskDefine | Define hermeneutics

Dictionary Definition

hermeneutics n : the branch of theology that deals with principles of exegesis

User Contributed Dictionary




From the Greek ἐρμηνεύς (interpreter).


  1. The study or theory of the methodical interpretation of text, especially holy texts.


study or theory

Extensive Definition

Hermeneutics may be described as the development and study of theories of the interpretation and understanding of texts. In contemporary usage in religious studies, hermeneutics refers to the study of the interpretation of religious texts.
It is more broadly used in contemporary philosophy to denote the study of theories and methods of the interpretation of all texts and systems of meaning. The concept of "text" is here extended beyond written documents to any number of objects subject to interpretation, such as experiences. A hermeneutic is also defined as a specific system or method for interpretation, or a specific theory of interpretation. However, the contemporary philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer has said that hermeneutics is an approach rather than a method and, further, that the Hermeneutic circle is the central problem of interpretation.
Essentially, hermeneutics involves cultivating the ability to understand things from somebody else's point of view, and to appreciate the cultural and social forces that may have influenced their outlook. Hermeneutics is the process of applying this understanding to interpreting the meaning of written texts and symbolic artifacts (such as art or sculpture or architecture), which may be either historic or contemporary.
The meaning of hermeneutics and its range, depend strongly on the precision of definitions of such terms as: interpretation, understanding, point of view, and the choice of its domain of interest/(domain of intervention). On the other hand, as in the case of other abstract terms, definitions depend on the consensus of their users, and can evolve with time.
Hermeneutics interest includes also recognition and explanation of parables, metaphors and insinuations.

A Basic Definition

In his book, "Hermeneutics", writer Henry A. Virkler provides this basic history and definition:
"The word hermeneutics is said to have had its origin in the name Hermes, the Greek god who served as messenger for the gods, transmitting and interpreting their communications to their fortunate, or often unfortunate, recipients."
"In its technical meaning, hermeneutics is often defined as the science and art of biblical interpretation. Hermeneutics is considered a science because it has rules and these rules can be classified into an orderly system. It is considered an art because communication is flexible, and therefore a mechanical and rigid application of rules will sometimes distort the true meaning of a communication. To be a good interpreter one must learn the rules of hermeneutics as well as the art of applying those rules."
Hermeneutical theory 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. It includes topics of historical-cultural, contextual, lexical-syntactical, and theological analyses. Special hermeneutics is the study of those rules that apply to specific genres, such as parables, allegories, types, and prophecy."


The word hermeneutics is a term derived from the Greek word (hermeneuō, 'translate' or 'interpret'). It was introduced into philosophy mainly through the title of Aristotle's work Περὶ Ἑρμηνείας (Peri Hermeneias, 'On Interpretation', usually known today under its Latin title De Interpretatione). It is one of the earliest (c.360 BCE) 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 underlying Greek word may be etymologically related to the name of the god Hermes.


In the last two millennia, 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.). Hermeneutics 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.

Torah exegesis

A common use of the word hermeneutics refers to a process of scriptural interpretation. Its earliest example is however found not in the written texts, but in the Jewish Oral Tradition dated to the Second Temple era (515 BCE - 70 CE) that later became the Talmud through its development of the Midrash.
Rabbi Ishmael of the Amoraic era of Judaism interpreted laws from the Torah through 13 hermeneutic principles, such as the a fortiori argument (known in Hebrew as קל וחומר (kal v'chomer)). This is the first appearance of hermeneutic rules in the World, through the exegetic interpretation of Biblical texts.
Traditional Jewish hermeneutics differ from the Greek method in that the rabbis considered the Tanakh (the Jewish bibilical canon) to be inviolate. They did not consider inconsistencies in the text to be mistakes or corruptions. These sections found to be problematic for Christian interpretation of the text, were believed to be deliberate, and containing meanings which had to be teased out of the text through the process of exegesis. As a result, the rabbinical interpreters created a secondary, esoteric reading of the text based on these sections.
This was one of the bases of early Kabbalah and the Gematria, which posited mystical or "secret" meanings to the Biblical text based on the letters of the text themselves and even their numerical value.

History of Western hermeneutics

Throughout religious history scholars and students of religious texts have sought to mine the wealth of their meanings by developing a variety of different systems of hermeneutics. Philosophical hermeneutics in particular can be seen as a development of scriptural hermeneutics, providing a theoretical backing for various interpretive projects. Thus, philosophical and scriptural hermeneutics can be seen as mutually reinforcing practices.
Hermeneutics in the Western world, as a general practice of text interpretation, can be traced back to Aristotle's work De Interpretatione (the Latin title by which it is usually known) or On Interpretation (Greek Περὶ Ἑρμηνείας or Peri Hermeneias) which came to fruition in Alexandria. Scholars in antiquity expected a text to be coherent, consistent in grammar, style and outlook, and they amended obscure or "decadent" readings to comply with their codified rules. By extending the perception of inherent logic of texts, Greeks were able to attribute works with uncertain origin.

Ancient Greece and Rome

Aristotle strikes a chord in his treatise De Interpretatione that reverberates through the intervening ages and supplies the key note for many contemporary theories of interpretation. His overture is here:
Words spoken are symbols or signs (symbola) of affections or impressions (pathemata) of the soul (psyche); written words are the signs of words spoken. As writing, so also is speech not the same for all races of men. But the mental affections themselves, of which these words are primarily signs (semeia), are the same for the whole of mankind, as are also the objects (pragmata) of which those affections are representations or likenesses, images, copies (homoiomata). (Aristotle, On Interpretation, 1.16a4.)
Equally important to later developments are texts on poetry, rhetoric, and sophistry, including many of Plato's dialogues, such as Cratylus, Ion, Gorgias, Lesser Hippias, and Republic, along with Aristotle's Poetics, Rhetoric, and On Sophistical Refutations. However, these texts deal more with the presentation and refutation of arguments, speeches and poems rather than the understanding of texts as texts. As Ramberg and Gjesdal note, "Only with the Stoics, and their reflections on the interpretation of myth, do we encounter something like a methodological awareness of the problems of textual understanding." This is consistent with Irenaeus' general usage. More so than even he, though, the second centuryapologists tended to interpret and utilize most scripture as being primarily for the purpose of showing prophecy fulfillment. Important among these was Justin Martyr, who made extensive use of scripture to this end. Examples of this usage may be seen in his Apology in which chapters 31-53 are specifically dedicated to proving Christ through prophecy. He uses scripture similarly in Dialogue with Trypho.
And when Herod succeeded Archelaus, having received the authority which had been allotted to him, Pilate sent to him by way of compliment Jesus bound; and God foreknowing that this would happen, had thus spoken: ‘And they brought Him to the Assyrian, a present to the king.’ Here Justin demonstrates that prophecy fulfillment supersedes logical context in hermeneutics. He ignores the christological issues that arise from equating Jesus to the calf idol of Bethel which is the "him" being brought to the king in Hosea 10:6.
It is likely that the high view of prophecy fulfillment is a product of the circumstance of the early church. The primary goal of early authors was a defense of Christianity against attacks from paganism and Judaism as well as suppressing what were considered schismatic or heretical groups. To this end, Martin Jan Mulder suggests that prophecy fulfillment was the primary hermeneutical method because Roman society had a high view of both antiquity and oracles. By using the Old Testament to validate Jesus, early Christians sought to tap into both the oracles of the prophets and the antiquity of the Jewish scriptures.

The Schools of Alexandria and Antioch

Beginning as early as the third century, Christian hermeneutics began to split into two primary schools: Alexandria and Antioch. The Alexandrian Biblical interpretations stressed allegorical readings, frequently at the expense of the texts' literal meaning. Primary figures in this school included Origen and Clement of Alexandria. The Antiochine school stressed instead the more literal and historical meaning of the text. Theodore of Mopsuestia and Diodore of Tarsus were the primary figures in the Antiochine school.

Medieval hermeneutics

Medieval Christian interpretations of text incorporated exegesis into a fourfold mode that emphasized the distinction between the letter and the spirit of the text. This schema was based on the various ways of interpreting the text utilitized by the Patristic writers. The literal sense (sensus historicus) of Scripture denotes what the text states or reports directly. The allegorical sense (sensus allegoricus) explains the text with regard to the doctrinal content of church dogma, so that each literal element has a symbolic meaning, see also Typology (theology). The moral application of the text to the individual reader or hearer is the third sense, the sensus tropologicus or sensus moralis, while a fourth level of meaning, the sensus anagogicus, draws out of the text the implicit allusions it contains to secret metaphysical and eschatological knowledge, or gnosis.
The hermeneutical terminology used here is in part arbitrary. For almost all three interpretations which go beyond the literal explanations are in a general sense "allegorical". The practical application of these three aspects of spiritual interpretation varied considerably. Most of the time, the fourfold sense of the Scriptures was used only partially, dependent upon the content of the text and the idea of the exegete.... We can easily notice that the basic structure is in fact a twofold sense of the Scriptures, that is, the distinction between the sensus literalis and the sensus spiritualis or mysticus, and that the number four was derived from a restrictive systematization of the numerous possibilities which existed for the sensus spiritualis into three interpretive dimensions.
Hermeneutics in the Middle Ages witnessed the proliferation of non-literal interpretations of the Bible. Christian commentators could read Old Testament narratives simultaneously as prefigurations of analogous New Testament episodes, as symbolic lessons about Church institutions and current teachings, and as personally applicable allegories of the Spirit. In each case, the meaning of the signs was constrained by imputing a particular intention to the Bible, such as teaching morality, but these interpretive bases were posited by the religious tradition rather than suggested by a preliminary reading of the text.
The customary medieval exegetical technique commented on the text in glossae ("glosses" or annotations) written between the lines and at the side of the text which was left with wide margins for this very purpose. The text might be further commented on in scholia which are long, exegetical passages, often on a separate page.
A similar fourfold categorization is also found in Rabbinic writings. The fourfold categorizations are: Peshat (simple interpretation), Remez (allusion), Derash (interpretive), and Sod (secret/mystical). It is uncertain whether or not the Rabbinic division of interpretation pre-dates the Patristic version. The medieval period saw the growth of many new categories of Rabbinic interpretation and explanation of the Torah, including the emergence of Kabbalah and the writings of Maimonides.

Renaissance and Enlightenment

The discipline of hermeneutics emerged with the new humanist education of the 15th century as a historical and critical methodology for analyzing texts. In a triumph of early modern hermeneutics, the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla proved in 1440 that the "Donation of Constantine" was a forgery, through intrinsic evidence of the text itself. Thus hermeneutics expanded from its medieval role explaining the correct analysis of the Bible.
However, Biblical hermeneutics did not die off. For example, the Protestant Reformation brought about a renewed interest in the interpretation of the Bible, which took a step away from the interpretive tradition developed during the Middle Ages back to the texts themselves.
The rationalist Enlightenment led hermeneuts, especially Protestant exegetes, to view Scriptural texts as secular Classical texts were viewed. Scripture thus was interpreted as responses to historical or social forces, so that apparent contradictions and difficult passages in the New Testament, for example, might be clarified by comparing their possible meanings with contemporaneous Christian practices.


Friedrich Schleiermacher (November 21, 1768 – February 12, 1834) explored the nature of understanding in relation not just to the problem of deciphering sacred texts, but to all human texts and modes of communication. The interpretation of a text must proceed by framing the content asserted in terms of the overall organization of the work. He distinguishes between grammatical interpretation and psychological interpretation. The former studies how a work is composed from general ideas, the latter considers the peculiar combinations that characterize the work as a whole. Schleiermacher said that every problem of interpretation is a problem of understanding. He even defined hermeneutics as the art of avoiding misunderstanding. He provides a solution to avoidance of misunderstanding: knowledge of grammatical and psychological laws in trying to understand the text and the writer. There arose in his time a fundamental shift from understanding not only the exact words and their objective meaning to individuality of the speaker or author.


Wilhelm Dilthey broadened hermeneutics even more by relating interpretation to all historical objectifications. Understanding moves from the outer manifestations of human action and productivity to explore their inner meaning. In his last important essay "The Understanding of Others and Their Manifestations of Life" (1910), Dilthey makes it clear that this move from outer to inner, from expression to what is expressed, is not based on empathy. Empathy involves a direct identification with the other. Interpretation involves an indirect or mediated understanding that can only be attained by placing human expressions in their historical context. Understanding is not a process of reconstructing the state of mind of the author, but one of articulating what is expressed in the work.


Since Dilthey, the discipline of hermeneutics has detached itself from this central task and broadened its spectrum to all texts, including multimedia and to understanding the bases of meaning. In the 20th century, Martin Heidegger's philosophical hermeneutics shifted the focus from interpretation to existential understanding, which was treated more as a direct, non-mediated, thus in a sense more authentic way of being in the world than simply as a way of knowing.
Advocates of this approach claim that such texts, and the people who produce them, cannot be studied using the same scientific methods as the natural sciences, thus use arguments similar to that of antipositivism. Moreover, they claim that such texts are conventionalized expressions of the experience of the author; thus, the interpretation of such texts will reveal something about the social context in which they were formed, but, more significantly, provide the reader with a means to share the experiences of the author. Among the key thinkers of this approach is the sociologist Max Weber.

Contemporary hermeneutics

Hans-Georg Gadamer's hermeneutics is a development of the hermeneutics of his teacher, Heidegger.
Paul Ricoeur developed a hermeneutics based on Heidegger's concepts, although his own work differs in many ways from that of Gadamer's.
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.

Hermeneutics and 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.

Themes in hermeneutics

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" . 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" .
For some, there is evidence of some signs corresponding to real things, as in science. This is a bases for true statements, facts, and universals. Universal ideas are a starting place for what is common for all humans, as in basic mathematical propositions.


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 him, and how do we know that we understand the language the same way the other person did when he 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 time in history and in a particular culture."

Applications of hermeneutics


In archaeology, hermeneutics means the interpretation and understanding of material by analysing possible meanings or social use. Proponents argue that interpretation of artefacts is unavoidably hermeneutic as we cannot know for certain the meaning behind them, instead we can only apply modern value in the interpretation. This is most common in stone tools, for example, where using descriptions such as "scraper" can be highly subjective and unproven. Opponents claim that a hermeneutic approach is too relativist and that their own interpretations are based on common-sense evaluation.


In sociology, hermeneutics means the interpretation and understanding of social events by analysing their meanings to the human participants and their culture. It enjoyed prominence during the sixties and seventies, and differs from other interpretative schools of sociology in that it emphasizes the importance of the content as well as the form of any given social behaviour. The central principle of hermeneutics is that it is only possible to grasp the meaning of an action or statement by relating it to the whole discourse or world-view from which it originates: for instance, putting a piece of paper in a box might be considered a meaningless action unless put in the context of democratic elections, and the action of putting a ballot paper in a box. One can frequently find reference to the 'hermeneutic circle': that is, relating the whole to the part and the part to the whole. Hermeneutics in sociology was most heavily influenced by German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer .
The field of marketing has adopted this term from sociology, using the term to refer to qualitative studies in which interviews with (or other forms of text from) one or a small number of people are closely read, analyzed, and interpreted.


Some scholars argue that law and theology constitute particular forms of hermeneutics because of their need to interpret legal tradition / scriptural texts. Moreover, the problem of interpretation is central to legal theory at least since the 11th century. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the schools of glossatores, commentatores and usus modernus distinguished themselves by their approach to the interpretation of "laws" (mainly, Justinian's Corpus Iuris Civilis). The University of Bologna gave birth to a "legal Renaissance" in the 11th century, when the Corpus Iuris Civilis was rediscovered and started to be systematically studied by people like Irnerius and Gratianus. It was an interpretative Renaissance. After that, interpretation has always been at the center of legal thought. Savigny and Betti, among others, made significant contributions also to general hermeneutics. Legal interpretivism, most famously Ronald Dworkin's, might be seen as a branch of philosophical hermeneutics.

Computer science

Researchers in computer science, especially those dealing with artificial intelligence, computational linguistics, knowledge representation, and protocol analysis, have not failed to notice the commonality of interest that they share with hermeneutics researchers in regard to the character of interpretive agents and the conduct of interpretive activities. For instance, in the abstract to their 1986 AI Memo, Mallery, Hurwitz, and Duffy have the following to say:
Hermeneutics, a branch of continental European philosophy concerned with human understanding and the interpretation of written texts, offers insights that may contribute to the understanding of meaning, translation, architectures for natural language understanding, and even to the methods suitable for scientific inquiry in AI. (Mallery, Hurwitz, Duffy, 1986).

International Relations

Insofar as hermeneutics is a cornerstone of both critical theory and constitutive theory, both of which have made important inroads into the postpositivist branch of international relations theory and political science, hermeneutics has been applied to international relations (IR). Steve Smith (Academic) refers to hermeneutics as the principal way of grounding a foundationalist yet postpositivist IR theory such as critical theory. An example of a postpositivist yet anti-foundationalist IR paradigm would be radical postmodernism.

Religion and theology

The process by which theological texts are understood relies on a particular hermeneutical viewpoint. Theorists like Paul Ricoeur have applied modern philosophical hermeneutics to theological texts (in Ricoeur's case, the Bible).

Hermeneutics and semiotics

Semiotics. The being of a symbol consists in the real fact that something surely will be experienced if certain conditions are satisfied. Namely, it will influence the thought and conduct of its interpreter. Every word is a symbol. Every sentence is a symbol. Every book is a symbol. Every representamen depending upon conventions is a symbol. Just as a photograph is an index having an icon incorporated into it, that is, excited in the mind by its force, so a symbol may have an icon or an index incorporated into it, that is, the active law that it is may require its interpretation to involve the calling up of an image, or a composite photograph of many images of past experiences, as ordinary common nouns and verbs do; or it may require its interpretation to refer to the actual surrounding circumstances of the occasion of its embodiment, like such words as that, this, I, you, which, here, now, yonder, etc. Or it may be pure symbol, neither iconic nor indicative, like the words and, or, of, etc. (Peirce, CP 4.447).


Book References

  • Ebeling, Gerhard, "The New Hermeneutics and the Early Luther", Theology Today, vol. 21.1, April 1964, pp. 34-46. Eprint.
  • Köchler, Hans, "Zum Gegenstandsbereich der Hermeneutik", in Perspektiven der Philosophie, vol. 9 (1983), pp. 331-341.
  • Peirce, C.S. (c. 1903), "Logical Tracts, No. 2", in Collected Papers, CP 4.418–509. 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.
  • Khan, Ali, "The Hermeneutics of Sexual Order". Eprint.
  • Ferré, Frederick, "Metaphor in Religious Discourse", Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Eprint
  • Köchler, Hans, "Philosophical Foundations of Civilizational Dialogue. The Hermeneutics of Cultural Self-comprehension versus the Paradigm of Civilizational Conflict." International Seminar on Civilizational Dialogue (3rd: 15-17 September 1997: Kuala Lumpur), BP171.5 ISCD. Kertas kerja persidangan / conference papers. Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Library, 1997.
  • Mallery, John C., Hurwitz, Roger, and Duffy, Gavan, "Hermeneutics: From Textual Explication to Computer Understanding?", 1986, [ PDF]
  • Palmer, Richard E., "The Relevance of Gadamer's Philosophical Hermeneutics to Thirty-Six Topics or Fields of Human Activity", Lecture Delivered at the Department of Philosophy, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL, 01 Apr 1999, Eprint
  • Szesnat, Holger, "Philosophical Hermeneutics", Webpage
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