What is Hermeneutics? The Practice Of Interpreting Text

Hermeneutics is the theory, practice, and methodology of the interpretation of text.

Hermeneutics is often discussed in regard to the kinds of text that are thought to be ‘worth thinking about,’ evaluating, and seeking different perspectives about. These often include theological and philosophical texts (and by extension, political texts driven by specific ideologies and philosophies).

Hermeneutics is not simply limited to interpretive theory, principles, and skills brought to bear on dense, important, subjective, or otherwise ‘evasive’ text. It is also a matter of comprehension, analysis, as well as oral and written communication. Thus, Hermeneutics is also a kind of philosophical discipline interested in analyzing the conditions for both truth (like epistemology) and understanding.

Further, Hermeneutics can be seen as a kind of critical thinking that leads to truth and, ultimately, self-knowledge and revelation. The practice of identifying cognitive biases and how existing knowledge is used to acquire and create new knowledge begins (ideally) with–and further promotes–humility. The nature of knowledge–as well as knowing the difference between knowledge and belief–underpin critical reading and interpretation.

As readers, we start off not knowing then, through critical reading, come to know. This necessarily changes a reader, of course, but if the reader then reflects back on the movement from not knowing to knowing, self-knowledge is possible and the process of coming to know becomes more important than what has been learned.

See also What Is Critical Reading?

By assuming that there is more to know than we currently know and that we are biased and generally prone to logical fallacies, the act of reading is transformed from a passive sequence of mechanical events–decoding words and sentences to ‘finish reading–to an active, ongoing consideration and refinement of everything we know in light of what we are reading.

By actively, critically reading, we are reconciling what we think we know with what might be true–and further reconciling what we think and know with the claims made in the text we are reading.

Critical readers have to assume two things at once: that readers and authors alike are prone to cognitive biases and failures of reason and that these biases and failures are avoidable if we are willing to accept them as not only possible but highly probable.

Put another way, they have to believe that they are probably missing or misunderstanding the text and that they have the capacity, through rational, patient scrutiny of ideas, to minimize that misunderstanding. (Think of the word ‘misunderstanding’ here to simply mean not entirely grasping the truth and significance of a text.)

A sequence of ideas to clarify:

I. Authors write text to communicate ideas

II. When these ideas are thought to be worth understanding, readers decode and make sense of these texts.

III. These meanings–the one intended by the authors and the one assembled by the process of reading–are never the same and inherently incompatible with one another as they can be separated by unique social norms, language use, cultural context, and even the span of centuries and millennia.

IV. Humble readers will read under the pretense that they are prone to misunderstanding and may be missing key information or background knowledge necessary to evaluate a text.

V. A second pretense for critical reading: that the author of a text is subject to the same intellectual pre-dispositions (i.e., being prone to irrationality) and the text must be evaluated accordingly and that the significance of data and claims about that data and so must be diligent, rational, methodical, and recursive in their reading.

Ironically, what we believe we know can obfuscate actually knowing–in part because believing and knowing are different and we rarely give enough thought to the important distinctions between the two. If we believe that we know, we are not on alert to create new knowledge in the same way that someone at a market with no money and/or no intention to buy will see the market wares entirely differently than someone with money and/or intending to buy.

Examples Of Hermeneutics

-Studying a theological text

-Debating the truths of a philosophical text

-Reading Buddha’s sutras (or other culturally-relevant ‘wisdom keepers’ or sages)

-Analyzing foundational political documents (e.g., The Declaration of Independence, The Ordinance of Louis the Pious, etc.)