Summary of the meeting of the Dublin branch of 24th Sept 2011


24th September 2011 Dublin group meeting in Taney community hall, Dundrum

A meeting of the Open Christianity Network Dublin branch, attended by eight people, took place on 24th September 2011. Instead of showing, as planned, a DVD on Don Cupitt’s Sea of Faith TV programme, Sean Carr decided to invite Dr Tim Mooney, Senior Lecturer in the UCD School of Philosophy as the speaker. His talk generated much lively discussion.

This is the paper he delivered entitled: ‘Introduction to Hermeneutics’  

“The word ‘hermeneutics’ has an Ancient Greek root. The original noun hermeneia means ‘interpretation’, and in the infinitive it is hermeneuin, meaning ‘to interpret’. Aristotle called one of his logical works Peri Hermeneias or On Interpretation. In this book he is interested in the logic of statements, in the grammatical structure by which subjects are united with predicates to constitute statements about things and states of affairs. For Aristotle, judgement as to the truth and falsity of a statement is the primary locus of meaning, and when the judgement is correct the statement will correspond to reality. In another work, the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle allows that judgements in a discipline will have more or less exactitude depending on their subject matter - our method will only have the exactitude that its particular subject matter allows. Aristotle regards judgement as one of the three main operations of mind - the other two are the simple apprehension of something that is ordinary perception and the activity of reasoning leading up to judgement.

            The modern tradition of hermeneutics does not emphasise reasoning and judging as much as Aristotle. It is concerned with a level of pre-understanding that comes before the act of judgement. This level affects ‘simple’ perception, which is therefore not strictly simple. But hermeneutics does take over Aristotle’s idea that the exactitude of a method depends on its subject matter. It also finds an inspiration in the etymology of the actual word hermeneutics. This word derives from the story of Hermes (who was entitled Mercury in the equivalent Roman mythology). Hermes was the messenger God who brought instructions from the Gods in the heavens and on Mount Olympus. Because the Gods were remote from man in place and in mindset their instructions were obscure. Hermes had to bring this remote and distant message to mortal understanding. He first had to understand what the Gods wanted to convey, translate it into human form, and then articulate and explain the same message. Modern hermeneutics parallels this. It is the philosophy of interpretation, of how to being obscure and/or implicit meanings to light and explain them faithfully. The meanings can be spoken or written or perceptual, and different theorists stress one or the other.

            Richard Palmer has pointed out that there are three basic directions of meaning carried by the term hermeneutics: that of expressing (whether aloud or in writing), that of translating, and that of explaining. Expression is itself interpretation, for we can distinguish between what is expressed and the way in which it is expressed. Even if what is expressed is broadly the same in two cases, it can receive quite different weight and value. We find this most strongly with speech. We may describe someone as honourable man in a tone of wonderment or sarcasm. The power of speech is heard in the recordings of Hitler, Martin Luther King and so on, where the mode of expression carries the content expressed with great force. Yet we also find expressive interpretation in the written word or text. I may write that ‘The essay was late, but it was very well-written’, or alternatively, ‘The essay was very well-written, but it was late’. In the latter case the mode of expression stresses the lateness of the piece, not its virtue. Other forms of emphasis are carried by italics, inverted commas and exclamation marks. We can visualize them readily from our own lives of education.

            Though it can make use of all these helps, a written text cannot convey pitch, speed and emphasis as much as the living voice. Nor can it be accompanied by bodily gestures - it gives us less meaning to be interpreted. In writing a message is largely divorced from primordial expressiveness and calls out for what it has lost. We see a dramatic analogous example when reading a musical score. The spoken word brings two senses into play, hearing and sight. Since Aristotle, sight been taken as the highest of the senses, because of its clarity and ability to detect quite minute differences in perceived reality. Hearing can distinguish fairly minute differences in pitch, but is not in his view as refined as sight. This is curious, for we primarily communicate via hearing. This is why deafness is often taken as a worse handicap than sight, cutting us off from the living voices of common human communication. Hegel is one of the few philosophers to take hearing as the highest sense.

            Translation is an issue for at least two reasons. There is the more obvious and literal problem of translating from one language to another, but also that of distance in time. This second problem applies to ordinary human communication. We see it in reported speech generally and in written works particularly. A written text that we can read may also be obscure because it is separated from its author and original context by thousands of years. The problem of translating the meaning of a text became acute with the development of the Christian tradition, especially after the Reformation. The modern tradition of philosophical hermeneutics actually came out of Biblical criticism. Many of the Protestant reformers saw the Bible as a self-sufficient text that should be available to all and studied in itself alone. Later on they stressed the importance of the original languages. Catholic counter-reformers argued that the Bible’s meaning has always been mediated through tradition and teaching authority - the present meaning of the text cannot be divorced from the history of its interpretations, including those that took it as canonical, as a text that should make up part of the Bible. This question of a text and its relation to context remains an important issue in recent philosophical hermeneutics, as evidenced by the work of Gadamer and Ricoeur.

            Explanation is an issue in hermeneutics because of the question of pre-understanding and creativity and pre-understanding. The explanation of a heard conversation or a written text is itself creative, the production of something new. This is because it always gives greater weight to certain remarks or passages and less to others. There is no such thing as a pure explanation without this or that slant. This shows us that the interpreter is not someone who is purely passive before a text. His or her interests and concerns are always brought into operation. These interests and concerns are part of his or her pre-understanding, and prevent creation from being something absolute that comes out of nowhere. Pre-understanding is vital to comprehension. If we know nothing when we encounter a message or text through hearing or sight, we will not be able to understand it. We must already bring a partial understanding with us in order to comprehend and then progress to a fuller understanding. We have to understand to hear or read and hear or read in order to understand.

            In the tradition or hermeneutics this is called the problem of the hermeneutic circle. It was already broached by Plato in the Meno - Socrates demonstrates how a slave boy immediately grasps geometrical truths drawn out in the sand, and goes on to attribute this to the recollection of knowledge that the boy gained in a previous life. We would now tend to attribute this type of knowledge to our rational faculty and to our education, but we cannot fully explain its origin and possibility. Nor can we properly explain our ordinary linguistic competence prior to mathematics and other sciences. With children, we have to use language to teach them language - again we find the hermeneutic circle and the problem of origin. Children have to bridge the gap between words and things as well as grasping the common forms of validity both between and within propositions.

            The history of the modern hermeneutic tradition can be divided into three phases. The first is the phase of Romantic hermeneutics that followed on the German Enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries. It stretched effectively from about 1810 to 1900. The outstanding thinkers of this phase are Schleiermacher and Dilthey. It is called Romantic because it was loosely part of the reaction against the scientism of the time, which was a mechanistic materialism. Scientism is the approach claiming that everything can be and will be explained causally through the natural sciences, so that nothing at all will be left over. The second phase of phenomenological hermeneutics is to be found above all in the work of Husserl and Heidegger, and in terms of influence it stretches from about 1900 to 1960. Here hermeneutics and the phenomenological method run into one another. They do so in the service of a transcendental philosophy that opposes psychologism, naturalism and scientism (Husserl) and goes on to try and uncover the meaning of Being (Heidegger). The third phase is made up of fully-fledged philosophical hermeneutics, and it stretches from about 1960 to the present day. This phase followed very closely on the second. The outstanding figures making up this third phase are Gadamer and Ricoeur. Philosophical hermeneutics is so called because it is chiefly a philosophy of interpretation, not being devoted to other ends.


Report submitted by Andrew Furlong 29th September 2011

Back to top