[The following material includes parts of a lecture delivered by TA David Weininger in 1999.]
Etymology: "Hermeneutics" derives from the messenger god Hermes, who had to be able to understand and interpret what the gods had to say to humans.
This definition is really two definitions combined and much of the later history of hermeneutics can be diagnosed as the working out of the tension between the two definitions, between the technical, theoretical task of interpretation and the art of understanding texts, historical periods, and other people.
Aristotle used it in the title of one of his works (On Interpretation, or Peri hermeneias) to designate how the logical structure of language conveys the nature of things in the world.
Reformation, Renaissance and Enlightenment: Its establishment as an independent discipline dates from the Reformation and Renaissance. The Reformations rejection of the churchs authoritative provision of meaning to scripture in favor of a conviction about the self-sufficiency of the text for its interpretation naturally called for an account of the interpretative process. Several factors influenced the early development of this theory.
Schleiermacher was a major turning point in hermeneutics, since he was a synthesizer of the trends in various approaches, and laid the groundwork for the future. The main achievement was two-fold.
First, he insisted on what can be called the "linguisticality hypothesis."
Second, he argued that understanding a spoken or written utterance depended upon on both:
Neither of these was ever found without the other.
Dilthey was the link between the 19th century Romantic hermeneuts (preeminently Schleiermacher) and the 20th century bearers of the hermeneutical tradition. His major correction to Schleiermacher was rejecting the linguisticality hypothesis in favor of the view that understanding was a process of life itself; it is an existential category. For Dilthey, we do not first live as linguistic creatures (speaking and hearing, writing and reading), and then subsequently understand and interpret, but rather we live as understanding, interpreting creatures in every aspect of our lives, and interpreting verbal and written utterances is just a special case of what we do to live.
An important question is how to link understanding as an existential category in Diltheys sense with understanding as a technical theory of interpretation. This remains problematic today.
But this doesnt convey much, because "phenomena" itself has been used in so many different ways. In terms of knoweldge, the basic issue is: Do essences of things show up in phenomena? Does Being peek through appearances and disclose itself in them? In relation to hermeneutics, the issue is one of the power of interpretation: What can we get at through interpreting? Can we get at Essences of things?
Phenomenology in the specific sense is a philosophical movement taking its rise from Husserl, who advocated a specific answer to these questions.
1. Motivation and Aim
Husserl opposed inquiry that began with nature and saw human beings as mere specifications of that nature. This leads in his view to relativism, skepticism, and will-to-power ethics. Husserl attributes this huge mistake to Democritus (all things including human beings are clumps of atoms in the void), opposes it to the Platonic-Aristotelian philosophical tradition, and describes the results (relativism, etc.) as signs of the cultural degeneration of the Western world. With this motivation in place, his aim was to rethink knowing, and in this his project is akin to that of Descartes and Kant.
Thus, Husserls was a fundamentally Cartesian aim: a presuppositionless, certain foundation for knowledge, beginning with the indubitability of the knower, and attempting to move from internal facts of human knowledge to external facts about the world. Husserls phenomenology is a method for rigorously identifying the essences of the internal world of the thinking self.
It follows that Husserl answered a resounding "yes" to the question of whether we can get at the essences of things. He aimed to identify what had to be the case about the world in order for people to say and do things that had public meaning. The basic conclusion is that a world of public essences is disclosed in the world of public meanings. We can agree on what these essences are and how they relate to one another.
However, it is very hard to get at these essences, because there are lots of oversimplifications we are used to making. Husserl argued that a careful method of interpretation could disclose both the meanings of actions and words that are intended to be meaningful, and the way the world had to be in order for those meanings to be possible. This method was something to be done, because phenomenology is a tool for getting information (non-sensually) about the world. Husserl frequently warned about the prejudice in favor of the senses that interferes with the operation of the phenomenological method.
This method is a kind of disciplined asceticism of interpretation. It strives to discover internal essences through reductions of phenomena of experience to the essential elements of experience. It involves several tasks.
Here we see the phenomenological hermeneutical circle: the linkage between examples that lead to general descriptions is circular in character because we use the examples to test out the truth of the descriptions, but we use the descriptions to identify and interpret the examples. For example, anything that shows up as a human has rational capacities, yet we identify the nature and meaning of rationality by looking at human beings. Husserl argued that the hermeneutical circle is not vicious, but a part of life, and we can still reach intuitive knowledge of essences in spite of it.
3. Strengths and Weaknesses
The strengths and weaknesses of Husserls approach reflect each other in the great pool constituted by the problem of trying to move between the internal and external worlds (Plato versus Democritus). In fact, the relative virtues and deficits of continental philosophy after Descartes and Anglo-American philosophy after Locke reflect each other in the same way. Continental philosophy typically begins with the internal world of the self, which is almost impossibly difficult to talk about, but which may be the most important topic for philosophical reflection. It will even sacrifice clarity to achieve some grasp on this most important of topics. By contrast, Anglo-American philosophy, especially in its analytical and linguistic forms, begins with the external world of nature and thinks of human beings as part of that nature. The external world of nature can be discussed with great precision but this emphasis risks mimizing or even overlooking the importance of the human world, even to the point (in extreme cases) of denying that there is an internal world of self-consciousness.
Husserls strength lies in directing our attention to the internal world of human experience and his weakness in the vagueness of his his method (which is vague through being so abstract). Again, his strength lies in his ability to force-think his way from the internal, private world to the external, public world; his weakness in so heavy a reliance on a hermeneutical circle to the point that common sense aspects of public life can only be taked about after an excruciatingly extended period of expenditure of prodigious effort on the phenomenological method.
1889: Born in Messkirch, Baden, s.w. Germany, son of a Catholic sexton
1903-06: Grammar school: Constance, then Freiburg
1909-13: University of Freiburg: theological and then philosophical studies. Begins to read Husserl.
1915: Univ. Freiburg: completes Habilitation (qualification as lecturer) with thesis on Duns Scotus, and lecture on "The Concept of Time in the Science of History." Studies with Husserl after Husserl comes to Freiburg in 1916.
1917: Marriage to Elfride Petri
1923-28: Professor of philosophy, Univ. Marburg
1927: Publication of Sein und Zeit (Being and Time)
1928: Appointed to chair of philosophy, Univ. Freiburg, as Husserls successor, after Husserl, as jew, was expelled.
1933-4: 4/33: Elected Rector of Freiburg. Resigns 4/34. Joins National Socialist Party 5/33. Ends lectures with "Heil Hitler." Publicly repudiates connection with Husserl. Argues that philosophy can only be done in the German language (or, at a pinch, in Greek) and that Germany is the only possible successor to the Greek tradition. Very well connected politically.
1944: Briefly serves with Volkssturm (Home Guard)
1945-6: Investigated by denazification commission of University, banned from teaching until 1950/51 term, when given emeritus status
1951-67: Lectures at Freiburg and in France. Thought reaches height of popularity in France, influencing Sartre, existentialist movement
1976: Dies in Freiburg
1927: Sein und Zeit (Being and Time)
1929: Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik (Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics); Was ist Metaphysik? (What is Metaphysics?)
1936: "Hölderlin und das Wesen der Dichtung" ("Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry"). Essay
1942: "Platons Lehre von der Wahrheit" ("Platos Theory of Truth"). Essay, censored by Nazis because of treatment of humanism
1950: Holzwege (Woodpaths). Essays
1953: Einführung in die Metaphysik (An Introduction to Metaphysics)
1954: Vorträge und Aufsätze (Essays); Was heißt Denken? (What is Called Thinking?)
1956: Was ist das--die Philosophie? (What is Philosophy?)
1959: Unterwegs zur Sprache (On the Way to Language). Essays
1961: Nietzsche. Essays
1969: Zur Sache des Denkens. Contains "Zeit und Sein" ("Time and Being", 1966) and "Das Ende der Philosophie und die Aufgabe des Denkens" ("The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking", 1966)
Heideggers relationship with National Socialism - the debate
Documents like Heideggers The Rectorship 1933-34: Facts and Thoughts, and the Spiegel interview of 1966, both published posthumously at Heideggers request in 1983 and 1976 give what Ott (see Sources) feels is a "cleaned up" version of Heideggers relationship with the National Socialist Party, falsifying the facts, and not supported by other biographical sources, like the memoirs of Jaspers and Gadamer, or documentary evidence that has recently been made available. The Heideggerian "apologias" have been, however, widely utilized.
A comparison of Ott with Moehlings essay "Heidegger and the Nazis" (see Sources) makes this problem clear, Moehling following Heideggers version.
Victor Farias Heidegger et le Nazisme (1987) initiated the debate about these matters.
1889: Born in Messkirch, Baden, in southwest German, edge of Black Forest.
- father Friedrich (master cooper, sexton of local RC church)
- mother Johanna Kempf
- Family Roman Catholic; eldest of three children, "destined" for career in the Church.
1903: Konradihaus, grammar school in Constance. Headmaster Gröber directs his attention to philosophy.
1906: Bertholdgymnasium, Freiburg. Completes grammar school. Educated in Greek, Latin. Widely read in German literature, first exposure to Hölderlin, intensive study of Aristotle. Gröber gives him Brentanos (phenomenologist, Husserls teacher), On Several Senses of Being in Aristotle, a crucial text.
University of Freiburg: Student, 1909-15
1909: enters Jesuit novitiate, but leaves after 2 weeks because of physical problems. Simultaneously enters theological seminary and university at Freiburg.
- Begins to read Husserls Logical Investigations but "without adequate guidance" (from 1957 Inaugural Address)
- abandons theological studies after period of ill health, feeling would have little prospect of serving Church because of health. Studies mathematics and natural science for a period, but increasing focus on philosophy.
- Influence of Freiburg theologian Carl Braig, especially On Being: An Outline of Ontology, as well as Schelling, Hegel, Nietzsche, Dilthey, Dostoevsky, Rilke. After reading Werner Jaegers The History of the Genesis of Aristotles Metaphysics, becomes interested in "problematic of truth/disclosure" (Sheehan, 5). Attends lectures of Rickert.
1913: doctoral examination in philosophy, thesis ("Doctrine of Judgment in Psychologism").
- because of heart problems, not required to serve actively in WWI, works as postal censor at Freiburg from 1915, briefly at front in 1918 as meteorological observer.
1915: Completes habilitation, thesis on "Categories and Doctrine of Meaning in Duns Scotus," lecture on "Concept of Time in the Science of History."
University of Freiburg: Lecturer, 1915-1922
1916: Husserl appointed to chair of philosophy at Freiburg.
1917: Marriage to Elfride Petri (student of economics, Lutheran)
- ongoing process of Heideggers alienation from Catholic circles, thought from 1916 to his decisive break with the Church in 1919.
- moving toward adapting Husserl, phenomenology; studies Schleiermacher.
- continues interest in interpretation of Greek, scholastic thought via phenomenological method. Sheehan (8-9) comments that he asks the question about "the area of presence and relatedness" and finds this not in consciousness (Husserl) but in Being as unconcealed/concealing.
- also considers the notion of kairos in Paul, develops thought about lived experience, uncertainty, and authentic temporality giving access to the "place of disclosure of Being" (Sheehan, 9)
1920: Husserl, enthusiastic about Hs potential, considers Heidegger almost as successor, assists with financial difficulties by helping him get an appointment as "permanent" lecturer at Freiburg, and then as Professor at Marburg.
University of Marburg: Professor, 1923-28
- There was some hesitancy to offer position to Heidegger because of lack of publications. With Husserls support, and submission of a mss on Aristotle (never published, developed into Sein und Zeit), gets appointment as Associate Professor. Full Professor, Fall, 1927.
- Whenever possible escapes to mountain retreat at Todtnauberg, where writes Sein und Zeit.
- Meets Bultmann.
1927: Spring, publication of Sein und Zeit. Dedicated to Husserl (dedication dropped in 1941 ed.) Immediate fame.
University of Freiburg: Professor, 1928-33
University of Freiburg: Rector, April 1933-April 1934
- Heidegger (see "Debate" above) gives 2/34 as date for resignation. Documentary evidence contradicts this (Ott).
April 1933: Elected Rector of University of Freiburg.
- background (Moehling, 32; Ott)
- Rector: administrative head of German university, elected by university senate of full professors. Legally subject to individual state government; but state generally did not interfere with internal university affairs.
- During Weimar period, universities "hotbeds" of right-wing political student activity, with Nazis increasing in numbers, becoming more vocal.
- Jan. 1933: Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany.
- April 1933: legislation of anti-Semitic policies against businessmen, intellectuals. Möllendorf resigns as Rector (after only few months) because of these policies.
- Ott (144) goes against Heideggers (and Moehlings) version of these events, saying that "Heidegger did not end up in the rectorship through a series of chance events, dutifully shouldering the burden at the urging of the worthy Sauer [former Rector] and von Möllendorf" to help shield the university from the worst of the effects of Nazi politics. "There was instead an internal conspiracy, plotted behind the scenes by a small clique of Nazi sympathizers, while on stage the action followed a carefully prepared script."
- During his Rectors address, noticeable Nazi presence, heil posture taken during singing of Horst-Wessel Lied.
- Husserl suspended because of local decree against Jews. Though this is rescinded shortly afterward because superceded by national N-S legislation, the implentation of a series of later national laws meant that by 1935, Husserl had completely lost his official responsibilities.
- The intimacy between the Husserl/Heidegger families had cooled after Heideggers appointment in 1928, and by 1930 most contact had ceased. Heideggers philosophical position had also, during this period, moved away from that of Husserl. Heidegger did not attend Husserls funeral in 1938.
- Although it is frequently stated that Heidegger banned Husserl from the University and the library during his rectorship, Heidegger did not issue such a ban.
May 1933: Joins National Socialist Party.
October 1933: Minister of Education of Nazi regime appoints the Rector as Führer of the University, according to new university constitution instituted by Heidegger himself. University senate has no say in appointment.
Speech to students, beginning of 33/34 term: reflects how Heideggers thought and the rhetoric of National Socialist ideology come together in this period (cited in Ott, 164-5):
May you ceaselessly grow in the courage to sacrifice yourselves for the salvation of our nations essential being and the increase of its innermost strength in its polity. Let not your being be ruled by doctrine or "ideas". The Führer himself and he alone is the German reality, present and future, and its law. Study to know: from now on all things demand decision, and all action responsibility. Heil Hitler!
- Heidegger stated to denazification commission that he resigned in February after a local minister insisted he dismiss two of his deans. Otts account, based on other documents, differs. States that there was severe internal tension between Wolf, Dean of Law School, and the faculty when the Dean tried to make changes to bring the university into line with National Socialist policies. Wolf supported Heidegger and promotion of National Socialist educational policies during this period, though later became a member of the Confessing Church. Heidegger and Wolf were also involved in a conflict over a vacant chair in economics, temporarily filled by a man who didnt support National Socialist policies and was later arrested for his role in the July 1944 plot. Because of complaints about Wolfs role in this latter conflict, the local minister suggested Heidegger might consider appointing a new dean. Heidegger, annoyed that a complaint was made "behind his back", writes a letter of resignation. Ott feels he was basically using these issues as an excuse to resign because he had not succeeded in attaining a role of intellectual leadership in the National Socialist revolution, particularly with regard to the Gleichschaltung of the universities.
- In fact, Heidegger was already under suspicion, instigated by an anti-Heidegger group within Party circles. Although his movements were not restricted, a sizeable dossier was compiled, based on some of his ideas and friendships with Jews during his Marburg period, which prevented Heidegger from achieving certain positions of intellectual/academic leadership within N-S. He was under regular surveillance from 1936.
- His 1942 essay on "Platos Theory of Truth" is censored -- no reviews allowed to mention it because of his "relativizing" approach to the concept of "humanism" which ran counter to the strict Party definition of this term along racial-political lines as the heritage of Indo-Germanic culture.
End of War, Denazification commision: 1944-46
1944: Called up on active reserve, age 55. At approach of Allied Forces, requests leave to rescue his mss. after the devastation of Freiburg in Nov. Goes to Messkirch where he is in hiding when French troops arrive.
1945-6: Denazification commission set up by University, and then reviewed by French occupational government. Heidegger and family come under scrutiny. Heideggers statements of defense suggest that he was largely innocent, emphasized his being out of favor with the Party, that he was not active in Party politics, didnt go along with anti-Semitic policies, etc. Crucial to decision of commission is a statement by Jaspers: revealing certain damaging anti-Semitic incidents, his active role in implementing N-S policy; suggesting Heidegger should not be allowed to teach because a dangerous influence now, that this be reviewed after a time; and that he be pensioned and allowed to continue philosophic work because of stature, importance of thought (Cited in Ott, 336-41).
- Dec 1946: Heidegger forbidden to teach or participate in University affairs.
- Following the increasing popularity of Heideggers thought, especially in France, the decree comes under reconsideration in 1949 after West Germany achieves some measure of autonomy. The teaching ban is lifted, Heidegger is retired with full pension, with understanding that he will achieve emeritus status and can resume teaching at age 62 (winter 50/51).
- Continues to give occasional seminars, lectures, at Freiburg, also in France. Dies May 1976 in Freiburg.
Sources for this report:
1) Biemel, Walter. Martin Heidegger, An Illustrated Study. Trans. J. L. Mehta. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977.
2) Edwards, Paul, ed. Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 3. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. and The Free Press., 1967. S.v. "Martin Heidegger," by Marjorie Grene.
3) Macquarrie, John. Martin Heidegger. Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1968.
4) Sheehan, Thomas, ed. Heidegger, the Man and the Thinker. Chicago: Precedent, 1981.
- Part One includes essays on Heideggers life by Sheehan (3-20); part of Heideggers 1957 inaugural address (21-22); Heideggers 1934 essay (just after resigning the rectorship), "Why Do I Stay in the Provinces?" (27-30); Karl Moehlings essay, "Heidegger and the Nazis" (31-44); and the 1966 Spiegel interview, "Only a God Can Save Us."
5) Steiner, George. Heidegger. Modern Masters Series. New York: Viking Press, 1979.
- timeline, p. 159.
6) Ott, Hugo. Martin Heidegger: A Political Life. Trans. Allan Blunden. New York: Basic Books, 1993.
Other important sources (not used):
Gadamer, H-G. Philosophische Lehrjahre (1977).
Jaspers, K. Philosophische Autobiographie (1977); and Notizen zu Martin Heidegger, (ed. Saner) (1978).
Löwith, Karl. Mein Leben in Deutschland vor und nach 1933 (1986). (Contemporary observations, noted down in 1940).
Petzet, Heinrich W. Auf einen Stern zugchen: Begegnungen und Gespräche mit Martin Heidegger, 1929-1976. (1983)
Schneeberger, Guido. Nachlese zu Heidegger. Dokumente zu seinem Leben und Denken. (1962)
The influences on Being and Time were several, including both phenomenology and existentialism.
Could these two vital interests be combined? Indeed they could, and were. What could you expect to find out about Being itself from studying human beings? Whereas for Aristotle humans are rational animals, for Heidegger they are the creatures uniquely intimately concerned with Being. In human being (Dasein = "being there" = "ek-sistence" = German philosophical word for existence, but given a twist), Being shows itselfboth in the way humans are in the world, and in their driving fascination about Being-itself. But, as husserl underlines, it is extremely difficult to talk about Being when you are a being, and instance of Being. This defines a method of approach for Heidegger and this method has several consequences for his understanding of philosophy.
3. The Plan for Being and Time
Being and Time (1927, dedicated to Husserl, though the dedication was removed in the 1941 edition) was envisaged as a two part work, in accordance with the basic methodological insight of Heidegger. First, he would analyze human experience to establish an horizon for the interpretation of Being-itself; this part (on the hermeneutics of Being) was finished. Second, and not pursued to completion, he would give the grand interpretation of Being-itself.
Heidegger abandoned the second part of Being and Time because he became more and more convinced that philosophical inquiry, indeed language, can never capture Being-itself, that it is profoundly mysterious, that it makes itself known but cant be approached, and so on. Thus in his later career he turned his attention to poetry and the study of language, there to explore Being-itself indirectly. In other words, if he couldnt flush it out with the brute force of metaphysics, the discipline of phenomenology, and the passion of existentialism, then perhaps Being-itself could be enticed into to disclosing itself indirectly through openings made by language.
This connects up with Heideggers analysis of the history of philosophy. According to him, the great Western mistake was the metaphysical turn of Socrates, for this is the beginning of the denial of the demonstrable impossibility of explaining human being and justifying human choices. We need to return to the Presocratics because there is more clarity in their reticence to thematize questions of Being.
4. Heideggers Analysis of Human Being
Inauthentic, "normal" human life is unreflective, a hiding from being, in spite of the fact that humans are the sorts of beingin which being becomes a problem for itself and thus are constantly trying to understanding the being that they are. The hiding occurs through:
The problem with human being: Time is the finite horizon of human being and temporal finitude is fundamentally the problem separating us from authentic engagement with Being. Consider the significance for human beings of the three modes of time:
Authentic life: Humans live authentically when they orient themselves to Being-itself; resisting the fierce compulsion of our age to hide from the mystery of Being-itself by means of social conventions and external laws; and taking responsibility for our own lives and societies with an act of disciplined will. Specifically:
Heideggers influence was and continues to be enormous. One example is Rudolf Bultmann, who accepted Heideggers analysis of the human situation, but held that humans were not capable of securing authentic life unaided; salvation means divine grace directed human-ward for the sake the attaining of authentic life. This was used in conjunction with his program of demythologizing the NT, for the aim of demythologization was to clarify the gospel message, which was congenially expressed for Bultmann in Heideggers language. When we penetrate the mythic husk of the NT to the message underlying it, we discern the grace-empowered offer of authentic life through Jesus Christ. Tillich also explicitly acknowledges his debt to Heidegger.
Gadamer's principalmost famous work is Truth and Method (1960). Some of his key ideas are as follows.
One of Gadamers contributions is a correction to Heideggers view of the person. Gadamer holds that the person is always a person-in-community, a person with a tradition. Any analysis of the human person must take account of this.
2. The importance of personal context in hermeneutics
Armed with this insight, Gadamer approached the problem of hermeneutics with fresh insights.
3. The nature of personal context
Now, we must ask, what constitutes this personal context? In the most general terms, the relevant part is "historically effected consciousness" (wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewusstein), which is a way of seeing or reading or understanding that a person embodies in his or her own life.
4. Modes of interpretation
When it is a text that is to be understood, that historically effected consciousness includes a tradition of interpretation against which readings occur. That gives interpretation three sorts of characteristics:
5. Relatedness of hermeneutical tasks: These three components are merged in acts of interpreting texts of all kinds. In this way Gadamer was able to render legal, historical, and theological hermeneutics variations on a theme in spite of their apparent differences.
A Lecture by David Weininger, 11/30/99
Use of the word “hermeneutics” can be traced to Aristotle’s treatise On Interpretation, which mainly concerned the proper way to construct propositions about the world, but the roots of the word go back even further: like most philosophical problems, hermeneutics finds its first, preliminary speculation in Plato. In his dialogue Cratylus, Socrates and Hermogenes are discussing the origin of language and are speculating about the origin of particular Greek words, in particular, the meaning of the names of particular Gods. With reference to Hermes, the messenger of the Gods, Socrates says: “I should imagine that the name Hermes has to do with speech, and signifies that he is the interpreter, or messenger, or thief; or liar, or bargainer; all that sort of thing has a great deal to do with language.” (408a) It’s a remarkable statement: Hermes is credited with having invented language in order to facilitate communication between the gods and human beings, but this language does not only represent, but can also deceive and lead astray. It can convey information, but it can also deceive. Hermes is both a mediator and a contriver.
Even if we find this insufficient as an account of the origin of language, Plato’s insight into the nature of language sets the stage for the modern history of hermeneutics: If language can be used both to explain and deceive, how can we know when we are understanding correctly and when we are mistaken? If texts have the potential to be ambiguous, how ought we to read them so as to glean from them their correct meaning? What is the proper way to interpret a spoken or written product of language? How can language “lead us astray” in the first place, anyway? In short, how ought we to interpret, so as to understand? Or is it the other way around?
This problematic, which Plato was the first to recognize, provided the impetus for the modern discipline of hermeneutics, which really only gets going in the nineteenth century. It should be noted, of course, that it receives a big impulse from the Reformation, and the church’s loss over the ultimate ground of interpretation. But even so, as a discipline it doesn’t exist until a few centuries later. Why? Well, until then these questions about understanding and interpretation were encountered ONLY within the province of particular areas. For example: there was a certain philological method for interpreting classical texts of antiquity; there was a different method for the understanding of sacred scripture; both of these differed from the interpretation and application of law. All of these “regional” methods of interpretation were treated separately, and it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the impulse to provide a single method, a set of rules which would be general enough to serve the understanding of anything whatsoever, could be proposed. The process begins with a figure well-suited to this monumental task whose acquaintance we have already made: Friedrich Schleiermacher.
We’ve already met Schleiermacher in this course; a really brilliant figure in the early nineteenth century intellectual scene, his achievements were amazingly diverse: a brilliant preacher; father of modern theology and religious thought; early member of the Romantic circle; translator of Plato. But he was also the first important figure in the field of hermeneutics.
For Schleiermacher, hermeneutics is the art of understanding. In seeking to lay out a general hermeneutics, his aim was to discover the interpretive techniques which occurred in any act of understanding. What made his attempt special was that these techniques were not based on that which was particular to the text, but were operative in any act of understanding at all. Perhaps the most helpful way to view it is in comparison to the figure who was one the great influences on Schleiermacher: Kant. Just as Kant’s critical philosophy called for one to discover the limits of the human mind, before asking what can be known, Schleiermacher wants to relate the rules of interpretation not back to the texts which are being interpreted, but back to the mental operations which are in effect in any act of the understanding.
Schleiermacher began from what we might call the “Linguisticality Thesis,” which is simply the idea that we are fundamentally language-based creatures, and that understanding and interpretation always means the understanding and interpretation of written texts or spoken utterances. Furthermore, Schleiermacher thought that the way we speak and write really has two components: the language common to a culture, and the individual qualities that the author, as an individual, brings to his task. Hence Schleiermacher saw the hermeneutical task as that of relating two different kinds of interpretation: grammatical and technical.
Grammatical Interpretation is the interpretation of a spoken or written utterance in terms of the language in which it appears, and those features of the language which are common to the culture of the time. (Also known as objective interpretation)
Technical Interpretation is the interpretation of a spoken or written utterance in terms of the life and personal development of the particular speaker or writer. (Also known as subjective interpretation)
Schleiermacher was clear that neither of these kinds of context could be found without the other; on the other hand, these kinds of interpretation could not be practiced simultaneously: to concentrate on the first is to focus on what is common to the culture the speaker/writer is part of; to practice the second is to emphasize the individuality of the speaker or writer, what sets him apart from the rest of the culture. The art of understanding, Schleiermacher says, consists in knowing which of these interpretive techniques to give prominence to at a given time.
Ultimately, Schleiermacher thought that the real task of hermeneutics lay in the second kind of interpretation: the ultimate goal was, so to speak, to transpose oneself back into the very subjectivity of the author him/herself. It has to be noted, however, that the second kind of interpretation cannot be practiced without the first: we cannot know what marks the particular characteristics of the individual’s utterance without first being aware of the general characteristics of the ‘standard’ language in which they are writing or speaking: we must have the common background. Ultimately, the goal of this two-stage process was to ‘get into the author’s head,’ so to speak. Hence Schleiermacher’s famous statement of the impossible goal of hermeneutics, which is “to understand the author better than the author understands himself.” Hermeneutics ultimately comes to rest, then, in a kind of psychology; it becomes a technique for understanding another’s mind and worldview.
Today Schleiermacher’s project probably seems overly romantic to us: we feel that we should be able to understand a text without having to reconstruct the author’s entire worldview or psychological profile. In time, hermeneutics would develop more sophisticated methods for dealing with these questions, which we’ll get to towards the end of the lecture.
Well, this doesn’t tell us very much, but it gives us an initial jumping-off point for examining Husserl’s phenomenological method. Husserl intended to revive the project of putting philosophical knowledge on an absolutely secure, induibitable basis; it should be founded ultimately on a secure insight, and its contents should be rigorously deduced from this insight. This means leaving aside all of the presuppositions which are a part of our ordinary experience and to begin doing philosophy, as much as possible, from only that which is immediately evident. (This should remind you of Descartes, right?)
But whereas other philosophers such as Descartes wanted to base knowledge on certain propositions which could not be doubted, Husserl instead wanted to begin from an immediate perception or vision of the things which present themselves to us; that is, he wanted to start from phenomena. Hence Husserl’s famous rallying cry: “Back to the Things Themselves!” Even the non-philosophical sciences, he thought, don’t succeed in taking things without presuppositions; even they start from assumptions that they don’t clarify in advance. Thus, even they take place according to what Husserl calls the “Natural Attitude.” The Natural Attitude is simply the presupposition that the world, as we experience it, exists. It is a kind of a pre-reflective commitment concerning the ontological status of the world and the things we discover within it. From this natural attitude, certain presuppositions have found their way into our thinking and into the sciences which are almost impossible to do away with. A good example of this is the presupposition, key to the sciences, that our mind can range over the entire objective world and study certain aspects of it, while leaving the world’s “objective” character unchanged.
Now, unlike Descartes, Husserl does not think that the natural attitude can be really doubted. You can’t seriously doubt that the world doesn’t really exist, because this would require going against all the evidence of our senses; it would be literally nonsensical. But neither can there be anything in our experience which confirms beyond doubt that the world exists. The Natural Attitude, then, can be neither conclusively confirmed nor conclusively refuted. What one can do, however, is modify this commitment to the world’s existence in a particular way: it can be neutralized, so to speak. This neutralization is accomplished by the Phenomenological Reduction. The reduction is a way of bracketing or stepping back from the Natural Attitude, and it happens in two steps: 1) on the side of consciousness, we come to view the Natural Attitude for what it is, a commitment to the real existence of the world, while, 2) on the side of the world, we refuse to take a position on the real existence of the world—we become agnostic about it, so to speak. This allows the phenomenologist to ask what is involved in viewing the world in the terms set by the Natural Attitude; that is, what is significant about the world, if we have suspended our ultimate belief in its reality?
The answer is that we approach the world in terms of the meaning it has for us. We become interested in the relation between consciousness of the objects of the world whose existence we are not taking a stand on. Ultimately, Husserl wants to demonstrate that our minds take an active role in constituting the objects as we perceive them: what happens when I take this object as a book, as a tree? Phenomenology really gets interesting and controversial when Husserl comes to the problem of what happens when we take a phenomena as another human being. (NB: Heidegger, in an early manuscript, called this way of approaching phenomena that of the “hermeneutical ‘as’”; this should indicate how intimate the relationship between the two philosophical approaches we are considering!)
The broad aim, though, concerns a real redirection of the nature of philosophical activity: instead of proving whether the world “is real,” we ask what meaning that the phenomena have for us, and the acts of consciousness involved in the creating this meaning. The point of this neutrality, then, is that we leave aside whether this meaning is ultimately and in the last instance valid, and whether my belief in the real existence of the world is warranted. Phenomenological research, for Husserl, is about probing into the nature of the relation between phenomenon and consciousness.
These are difficult ideas to get hold of, but the main point I want you to get out of this discussion is phenomenology’s advocating of a stance of neutrality (the Phenomenological Reduction) with respect to our assumption of the real existence of the world (the Natural Attitude), thus freeing us up to delve more deeply into what is involved in the relation between consciousness as an object.
These days, phenomenology sounds like an impossibly idealistic project, and perhaps it is. However, in its time phenomenology was revolutionary and proved to be extraordinarily influential. To take one example that is particularly pertinent to our concerns, a school of thought which went under the rubric of “phenomenology of religion” developed in the wake of Husserl’s work, and its practitioners include such well-known scholars as Rudolf Otto, Gerardus van der Leeuw and Mircea Eliade. None of them, it’s safe to say, took seriously all of Husserl’s methodological directives in their investigations, but they incorporated important general features of his method into their own. Phenomenology of religion differs from traditional philosophy of religion in that it doesn’t seek to justify religious doctrines; in fact, it’s not centered around doctrine at all, but involves a general description of all kinds of religious expressions: rites and rituals, scriptures, symbols, myths, etc. What it wants to do is to get us away from asking whether or not all these types of religious behavior are TRUE and instead help us to raise our awareness of what’s really going on in them. Van der Leeuw famously said that the phenomenology of religion did not deal with God, for to do so God would have to be a phenomenon, which is impossible. Rather, in keeping with Husserl’s directive, this method attempts to describe the religious life, by adopting the same stance of neutrality Husserl advocated. We bracket claims about the ultimate reference of these expressions—as well as our own personal prejudices about the object—and try to get ourselves back to the data themselves, so as to examine the meaning they have for those who practice them. Because the phenomenologist’s stance is one of neutrality rather than one of total disbelief, this allows them an empathetic appreciation of their significance for the practitioner, while relieving them of the tricky questions of the ultimate metaphysical warrant for such an expression.
Husserl set the agenda for phenomenology, and most of his students adopted his method wholesale. One who did not, but introduced fascinating modifications into it, was his most illustrious student, Martin Heidegger.
Martin Heidegger is born September 26, 1889 in Messkirch, a small village in southwest Germany near the Swiss border, the son of a Catholic sexton. He studies theology in seminaries in Constance and Freiburg. He plans to enter a Jesuit order to complete his training for the priesthood, but leaves after only two weeks and instead began instruction in philosophy at the University of Freiburg in 1909. He receives his doctorate in 1913, by which time he has begun to read Husserl. He completes his Habilitationschrift (that is, the second thesis required for teaching in the University) in 1916 with a thesis on Duns Scotus. By then Husserl had joined the faculty at Freibrug, and Heidegger becomes Husserl’s assistant early in 1918. The two would remain intellectually and personally close for years. In January 1919 he renounces Catholicism, finding it intellectually unacceptable and incompatible with his philosophical interests. In 1923 he begins teaching at the University of Marburg, where his classes were a huge success, and rumor about the “rebirth of German philosophy” quickly spreads across the country; his classes are filled to overflow despite the fact that he holds his lectures at 7 in the morning! In 1926 the faculty wants to appoint him to a full professorship but the request is denied because he has published nothing during his time in Marburg; he quickly writes what would become Being and Time, and it is published in the journal that Husserl edits early in 1927, and Heidegger receives his full professorship in October 1927. It was a short-lived position, since he left Marburg to become Husserl’s successor at Freiburg in 1928.
OK, now comes the interesting part. Various reports of Heidegger’s sympathy for National Socialism are reported as early as 1931, though they are no more than a political opinion at this point. The story really picks up with his appointment to the rectorship of Freiburg University in April 1933. After the war Heidegger always maintained that he reluctantly assumed the post only so as to keep less reasonable party hacks away from the job. More recent historical scholarship has proved rather conclusively that this is a lie, and that Heidegger had been scheming to gain the rectorship as early as March. He officially joins the Nazi party in May 1933. He resigned the post a year later in April 1934, at which time he also renounced his membership in the Nazi party. From 1936 on he falls under suspicion from anti-Heidegger elements within the party. After the war he is investigated by the denazification committee and barred from teaching in the German university system, largely on the recommendation of philosopher Karl Jaspers. This ban is lifted in 1951, when he is granted emeritus status and a full pension. He gives occasional lectures from time to time. He dies in May 1976.
Heidegger, too, wants to return to what presents itself as phenomenon, but in a radically different way than Husserl does. His whole life and his whole philosophical career, Heidegger had one and only one concern, summed up by the following question: What is the meaning of ‘being?’ Or, alternately, What does ‘to be’ mean? The very fact that both the question and its answer seem so obvious to us indicates the magnitude of the problem to Heidegger. Being and Time (hereafter BT) begins with the following quotation from Plato: “For manifestly you have long known what you mean when you use the expression ‘being’; we, however, who used to think we understood, have become perplexed.” (BT 19) It is precisely that we no longer think we need to ask the question that indicates how far we are from truly understanding the sense of being. Early on in BT Heidegger identifies three common prejudices about the concept of being: that it is the most universal concept; that it is indefinable; and that it is self-evident. All of these prejudices are part of what Heidegger calls “the vague average understanding of Being.” (BT 25) If we are to get beyond this vague and inaccurate way of conceiving being, we must raise the question anew.
But who’s responsible for this vague and inaccurate way of understanding Being? Well, says Heidegger, in a way, the entire philosophical tradition is: somewhere back in the past, certain ways of treating Being came about which have determined its history right up to the present (at least, the present in which Heidegger is writing). Part of Heidegger’s project is to uproot the common ways of conceiving the concept of Being so as to loosen to philosophical tradition’s grip on us. (See the plan of the work, below.)
His first step in doing so is to specify the problem. We can’t start by simply asking about Being; rather we have to take into account the very fact that we are raising the question. Heidegger starts from a very basic insight about us human beings: we raise the question about what it means to be; other entities such as tables, numbers, and ideas do not (as far as we know). So, we will have made a huge step forward in our study, Heidegger thinks, if we ask about our own relation to Being. To designate the object of this inquiry, Heidegger introduces the German term Dasein. Dasein is the entity that we ourselves are, and Heidegger’s first task in BT is to ask HOW Dasein exists.
Dasein is not simply an entity that occurs among all other entities; it is distinguished by the fact that its existence is an issue for it: it raises the question of its Being. For Heidegger, this indicates that Dasein, just in raising the question, already has an understanding of Being: this understanding is a characteristic of our existence. Now, this understanding is not clear and transparent, but it’s there nevertheless. Heidegger thus proposes an Analytic of Dasein to make its understanding of its own Being clear. And just as Husserl asks us to bracket or suspend our judgments concerning the natural world and ask what is involved in our relation to phenomena, so, in a similar vein, Heidegger wants us to get into our grasp Dasein just as it usually is, or as he says, “in its average everydayness.” This is perhaps the place where Heidegger’s debt to phenomenology as conceived by Husserl is the clearest: the attempt to take Dasein’s everyday way of existence as a phenomenon, as something that shows itself to a careful observer, and to see ‘how it goes’ with it. Thus, the first step in deciphering the meaning of Being is an existential analytic of Dasein.
What kind of results does this analysis yield? Here are six important results:
This will have to suffice as a brief resume of Heidegger’s analysis of human being, although there’s more that I haven’t been able to get to. One should note, however, that Heidegger’s ultimate goal was not to analyze the meaning of human being, but what it means to be, more generally. This part of the story, however, was never filled in, as the following plan of BT shows:
Being and Time
Only the first two divisions of Part I were completed, and they were published as the work we now know as BT. The third division of Part I and all the divisions of Part II were never written, though elements of their topics found their way into lectures and seminars Heidegger offered immediately after the publication of BT.
Lastly, we ought to note that Hediegger’s influence on theology was enormous. One need only turn to the theologian Rudolf Bultmann to see the way in which Heidegger’s early work was appropriated. Bultmann accepted Heidegger’s analysis of human existence pretty much wholesale; the difference in his theology is that he held that humans were not capable of securing authentic existence for themselves, but stood in need of divine grace (in the guise of Christ) in order to attain it. This dovetailed nicely with his program of demythologizing the New Testament: demythologization aims at clarifying the existential meaning of the Gospel, which is expressed in modern terms in Heidegger’s analysis of human being. When we penetrate and strip away the husk of the mythic language in which the gospel is present to us, what is left is the offer of an authentic life, granted to us through Jesus Christ. In addition, Paul Tillich, in his doctrine that “the object of theology is that which is of ultimate concern to us,” clearly shows the influence of Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein.
III. Back to Hermeneutics: Gadamer (The first philosopher we’ve studied who’s still alive!)
Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method (1960) is a good place for us to conclude because, in a way, he returns to the problems of hermeneutics that arose for Schleiermacher and Dilthey, but uses the tools provided by Heidegger in BT.
Gadamer begins from a starting point similar to Schleiermacher’s. He says that the human sciences (history, literature, etc.) always approach a text from a position of being remote from it—Gadamer calls this distance alienation, which destroys the primordial bond of belonging through which we might have a ‘real bond’ to the object of our study. However, this distance can be overcome and this belonging re-established through via the mediation of what he calls “consciousness of the effects of history.” The idea is that our approach to a historical phenomenon (a work of art, a text, etc.) has already been (to some extent) predetermined by the pre-understandings of past interpreters; aside from a mythic ‘Adamic interpreter,’ one can never approach a text innocently. Through this chain of past prejudgments I am already linked to the object, simply because I stand in an interpretational lineage. And through the awareness of this history of historical effects, the two standpoints which were formerly held apart—that of the subject and that of the object—become united in a totality. This process Gadamer names the “fusion of horizons.” Against the enlightenment view, tradition becomes an ineluctable part of the interpretation of the past, and of truth itself. Gadamer pursues this dialectic between alienation and re-fusion in three different spheres: aesthetics, history, and language. In each of these, Gadamer maintains that truth arises out of this fusion of interpeter, with all his or her prejudices and personal contextual baggage. No one interpretation can lay exclusive claim to truth; but all of them are, in some sense, true. Just think of music: you’ll never read in a paper that the Boston Symphony Orchestra, on a particular night, got Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “right.” There’s no such thing as getting a work of art right; what can happen is that the horizon of the musicians and that of the work can come together in a performance which illuminates crucial aspects of both. Gadamer’s argument is that, in such a situation, we must be able to use the word truth to describe the results, even though we use it in a quite different sense than that of propositional truth (a statement is true if it correctly corresponds to a state of affairs).
Where Gadamer shows what he has learned from Heidegger is in his account of how our own personal context conditions our approach to a text or work. Recall that for Heidegger Understanding is always a matter of the projection of our possibilities. Gadamer adopts this same scheme but adopts to a textual rather than an existential end. I never approach a text without formed prior ideas about it. And yet my prejudgments about the text can forever be revised the more I discover about the work. This is what both Heidegger and Gadamer call the hermeneutic circle, and it has to do with the relation between part and whole. I can only discover the meaning of the whole from the part, but the part only gains its meaning by its place in the whole. Both maintain the point of Interpretation is not to get out of the circle, but to get into it. If we continue to think that we need to approach texts without presuppositions, then hermeneutics will continue to be completely misunderstood. Only when we accept them and their interaction with the object can we begin to interpret truly
And seeing that I have begun and ended with this topic, and so completed my own hermeneutic circle, this would seem to be a good place to conclude.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method, trans. John Cumming and Garrett Barden. New York: Crossroad, 1975.
Grondin, Jean. Sources of Hermeneutics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.
Kockelmans, Joseph J., ed. Phenomenology: The Philosophy of Edmund Husserl and its Interpretation. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.
Ormiston, Gayle L. and Alan D. Schrift, eds. The Hermeneutic Tradition: From Ast to Ricoeur. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.
Plato. Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961.
Ricoeur, Paul. Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, ed. John Thompson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Safranski, Rüdiger. Martin Heidegger: Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Oswald Emers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Wildman, Wesley. Western Philosophy in Theological Perspective Lecture on Hermeneutics, Phenomenology, and Deconstruction, Fall, 1996.
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