Hermeneutics: The Handwritten Manuscripts by Friedrich D. E. Schleiermacher. Edited by Heinz Kimmerle. Translated by James Duke and Jack Forstman. Oxford University Press, USA, 1978.

Heinz Kimmerle’s edited collection of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s handwritten and informal manuscripts on hermeneutic theory was published originally in 1959 in German and this translation appeared in English in 1978. At once occasioned by and also a contribution to the German discussion of a “new” hermeneutics, Hermeneutics was intended to be a corrective supplement to the edition published by Schleiermacher’s friend and student, Friedrich Lücke. Lücke’s text was limited to the “Compendium of 1819” (‘Manuscript 3” in Kimmerle) and supplemented by student notes (2). The “Translators’ Introduction” to Kimmerle’s Hermeneutics suggests that Lücke’s edition, as read and interpreted by Wilhelm Dilthey, had contributed to an overly psychologistic impression of Schleiermacher’s hermeneutic theory.  It was an impression that Kimmerle sought to correct by presenting earlier writings by Schleiermacher that emphasized, to a greater degree, the role of language in interpretation (10). 

What, then, did Schleiermacher accomplish in the texts made available by Kimmerle and his translators in Hermeneutics? The translators suggest the reader begin with the “Compendium of 1819” and “Manuscript 4” from 1826-27, and this seems sound advice (17). These two together present the most even treatment of the two major aspects of Schleiermacher’s theory of hermeneutics and a mid-point in its development. One may then venture into the “Academic Adresses” to see the shape of Schleiermacher’s later thinking, or the “Aphorisms” to try to glean the character of his earlier thinking. In general, though, Schleiermacher sought to develop a general hermeneutics from and beyond previous, “specialized” Hermeneutics. Schleiermacher focuses, with different emphases in each of the manuscripts provided, on interpretation as understanding, in order to liberate it from specific applications to biblical, classical, or judicial texts. A central and oft-cited insight behind this liberation was that, though misunderstanding was taken to be only an occasional event, Schleiermacher understood that interpretation was already always going on in one’s reading a text or in spoken conversation.  In short, Schleiermacher was able to generalize hermeneutics because he realized that instances of misunderstanding (and the resolution thereof) was made possible by a whole preceding movement of interpretive understanding. This deregionalization of hermeneutics draws the 20th Century hermeneutic thinkers to Schleiermacher as inaugerating a novel project in the philosophy of understanding. 

Hermeneutics, for Schleiermacher, is a unified task, but it consists of two major aspects, “Grammatical” or linguistic interpretation and “Technical” or psychological interpretation.  Kimmerle’s “Editor’s Introduction” lays out his argument that Dilthey, in his reliance on Lücke’s edition, over-emphasizes the psychological mode and effects an unfortunate neglect of the grammatical mode of interpretation in Schleiermacher’s theory (27-40).  Though Schleiermacher will treat them separately, there is, in the concrete, always a reciprocal movement between these two modes of interpretation, each aiding, guiding and supplementing the other. Internal to each of these modes or aspects, there is a further reciprocal movement, now rather famously known as the “hermeneutic circle.” This circle is the movement from apprehending the whole in order to make sense of the parts and from apprehending the parts to make sense of the whole. This applies to the Grammatical mode insofar as one locates words in sentences, sentences in paragraphs, and paragraphs in the text as a whole. The circle applies to the Technical mode insofar as the author’s idea of and for the work fits into his or her style in the work, and the work itself fits into the author’s corpus and/or life. One may then return from the whole to check, correct, or advance one’s understanding of the parts, whether those parts be sentences or themes.

The relationship of these two modes of interpretation is nested in the double strategy of “comparison” and “divination.”  Grammatical interpretation concerns itself with language as the pre-given bed of expression and thinking, though the distance between thought and language will be emphasized in the later manuscripts. Language sets the constraints and possibilities for the presentation of a work. The hermeneutic circle applies here too. Any given work can be compared to others in its genre, and that genre itself can be set beside other literature of its time and culture, and then one may comparatively work back to the text at hand. There is a divinitory aspect too, insofar as one must speculate as to the relationship and quality this work manifests in its linguistic context. On the Technical or psychological side, one seeks to determine how the linguistic bed in which the stream of their thinking flowed has, on the one hand, “historically” shaped that thinking and, on the other, how the individuality of this author or school of authors has “prophetically” introduced something novel into the objective linguistic context (112). Though one will inevitably need both of these interpretive modes in the effort to understand a text, one ought to proceed in either such that one could aspire to make the other mode superfluous. 

The scholarly value of Kimmerle’s edition of Hermeneutics: The Handwritten Manuscripts is multi-layered. Whether Kimmerle’s own interpretation of Schleiermacher is correct (and the translators caution against wholesale acceptance of his assertions [12]), his chronological presentation of these texts undoubtedly serves the efforts of Schleiermacher scholars to characterize the development of his thinking on matters of interpretation and understanding.  Hermeneutics may provide insight into Schleiermacher’s methodology in explicitly theological contexts. There are ample sections in which Schleiermacher provides examples by applying his theoretical apparatus to the interpretation of the New Testament scriptures. In the philosophical arena, Hermeneutics would be an invaluable resource for checking contemporary hermeneutic thinkers’ readings of Schleiermacher. Kimmerle’s own “Afterword of 1968” gives some sense of its reception and influence at that time (229-234).  This edition makes available in English a text H. G. Gadamer referenced in his major work on hermeneutic theory, Warheit und Methode, to discuss Schleiermacher’s contribution to the history of hermeneutics (Gadamer, 1965.), though it did not manage to change Gadamer’s impression of Schleiermacher as “an exponent of ‘the questionableness of romantic hermeneutics,’” (231).

If one has serious interest in any of these areas, Hermeneutics is a primary source worth keeping at hand. It would, however, serve as an unwieldy source for an introductory course in Schleiermacher or hermeneutics more generally.  One could, with selective reading,  use Hermeneutics as an adequate introduction to Schleiermacher’s thinking on interpretation for philosophical and theological thinkers alike, especially in the “Academic Addresses” and the “Compendium of 1819”. Still, winding one’s way around or through the significance of the aphorisms or some of the marginal notes provided to fill out Schleiermacher’s account might prove tedious or overwhelming to the reader not already familiar with Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics and its significance. Hermeneutics is, nonetheless, an historically, philosophically, theologically important collection of Schleiermachers thinking on interpretation and understanding. For serious engagements with Schleiermacher, it is probably indispensable.


Jonathan Heaps
Boston University

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