Theological origins

Hermeneutics originated in Northen Germany during the protestant reformation in the 16th and 17th century as a mode of interpreting the classical world and from theology was applied to philology and the study of texts through a reflection on language. The initial problem for hermeneutics was how to derive the word of God from the Bible. This was politically crucial for the reformation in its attempt to cut all ties with the Church and transform the religious experience into an individual quest. The biblical texts had undergone a series of translations and changed their meaning through history, to the extent that they ceased to correspond to one another. In addressing this theological problem, the reformation also raised the question of decoding meanings as a general problem of understanding. Behind this concern, which initially remained specific to the German context, lied an important debate on the destiny and faith of Germany and what constituted its essential cultural unity.


In an attempt to reconstitute the world of Antiquity, hermeneutics was imported into philology and aesthetics and eventually extended onto the social sciences.

Wolf established the principle that you can understand a work of art if you understand the intentions of its author. Schleiermacher, although primarily a theologian, was a precursor of philosophical hermeneutics. He regarded hermeneutics not only as a technique for interpreting texts, but as a general mode of understanding the interpretative structure that characterises knowledge as such. One needs to understand the whole in order to comprehend its parts and elements, and the text, interpreted object and interpreting subject need to belong to the same field, in a circular way. As G. Vattimo writes: "Schleiermacher is the first to have theorised with a certain clarity what modern theories will define as the hermeneutic circle. At the basis of the question posed by the hermeneutic circle there are both the totality of the object to interpret, and, more broadly, the greater totality to which the object and the subject of the interpretative operation belong in a way that is to be defined and that constitutes a question of huge philosophical import. This circle is defined by Schleiermacher in its two dimensions: 1) the fundamental pre-knowledge [pre-judgement] of the totality of the interpreted object; 2) the necessary belonging of object and interpreter to a wider field. He posed more emphasis on the first element of the question."

Through Schleiermacher, hermeneutics was elaborated into a principle of understanding of our everyday life. Language is scrutinised and regarded almost as a living organ, a system of its own with interrelated parts. He argued that the author of a text is simply an instrument of language. [this has a contemporary ring to it when one sees the resurgence of an attention to language in poststructuralist arguments for the death of the author). However, for hermeneutics is still crucial to understand the psychology of the author.

Dilthey used Schleiermacher's work and developed it into a systematic programme. He avoided the word sociology for fears of being associated with Comte but was equally concerned with culture and society. He believed, like Vico, that everything that is humanly created can be humanly understood. Underlying cultural differences conceal an underlying communality of understanding. As a consequence, the approach to the human sciences must be radically different from that to the natural sciences. In the latter, the subject constructs an hypothesis and tests it through observation, whilst in cultural sciences the subject interprets another subject and reconstructs meanings. Hence, the activity of the cultural sciences is more concerned with interpretation than explanation. Differently from Comte, Dilthey places emphasis on the process of reconstructing meanings and his analyses are less concerned with general laws and prescription than with descriptions. The problem of hermeneutics and Dilthey in particular is encapsulated in the question: how can we know society if we are always involved in the process of communication? How do we study society whilst using its language? To help dealing with these questions, Dilthey developed a set of techniques whereby one object of study needs to be isolated from the rest. He opposed cumulative forms of knowledge in favour of circular ones. Dilthey was engaged in a fight against positivism. He believed that the application of natual scientific methods to the study of cultures impoverished our knowledge. In fact, he thought that positivism failed to grasp the importance and uniqueness of cultural sciences and the fact that knowledge derives from interpretation and empathetic understanding. In this respect Weber was also into hermeneutics, when, in the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he asked what would it be like to be a Calvinist in the 17th century.

So Dilthey applied Scheiermacher's intuition to assess a much wider range of problems. He also looked at the nation as a collective subject and at problems of German identity, concluding that institutions were residues of a common national spirit. For an objective understanding, arts, law and sciences need to be autonomous. He thought intellectual activities, the more objective they are, tend to specialise independently from one another and become more autonomous.

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