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Hermeneutics

Date: 
2002
DOI: 
10.17421/2037-2329-2002-GM-1

I. Etymology. - II. Hermeneutics in Greek Thought. - III.  Hermeneutics in Christian Thought. 1. Jewish Hermeneutics2. Hermeneutics in Early Christian Thought. 3. Early Christian Fathers and Middle Ages.- IV. Hermeneutics in Modernity. - V. Hermeneutics between Modernity and the Contemporary Age. 1. The Influence of Reflection on History and on Language: Vico, Meier, Herder, Hamann, von Humboldt. 2. Schleiermacher’s Own Contribution and Barth’s Subsequent Criticism. 3. The Distinction between Explaining and Understanding and between Natural Sciences and Spiritual Sciences in Dilthey.- VI. Hermeneutics and Phenomenology.  1.The View of Hermeneutics in Heidegger. 2. Hermeneutics and Interpretation in Gadamer. 3. Value of Symbols and Sense Restoration in Ricoeur.- VII. Hermeneutics and Exegesis. - VIII. Hermeneutics and Epistemology.

I. Etymology

The etymology of the term "hermeneutics" shows the confluence of different meanings that gave origin to the different conceptions of hermeneutics itself. The word derives from the Greek hermeneía, (hermeneúein ‘to interpret, to translate’), corresponding to Latin interpretari, and it is the basis for the other words deriving from the same root, such as hermeneutés, hermeneutiké. The Greek root of erm, would be closely related to the Latin root of (s)erm, from which sermo, “speech”. The majority of Authors confirms this link between “hermeneutics” and “word,” “language,” in connection not only with Latin verbum or sermo, or with German Wort and English word, but  also on the basis of the significant difference between the traditional meaning of hermeneía and the notion of hermeneutic as it has been developed in contemporary philosophy. The former refers to any interpretation activity, i.e. ranging from rhetoric as the art of drawing out of the obscurity of an unexpressed thought the clearness of linguistic expression, to translating from a language into another, to commentary, as an explanation and interpretation of the difficulties  of the meaning of a text, either a religious or a lay one. The latter not only embraces issues concerning the interpretation of texts, literary, philosophical or religious ones, but also includes a careful reflection both on the existential, historical and cultural conditions which formed the basis of the drafting of a text, and on those which currently form the “preliminary understanding” scope of its interpreter.  The complex articulation of the problem derives from the intimate interconnection between all these meanings of “hermeneutics,” comprised of both the technical rules (philological, linguistic and exegetical) of textual interpretation, and the issues concerning the existential pathways of human understanding, which themselves form the pre-understanding horizon of interpretation.

A further aspect of this new meaning of the word “hermeneutics” in contemporary philosophy can be grasped through the original etymology established by Heidegger: “The expression ‘hermeneutic’ – he writes – “derives from the Greek verb hermeneuein. That verb is related to the noun hermeneus,   which is referable to the name of the god Hermes by a playful thinking that is more compelling than the rigor of science. Hermes is the divine messenger. He brings the message of destiny; hermeneuein  is that exposition which brings tidings because it can listen to a message. Such a message becomes an interpretation of what has been said earlier by the poets who, according to Socrates in Plato's Ion   (534e), hermenes eisein ton theon ‘are interpreters of the gods’” (Heidegger, 1982, p. 29). The reference to Hermes and his being “the messenger God” willingly underlies, in Heidegger’s suggestive etymology, the reference to the intermediary par excellence in Platonic thought, an emblematic figure of philosophy itself, in his capacity as a mediator and as an interpreter: the renowned Eros of Symposium, “interpreting and transporting human things to the gods and divine things to men; entreaties and sacrifices from below, and ordinances and requitals from above” (Symposium, 202e).

Making the etymological connection between hermeneutics  and Hermes, Heidegger wants to underline that hermeneutics has a deeper meaning than speaking, or than mere textual interpretation, and that it goes beyond the necessary analysis of human understanding: such a meaning pertains to conveying  a message, an announcement, that is a word’s dynamic force in a communication relationship, be it oral or written, which, in turn, entails the ability to embrace and to interpret the message and the announcement. The myth of  Hermes  would thus symbolize every communicative mediation: firstly, the mediation between the gods and man; but also the mediation between man in language and in writing, the mediation between silence and words, and, even more in depth, the mediation between falsehood and  truth, between darkness and light, between what lies hidden  and what is manifested. However, whatever the actual etymological link between hermeneutics and Hermes, by providing a key to symbolic language, the former helps one to understand a number of notions which are now typical of the hermeneutic issue and would by now be lost, particularly those pertaining to language as a means of announcing, as well as listening to the word. Thus implicitly we have been meaning to criticise the traditional notion of hermeneutics which, confining itself to the field of textual exegesis, had actually turned into an interpretation technique, that is into a philological exegesis, forgetting that interpretation is above all an existential process designed to listen and to draw on truth through announcing and listening to, and not only a formal method to decipher word meanings.

As far as the historical origins of hermeneutics are concerned, they are to be found in the long process which, at the beginning of the 19th century, led for a number of reasons to acknowledge the autonomy of hermeneutics in the realm of philosophical subjects. Scholars stress its dual historical origins: on the one hand, they may be found in the Greek reflection around the understanding and linguistic expression of truth by lógos, and, on the other hand, in the problems pertaining to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture typical of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In particular, contemporary hermeneutics often develops along philosophical lines, questions and principles originally arising in the context of the interpretation of holy texts and in the historical progress of understanding them. In effect, the main notions of today’s philosophical hermeneutics — pre-understanding, hermeneutic circle, existential and historical dimensions of understanding; tradition and language as understanding horizons; primacy of the unsaid and of the word-message over the linguistic and textual interpretation techniques: the distinction between “experience of truth” and its logical notion, application, interpersonal and dialogical dimension of the experience of truth; enhancement of symbolic language; hermeneutic understanding interpreted as dependent on the disposition to listen – are all issues which had their origins in the multiple ways in which the relationship with the Word of Scripture was structured, and which have been developed since the Reformation up to the Modern Age, first theologically and then philosophically.

II. Hermeneutics in Greek Thought

 In the so-called “Socratic” dialogues, Plato presents through Socrates (469-399 b.C.) one of the most important hermeneutic issues: the essential role played by “questions” in a dialogue. Socrates shows how being able to ask is essential for being able to interpret and for being able to understand. Socrates’ notion of “question” — represented in the teaching context by “maieutic” — already somehow contains the implicit answer one seeks. And the very process of asking questions consists in leading the interlocutor to participate in one’s own point of view in the observation of truth, as well as in enabling one’s own question to extend to the issues presented by one’s interlocutor. For this reason Gadamer can write that “the hermeneutic phenomenon implies the primacy of dialogue and the structure of question and answer” (Gadamer, 2004, p. 363).

In Plato (427-347 b.C.) the notion of the primacy of the question is also related to a conception of textual interpretation which heralds the most modern hermeneutic notions. As Phaedrus shows, in discussing the primacy of the spoken “living and breathing word” over the written one, written texts have to somehow become an “oral discourse” themselves, turning into interlocutors in a living dialogue with their interpreter (cf. Phaedrus, 275e - 276b). The text is not only an immovable entity receiving questions from the reader, but it is a living entity asking questions, so that interpreting the text means being able to listen to it, that is letting oneself be questioned by it. In Socrates — as Gadamer stressed again — Plato dramatized a sharp contrast between sophia, intended as an all-embracing scientific or even philosophical type of knowledge, abstractly removed from human reality and life, and phronesis, intended as knowledge leading to what is more important for man’s life. The search for human eidos, for what it is to be human, has to lead to a practical wisdom capable of caring for one’s own soul’s interests and one’s own fate. According to Socrates, a purely formal and abstract kind of knowledge, however metaphysical, is insufficient to attaining man’s “salvation,” which may only be accessed through the ethicality of phronesis. Philosophy draws its name from this:  it is not sophia, a wise handling of something, but an aspiration to it.

Plato develops a tension, already present in Socrates and then amplified by contemporary hermeneutics, between interpretation’s techne and the understanding of truth. The poets’ and the priests’ divination art and the art of interpreting are nothing like philosophical wisdom and cannot convey a true kind of knowledge, “for these only know what is said, but have not learnt whether it be true” (Epinomis, 975c). The term “hermeneutics” was long to suffer from Plato’s own condemnation as a pure interpretation or translation technique, incapable of grasping the truth, so that up to the Modern Age a distinction continued to be drawn between “hermeneutics” as “the art of correctly understanding other people’s words, especially written ones,” on the one hand, and “criticism” as “the art of judging rightly the genuineness of written works and passages, and to establish it on the strength of adequate evidence and data” (Heidegger, 1982, p. 11); on the other, though, both considered as philological disciplines and  as technical sciences. As Heidegger and Gadamer were to do later, Plato strongly emphasizes the existing difference between hermeneutics interpreted as a pure technique and a philosophy of interpretation and of understanding which is essentially an ascent to the truth signalled by the word, and an image-lógos, that is precisely what contemporary thought means by hermeneutics. Moreover, Plato understands the fundamental point that the truth cannot be found except in the whole: only the dialectical and critical appreciation of the different opinions clarifies the path to truth, which is and continues to be the intentional target of dialectic and hermeneutic research.

Aristotle (384-322 b.C.), in his Peri Hermeneias, sets out the earliest formulation of the hermeneutic issue in the context of his philosophy of lógos and of being. Being the second book of the OrganonPeri Hermeneias is made up of nine short chapters, mainly dealing with “proposition” or “enunciation” (Peri Hermeneias V, 17a, 3), that is the lógos apophantikós, as an expression of the main intellectual act, i.e. judgement.  Thus, a proposition, as logical expression of judgment, contains truth or falsehood, in the sense that, according to Aristotelian logics, if nouns and verbs, as parts of speech, are taken separately, they are neither true or false, but once joint in a logical proposition, they can signify what is true or false with reference to the reality to which the judgment itself refers (Logics, II). Not all propositions, then, for Aristotle, contain truth or falsehood, but only the propositions that are an expression of a judgement about the reality, and that therefore join and separate terms in order to express a full with an intentional reference to reality. The simple terms a proposition is made up of, just like propositions which are merely invocations or deprecations, do not contain truth or falsehood, and therefore lie outside the hermeneutics issue. On the other hand, the latter concerns the kind of proposition that is both a linguistic expression and a logical expression of judgement.

Unlike Plato’s, Aristotelian hermeneutics represents a sign of contradiction, for contemporary hermeneutics, especially in Heidegger. This is so for two reasons. On the one hand, it is deemed to be a hermeneutics of propositions and not of speech and language, and therefore opposed to the hermeneutic conception of language interpreted as a “whole” which affords meaning to individual words and propositions; on the other hand, it is rejected because for the Stagirite a proposition is the expression of a basic intellectual act, judgment, a notion which since Kant has been deeply transformed and deprived of its fundamental feature of intellectual act of drawing from the being. The primacy of language as a horizon to understand truth, as put forward by hermeneutic philosophy, has in fact brought to a reversal of the Aristotelian argument on the primacy of judgment in understanding truth.

Yet it is not enough to confine Aristotle within the context of the analytical-grammatical study of linguistic propositions. First of all, he contributed to a truth-seeking hermeneutics by drawing the important distinction between the “outer word” and the “inner word,” which meant the distinction between saying or expressing, which are the peculiar subject of hermeneutics, and intelligere [“understanding,”] which typically pertains to philosophy. Secondly, the Peri Hermeneias is the first work ever to clearly state that for any expressive speech of whatever kind, to have any comprehensible meaning for us, it is impossible to separate the “use” made of words and language from the grammar structures supporting this use,  and thus ultimately from the logical structures of thought. Grammar and logics afford the understanding of the use of words within language, which would otherwise be mere words pointing to things or concepts without being properly defined linguistic expressions, that is to say significant expressions.

 III. Hermeneutics in Christian Thought                                                       

1. Jewish hermeneutics. Unlike in Greek thought, in Judaism the hermeneutics does not have to do with the interpretation and the experience of lógos, but with a Scripture which is held to be the expression of God’s own will, a God who gets involved and acts in His people’s history. Greek chrónos, as a succession of events bound to the fate of being, is crashed by the Eternal breaking into time, making it a kairós, an event of salvation. Here lies the origin of that existential and historical dimension of interpretation and of understanding which would later be developed in modern and contemporary hermeneutics.

The stages of Jewish hermeneutics are effectively summed up in the Book of Nehemiah. As a governor of Judaea following the return from Babylon (538 B.C.), Nehemiah wants to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls and the Temple through a religious and moral reconstruction. So he gets the priest Ezra to remind the people about the Law, to present the “Book” and dictate the rules of its interpretation. Ezra “read the Book,” while the people “listened attentively to the Book of the Law”; the Levites also “read clearly from the book of the law of God, interpreting it so that all could understand what was read”; then Nehemiah said: “allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; […] Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord is your strength!” (cf. Ne 8,1-12). Jewish hermeneutics is all summed up in the strength of these verbs: reading, explaining, understanding, listening, acting, rejoicing. It is not a theoretical understanding, but an existential and life-nourishing one, which leads to action: “allot portions to those who had nothing prepared,” and to joy: “for they understood the words that had been explained to them.” The understanding of a text, then, here is not something merely theoretical, and is not limited to the simple explanation of its words, but embraces the whole religious and existential context of which the text is an expression, and it leads the reader to acting and rejoicing. Understanding the text here also means understanding what lies “beyond the verse” (Lévinas), and the “un-said beyond what is said” (Heidegger). Although it is not mentioned in the passage from Nehemiah, the verb “to write” is essential in Judaism because writing the Law in a context of cultural instability points to a will to thoroughly stick to the slightest instructions by the divine Author of the Book.

Jewish hermeneutics is then configured as a reading-explanation of the texts aimed at an understanding involving the interpreters’ existential dimensions to lead them to a new understanding of their own existence vis-à-vis the text, in order to be able to bring about personal renewal. That is why it reaches its peak in the “liturgical” celebration of the word, as is the case of the Paschal memorial (cf. Es 15,1-21), combining reading, understanding, remembering but also the re-enactment of the mirabilia Dei, God’s wonders in the history of the people and in personal history. Jewish hermeneutics, as it would later develop in the form of the literal interpretation of the Law (Halacka) and in the form of the spiritual interpretation of Scripture (Haggada), was always to have to do with the issue of an understanding of Scripture based on a pre-understanding which is the living memory amongst people of the works performed by God in history. Jewish hermeneutics thus remotely and significantly anticipates some central issues of contemporary hermeneutics: the notions of pre-comprehension, of “application” of the understanding to the interpreter’s life, and finally that of historical “re-enactment” of the past during its hermeneutic understanding.

2. Hermeneutics in early Christian thought. The existential and historical dimension of Jewish hermeneutics, based on the Paschal event re-enacted in its liturgical interpretation-understanding wholly flows into early Christian hermeneutics. Yet the latter — here lies its novelty — takes as Paschal event only Jesus Christ, to whom Jewish Easter itself is ordered. He is the very same Risen one who “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, interpreted to them (dierméneusen) what referred to him in all the Scriptures” (Lk 24, 27), thus portraying him as the accomplishment of all Scripture and thereby establishing an interpretation of Scripture that no longer goes through the interpretation of the Law but through the understanding of his person through the faith. For Christian exegesis the New and the Old Covenant enter the new special relationship, in which the New does not abolish the Old, but accomplishes and fulfills it for good. New Testament writings set out principles and rules describing the new hermeneutic situation resulting from the Christian event. In the First Letter to the Corinthians Paul develops the typological philosophy governing Christian hermeneutics, by stating that older things are only a type and a symbol of the new realities brought by Christ (cf. 1Cor 10, 8-11). Moreover, in the Letter to the Galatians he further builds on the “typological” philosophy of Christian hermeneutics (cf. Gal 4, 21-31).

As a result, early Christianity stressed more than Jewish hermeneutics the important principle of the critical role played by the interpreter’s personal situation as a pre-comprehending foundation of interpretation in order to achieve a text’s correct interpretation and understanding. The notion of “pre-understanding,” originally arising in the Judeo-Christian religious context, was eventually due to become one of the key notions of contemporary philosophical hermeneutics.

3. Early Christian Fathers and Middle Ages. Christian authors, despite being concerned  with distinguishing Scriptural exegesis from lay hermeneutics, used the hermeneutic criteria devised by Alexandrian grammarians for the interpretation of poets and philosophers for preparing the earliest editions of the Bible, such as the Hexapla compiled by Origen and the Itala and the Vulgate compiled by Jerome.

Greek Fathers, especially Origen (185 ca.-253 ca.), developed a very fine hermeneutics of Scriptures and dogmas, not only by taking up the Alexandrian allegorical style, but above all through “a complete harmonization of theology, ontology and hermeneutics” (Ebeling). For Origen, the difference between the spiritual and the literal senses of Scripture matches that between soul and body and basically gives rise to the whole of Alexandrian hermeneutics. The School of Antioch (with its lost work Tis diaphorá theorías kaí allegorías by Diodore of Tarsus and the Contra allegoricos by Theodore of Mopsuestia), rejected Origen’s allegorical Platonism, which regarded all historical reality only as a symbol of a deeper and higher reality, and, taking up Aristotelian hermeneutics, paid more attention to a historical, grammatical and philological kind of exegesis.

The conflict between the Alexandrian and the Antiochene Schools did at all events result in the recognition of the four senses of Scripture (Origen, Jerome, Ambrose, Hilary) and in the establishment of the principle of the “rule of faith” (regula fidei), as the main criterion for Scriptural hermeneutics (Tertullian, Irenaeus, Vincent of Lérins). Between the “literal sense” (sensus litteralis) and the “spiritual sense” (sensus spiritualis) of Scripture, the Fathers’ hermeneutics, as a whole, preferred the latter, grafted into the Tradition and backed up by the Magisterium as its guarantor. As it is also clearly shown by the monastic tradition of lectio divina, for Patristic hermeneutics the sensus spiritualis resulted in a type of Scriptural exegesis aimed at an understanding of the Word producing a transformative effect on life through the Word (applicatio).

The Fathers’ hermeneutic circle: regula fidei, traditio, magisterium, finds in the De doctrina christiana by Augustine of Hippo (354-430) its most accomplished expression. The latter became a masterly model for the whole Middle Age. For Augustine the regula fidei, as expressed by the articles of the “creed,” along with the Tradition and the Magisterium, leads to the understanding of the sensus spiritualis of Scripture in all its fullness. This exegetical criterion is in turn based on a philosophy of the language drawing a distinction between “things” (res) and “signs” (signa). The words of Scripture, then, play the role of signa referring to res, that is to the sensus spiritualis in its wholeness, with the warning, though, that many historical facts told in Scripture have a typological value, i.e. they are signa referring to res. The relationship between res and signum is in turn the basis of a philosophical-theological hermeneutics, which, on the one hand, is mindful of the text’s literal and historical senses, and, on the other, is capable of rising from the real to the intelligible as part of a hermeneutic process lying somewhat open to the infinite, because it is made “restless” by the Truth present in the soul’s own depths (cf. Augustine’s Confessions, I, 1, 1).

The Patristic principle of the dual sense of Scripture, literal or historical, and spiritual or mystical, is developed and fully explored in all its hermeneutic subtleties, as shown in H. De Lubac’s Exégèse médiévale, Les quatre sens de l'Ecriture (1959).  Yet, unlike Patristic hermeneutics, Scholastics was to prefer the sensus litteralis, accompanied by glosses, commentaries to quaestiones, while reserving the sensus spiritualis only for the edifying reading of Scripture. The Paris school of Hugh and Richard of St Victor, of Abelard, Peter Lombard, Albert the Great, which will later find its theological structuring in  Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), was to place greater value on the phase of the explicatio, meant to identify the “truth” of Scripture and therefore confined to the area of dogmas, than to the exegetical or spiritual stages. This is where the separation between Scriptural exegesis and dogmatic theology arises, the latter assigning Scriptural hermeneutics a merely technical and philological task. This was the type of hermeneutics that set off Luther’s reaction, putting forward a restoration of the primacy of the sensus spiritualis, capable of generating the applicatio, a task which was now entrusted to Scripture’s individual interpreters.

From the spiritual hermeneutics characterizing the lectio divina, typical of the monastic world, to the dogmatic and theological exegesis, all the way through to the metaphysical in-depth scrutiny of the meaning of philosophical intelligere for revealed truth which underlies the issue of the relationship between faith and reason, the whole Medieval period up to the late Scholastics was firmly engaged in key hermeneutic matters. Philosophical intelligere, interpreted as an understanding of metaphysical truth, was considered in its symbiotic relationship and analogy with the intellectus fidei, since both somehow benefit from the influence of divine light which, though in different ways, they both have a share of. From this point of view the Middle Age, above all in the Scholastics period, eventually regarded metaphysics as not alien to the interpretation of Revelation and of Scripture itself. In the formula “philosophia ancilla theologiae” it did not mean to make philosophy a servant of theology, but rather to pay homage to metaphysics itself raising it to become a hermeneutic criterion for revealed truth, essential for the methodological and hermeneutic foundations of theology itself. This was to apply particularly to Thomas Aquinas, whose work sums up the effort of hermeneutic research on the dual front of philosophy and theology-Scripture.

A typical case of theological philosophy, opening up unexpected hermeneutic issues, is that of Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (1221-1274). In the context of scholastics he was concerned not so much, like Thomas, with developing the analogical notion of  being and knowledge, as rather with deepening the theological intelligence of the Verbum as a divine Person and, as such, as a principle of being, knowing, interpreting. In his work Hexaëmeron, for Bonaventure Verbum is the medium Trinitatis et creationis, the medium exemplans omnia, where the ratio exemplandi of every reality and of every being is regarded as the only true ratio interpretandi of every reality and of every being.

Bonaventure’s exemplarism bears two important consequences: the first concerns the notion of the meaning of reality and therefore that of a suitable language to interpret it, which is not satisfied with a conceptual knowledge of the essence of beings,  but opens up the interpretative process to the infinite horizon of meanings, corresponding to the infinite gradual process through which being climbs back to the First Principle of beings, the only one capable of giving ultimate and definitive sense to every reality; the second concerns the notion of truth, no longer interpreted as a logical adjustment of the mind to the thing, but rather as a significant reference to the First Truth, the only one in which the truth of every being is revealed along with the truth of the relationships every being entertains with all others and with the subsistent Being.

In this hermeneutic perspective, which is both philosophical and theological, Bonaventure underlines the meaningfulness trait of being, which as such is never autonomous in an absolute sense, but has the basis of its meaning, and therefore of its ontological essence, in the ratio exemplans, that is in the Verbum. Precisely because being is “meaning” in the full sense, in this theological as well as philosophical perspective, the whole of reality is nothing but a “Book” and its words are to be interpreted within this hermeneutic reference of meanings, linking them up with the Author of the book and his signifying intention. Bonaventure’s metaphor of the world and of the being as a book to be interpreted has a hermeneutic value which can hardly be disputed. The expressions of the Book are meaningful as they maintain the likeness and the imprint of the creating Principle. They can disclose or masque their true meaning depending on the interpreter’s approach to them, who can choose to, or choose not to open up to the understanding of their ultimate meaning, which is the theological one.

 IV. Hermeneutics in the Modern Age

In the Modern Age, hermeneutics is marked by several developments: a gradual transformation brought about by the Reformation in the criteria and principles of Scriptural exegesis; a gradual liberation of lay secular hermeneutics from Biblical hermeneutics, accompanied by the search for methods pertaining to the different fields of interpretation: the philological, the legal and the historical ones; Giambattista Vico’s impulse to the rise of “historical sciences” and of matching criteria of hermeneutic understanding; and finally the birth of a new philosophy of language developed by Herder, Hamann, Humboldt, due to represent the premise for Schleiermacher’s definition of an autonomous formulation of philosophical hermeneutics.

Yet, the process leading to the autonomy of philosophical hermeneutics cannot be fully understood without taking into account the links it continued to have in the Modern Age with Biblical hermeneutics, also in view of the impulse received by the Reformation. Martin Luther (1483-1546) worked out a hermeneutics “focussing on the relationship between word and faith” in opposition to scholastic hermeneutics, which he thoroughly transformed, by inextricably joining the sensus tropologicus (fides Christi) with the sensus litteralis (Christus). By 1517 Luther had rejected the doctrine of the four senses of Scripture for two reasons: he both wanted to reject the explanatory and dogmatic allegorism of Scholastics, and to abandon the Catholic principle of the link between  regula fidei, Tradition and Magisterium, in favour of the only recognised primacy of faith in the interpretation of Scripture. While scholastic hermeneutics favoured the stage of the explicatio, Luther, on the other hand, assigned the applicatio the primacy in the interpretation of Scripture, because the Word of God has to have a real and present effectiveness in the believer’s own life. The Pauline opposition between the letter and the spirit (cf. 2Cor 3: 6) is made more radical by assigning faith, as a sign of the presence of the Spirit of Christ in the believer, the task of understanding the meaning, the centrality and the truth of Scripture. For Luther the interpretation of Scripture is in fact a Christological-pneumatological event, in which it is Christ himself, in his Spirit, that reveals himself to the believer’s own faith as the content and the centre of Scripture.

The understanding of Scripture in faith becomes the critical foundation of the understanding of the literal meaning of Scripture, and the understanding of Christ in faith a critical factor for the understanding of the historical Christ. It is in this context that Luther enhances the hermeneutic meaning of the “experience of faith” for the understanding of Scripture, beyond mere exegetical methodologies or rationally founded theologies. The fourth session of the Council of Trent (1546) banned Luther’s  own hermeneutic principle as subjectivist, by countering it with the binding principle of Catholic hermeneutics, which assigns Tradition and the Magisterium the task of “iudicare de vero sensu et interpretatione Scripturarum sanctarum” (cf. DH 1506-1508).

Yet even against Luther’s own intentions, Reformers also realised the hermeneutic importance of languages and thus the essential hermeneutic role of philology, particularly for the important translation and interpretation work on Scripture. Philip Melantone (1497-1560), a humanist and a Luther’s disicple, supplemented scriptural exegesis with the rules belonging to literary hermeneutics. Laurentius Humphredus (1527-1590), in his work Interpretatio linguarum: seu de ratione convertendi et explicandi autores tam sacros quam prophanos, libri tres (1559), regards hermeneutics as a “science of translation,” assigning the interpreter the task not only of faithfully reporting (imitatio) the thought of a classical author (dux), but especially combining the very translation of lexical items with an exact understanding both of the meaning of those items and of their wider cultural context. In the following century, Petrus Daniel Huet (1630-1721), referring to the philosophical hermeneutics principles of that time, drew up a treatise on hermeneutics as a science and art of translating, De interpretatione libri II, quorum prior est De optimo genere interpretandi, alter De claris interpretibus (l661), in which, regarding the most widespread notion of hermeneutics as  “sermo omnis quo fit ut res minime intellecta percipiatur,” as insufficient, he redefined it as “sermo lingua notiore expressus sermonem lingua minus nota expressum referens ac repraesentans.” Yet, we owe the first edition of the Greek text of the New Testament (1516) to Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), a Catholic who, in opposition to Luther, carried out an intense translating and publishing activity on Classical texts, refining the rules of philological hermeneutics in works which became famous, such as the Enchiridion militis Christiani (l502), the Ratio verae theologiae (1518), the Ecclesiastes sive concionator evangelicus (l535).

Especially through the Enlightenment, the 18th century witnessed a radical change in the approach to sacred hermeneutics. The primacy of the latter is no longer recognised and Holy  Scripture too has to be analysed according to the principles of lay hermeneutics.  In the preceding century Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), taking as his starting-point the principles of new rationalism upholding  the universality of reason and its  undisputed primacy over faith, had already stated in his Tractatus theologico-politicus (l670), that “the norm of biblical exegesis may only be the light of common reason.” Likewise, Johann August Ernesti (1707-1781), in his Compendium hermeneuticae profanae (1699), will argue that “the true meaning of Scripture has to be determined in the same way as we verify any other texts.” Furthermore, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), also due to the rise of new philological disciplines, capable of verifying with scientific precision the genuineness and the authoritativeness of a text, in his Das Christentum der Vernunft (l753) claimed that it is only up to reason to determine the criteria and principles of interpretation also in the field of Scripture. The principles of the new Enlightenment’s philosophy were to find thorough hermeneutic application  in Martin Chladenius (1710-1759), who, in his work Einleitung zur richtigen Auslegung vernünftiger Reden und Schriften (l742) explicitly replaced the reference to faith and the Spirit, typical of Protestant hermeneutics, with a reference to the only hermeneutic criterion which was acceptable at that point: universal Reason, regarded as the only element common to the text and its interpreter. As a result, in the realm of Scripture, a new rationalistic and demythologizing interpretation was later developed; and in the lay context preference was granted to models presenting a great rational or cultural content, which amounted to a sort of lay tradition working out parallel carefully devised scientific criteria for preparing new critical editions.

 V. Hermeneutics between the Modern Age and the Contemporary Age

1. The influence of reflection on history and on language: Vico, Meier, Herder, Hamann, von Humboldt. In the transition between Modernity and the contemporary age the philosophical autonomy of hermeneutics gained recognition, by distinguishing itself clearly from both sectorial hermeneutics (exegetical, philological, legal), and from those attempts to work out a “universal hermeneutics,” which were still present in the 18th century, yet still related to a “technical” notion of hermeneutics. The work by Friedrich Meier (1718-1777) Versuch einer allgemeinen Auslegungskunst (1757) still moves along these lines, where hermeneutics is defined as a “science of the rules according to which meanings can be distinguished from their signs,” or “the science of the rules to be followed in the interpretation of all or at least most of the types of signs.” With Meier one still sees the attempt to develop a universal hermeneutics based on technical interpretation rules, a position to be overcome at the time when hermeneutics took up an explicitly philosophical role.  This was to happen in two significant stages, which contributed to its present definition: the first started with Schleiermacher and his notion of hermeneutics as an “art of linguistic understanding” in the 19th century; the second was initiated by Heidegger’s influence and his notion of hermeneutics as “phenomenology of existential understanding” in the 20th century. Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics in turn was able to develop autonomously only on the basis of two philosophical premises, which arose before and outside hermeneutic philosophy:  the new notion of “history” and the new notion of “language.”

Precisely to a new view of history, a definite contribution was made by Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), not only by his Principi di una scienza nuova intorno alla natura delle nazioni (l725), laying the foundations of that “science of history” which was later to develop in a German context, but also by his assigning historical knowledge a global heuristic meaning in the context of human knowledge. On the front of the philosophy of language, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), in his work Abhandlung über den Ursprung der Sprache (1772), argues that language has a divine origin, it is not a product of the pure act of thinking, as rationalist philosophers would demand, and is not even a mere product of the senses, as sensist philosophers would conversely claim. Just like with Vico, for Herder language is the most specific manifestation of being a man, who, unlike any other being in nature, is both a natural being and a historical, sensitive and spiritual one, capable of feelings and of rationality, of a sensitive and a cultural life. This truth-seeking orientation of language is grasped particularly in the reflections on the truth of a myth: it is not a non-truth, nor is it a lower-level truth — as rationalists had wanted since Spinoza — but it is the truth in the form language takes in a certain culture and at a certain stage in the development of humankind.

Just as for Herder, so too for Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) language is an organ of reason. It is constitutively born in reason, so that there is no reason without language or language without reason. In his Biblische Betrachtungen (1758), Hamann delves into the notion of language as an “organ of Revelation” as well, by developing the theory of condescendence (Kondeszendenz), according to which God deliberately adjusted the truth of Revelation to the historical culture and language of the people he wanted to reveal himself to. For Karl Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1845) language is predominantly a spiritual product, which cannot be regarded as similar to a statically studied language and considered in its merely syntactic and grammatical structures. According to Gadamer, von Humboldt would actually be the creator of modern philosophy of language, having taught us to regard each language as a peculiar worldview, since he was searching for the internal form through which the one single original event of language rise takes on different forms in each case, thereby reaching an original metaphysics of individuality, aimed at discovering the intimate meaning of language, its form and intimate force “by means of which the inner sense acts on the sound” (cf.  Gadamer, 2004, p. 438).

2. Schleiermacher’s own contribution and Barth’s subsequent criticism. As mentioned above, it was especially Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) that realized the limitations of hermeneutics regarded as “philological methodology” to address the general issue of interpretation, as it would still appear in Meier. He was then concerned with developing a general form of hermeneutics on the basis not only of a philological or technical, but above all of a linguistic or philosophical foundation. His Hermeneutik does not refer to a work written by Schleiermacher with this title, but to a set of writings devoted to the hermeneutic issue drawn up in the years l805-l833, which were later collected and published after the author’s own death. In addition to the earliest formulation of a philosophical hermeneutics interpreted as a reflection on the meaning of human understanding through language, to Schleiermacher we owe some central hermeneutic notions, first of all that of “hermeneutic circle.” The hermeneutic circle indicates the circular movement which in the interpretation of every text, literary, philosophical, religious links the understanding of the whole of the text to the understanding of its individual parts and in turn regards the understanding of individual parts as a condition for the understanding of the whole text. However, through this distinction Schleiermacher also defines a second hermeneutic principle: the principle of intuition (Einfühlung), whereby he points to the fact that beyond outer rules and methodological criteria, hermeneutics is a process of in-depth participation in the author’s mental activity, and therefore an intuitive act. In order to really understand a text, it is necessary to be able to understand all that cultural, poetic, religious, literary and spiritual world governing his creation; in a certain sense it is necessary to be able to get an insight of how in this psychological sharing process it is possible to re-experience all that spiritual process presiding over the linguistic and expressive creation. The static nature of a formal language is balanced by its everyday use, which is not a product of social habits, but is predominantly a fruit of the continuous creation of the spirit.

Schleiermacher was urged to develop his own philosophical hermeneutics by an initially pastoral concern. How was it possible to make it accessible to 19th century people, with their Enlightenment cultural background, the message of ancient texts drawn up by authors with a predominantly mythical cultural background?  Developing a general theory of interpretation would have also meant understanding how to transmit the New Testament’s Biblical message through the mediation of language. From the theological point of view, Schleiermacher has been reproached by Catholics for not taking into account “tradition” as an essential “understanding” horizon, as “new hermeneutics” headed by Gadamer would appreciatively do, and therefore for conceiving the interpretative  process as a pure inter-subjective relationship. A still harsher reproach, though, came from Karl Barth (1886-1968), who in his well-known commentary to the Letter to the Romans (1919, 1922) criticized Schleiermacher (and the whole theology defined as “liberal” inspired by his hermeneutics) for turning the Word of God into the word of man, and then faith into culture, Revelation into philosophy.  On the basis of the arguments by Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Barth regards as essential, for the theologian and for the Christian, to make a radical choice between the Word of God and the word of man, because faith does not come from a cultural interpretation exercise. The Word of God is a sign of contradiction for any culture, since it contradicts every worldly and philosophical attempt to “talk about God”. So, Barth wants to free theology from the “Babilonian slavery” represented by philosophy, in particular in the form of Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics. In his work Fides quaerens intellectum (1931), Barth argues that the absolute and unconditional starting point to talk about God are not philosophy and the cultural categories of the time, but God himself, whose Revelation is the foundation of faith which is a pure initiative of grace: faith is the sign of a pre-choice made by God and it is not the fruit of a human choice due to interpretation efforts. The criticism against Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics and theology as a “human discourse on God” could not be more direct. The same applies for the positions of Catholic apologetics, based on the analogia entis. To them Barth opposes an unconditional analogia fidei, by which he wishes to stress the infinite distance between the Word of God and the human word, between the free gift of faith, as theology’s own absolute starting point, and any form of theological culture and hermeneutics.

3. The distinction between explaining and understanding and between natural sciences and spiritual sciences in Dilthey. Along with  Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) also represents the first stage of a hermeneutic philosophy, which contrasts the traditional ars interpretandi and the study and analysis of the fact itself of “understanding” and which regards hermeneutics mainly as a reflection on the meaning of understanding and interpreting.  It is within a philosophy of understanding that Dilthey draws the distinction which was later due to become permanent between “explaining” (erklären) and “understanding” (verstehen), between the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften) and the spiritual sciences (Geisteswissenschaften). As he states in his work Die Entstehung der Hermeneutik (1900): “We explain nature, but understand spiritual life.” While it is up to the natural sciences to clarify, by means of the protocols of scientific explanation, the laws regulating physical and natural events, the harder task of the spiritual sciences is to understand the whole wide world of man’s spiritual expressions, ranging from art to religion, philosophy and culture, as products of spirituality of man who is essentially a historical being and therefore cannot be reduced to a natural entity and “explained” through natural science protocols. The notion of life (Leben), of living experience (Erleben) and of lived experience (Erlebnis), were to become important and key concepts in the context of the subsequent developments of vitalistic and phenomenological hermeneutics. In Dilthey lived experience acquires the meaning of a bond between an author’s own work and his life, which is tantamount to saying that in order to truly “understand” a work one needs to understand the “lived experience” expressed in it: the latter does not coincide with the author’s inner life, but with his existential experience being his “life plan” (or “world plan”, as Heidegger was to say later), which qualifies the Author’s existence and represents the best reference context for its interpretation and understanding.

Against the different expressions of 19th-century positivism, Dilthey puts forward the hermeneutic notion of history as a creative work of subjectivity, which cannot be understood without grasping the radically historical nature of man. Human essence is not determined a priori, but it is an essence that is historically determined through the creative process of his freedom. Hermeneutic understanding, being a historical understanding, is  therefore a temporal, historically determined understanding. Since Dilthey, then, the hermeneutic issue of “understanding” has basically become the issue of “historical  understanding,” due to the “historical” nature assigned to man and therefore to his intelligere, interpreting and understanding. The work Einleitung in die Geisteswissenchaften (l883) set off an ongoing debate concerning the epistemological  status to be assigned to the so-called “human sciences” or “historical sciences” (psychology, sociology, education, anthropology, historiography etc.), which, having to do precisely with man’s historical existence, constantly have to tackle hermeneutic issues related to the categories of their own understanding.

VI. Hermeneutics and Phenomenology

 1.The view of hermeneutics in Heidegger. The phenomenology of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) offers Martin Heidegger (1889-1876) a method to escape Dilthey’s historicist relativism and to set  hermeneutics on stable philosophical foundations, transforming it into an (analytical) “ontology of existence.” In the first part of Being and Time (1927), Heidegger  takes up Husserl’s new notion of “phenomenon” defined as what “it means to be patent”, i.e. what does not lie hidden, but what shows up, what manifests itself, the manifest, the illumination and the “clarification.” Thus he sets the basis of that notion of truth as “disclosure” (a-letheia) and no longer as adaequatio which forms the basis of the new hermeneutic philosophy. A phenomenon is “what becomes manifest in itself,” therefore also the truth pertaining to the logos does not simply mean “match” and “adjustment,” which are logical properties of judgment, rather “the entities of which one is talking must be taken out of their hiddenness; one must let them be seen as something unhidden (alethes); that is they must be discovered” (cf. Heidegger, 1967, pp. 56-57). If truth, then, is this feeling of  “disclosure” and logos is above all a way of “letting one see and perceive” the being showing itself, for Heidegger this means that the lógos traditionally regarded as “apophantic” or “declarative” can by no means be considered the primary location of truth and that realism and idealism — the two opposing notions of the relationship between logos and being typical of all Western theology up to the present day – fail to the same degree, since they do not get to grasp either the truth of being in its manifestation, or the “relational” typical rapport of the logos with the being.

Heidegger also draws on Husserl for the new notion of  “linguistic sign,” according to which signs do not represent a relationship which “refers to a chosen entity,” in line with the traditional idea, but already contain in themselves something of the res designata. For phenomenological philosophy the task of linguistic signs is not totally fulfilled indicating and referring, but it extends to “showing” and  “disclosing” the ontological reference structure. Husserl himself had summarised in The Crisis of Western Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (posthumous publication1954) the key phenomenological notions: the ‘life world’ (Lebenswelt) as a basis of meanings not only of eidetic intuitions, but also of language; the living, existential and pre-categorical dimension of concepts and words; the human community basically defined as a linguistic community, being based on conscience and the interaction of consciences among them; the horizon of the “world” seen, in its phenomenological and existential meaning, as a pre-understanding horizon of our ideas and of our words; and, finally, language as a system comprised not of mere signs, but as a language referring, in a living interlace of existential connections, associations, relationships and implications, to that world perspective which shapes it and represents its horizon of meaning, understanding and interpretation.

By stressing the signs’ role of pointing, referring to, showing and somehow “disclosing” the ontological structure of what the sign refers to, in his work Pathmarks (1950), Heidegger develops the connection between signs and what appears in them. That connection is based on the one  between the “original saying” (Sagen)  and “showing” (Zeigen), which  resembles the connection between “thinking” (Denken), “speaking” (Sagen) and “appearing” (Erscheinen): while “thinking” takes up from what shows itself time to time, what it is possible to say of what appears, “speaking” is a saying (Sagen), variously showing (Zeigen) what the listener (Hören), the being attentive to what appears (das Erscheinende), expresses. Signs, then show what is possible to say, because thinking itself is grasping what it is possible to say about what shows itself, in the perspective of the hermeneutic notion of truth as aletheia (non-hiding), that is as a revelation  of being.

In quite an original way, Heidegger assigns hermeneutics the specific, single task of reflecting on the “meaning” of understanding and interpreting on an existential and ontological basis, by defining hermeneutics as “analytics of existence,” that is  a “phenomenology of existential understanding.” The Dasein, that is Being as situated existence, is an opening up to the truth of being because it is the awareness of the conditions of being there, i.e. of the conditions of its real existence. The hermeneutics of Being and time is first of all the “analysis of existence” and of its essential ontological structures, outlining the perspective of its opening to being and to its understanding. Those existential structures are: the being of the world, the being of the world as “locality,” the being in the world as being with oneself and being-with with others,  the being in the world as a throwing of the Dasein, which expresses itself in the unauthentic existence of being-thrown, the authentic existence of decisions, of possibilities, of the overcoming of “treatment,” of idle chatting, of curiosity, of misunderstandings, and in the attainment of a higher dimension of language dictated by the self-understanding of the “truth” of one’s own existential condition. This is disclosed by key emotional situations, such as “anguish” and above all by the awareness of one’s being-for-death, that is of the radical “temporality” and historicity of existence. And since the whole process of existential understanding is carried out in and by language, the latter linguistically articulates what can be understood; language is a manifestation of man’s existential and historical structures, it is the form, the structure existence takes historically, and therefore the “place” where being manifests itself: “language is being’s home.”

Heidegger’s hermeneutics wholly revolves on the awareness that the very ways of our understanding of being are in fact also ways of its disclosure. Hermeneutics is interpretation (Auslegung) because it is disclosure (Aufweisung) of being. Moreover it is set beyond any methodologies and any interpretative techniques, because in fact its method is a path leading to being’s manifestation, in all its expressions, because being is not an “object” (Sache) but an “event” (Ereignis). This route crossing the paths of language, not logical and rationally reductionist language, but that of a metaphorical and indicative kind, such as that of poets and prophetic thinkers characterises hermeneutics (Auslegung, Erörterung) as the ability to identify traces of being in and between words. In his late works, from Pathmarks to On the way to language (1959), Heidegger’s hermeneutics is no longer the art of interpretation or even the “analytics of existence,” but “listening,” that is an existential match with being and its own truth.

 In this context it is also worth mentioning Luigi Pareyson (1918-1991), who, starting from a hermeneutic perspective and from concerns which were similar to Heidegger’s, offered a re-edition of existentialism according to a philosophical view he called “ontological personalism.” The latter gradually developed first into a philosophy of interpretation regarded as “ontology of the inexhaustible” and, later, into an “ontology of freedom.” The inexhaustible character of truth necessarily entails that its disclosure be both “showcasing” and “hiding.” The ontology of the inexhaustible indicates that truth is constantly beyond its historical formulations, to state “beyond values and durability: the presence of being” (Truth and Interpretation, 2014 p. 40). The inexhaustibility of being consists in the fact that all its historical forms cannot exhaust it although it is present in them, and in that they cannot possess in an exclusive way, although they have a share in it more or less intensely. Being hands itself over to the historical forms that are able to reveal it, and hands itself over to such an extent that it becomes inseparable from them; and yet it is never fully contained in any historical forms. So, in this endless revelatory ability of being lies “the unrestrained strength of its inexhaustibility” (Ibidem, p. 44).

2. Hermeneutics and interpretation in Gadamer. Taking up Heidegger’s phenomenological foundation of hermeneutics as a reflection on the meaning of human understanding,  Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) argues that understanding is not only an existential event, but at the same time a historical, linguistic and dialectic one. Gadamer’s hermeneutics is “dialectic” and dynamic in character, not structural, analytical and descriptive, because he develops Heidegger’s ontological understanding within a hermeneutic he himself defines as “dialectic” or “dialogic.” The dialectic element, as it appears in his Plato’s dialectic ethics (1931), consists in the integration of the trait of experience, meeting, “merging of horizons” typical of Plato’s dialectics and dialogues into Heidegger’s signature existential structures of understanding.

The connection between “historical existence” and “hermeneutic understanding” is posited by Gadamer on the basis of a pre-understanding which is not only existential but which rests on knowledge “pre-concepts” related to the concrete historicity of existence, and which no genuinely hermeneneutic pathway can get rid of by jumping into an impossible conceptual purity. Even more than Heidegger Gadamer scrutinises the issue of “historical conscience,” as an awareness not only of the existential pre-requisites of understanding, but of all the factors and components which come into play in a decisive way in our “historical understanding,” creating relationships between our present current affairs and historic past. Thus Gadamer, unlike Heidegger, gets to claim that our pre-understanding is not only of an existential or ontological kind, but that it fully participates in a cultural “tradition”, which represents its true historical horizon. Our biases are not something abstract or purely ontological, but they are the outcome of a history which is precisely that “tradition.”  By being grafted into a historical tradition, they do not refer back to the past rising, as it were, out of our own present subjectivity, but they recognize, in history, precisely those elements of tradition which are present in them and which have mediated it as far as us.

In Gadamer then, the “hermeneutic circle” turns into the movement leading the interpreter to embrace all the tradition of understanding of a given text, moving in circles from the parts, i.e. individual interpreters, to the whole, i.e. to its historical tradition of its understanding, faithfully looking not for an arbitrary interpretation, but for the “unity of meaning” of the text itself, while recognizing the elements common to the different understanding traditions. The hermeneutic circle is basically based on an inextricable link between language and history, words and life world, since every understanding of any reality through language is always subject to its historical and existential understanding. Every historical understanding — aesthetic, cultural, philosophical — is subject to the “historical belonging,” i.e. to a cultural and linguistic tradition which represents its understanding horizon.

Gadamer’s hermeneutics, then, appears as “knowledge of the history of effects” (Wirkungs-geschichtliche Bewußtsein) indicating both the conscience of the ways in which hermeneutic understanding world and the actual operations of historical understanding as an understanding of the effects produced in history by the interpretations of a text. Gadamer’s hermeneutic philosophy is made up of two key concepts: a) the interpretations of a text in history are determined especially by the existential, cultural, religious concerns of the reader or of the community reading the text itself; b) these also produce the hermeneutic notion of “application,” i.e. relevant use of a text in a given existential, cultural and historical context. This is the ideal hermeneutic moment allowing what Gadamer calls “fusion of horizons,” according to which interpreters, bridging the temporal distance separating them from a text and from its author, actually get to extend their own interpretative horizon making it possible to adopt the historical past as a necessary element enriching their own understanding.

Yet, Gadamer’s hermeneutics may be used in a “weak” sense. Indeed, making a radical use of the notion of “linguistic experience,” to which he devoted the third part of  Truth and method (1960), the hermeneutic path, precisely when it makes the experience of language and its mediation absolute, presupposes language to be absolutely finite: it never represents the final destination, the final appropriation, the ultimate conclusion, but precisely the presupposition  of opening and difference. If Hegel’s wholeness ended up in all-embracing sophia, represented by the identification stage, the universality of linguistic experience in Gadamer’s hermeneutics may run the risk of ending up in the unrest of the unaccomplished, of the unsettled, of the unsaid and of the un-shown. Gadamer’s position, just as that of existential hermeneutics adopted by some theologians, was later criticized by Emilio Betti (1890-1968) in his work Teoria generale della interpretazione (l955) [General theory of interpretation], remarking that the objectivity of interpretation, especially with regard to historical understanding, is now seriously questioned by a hermeneutics which is incapable of distinguishing between interpretation as search for the meaning of things (Auslegung)  and as a purely subjective attribution of meaning to things (Sinngebung).

3. Value of symbols and sense restoration in Ricoeur. Ever since his early work Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (1965), Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) has developed a philosophy of hermeneutics capable of uniting the reflection on the interpretation of  a text and the perspective of psychoanalysis, adopted as an interpretation of language regarded as a symbol of something more profound than the outside of words and language signs. The vast field of hermeneutics is then for Ricoeur a “theory of symbols,” which may be able to use together, though in a critical and detached fashion, the contribution made by both psychoanalysis for the interpretation of symbols, and those made by the new and different language sciences. Ricoeur’s hermeneutics investigates and thoroughly organizes the vast field of symbols, drawing a distinction between univocal and equivocal symbols, and particularly stressing the value and significance of myths.

In Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, attention is paid to religious symbols, which express a new desire to be called upon, beyond the silence and oblivion which the manipulation of empty signs and the construction of formalized languages multiply. “This expectancy of a new Word, of a new tidings of the Word is the implicit intention of every phenomenology of symbols, which first puts the accent on the object, then underscores the fullness of symbol, to finally greet the revealing power of the primal Word.” (Ricoeur, 1970, pp. 32-33) Understanding means understanding oneself vis-à-vis the text, by refraining from imposing one’s own limited understanding ability, and at the same time by exposing oneself to the text and drawing a wider dimension of the self from it. In this mutual enlightening, in which the categories of contemporaneity do not replace the message of the ancient text to stifle it, but become instrumental to listening to it and making it relevant, one becomes aware that, as readers, we can only find our way again when we are lost. (cf. Ricoeur, 2007, pp.76-77). Symbolic language becomes the ideal place for this “hermeneutics of listening,” which Ricoeur sets against Freud’s, Marx’s and Nietzsche’s “hermeneutics of suspicion.”

For Ricoeur hermeneutics then consists in a continuous process of sense restoration, reinterpreting and identifying the original meaning of what has come down to us, especially what comes from the past, from our cultural tradition, which presents us with a great harvest of data, contents and symbols to be interpreted. Symbols, as it were, break the average usage of ordinary language and their presence testifies the need for something else, the need for a surplus of meaning, for transcending even oneself, which is expressed in art, philosophy, religion, and which is expressed above all in the figure of metaphor, which expresses the real creativity of man (cf. Ricoeur, 1977). In this perspective, the hermeneutics of a text, in particular of the Biblical text, has to be divided into different stages, which may guarantee its truthfulness: ranging from philological, literary and historical methods, guaranteeing the text’s objective meaning, up to the hermeneutic methods which make the meaning of the text relevant for the lives of readers, who are called upon by the text to draw from the texts a renewed understanding of themselves.  

 Yet “history” and “person” too are now understandable only in a hermeneutic perspective. In Time and Narrative (1983-85), Ricoeur strives to show how the very experience man gets of time and historicity gets to language through narrative; and in Oneself as Another (1990) he shows how personal identity itself represents – for psychoanalysis as it does for hermeneutics – a narrative identity. In Ricoeur, then, two types of hermeneutics meet: the hermeneutics of sense restoration (or hermeneutics of the listening) and a critical hermeneutics. The latter, as clearly expressed in Critique and conviction (1995), is able to return to an interpretation of oneself vis-à-vis the text, after listening and accepting tradition, as well as taking up the whole dimension of historical time with the cultural and existential novelties it implies.

 VII. Hermeneutics and Exegesis

 One of the most significant fields of application of philosophical hermeneutics is that of Biblical exegesis and theology. The document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (April 15, 1993, EV 13, 2846-3150) reiterates that “in its recent course exegesis has been challenged to some rethinking in the light of contemporary philosophical hermeneutics, which has stressed the involvement of the knowing subject in human understanding, especially as regards historical knowledge” (EV 13, 2981). The document, therefore, integrates hermeneutics’ suggestions particularly regarding the subjective and historical dimensions of our own knowledge frameworks and sketches a brief history of contemporary exegesis in relation to hermeneutics.

Schleiermacher’s, Dilthey’s and Heidegger’s hermeneutic indications did indeed arise from the  attempts to apply hermeneutics to exegesis made by Bultmann, Ebeling and Ricoeur. In particular, Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) realized the exegetical importance of the hermeneutic principle of pre-understanding. “Pre-understanding (Vorverständnis) is founded upon the life-relationship (Lebenverhältnis) of the interpreter to the reality of which the text speaks” (EV 13, 2982). Yet here we are confronted with the real problem of hermeneutics being applied to exegesis. Which is whether pre-understanding should be regarded, as Betti pointed out in his criticism of new theological hermeneutics, only as a subjective attribution of meaning to the text by its interpreters (Sinngebung), or rather it should let itself be modified by the text or even be modified by what the text talks about, which has to be regarded not as an extension of one’s subjectivity, but as an otherness capable of enriching and deepening it. On the other hand, Gadamer and Ricoeur too had basically moved along the lines of a necessary recognition of the otherness of the text vis-à-vis its interpreter.

Furthermore, hermeneutic philosophy has enabled exegesis to understand that the latter is not only an interpretation of written words, but an adjustment to the truth of the text and an existential correspondence to the word of the text’s own message. “All exegesis of texts is thus summoned to be itself fully complete through a ‘hermeneutics’ understood in this modern sense” (EV 13, 2986). Without identifying the relationship between contemporary man’s experience of faith and the reality of faith as expressed by Biblical texts testifying in a prominent way the truth of God’s dialogue with historical man, no exegesis may claim to be exhaustive in the hermeneutic perspective. This perspective has to be regarded as “a healthy reaction to historical positivism and to the temptation to the study of the Bible the purely objective criteria used in natural sciences” (EV 13, 2988). Yet the contemporary significance of Biblical texts cannot be realized by only adjusting them to the pre-understanding categories of one’s own time’s philosophy and culture, as demanded by Bultmann and by his use of Heidegger’s philosophy. The ensuing “demytholigizing” has resulted in emptying Biblical texts of their theological meaning in favour of their anthropological message, held to be similar to the existential categories of Heidegger’s philosophy. Biblical hermeneutics, despite successfully combining philosophical methods with the principles of philosophical hermeneutics, has to hold on to the theological plain, which implies recognizing its own subject, that is “the person of Jesus Christ and the saving events accomplished in human history” (EV 13, 2989); and for this reason it has to be guided also by the theological assumptions of Biblical pre-understanding “such as the faith lived in ecclesial community and the light of the Spirit” (EV 13, 2991; cf. Dei Verbum, 12).

A special issue pertaining to Biblical exegesis is that of the meaning of Scripture (cf. EV 13, 2992-3012). The whole of Patristic and later Medieval exegesis was based on Origen’s argument on the fourfold meaning of Scripture, later summed up in the distich by Augustine of Denmark (13th century): “Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria, moralis quid agas, quid speres anagogia.” Contemporary exegesis has developed two opposite arguments regarding the meanings of a text. On the one hand, the argument for the unity of meaning of a text, in the sense that a text cannot contain different meanings. The historical critical method has particularly dwelt on the search for the text’s real meaning. Yet, on the other hand, re-instating the value of myth and rediscovering symbolic language as an inexhaustible source of meanings (Heidegger, Ricoeur), hermeneutics has offered exegesis a number of useful instruments to understand the inexhaustible potential contained in the symbolic language of Scripture. This way it has renewed the understanding of the literal sense of Scripture, which must not be read in a “literalistic” sense, as  exegetes would demand, but in connection with the author’s literary genre, so that it can also be ambivalent, as in the case of Caifa’s claim (cf. Jn 11:30); it can refer to the different levels of reality, as in the case of poetic texts of Scripture (Song of Songs); and it can also be dynamic, as in the case of Psalms, connected with the historical circumstance of Israel’s monarchy, but also to the prophetic proclamation of the Kingdom of God. Thus one accesses the “fuller sense,” the sensus plenior of Scripture, defined as “a deeper meaning of the text intended by God, but not clearly expressed by the human author” (EV 13, 3010). The “fuller sense” of a Biblical text can then be discovered — and this is the result of the “hermeneutic circle” principle — only in the light of the other Biblical texts and in the light of Revelation as a whole (analogia fidei).

Furthermore philosophical hermeneutics also helps exegesis to understand that no written text can be brought back to life if it is not brought back to life by the interest of those reading it, to whom it can offer, for the power of the message it contains, ever newer and deeper meanings. This is the reason why the literal meaning of Scripture, in the hermeneutic perspective, can lie open to ever new interpretations, because the hermeneutic situation is precisely kept alive by this tension between the past and its historical relevance nowadays, between the message and its existential pre-understanding, which also means enhanced understanding of oneself. Hermeneutics has thus made exegesis aware that a text’s reading, be it literary, philosophical or religious, is never removed from the readers’ cultural context, which moves towards the text’s interpretation starting from an interpretative tradition, which, however, can get richer or even change in relation to its creativity; secondly the text’s interpretations also have to be interpreted as responses to a text’s appeals to its readers.

The application of scientific methods and the compliance with the hermeneutic interpretation criteria have nowadays become indispensable for the understanding of Biblical texts. In the present awareness of the Church it is impossible to go back to a pre-critical state in the interpretation of the Bible, and one needs to be able to enhance the positive contributions (in spite of necessary reservations) by the historical critical method, as well as those of rhetorical analysis and of philosophical  hermeneutics.

The historical critical method today is applied by pursuing a combination of elements: the text’s textual criticism; the text’s linguistic and semantic analysis; the text’s literary and genre criticism; textual tradition criticism; textual drafting criticism, up to a text’s final composition. The evaluation of the historical critical method then, does not depend on the method in itself, which belongs to the development of historical sciences, but on the use that is made of it on the basis of different ideological or theological pre-understandings (cf. EV 13, 2862-2877). The potential limitation of the historical critical method does not consist in its scientific nature, but in its failing to take into account the wide range of significant options related to the message highlighted by the most recent hermeneutic contributions especially by Gadamer’s painstaking reflections on the exceptional potential of language and word.  Gadamer has exerted a major influence on Scriptural exegesis, as witnessed by the model of Biblical exegesis represented by the history of the effects of a text, inspired by the notion of Wirkungsgeschichte. According to this theory, text interpretation has to take into account the effects produced by the reading of a text throughout the history of its interpretations, which in turn must not be regarded as alien to the text itself, but as its enrichment. It is indeed reading it that gives life to a text in the course of history; and it is this appropriation of the text by its readers, at a literary, philosophical, theological, mystical level, that represents one of the main contribution to its understanding.

Two different hermeneutic situations can be posited here. The first is represented by those interpretations that enrich the text without modifying its inexhaustible significance, without overturning its truth horizon. This is the case of the multiple interpretations of Scripture of a spiritual or mystical kind, which, despite their differentiation, all move within its dogmatic truth. Otherwise, the history of interpretations can give rise to interpretative traditions that falsify texts, and therefore have to be demystified and corrected by a hermeneutics approaching the text in a critical manner, free from traditional conditioning. It is the case, for instance, of the interpretative tradition that gave rise to anti-Semitism, to racial discrimination, to misrecognition of freedom of conscience and religious freedom, to a violent style of truth imposition as well as to the Millenarian illusion. In conclusion, hermeneutics has to take into account the Wirkungsgeschichte, but also has to be able to develop a necessary criticism of it, in order to attain a truthful understanding of the text.

One of the latest exegetical approaches to the Bible following on the historical critical method is the canonical approach. Having arisen in the United States in the Seventies, it holds that only “the believing community provides a truly adequate context for interpreting canonical texts” (EV 13, 2912-2919). Brevard S. Childs and James A. Sanders focus on the “canonical process” resorting to the Jewish interpretation traditions, above all the targumim and the midrashim.  Reference also has to be made to: (a) the sociological approach (cf. EV 13, 2930-2970), which seeks to understand all the life forms (family, work, community, economy, politics, religious forms, etc.) that made up the social fabric of the Christian event and of the early Church; (b) the anthropological approach through cultural anthropology, which also intends to highlight further anthropological elements (language, art, religion, habits and customs: clothes, ornaments, festivals, dances, myths) to reconstruct the human environment around recognised values (honour, dishonour, secrets, loyalty, tradition, education), in order to identify what is permanent in the Biblical message and what, on the other hand, is transient because it is bound to time; (3) the psychological and psychoanalytical approach, which has in particular set off the idea of upholding symbols and symbolic language as a better means to express the religious experience of truth; (4) finally, the contextual approaches (liberationist and feminist), which seek to contextualize the reading of the Bible to meet the present social, political, cultural, economic, anthropological needs of the contemporary age.

 VIII. Hermeneutics and Epistemology

 The philosophical issues characterising post-Kantian thought, and in particular the oppositions between scientific explanation and hermeneutic understanding (Dilthey), and therefore between logics and history, between nature and spirit, were the underlying foundations of the great philosophical debates of the second half of the 20th century, setting in turn structuralism against existentialism, positivism against dialectics, Marxism against phenomenology, and then forming the backdrop of both the debate between “strong rationality” (Apel) and “communicative rationality” (Habermas), and of the more recent debate between epistemology and hermeneutics. There is still the incorrect tendency to radically oppose analytical philosophers, with an epistemological and mainly Anglo-American training, and Continental philosophers, with a principally hermeneutical training. In fact, in the most advanced discussions concerning the relationship between hermeneutics and epistemology the differences between the two fields have become thinner and thinner, since both experience similar concerns about both the epistemological and the hermeneutic side of things.

The reflection on the epistemological status of science (from Mach to Lakatos)  — e.g. in the  formulation of “relevance criteria,” in the notions of “conceptual frameworks,” “research traditions,” “paradigms”, “influential metaphysics,” etc. — features the key point of hermeneutics, i.e. that every cognitive project is oriented by a pre-understanding. Not only is there no knowledge of a philosophical kind, but none is possible without assumptions and without biases either. The possibility of understanding the realm that is subject to a scientific (or even a linguistic) analysis, is in turn subject to the understanding of that pre-analytical realm lying at the basis of the analysis itself, determining the cognitive project and representing the condition of scientific research itself.  

Epistemological reflection has thus gradually taken over strictly hermeneutic notions, particularly applying the notion of “pre-understanding” to developing a “history of science,” seen as the sequence of questions that have guided research, as well as to drawing up a “hermeneutic” methodology of human sciences. Indeed, for them one should particularly apply the principle according to which, on the basis of the hermeneutic notion of “world” as a human project (Heidegger), every understanding is determined by a more radical pre-understanding, consisting of the existential situation of man in every historical period, capable as he is of making sense of the world  and of interpreting it, because he, in turn, is plunged into a whole set of  meanings (traditions, culture, the community he belongs to) determining the horizon of his understanding of the world (Gadamer). Hermeneutics, in turn, has become more and more aware, especially thanks to Ricoeur’s own contribution, of not being an anti-epistemology, but rather a reflection on the conditions and the non-epistemological pre-understandings of epistemology itself. According to Ricoeur contemporary epistemology —  unlike that of positivism and neopositivism and the ensuing crises  — has indeed developed an awareness of its own hermeneutic components enhancing its focus on the pre-cognitive aspects determining every cognitive and scientific project, thus also enabling hermeneutics to open up to concerns of an epistemological character.

Yet “pre-understanding” has taken on non-homogeneous meanings in hermeneutics and in epistemology. It can indicate the interpreter’s own existential structures and his or her “opening” to being (Heidegger), or rather the cultural tradition they belong to as understanding horizon (Gadamer). For epistemology it is about more simply recognising what the non-epistemological assumptions of its cognitive project are. In some more extreme expressions of contemporary epistemology then, the radical acquisition of the hermeneutic notion of “pre-understanding” has led to setting up asymmetrical relationships between epistemology and aesthetics, science and art. For Nelson Goodman the sciences themselves have to be regarded as arts, and this is because in science, like in art, there are different ways of interpreting and constructing the world, and different styles of rational interpretation models which are related, like in art, to different cultural traditions, and like these they are subject of development or to decay. Feyerabend and Hacking have made Goodman’s argument even more radical, by arguing that the dichotomy between scientific explanation and hermeneutic understanding, due to Dilthey, but also appropriated by the positivist and neo-positivist philosophies of science, has by now to be regarded as outmoded. In fact, even a number of scientists — ranging from Planck to Einstein, from Bohr to Poincaré — have not baulked at the comparison between artistic creation and scientific research, claiming on many occasions that, while developing and formulating their own theories, they also pursued aesthetic criteria of orderliness, harmony, symmetry and elegance. Hermeneutics, on its part, in particular with Ricoeur, has taken up the lesson coming from contemporary epistemology, which has facilitated the view of  science as no longer regarded as an impersonal and ultimate form of knowledge of reality, but rather as a sequence of interpretative  theories. Perhaps sometimes emphasizing the provisional and revisable character of sciences which is certainly clear in the disciplines with a greater philosophical connection and a more significant interpretative import such as particle physics and cosmology — but not to the extent of invalidating the constructive, not totally revolutionary, progress of scientific knowledge — such epistemological novelties have in any case  made precious and unprecedented contributions to hermeneutic reflection, by opening it up to a fruitful dialogue with cognitivist theories.

In fact, in a critical dialogue with logical neo-positivism, the Philosophical Investigations (1953) by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) had already undermined the myth of a totalizing and self-referential science, because they had shown the existing correlation between cognitive forms and life forms.  They had indeed discovered the basic point underlying hermeneutics, paving the way not only to the subsequent development of Anglo-American analytical philosophy, but also to the present convergence between analytical and Continental philosophers, epistemologists and hermeneutics scholars. The paradox of the current philosophical situation is that if philosophy wanted to draw inspiration from the scientific model, today it should set itself up as hermeneutics.

                                                                                                                       

Documents of the Catholic Church related to the subject: 

Abbreviations and complete titles of the documents

Council of Trent, DH 1506-1508;  Providentissimus Deus; Divino afflante Spiritu; PBC, The historicity of the Gospels, April 21, 1964;  EV 2, 151-161; Dei Verbum, 8-10, 12-13, 22; Paul VI, Il Credo del popolo di Dio, June 30, 1968, n. 5; EV 3, 541; PBC, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, April 15, 1993; EV 13, 2846-3150, John Paul II, About Bible’s Interpretation within the Church, April 23, 1993, (Ita. Insegnamenti XVI, pp. 964-978); Fides et ratio, 87, 94-95.

Bibliography: 

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Translator: 
Paolo Zanna