Philosophy 233 - 12.3.1 Hermeneutics

The area of philosophy that deals with the nature of objective and subjective meaning in relation to written texts is called hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the study of interpretation. When engaged in hermeneutics, we are asking questions such as author’s intent, how the audience interprets the text in question, the assumptions that fuel the reader to make the conclusions they come to, etc. Hermeneutics is of great importance to this chapter as it deals with the possibilities of seeing a thing from not just one perspective but several. One of the key ideas of hermeneutics is the suggestion that truth is relative to perspective and is not fixed.

Page of an open book marked with writing and underlining. A hand rests on the page.
Figure 12.7 Hermeneutics challenges the idea that a text “means” just one thing, pointing instead to the relationship between text and reader as creating a diversity of possible meanings. (credit: “How My Professors Annotate Their Books” by Michael Pollak/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)


Historicity is the philosophical view that everything that we encounter gains its meaning through the temporal events that surround its introduction to and maintenance in the world. In this view, both the author and the text produced by the author are products of history. Historicity asserts that there is no such thing as unmediated meaning; no textual claim stands apart from the events in time that give rise to it. Hermeneutics took up the concerns of historicity when it engaged the question of whether the construction of a text could possibly reveal more about the meaning than the author intended. For example, the analysis of a Charles Dickens novel usually focuses on the struggle of Victorian society to come to terms with the inhumane conditions brought about by the industrial revolution in England. Dickens himself was forced to work in a boot-blacking factory at a young age. Yet his writing communicates ideas that he was not necessarily aware of. His first edition of Oliver Twist presented the villain Fagin using anti-Semitic stereotypes. When an acquaintance made him aware of this, Dickens initially denied it, but the subsequent edition replaced many instances of the term the Jew with the name Fagin (Meyer 2005).

Reception and Interpretation

If hermeneutics is the art of understanding, then it follows that authentic communication is a discussion between what is transmitted by the text and what the audience receives. Reception includes not just what is heard or read but what is perceived. For example, the biblical book of Revelations has caused hundreds of years of fierce battles over its proper interpretation. Some readers hold that the events spoken of within the text will literally happen. Others approach it with a solely historical mindset, viewing it as furnishing a message of hope to an oppressed community during a specific time in the past. And some view it as expressing allegorical ideas about the processes of change and growth. Which reading is correct? According to hermeneutics-based biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976), one must have “a living relationship” with the text one wants to understand. Stated differently, one must engage the historical, literary, cultural, socioeconomic, religious, and political background within which the text was written to fully grasp its significance.

Hermeneutics rejects both the absolute power of rational thought propagated by Descartes and the empiricism promoted by other Enlightenment thinkers. In fact, hermeneutics challenges the basic idea of things having one absolute meaning. Instead, meaning is understood as being derived not from an objective source but from the reader. In doing so, hermeneutics regards the knowledge gained from objective investigations (such as scientific experiments) as one of many possible viewpoints.

Ricoeur’s Narrative Accounts of Self and Society

French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005) held that there was nothing that a text says by itself. Perhaps more clearly, he argued that any text is only capable of saying what we say it says. What someone does when they “understand” a literary work or the words of another person in conversation is to create meaning based on the available words. Even if the author of a text were with us to interpret every word, we still could not arrive at “the” meaning of the text, since it is doubtful that we could ever experience the literary work from the same context as the writer (Gill 2019). Discourse is the name Ricoeur assigned to the process of making meaning out of the texts and dialogues that have been presented to us. As opposed to the identification of things in the natural sciences, a process limited in possible meanings, discourse possesses endless interpretative possibilities.

In the later part of Ricouer’s career, he switched his focus from symbols to metaphor and narrative. For Ricouer, a metaphor is not simply the exchange of one word for another. Rather, a metaphor is a way of saying that which is in some sense unsayable. There is something that radiates beyond the metaphor to the point that the substituted whole is beyond the sum of its parts. By “narrative,” Ricoeur meant not stories themselves but the norms structuring how stories are told and received (Ricoeur 1991, 8, 10). In this perspective, there is no pure narrative unmediated by the reader’s perspective.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax