The word "hermeneutics" comes from the Greek ἑρμηνεύω (hermeneuō), which means to translate, or to interpret. The related word, ἑρμηνεύς (hermeneus) means translator or interpreter. It is a theory and methodology of interpreting texts. Hermeneutics was initially applied to the interpretation, or exegesis, of scripture, and has been later broadened to questions of general interpretation. It has been broadly applied in the humanities, especially in law, history and theology.
There are two competing positions in hermeneutics. The first one follows Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911), and sees interpretation or Verstehen as a method for the historical and human sciences. The second follows Martin Heidegger and sees it as an “ontological event”, an interaction between interpreter and text that is part of the history of what is understood.
Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) first developed the notion of “hermeneutic circle.” It refers to the idea that one's understanding of the text as a whole is established by reference to the individual parts and one's understanding of each individual part by reference to the whole. Neither the whole text nor any individual part can be understood without reference to one another, and hence, it is a circle. However, this circular character of interpretation does not make it impossible to interpret a text; rather, it stresses that the meaning of a text must be found within its cultural, historical, and literary context. Schleiermacher argued that understanding the meaning of a text is not about decoding the author's intentions. It is about establishing real relationships between reader, text, and context.
Philosophical hermeneutics critisises Cartesian foundationalism in epistemology and Enlightenment universalism in ethics, seeing science as a cultural practice and prejudices (or prejudgments) as ineliminable in all judgments. It emphasises understanding as continuing a historical tradition, as well as dialogical openness, in which prejudices are challenged and horizons broadened.
Of all the famous hermeneuticists, three will be briefly mentioned here.
Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) was a Russian philosopher and cultural theorist. Bakhtin’s dialogism, his central concept and the existential condition of humanity, is polyphonic, open-ended and “unfinalisable.” He argued that:
1.Dialogue is never abstract but embodied, not only through word, but through the incorporation of the self and the other.
2. Rabelaisian “carnivalesque” points to the “jesterly” politics of resistance and protest against the “priestly” establishment of officialdom.
3. There is a primacy of the other over the self, both in ethics and epistemology.
Hans Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) was a German philosopher who extended the scope of hermeneutics beyond texts to all forms of human understanding. Truth and Method (1960), his best known book, had an impact on a variety of disciplines outside philosophy, including theology, legal theory, and literary criticism. Gadamer argued that:
1. Artworks make a claim to truth.
2. Tradition is a condition of understanding.
3. Participants in a dialogue share the community of understanding through language.
Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) was a French hermeneuticist and phenomenologist. He argued that in our comprehension of both history and fiction one must turn to the text to understand its plot as guideline if we are to comprehend experience of any reflective sort. Ricoeur maintains that the hermeneutical task is a coming together of the self and an other, in a meaningful way, which is principally bound up and manifested in existence itself. He also depicts philosophy as a hermeneutical activity seeking to uncover the meaning of existence through the interpretation of phenomena embedded in the world of culture.
Reader-response criticism is a school of literary theory that focuses on the reader (or "audience") and their experience of a literary work in contrast to other schools and theories that focus attention primarily on the author or the content and form of the work. The two main founders of this theory are Wolfgang Iser and Hans Robert Jauss from the “Constanz School.”
Reader-response theory recognises the reader as an active agent who imparts "real existence" to the work and completes its meaning through interpretation. Reader-response criticism argues that literature should be viewed as a performing art in which each reader creates their own, possibly unique, text-related performance. It stands in total opposition to the theories of formalism and the New Criticism, in which the reader's role in re-creating literary works is ignored. New Criticism had emphasized that only that which is within a text is part of the meaning of a text.