Part of my college essays series: This is one of the essays I wrote during the political theory general exam for my PhD. The exam was an approximately 15-hour marathon session, involving 6 out of 12 essay questions, for a final total of 33 double-spaced pages written without access to any notes or sources.
Some scholars, particularly postmoderns, argue that hermeneutical interpretation is essential to “the so-called social sciences of human beings.” Hermeneutical interpretation originated, to my knowledge, in Biblical exegesis. It has since been extended beyond this sphere, but hermeneutical interpretation is still thought of in terms of the interpretation of texts, although no longer limited to written documents. Hermeneutical interpretation can be applied to our life stories and to oral narratives as well. In hermeneutics there is the tendency to view a text as not having a single fixed meaning. Furthermore, the meaning of a text is not determined solely by authorial intent.
Hermeneutics involves a tripartite or trilateral relationship between the author, the text, and the interpreter. The author and the interpreter each bring their own particular horizon of experience to the text. To be sure, the author presumably has a certain purpose in mind in writing or creating his text and intends for it to have a certain meaning. The author is operating within a particular historical context, however, in which words and sentence structure and such have particular meanings that can change with time. The author’s life has involved formative experiences enmeshed in particular ideas and events that have had at least some influence on him, much of which he may not be consciously aware. The same can be said of the interpreter, whose historical experience and language-use may be vastly different from those of the author. And, moreover, since one cannot have direct and complete access to the author’s mind, interpretation is necessary.
There exist a number of hermeneutical techniques. Perhaps the most general is simply that of the hermeneutical circle. When the interpreter engages the text, he brings with him his horizon of experience, his own world so to speak, and he will inevitably begin to engage the text from this standpoint. As he explores the text, he will gain an overall understanding of its meaning to him and what the author might have meant it to mean, but successive and more careful readings will likely lead to reevaluations and readjustments of that overall understanding which in turn will affect successive readings. Ideally there will be some sort of fusing or integration or broadening of horizons in this hermeneutical process. One must be open to different horizons, however, for interpretation to occur.
One particular type of hermeneutical technique was developed by Leo Strauss. This technique focuses on esoteric writing, or hidden meanings built into the text by the author, beneath the exoteric writing, or superficial meaning, of the text. Strauss argues that esoteric writing is likely to occur in times of great persecution, in which the author would likely be condemned, punished, and suppressed for expressing his views openly. In such cases, the interpreter must examine the text carefully for esoteric meaning. There appears to be some controversy as to whether and how much historical context matters in such interpretation. While there may be some usefulness to this technique – some thinkers may very well have been circumspect in their writing – I do see considerable danger in it (as highlighted by Pocock and others). The technique could be used carelessly, seems to presuppose infallibility, consistency, and genius where it might not be warranted, and could also be used for elitist, secretive purpose.