Hermeneutical Interpretation and Techniques

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.

Another technique is the focus on narrative by Ricoeur, and narrative and tradition by MacIntyre. In After Virtue, MacIntyre poses for us an alternative: Nietzsche or Aristotle. He argues in favor of Aristotle but, being of a post-Enlightenment mindset, seeks to reconstruct or reinterpret Aristotle without his metaphysical baggage. Like other contemporary postmoderns, MacIntyre is wary of metaphysics and foundationalism, viewing them as having failed to satisfactorily ground ethics and politics and as being largely responsible for the totalitarian horrors of the 20th century.

In place of Aristotelian metaphysics, MacIntyre proposes narrative life stories and tradition as foundations for virtue and politics. He argues that narrative and tradition can provide stability and coherence to our moral lives as well as internal and external validity checks. He thus interprets Aristotelian virtue ethics and the polis in light of these lenses. A life of flourishing would then be largely socially constructed. Proper action could then be judged by ourselves for internal validity in light of our life stories and traditions and externally by others in our community and by other communities.

The excessively communitarian interpretation of Aristotle aside, I’m not convinced that narrative and tradition by themselves can provide a foundation that avoids the problems of infinite regress and vicious circularity on the one hand and the communitarian specters of paternalism and totalitarianism on the other. What seems to be missing in this postmodern sort of approach to narrative and tradition is a conception of universal human nature and a deep appreciation of the value of individuality and individual liberty.

Another postmodern approach that also pays attention to the social and historical dimensions of human existence is that of Eric Voegelin. Voegelin’s work also evinces a wariness of metaphysical and foundationalist thinking. Wary of modern hypostatizations, Voegelin became focused on actual experiences and the symbols they engender. He warned against hypostatizing either or both of the poles with which human experience is in tension: the immanent and the transcendent. The life of man takes place in the metaxy, the In-Between, between the mortal and the divine. But neither one of these poles should be thought of apart from the experience of tension toward the divine ground of being.

David Corey has recently criticized Voegelin for a tendency to focus excessively on the transcendent at the expense of the immanent; and Voegelin himself seems to admit this in his letter to Schutz (sp?). I think this bias, if I may call it that, in favor of the transcendent, led Voegelin to focus on the apparent Platonic influences or aspects in Aristotle and ignore or overlook Aristotle’s more practical and positive contributions to ethical and political life: namely, Aristotle’s more down-to-earth contributions to virtue ethics, the good life, and practical action in politics.

Jan Patocka’s case bears some similarities to that of Voegelin. He seeks to return to what he conceives of as the true Socratic teaching, a sort of negative Platonism based on Socratic ignorance (or wisdom). He views the metaphysical thinking of Plato and the more Platonic Socrates as objectifying and concretizing, or hypostatizing, the transcendent Idea, which is ineffable and cannot be adequately expressed by rational thought and speech.

I turn, finally, to Nietzsche and Heidegger. Nietzsche’s interpretive method is genealogical or archaeological. Underlying Nietzsche’s genealogical method is his conception of the will to power, and Nietzsche engages in a genealogy of morality that purports to reveal moral systems of both the master and slave type to be manifestations of the will to power of those who advocate them. Thus, Nietzsche would likely interpret Aristotle’s virtue ethics and political philosophy as a form of master morality. The Athens of Aristotle, after all, was supported by the labor of slaves and valued the aristocratic and intellectual virtues of leisure, contemplation, honor, greatness of soul, and so forth. Aristotle, being one of the well-born himself, simply deemed the traits of his social class — his kind — to be good and, by comparison, those of his social inferiors to be base.

Heidegger, on the other hand, identifies Nietzsche as the last of the metaphysicians, and his will to power as the last gasp of metaphysics. Cartesian subjectivity has in Nietzsche been reduced to the will to power and cut off from the world in its everydayness. Nietzsche’s overman is a radically free self-creator, and radically inauthentic and impoverished. Heidegger employs two hermeneutical techniques: the hermeneutics of everydayness and the hermeneutics of suspicion. The hermeneutics of everydayness seeks to disclose Being in man’s everyday experience. The hermeneutics of suspicion seeks to discover and strip away the metaphysical masks that philosophical thought hitherto and the limits of language place on Being. Like Voegelin’s transcendent and Patocka’s Idea, Being for Heidegger is prior to, above, and beyond familiar ontological categories and predicates. Levinas, in turn, criticized Heidegger for privileging ontology over ethics, or one might say at the expense of ethics, which Levinas argues led Heidegger to embrace national socialism, pagan religiosity, and antihumanism.

Geoffrey is an Aristotelian-Libertarian political philosopher, writer, editor, and web designer. He is the founder of the Libertarian Fiction Authors Association. His academic work has appeared in Libertarian Papers, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, the Journal of Value Inquiry, and Transformers and Philosophy. He lives in Greenville, NC.