History Must Read Philosophy

What is Hermeneutics?

Hermeneutics is basically concerned with the interpretation of things. Jens Zimmerman in his introduction to Hermeneutics claims that this term originated somewhere in Ancient Greece. The word Hermeneutics is derived from the Greek word “Hermenneuein” and it was later on translated in Latin as in utterance, explanation, or Interpretation. Therefore, Hermeneutics is synonymous with interpretation.

Hermeneutics as a term has evolved tremendously with the passage of time. It was used by scholars who wanted to unravel how the divine messages were expressed in ancient times. Plato employed this term with regard to poets. This term was associated with the Greek messenger god, Hermes as well. In the contemporary era, the term Hermeneutics denotes and connotes two distinct things; an utterance or activity and a branch of philosophy in general and knowledge in particular.

Hermes, a messenger and interpreter between gods and men from Greek Mythology

In Layman’s language, activity refers to an effort at deciphering written or oral conversations. Furthermore, activity in Hermeneutics signifies the established rules for understanding text. When it comes to Hermeneutics as a branch of Philosophy one needs to dig deeper. A Hermeneutic philosopher beyond doubt concerns himself with the properly established rules for understanding texts but he just does not stop there. A Hermeneutic philosopher tries to study life in a holistic way as well.

Zimmerman amply bears out the fact that humans do not just first see the world and the objects around them and then associate meaning with them. Instead their understanding of the world and the objects that they perceive is per se dependent upon the A priori perceptive structure that they are endowed with. Our Culture, our tradition and our background play a significant role in our understanding of the reality.

Photographical depiction of Biblical Hermeneutics
Photographical depiction of Biblical Hermeneutics

The three central claims of Hermeneutics are as follows: Consciousness: the self is no island; Truth is an event and the importance of language. Thinkers in this field challenge the concept of disengaged self. They believe in the concept of “engaged self”. The evolution of modern consciousness has led us to believe that we are immune to the influence of other-selves. We tend to believe that our understanding of reality is based solely on our unbiased analysis. Hermeneutics puts emphasis on the fact that we live in an interconnected world and no man is an island. The universal emotions that we feel almost inevitably affect the way we perceive the world.

A book about Qur'anic Hermeneutics
A book about Qur’anic Hermeneutics

Hermeneutic thinkers opine that we are historical beings and we are shaped and molded by history. Unlike disengaged thinker who believes that we should curb our personal bias and beliefs in order to get closer to the truth, Hermeneutic thinkers believe that our past and tradition are interwoven into our reality and we cannot interpret the world around us without them.

Language according to the Hermeneutic thinkers is not simply a tool we use at our will instead; it is a medium within which our thoughts originate.

Also read: The Forgotten History and Legacy of Muslim Spain

There is a common misperception among the detractors of Hermeneutics that Hermeneutics inevitably leads towards relativism. It should be made abundantly clear that Hermeneutics is not synonymous with relativism. There is no denying the fact that Hermeneutic thinkers interpret the world in a subjective way but even scientists today believe that our understanding of the world is not based upon rigid facts; the role of intuition can never be undermined. To crown it all, Hermeneutics is quite similar to critical realism.

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