How do we escape our current viewpoint and see a piece of literature as its author intended? We can't: our views are always bound up with our present concerns, just as those concerns are themselves coloured by past traditions.

Hermeneutics began as the science of interpreting ancient documents, making a consistent picture when the parts themselves drew their meaning from the document as a whole, but has become important to Postmodernism and literature in general.


Though hermeneutics came to prominence with the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer, a pupil of Heidegger's, we need to go back to Schliermacher to understand its aims and methods. In the difficult task of deciphering ancient manuscripts, Friedrich Schliermacher (1768-1834) {1} came to realize that one needed to get beneath the plain understanding of a document and divine something of its author: his insights, prejudices, reasons for writing. In each part of the document the author was obviously represented. To make a fully-rounded character, each represented part had therefore to be assembled into an internally consistent whole, and this whole checked with the constituent parts — a continual adjustment and readjustment that constitutes the hermeneutic circle. Schliermacher suggested various approaches, but it fell to his admirer Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) {2} to offer more objective ways of doing this, and of interpreting the human sciences at large. Mindful of both Kant and Hegel's work, Dilthey first drew a line between science and the humanities. Science aimed to explain, and did so by recognizing laws exterior and indifferent to man: invariant, mathematical, ahistorical. The humanities aimed to understand, and retained what was relevant to the individual man: his life experiences, affections, character, social and historical setting.

How could such understanding be objective, or at least methodical? The matter came to a head with Carl Hempel's 1942 article: The Function of General Laws in History. {3} True to its Logical Positivist spirit, Hempel's article denied Dilthey's distinction and argued that causal laws should operate in history, i.e. deep in enemy territory. Professional historians {4} were quick to point out the difficulties, theoretical and practical, but the notion persisted that understanding in the humanities (and this included aesthetics and sociology) must be causal if it was to be more than fanciful reconstruction.

Analytical Hermeneutics

Now it is perfectly possible to construct a logic to span the two worlds of scientific explanation and cultural understanding, at least in limited areas like historical or sociological explanation. Georg Henrik von Wright's logic of action {5} (not to be confused with his deontic logic) employs cause and effect and distinguishes sufficient from necessary conditions. The logic, set out in Explanations and Understanding (1971) and Causality and Determinism (1974), is quite straightforward: a two-valued propositional logic with tense modifiers. A sufficient condition means that p will be followed by q. A necessary condition means that q has been proceeded by p. This simple expedient (the sufficient is not the necessary turned around, and one does not imply the other) eliminates the need for overarching historical laws, which are unwieldy and probably unworkable. Sufficient conditions tell us something is bound to happen. Necessary conditions tell us how an event is possible. Beneath events lies this logic, latent as it were, ready to operate when opportunity arises. The Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated at Sarajevo. Austria issues an ultimatum. Serbia hesitates. Russia feels threatened and starts mobilizing. Strengthened by the expectation of Russian support, Serbia defies the ultimatum. Encouraged by Germany, Austria declares war on Serbia. The First World War starts. Unforeseen developments satisfy the necessary conditions and push events in directions not covered by the sufficient conditions.

Von Wright's logic does not legislate for all areas of action. But nor is it psychological, depending on intuitions of correctness. That understanding is a form of life, and a social form of life at that, an so the essence of another logic. In his 1958 book Idea of a Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy, Peter Winch {6} proposed a logic that rises out of and is made intelligible by society. After all, Winch argues, understanding other people is not based on sympathy but on knowledge and expectations — on rules, in short, which the sociologist attempts to understand and assess. Of course we do not generally think of logic in this way, nor recognize a "grammar of societies", but that is our shortcoming, a cultural limitation of our Anglo-Saxon thought patterns.

Hans-Georg Gadamer

Though von Wright and Winch do fashion a bridge between continental and Anglo-American analytical philosophies, fundamental differences remain. Generally the analytical schools describe where the continentals prescribe, i.e. remain academic where the continentals embrace social causes. Differing schools of philosophy represent for Anglo-Americans just different choices in the starting presuppositions, about which nothing can be done: the reason cannot be "grounded" further. In contrast, the continentals do wish to ground their philosophies further — in language and the continuance of the historical past (Gadamer) or labour and shared expression (Habermas) or cultural artifacts and shared ways of understanding (Ricouer). {7}

Gadamer, {8} for instance, takes issue with the prevailing Enlightenment view that man would live happily and at peace if old prejudices and superstitions were swept away. Inevitably, if only in part, we live on our historical inheritance, in a dialogue between the old traditions and present needs. And there is no simple way to assess that inheritance except by trial and error: praxis: living out its precepts and their possible reshapings. Rationality of the scientific or propositional kind is something we should be wary of. It evades what seems to Gadamer important: our direct apperception of reality, the "truth that finds us". But if the flow of existence is a continuing disclosure of meanings, {9} how are we to recognize these meanings and know they are correct?

Gadamer asks us to think of the law courts, where rulings represent not rubber-stamped social conventions but a process of continuing refinement and modification as the old rulings meet difficulties — the hermeneutic adjustment between particular and general. Validity comes from a communality of practice and purposes, not by reference to abstract theory. Similar considerations apply to aesthetics, a field notoriously resistant to objective approaches. Artworks are not only bearers of the self-image and moral dimensions of the society that produces them, but a product of the resistance exerted by the individual circumstances of creation to wider truths. And these wider truths are the truths inherent in society, what it lives by, explicitly or not. The natural world may be beautiful, as Kant acknowledged, but an artwork includes the play of the mental faculties of the artist concerned, its own kind of truth, therefore, which Kant did not acknowledge.

Experience, said Dilthey, involves immediacy and totality. Immediacy gives meaning without ratiocination. Totality requires the meanings have sufficient weight and significance to unify the myriad moments of a person's life. {10} Dilthey was talking about historical experience, but both factors apply to artworks. In place of Kant's appeal to the synthesizing role of individual judgement, Dilthey appealed through individual creations to concerns of the community at large, even if these concerns were to be verified by the narrow procedures of the natural sciences. Gadamer urges a wider concept of verification, for which he turns to games. Games have autonomy: they absorb the players, and have rules and a structures of their own. Art similarly absorbs both artist and viewer. Also like games, art does not permit unlimited free expression. The "right" representation has to be respected — "right" for the medium, and also representing something lasting and true, self-verifying though not self-evident, perduring through the changing circumstances of a man's life, showing itself in continually being re-experienced. "Right" does not come about through pouring effort into a certain conception of art, nor in slavishly following certain rules, but something which emerges in the hermeneutical struggle of artistic creation, the continual adjustment and readjustment of concept with medium, and of individual view with the wider social truths. {11}

Artworks, like historical documents, are creations of a certain time and place. As such, they are replete with the presuppositions (the prejudices as Gadamer calls them) of those circumstances. How can we filter out these prejudices, and ensure we do not replace them with prejudices of our own? We cannot, says Gadamer. We must allow the two sets of prejudices to confront each other, when we shall find a meaning is disclosed that often goes beyond what the originator of the artwork intended. Doubtless there will be ambiguities, inconsistencies, particularly with a major thinker. But these hermeneutic adjustments — of our own presuppositions with those of the author or artist — are unavoidable, and indeed essential. They make interpretation and appreciation an ongoing act of understanding, a enlargement of ourselves through a fusing of horizons.

Like Heidegger, Gadamer sees language as the house of Being. He is also pleased with Wittgenstein's picture of language as social games. Through playing (i.e. using language) we acquire an understanding of the world. And that applies to any language. It is the learning process which is important: it mimics and provides an exemplar for human experience. And whereas Habermas sees language as a sedimented ideology, full of undisclosed corruptions and prejudices that analysis must bring to light, Gadamer finds these corruptions and prejudices as constitutive of understanding. There is no language free of them. Nor can we get outside language to some purer mode of understanding. No doubt words mirror objects imperfectly, but it is on their multiple reflecting surfaces that truth become visible. {12}

Jürgen Habermas

It was the review by Jürgen Habermas (born 1929) of Gadamer's Truth and Meaning, and the extended debate which followed, which brought hermeneutics to widespread notice. The two thinkers have much in common, but Habermas was a Marxist colleague of Adorno at Frankfurt, and saw tradition as a distortion of the human spirit. He stressed the liberating function of communication far more than Gadamer would allow, and has been tireless in freeing Marxism from Stalinist corruption, and in battling against the nihilism of Poststructuralism. {13}

Though the Frankfurt school has traditionally been empiricist, Habermas criticized the rationality of mathematics and science as effectively placing judgement in the hands of specialists, an undemocratic procedure. Man is entitled to his freedoms — from material want, from social exclusion, and from perversions that alienate him from himself {14} Thus his interest in Marxism, not to justify Marxist prophecies, but to rationalize and update Marx's criticisms of societies that force men to act contrary to their better natures. Labour is not simply a component of production, but how men are forced to live. Class ideologies that reduce liberties are perversions of language which we need to exhume and examine.

Habermas has profited from his reading of C.S. Pierce and Dilthey. But for all their stress on the communicative function of language, Pierce adopted semiotics and Dilthey a scientific rationalism. Habermas initially grounded language in psychoanalysis, {15} as this was the most primitive and least mechanistic of possibilities. Subsequently (and Habermas has always shown an admirable courage in changing his mind) he adopted a linguistic model similar to, but more fundamental than, Chomskian language competence. {16} What the model attempts is to show that truth, justice and freedom are interwoven at a fundamental level in language.

Or can be. There are many prejudices (e.g. anti-semitism) which issue in obvious absurdities that experience corrects. But there are also distortions of language that are not falsifiable by demonstration, woven so deep that experience is imperceptibly coloured by them. How can language so tainted cleanse itself? Habermas has developed psychological suggestions of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg that man has levels of cognitive and moral development latent within him, which wait for the right environment for their activation. {17}

Ultimately, truth cannot be grounded in evidence, but in consensus, though the two draw together in Habermas's "ideal speech situation". Here the participants are won over by force of argument, not by internal distortions of language or external pressures. Contrary to the Poststructuralists, Habermas believes that its very claim to universality allows "truth" to escape charges of repression and paranoia. We cannot entirely eliminate distortions of language, but we can be aware of them, which is sufficient.

Hermeneutics and Literary Interpretation

Not so, argues Albrecht Wellmer. Habermas's "future logos of final and absolute truth" is unattainable, clearly in practice, but also in theory if (as it must be) communication is between people with slightly different viewpoints. {18} Though cultural objects are shared ways in which a community understands itself, communities change. How do we arrive at a proper interpretation of objects from past civilizations. Gadamer, according to the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, does not explain. All things are relative: no one interpretation is to be preferred over another. {19} Habermas is more concerned with method, but doesn't bring praxis and theory together, and is therefore far from achieving Husserl's hope for a rigorous science. Ricoeur's suggestion would be to search the text itself for the complex relationship between explaining and understanding.

Intention is central to Roman Ingarden's concept of the literary work {20}, because texts preserve the acts of consciousness on the part of their writer, which are then reanimated in various ways by the reader. One can distinguish four levels in a text {21} — word sounds, meaning units, perspectives controlling states of affair, and represented objectivities. Particularly prevalent in the last two levels are gaps or indeterminacies, which the reader fills with his own creations. But such gaps are not filled in an uncontrolled fashion, argues Wolgang Iser {22}, but through a process of retrospection and anticipation that can overturn the text's "prestructure", the coding of the reader's usual habits and expectations. Reading indeed is a variable, complex business, which accepts the disruptions and dissonances to be expected in a modernist work. Hans Robert Jauss {23} stresses change. Since we absorb a work only when we enlarge the horizon of our understanding, the accepted canons of literature that no longer shock and challenge may not be relevant. Meaning emerges in interaction between text and readers, often in societies very different from the writer's expectations, and so largely out of his control.

This and other pages in the theory section have been collected into a free pdf ebook entitled 'A Background to Literary Theory'. Click here for the download page.


1. pp. 1-3 and 8-10 in Roy Howard's Three Faces of Hermeneutics (1982).
2. pp. 8-23 in Howard 1982.
3. pp. 23-9 in Howard 1982. Also Carl Hempel's The Function of General Laws in History (1949).
4. William Dray's Laws and Explanation in History (1957).
5. pp. 35-72 in Howard 1982. Also G.H. von Wright's Explanation and Understanding (1971) and Causality and Determinism (1974).
6. pp. 72-85 in Howard 1982. Also Peter Winch's The Idea of Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy (1958) and Ethics and Action (1972).
7. P. Armstrong's Philosophical Backgrounds and Literary Theories (1996), Chapters 2 and 3 of Howard 1982, and Chapter 12 of Teichman and White 1995.
8. Chapter 3 of Howard and Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method (1975).
9. p. 132-53, ibid.
10. p. 139, ibid.
11. pp. 135-53, ibid.
12. pp. 153-160, ibid.
13. Nicholas Davey's Jürgen Habermas in Teichman and White 1995.
14. p. 96 in Howard 1982.
15. p. 109, ibid. Also Jürgen Habermas's Knowledge and Human Interests (1968).
16. p. 115 in Howard 1982. Also David Couzens Hoy and Thomas McCarthy's Critical Theory (1994) and Jürgen Habermas's Towards a Theory of Communicative Competence (1970).
17. Jürgen Habermas's Theory and Practice (1973).
18. pp. 221-5 in Peter Dew's Logics of Disintegration: Post-structuralist Thought and the Claims of Critical Theory (1987).
19. Charles Reagan and David Steward's The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of his Work. (1978). Also Eric Hirsch's The Aims of Interpretation. (1978).
20. Roman Ingarten's The Literary Work of Art. 1931. Trans. George G. Grabowicz. (1973).
21. Armstrong 1996.
22. Wolgang Iser's The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. 1978.
23. Hans Robert Jauss's Towards an Aesthetic of Reception. Trans. Timothy Bahti. (1982).

Internet Resources

1. A Brief History of Literary Movements. Chris Lang. Jan. 2004. http://www.xenos.org/essays/litthry3.htm. Essay touching upon Gadamer and hermenuetics.
2. Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher. Michael Forster. Apr. 2002. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/schleiermacher/. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry.
3. Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). Garth Kemerling. Aug. 2002. http://www.philosophypages.com/ph/peir.htm. Introduction and good links.
4. Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). Eugene Halton. 1992. http://www.nd.edu/~ehalton/Peirce.htm. Brief outline of His philosophy with some relations to linguistics.
5. Wilhelm Dilthey. http://www.erraticimpact.com/ ~19thcentury/html/dilthey.htm. Short articles and lists.
6. William Dilthey. Brent Dean Robbins. http://www.mythosandlogos.com/Dilthey.html. A short collection of links.
7. Wilhelm Dilthey: Introduction to the Human Sciences. 1883. http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/
. Online text of the first few dozen pages.
8. Carl Gustav Hempel (1905-1997). Mauro Murzi. 2001. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/h/hempel.htm. Technical article in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
9. Georg Henrik von Wright. Dec. 2003. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
. Short note but more links.
10. Georg Henrik von Wright. Juhani Kerkkonen. Nov. 2003. http://www.kolumbus.fi/jukerk/wright.htm. Note and bibliography.
11. Hans-Georg Gadamer. Jeff Malpas. Mar. 2003. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/gadamer/. A detailed Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, with good bibliography but few links.
12. Jürgen Habermas. Dec. 2003. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jurgen_Habermas. Wikipedia article with good links.
13. The Jürgen Habermas Web Resource. Steve Robinson. http://www.msu.edu/user/robins11/habermas/main.html. Introduction: brief article and links.
14. Jean Piaget resources. Sep. 2003. http://www.piaget.org/links.html. Good listing on Jean Piaget Society site.
15. Dialectics at a Standstill: A Methodological Inquiry Into the Philosophy of Theodor W. Adorno. Stephen Bronner. http://www.uta.edu/huma/illuminations/bron2.htm. Essay on Adorno's aesthetics, noting Wellmer's objections.
16. Paul Ricouer. Bernard Dauenhauer. Nov. 2002. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ricoeur/. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, with good bibliography.
17. Roman Ingarten. Amie Thomasson. Jun. 2003. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ingarden/. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, with bibliography and links.
18. From Iser to Turner and beyond: Reception theory meets cognitive criticism. Craig A. Hamilton and Ralf Schneider. 2002. http://www.findarticles.com/cf_dls/m2342/4_36/ 98167917/p1/article.jhtml. Extended review.