What follows is a and philology and philosophy-oriented essay I wrote several years ago on translational hermeneutics. Despite its theoretical approach, I believe there are some insights that can help any language professional in the praxis, as well.
Hermeneutics is the study of the principles and procedures underlying the activity of interpretation. Nevertheless, the term was first used in the fields of protestant theology, classical philology and philosophy as the interpretation of the spiritual truth contained in the Bible. Its meaning began to change from the second half of the 18th century. Many scholars claim, in fact, that hermeneutics as a discipline didn’t begin until the Enlightenment. Among the first writers during this period was Chladenius, who proposed a systematic exposition of hermeneutic theory. However, not until Friedrich Schleiermacher do we find a thinker reflective on the problematic nature of hermeneutics.
In this essay the relevant position of Chladenius and Schleiermacher will be examined and, where possible, compared. In this analysis of their hermeneutical contribution, particular emphasis will be given to the role played, according to each of them, by the individual, history and language in order to reach a precise and complete interpretation of a text.
In 1742 Johann Martin Chladenius’ book Einleitung zur richtigen Auslegung vernünftiger Reden und Schriften [Introduction to the Correct Interpretation of Reasonable Discourses and Writings] is published and has a huge influence on the history of interpretive sciences. What the German historian and theologian proposes in his book is the first explicit clarification of the epistemological and logical problems of hermeneutics. In plainer words, he proposes a systematic philosophical theory of understanding and method by means of which the process of interpretation should proceed. At stake is not really a historical methodology, but rather a didactic and cognitively-oriented procedure of interpretation. As a consequence, hermeneutics should be meant as the art of interpreting and not be confused with philosophy, which does not deal with the interpretation of clauses, but rather with their pretention to truth.
In order to understand his position, it is worth noticing the word “reasonable” in the title of the above-mentioned book. For Chladenius, reason –in the modern sense of the word, namely related to the human mind, and not as Aquinas understood it, that is to say related to the mind of God– lies at the heart of every proper interpretive investigation.
For Chladenius, the aim of a text, and the act of reading that it requires and causes, is complete understanding. He regards this correct comprehension of a text as a sort of logical algorithm, a method applicable by anyone. His premise consists in distinguishing understanding (Verstehen) from interpreting (Auslegen). While the former is the rational and psychological ability of the reader to comprehend a text, the latter is a task that follows specific rules and, therefore, needs to be learned.
In order to figure out what, at first, might look strange or unbelievable we ought to have a reasonable mind, some common sense, so that we can identify the point of view from which the problematic text or statement is brought forth. In addition to these first tools, it is necessary to be wary readers or, using Descartes’ famous statement, “One should doubt all things at least once.” What he somehow suggests is a “suspension of belief” –changing the well-known Coleridgean expression– in order to avoid every possible bias or mistake. This is because he recognises that there is something subjective in every act of comprehension, which cannot be otherwise.
According to Chladenius, there is no special problem in understanding the author’s immediate sense. Provided that he writes what he means and that the author and the reader share the same language, the latter can understand the author’s meaning. “There is, however, a serious problem of matching author’s intention and reader’s interpretation in the case of the mediated senses.” (Beiser, 2011).
This individual factor of the author’s point of view is a key principle in Chladenius’ work and its denomination in German and its translation in English being Sehepunkt and viewpoint, respectively. Chladenius describes the concept as follows:
“Derjenigen Umstände unserer Seele, unseres Leibes und unserer ganzen Person, welche machen oder Ursache sind, dass wir uns eine Sache so und nicht anders vorstellen, wollen wir den SEHEPUNKT nennen.” (par. 309)
[We shall designate the term viewpoint to refer to those conditions governed by our mind, body, and entire person, which make or cause to conceive of something in one way and not in another.]
There is no doubt, then, that people perceive what happens in the world differently. And, quoting again Chladenius’ own words,
“Die Ursache dieser Verschiedenheit ist teils in dem Ort und der Stellung unseres Leibes, die bei jedem verschieden ist, teils in der verschiedenen Verbindung, die wir mit den Sachen haben, teils in unserer vorhergehenden Art zu gedenken, zu suchen, vermöge welcher dieser auf das, der andere auf jenes Achtung zu geben sich angewöhnt hat.” (par. 308)
[The cause of the difference is due partly to the place and positioning of our body, which differs with everyone; partly to various associations with the subjects and partly to individual differences in selecting objects to attend to.]
Moreover, Chladenius is convinced that we judge the nature of a thing according to the concept we have of it. Whatever disagrees with our perception must, in our opinion, also disagree with the nature of the object itself. In other words, we naively believe that our idea of the object and the object itself perfectly match.
What keeps the individual component from expanding and taking over the entire process of comprehension in Chladenius’ system, though, is:
“his division of ‘complete understanding’ into a straightforward sense and mediated sense, whereby the ‘straightforward sense’ is removed from the influence of the reader’s or interpreter’s subjectivity and historicity.” (Szondi, 1995).
The safest path for a good interpretation is to examine all the different viewpoints and inquire about all the details concerning time and place, provided that the event really took place. As Chladenius concludes,
“denn so wird man, vielleicht von ungefähr, auf diejenigen Umstände kommen, deren Erkenntnis die ganze Sache begreiflich und glaubhaft macht.” (par. 325)
[subsequently, one can generally arrive, in this manner, at a knowledge of those details which will make the entire matter comprehensible and plausible.]
But what role do history and language play in Chladenius’ hermeneutics? The German theologian and historian came to the idea of this “new science”, one that would lay down rules for “investigating historical truth as logic set up as set of rules for determining universal truth” (Beiser, 2011). We can define such a new science as historical hermeneutics. As Chladenius explicitly states, then, “even the proper meaning (eigentliche Bedeutung; significatio propria) of a word changes over time” or, using the words of Beiser:
“It would seem that each new age, each new generation gives a different perspective on history, so that there is not one and the same truth over the ages.” (Beiser, 2011)
In his writing Chladenius indeed stresses that change of meaning is one of the main sources of difficulty in interpreting ancient writings. If we are not sensitive to how a word changes meaning, he warns, we find ancient texts incomprehensible. Far from ignoring context, Chladenius emphasises that the meaning of speech depends on its specific situation –i.e. where, when and why something is said, who says it and to whom–. Another fundamental reason why understanding ancient texts is so difficult, Chaldenius insists, is due to the loss of context and, in particular: “Not years but changes in concepts, morals and costumes make a speech old and incomprehensible.” (par. 39)
As far as the role of language is concerned, he also points out: “One understands a speech or a writing completely, when one thinks that the words, according to reason and its rules, can simulate as thoughts in our souls.” (par. 155) That is to say that we can really get the meaning of those thoughts permitted by our grammar and vocabulary.
A very interesting “warning” is the one of distinguishing the meaning of the author and the meaning of the text. In fact, as Chladenius suggests, there may be sometimes a little discrepancy between the author’s intentions and the meaning of his words. He underlines, though, that the ideal and complete interpretation of a text is the one that fully agrees with the author’s purpose.
Only in the final paragraphs does Chladenius address the crucial question of how we can achieve certainty concerning our interpretation. We should have doubt of that certainty, he admits, given the fact that interpretations are often very different. Nonetheless, a correct interpretation ultimately rests, Chladenius argues, on the nature of language itself. “Since words are signs for thoughts, people who use the same signs should have the same thoughts.” (par. 741) If author and reader share the same language, they also share the same thoughts in using the same signs. Even if the author makes a particular use of the language –he has his own speech, according to the definition given by Saussure–, the reader can still understand it since language is rule-governed.
Hermeneutics reaches a new stage thanks to the contribution of the German theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher, a part of the early Romantic Movement in Germany. It is even possible to state that modern hermeneutics begins with him. In fact, he investigates the nature of understanding in relation not only to the problem of deciphering sacred texts, but to all human texts and modes of communication. Schleiermacher’s thought is an advance on Chladenius. This is due to the fact that rather than regarding hermeneutics as a mere form of decoding or means of clearing up the obstacles to understanding, he sees it as a means of demonstrating the necessary conditions for the possibility of comprehension.
Scholars, however, differ on defining Schleiermacher’s exact position. In the view of both Linge and Gadamer, Schleiermacher’s notion of hermeneutics is “scientistic and psychologistic”.
“For Schleiermacher, […] what the text really means […] must be recovered by a disciplined reconstruction of the historical situation or life-context in which it originated. […] Understanding is essentially a self-transposition or imaginative projection whereby the knower negates the temporal distance that separates him from his object and becomes contemporaneous with it.” (Gadamer 1977)
In plainer words, a good interpreter is able to “identify himself with the text” by eliminating all the “subjective” elements of the interpreter’s historical situation and, instead, taking on the historical elements of the text’s environment.
Nonetheless, others perceive Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics differently, arguing that he combines a structural and phenomenological viewpoint (Mueller-Vollmer 1985).
Something scholars do agree on, though, is that Schleiermacher, unlike Chladenius, does not distinguish between understanding and interpretation. He simply makes vague claims about whether understanding and interpretation are separate activities, or whether any act of understanding is always already an interpretation (Alford 2011). Yet, Schleiermacher also states that every problem of interpretation is a problem of understanding. Therefore, he concludes that hermeneutics can be regarded as the art of understanding the meaning of discourse, or, which is the same, as the art of avoiding misunderstandings.
Examples of misunderstandings are indeterminacy, biases or ambiguity in the meaning of words, contradictoriness or inconsistency in their usage, as well as inattentiveness to the setting or context in which they are used. Misinterpretations, then, may be either quantitative (formal) in case they produce a misunderstanding of the principles upon which the discourse is developed, or qualitative (material) if they cause misunderstanding of its content. Schleiermacher’s solution for a correct interpretation must be seen in light of the overall organisation of his work.
There is an important bond, he admits, between the art of speaking and understanding. With regards to it, he claims that,
“Reden ist aber nur die äußere Seite des Denkens […]. Das Reden ist die Vermittlung für die Gemeinschaflichkeit des Denkens.” (par. 3 – 4)
[Speaking, though, is just the external part of thinking (…). Speaking is the mediation for the communality of thinking.]
At the same time, he regards thinking as “an inner speaking”. Thoughts become clearer thanks to speaking, since “a speech is only the result of what has become a thought.” (par. 4 a) “There is no thought without words” (par. 4 i) and this proves the unity of language and thinking.
Since the speech has a double “existence” –the first in the totality of language and the second in the general thinking of its author–, Schleiermacher’s concept of interpretation would also consist in assembling two planes of experience: understanding as an expression of the text’s relation to the language system of which it is a part, and understanding as part of the speaker’s intentional activity (par. 5). “A self-conscious combining of these two planes in an interpretive act would result in a true understanding of the text.” (Mueller-Vollmer 1985)
Up to a certain extent, such a distinction may remind of the Saussurean one of language (langue) and speech (parole), especially when Schleiermacher states:
“Jeder Mensch ist auf der einen Seiten ein Ort, in welchem sich eine gegebene Sprache auf eine eigentümliche Weise gestaltet, und seine Rede ist nur zu verstehen aus der Totalität der Sprache.” (par. 5 n. 3)
[A person is, therefore, a place where a given language is peculiarly shaped and his/her speech must be understood in the totality of the language.]
As far as the role played by history is concerned, before the proper interpretation of a text can even begin, the interpreter must acquire a good knowledge of the text’s historical context. This aspect, though, is not as central in Schleiermacher as it is in Chladenius.
As a matter of fact, the main contribution of Schleiermacher to hermeneutics is his claim that understanding consists of two different and yet inseparable aspects, that is to say, of a grammatical and a psychological (or technical) interpretation.
On the one hand, in grammatical interpretation a text or mode of expression is analysed in terms of its language, i.e., in terms of dialect, sentence structure, literary form, etc. Consequently, this kind of interpretation is used to identify the precise meaning of linguistic terms, as well as to clarify the difference (or opposition) between their literal and metaphorical meaning, and between their particular and general one. It can also shed light on the qualitative difference in the manner of connection between sentences (or between their elements), as well as on the quantitative difference in the degree of connection between sentences (or, again, between their elements).
On the other, in psychological interpretation a text or mode of expression is analysed as part of the author’s life history. In other words, the task carried out by psychological interpretation identifying the core decision or basic motivation that led the author to write. Its aim, as Chladenius puts it, is “the utter understanding of the style”, which can only be reached through approximation.
Grammatical and psychological elements are always combined in discourse, which, in fact, is never purely grammatical or psychological. The elements of discourse are never purely objective or subjective. Thus, hermeneutics and criticism are concerned with understanding the similarities and differences, which may occur between these objective and subjective elements.
Furthermore, grammatical and psychological interpretation, Schleiermacher stresses, are equal to each other because each of them can presuppose the other. The correct way to deal with them is to carry out the two tasks independently so that none of the two parts can influence the results of the other. According to Schleiermacher, successful practice of the art of interpretation does indeed require an understanding of both the grammatical and psychological elements of discourse. In addition, the entire interpretive task may occur by means of either a divinatory or a comparative method.
Schleiermacher regards the last one as prevailing over the linguistic side of interpretation. It is achievable, so to speak, by subsuming the author under a general type or, by also comparing his statements with statements, which might be considered as universal. We may even recall again the Saussurean distinction of langue and parole to describe what this method is about: the author’s idiolect, his speech, is examined in the light of and contrasted with the entire system of language.
The divinatory method, instead, prevailing in the psychological side of interpretation, is a process of tentative and fallible hypothesis based on – but also going well beyond – available empirical evidence (the etymology to keep in mind here is not the Latin divinus but the French deviner, to guess or conjecture). Schleiermacher explains that in his process of divination –the most questioned by scholars– the interpreter “transforms himself, so to speak, into the other and seeks to understand the individual immediately.” (par. 6 a) To paraphrase his words, the interpreter identifies oneself with the author, whose work is being studied, imaginatively relives the experiences and thoughts that engendered the work and thereby acquires a direct and total knowledge of the individual creation in question. Finally, this method is what makes hermeneutics an art.
This concept –especially as far as this “mystical” component is concerned– is clearly different in Chladenius, who, on the contrary, tries to offer a rule-governed method, an algorithm, as scientific as possible. Nevertheless, both of them find essential for the interpreter to understand this psychological component (Chladenius’ viewpoint) in order to reach a complete comprehension, even though, as already mentioned, their methods to achieve it differ significantly.
A final worth-mentioning aspect regarding Schleiermacher is his holism: the ideal interpretation is, in its nature, a holistic activity. This implies that any given element needs to be interpreted in the light of the whole text to which it belongs, of the broader language in which it is written, of the historical context and a pre-existing genre, as well as the author’s whole corpus and overall psychology.
- Alford, Steven E. Hermeneutics and Postmodernism. 16 February 2006. 24 January 2012 <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/schleiermacher/>.
- Beiser, Friederick C. The German historicist tradition. Oxford University Press, 2011.
- Chladenius, Johann Martin. Einleitung zur richtigen Auslegung vernünftiger Reden und Schriften. Leipzig, 1742.
- Gadamer, H. G. Truth and Method. New York, 1982.
- Mueller-Vollmer. The hermeneutics reader. 1985.
- Oesch, Erna. Searching for traces in the labyrinth of meaning . 17 June 2007. 26 January 2012 <http://uta-fi.academia.edu/ErnaOesch/Papers/534340/Searching_for_traces_in_the_labyrinth_of_meaning>.
- Schleiermacher, Friedrich. Hermeneutics and Criticism, And Other Writings. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
- Scott, Alex. Schleiermacher’s Hermeneutics and Criticism. 25 March 2003. 26 January 2012 <http://www.angelfire.com/md2/timewarp/schleiermacher.html>.
- Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher. 17 April 2002. 27 January 2012 <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/schleiermacher/>.
- Szondi, Peter. Introduction to literary hermeneutics. Cambridge University Press, 1995.