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the theory and practice of interpretation. During the Reformation hermeneutics came into being as a special discipline concerned with biblical criticism. The Protestant theologian Friedrich SchleiermacherSchleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst
, 1768–1834, German Protestant theologian, b. Breslau. He broke away from the Moravian Church and studied at Halle. Ordained in 1794, he accepted a post as a Reformed preacher in Berlin.
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 expanded the discipline from one concerned with removing obstacles preventing readers from gaining the proper understanding of a text to one concerned in addition with analyzing the necessary conditions for readers coming to any understanding of a text. The philosopher Wilhelm DiltheyDilthey, Wilhelm
, 1833–1911, German philosopher. He taught at the universities of Basel, Kiel, Breslau, and Berlin. He was one of the first to claim the independence of the human sciences as distinct from the natural sciences.
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 expanded the discipline still further by conceiving of all of the human and social sciences as hermeneutical enterprises and trying to construct a method uniquely for them, instead of borrowing one from the natural sciences. In the 20th cent. hermeneutics has been developed by the philosophers Hans-Georg GadamerGadamer, Hans-Georg
, 1900–2002, German philosopher, b. Marburg. He taught at Kiel (1934–37), Marburg (1937–39), Leipzig (1939–74), and Frankfurt (1947–49) before becoming a professor at the Univ. of Heidelberg (1949–68).
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 and Paul Ricoeur.


See D. Hoy, The Critical Circle: Literature, History, and Philosophical Hermeneutics (1978); K. Mueller-Vollmer, ed., The Hermeneutics Reader (1985).


a theory and method of interpreting human action and artefacts. It derives from the term for interpreting biblical texts, a practice which involved detailed attempts to understand the ‘authentic’ version of the work. DILTHEY used the term (and also VERSTEHEN) to refer to the method of the ‘cultural sciences’, i.e. the subjects that forge ‘shared understandings’ between creator and interpreter. MANNHEIM made similar claims and enlarged upon the idea that the text could be seen as a document of a particular world view. GADAMER has attempted to validate his ‘phenomenological hermeneutics’ by invoking the idea of the hermeneutic circle, i.e. we can recognize and generalize a particular view only because we interpret instances of it, but can only understand a particular act or artefact with reference to the ‘world view’ that produced it. Gadamer argues that this process of validation is always provisional and never complete – our ‘truth’ can only ever be partial and must be subject to continual revision. Most recently hermeneutics has been developed by Ricoeur (1981), who has focused on its literary critical insights. He argues that the TEXT is in a key position as a mediator of tradition and uniqueness, and thus stands in a position of potential critique of both the world and the SELF. Similar possibilities have been opened up by HABERMAS with his ‘critical hermeneutics’ – an attempt to illustrate that any interpretation must take sides in a communication which is distorted by capitalist power relations.

Often criticized for its apparent celebration of RELATIVISM and SUBJECTIVITY, hermeneutics remains an approach that stimulates central debates within sociology. As Habermas points out, two features of hermeneutics have been vital:

  1. it reminds the social sciences of problems which arise from symbolic prestructuring of their subject matter; and
  2. it undermines simplistic, ‘objectivist’ understandings of the natural sciences (compare KUHN, FEYERABEND). see also FUSION OF HORIZONS. DOUBLE HERMENEUTIC.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Hermeneutics is the art and science of biblical interpretation. It is art because it calls for nuance and craft; science because it demands technique and skill. There are accepted academic rules to follow that protect students from falling into the subjective trap of saying, "It seems to me...."

The Bible was written within a contextual and social tradition. It is easy to buttress one's present-day prejudices with verses that, taken from their textual and historical context, really do not pertain to situations their authors could never have conceived. A consistent position guards against that very common problem.

As an illustration of the use of hermeneutics, consider the famous commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." That seems very straightforward and easy to understand. But we soon run into textual difficulties when we discover that the same God who delivered this commandment instructs his people, just a few pages later, to enter the Promised Land and kill all the Canaanites. If we consider the word "kill" used in the commandments to be the same word used in the instructions to kill Canaanites, we deduce a God who is either fickle or schizophrenic. To retain a consistent view of God we have to look at the context of the two commands. And when we do so, we discover that one is given within the framework of a social contract dealing with neighbors, family, and community (the Ten Commandments). The other order is issued within the context of national war and political conquest (the command to take the land promised to Abraham).

So perhaps it would be best to translate the commandment, "Thou shalt not murder," which has a slightly different meaning. If a contemporary soldier, one who wishes to live his or her life according to the Ten Commandments, goes into battle with the idea that killing the enemy involves breaking one of those commandments, he or she might never pull a trigger. Soldiers are, after all, trained to kill. But they are not trained to murder. And that is the difference.



exegesis, the study of the interpretation of texts, primarily ancient ones, whose original sense has been obscured by time or the badly preserved condition of the sources. The texts are deciphered through grammatical research of the language, the study of the form and of the historical context, the explication of allusions whose meaning has been obscured by time, and specific psychological research. In its application to the Bible, hermeneutics (Hermeneutica Sacra) seeks to discover the triple meaning of the text: the literal, the abstract and edifying, and the ideal and mystical. In addition to literature, hermeneutics is also used in music and law (the interpretation of laws). Hermeneutics is becoming obsolete and is being replaced by the broader method of interpretation, which also extends to recent literature.


Blass, F. Germenevtika i kritika. Odessa, 1891. (Translated from German.)
Gornfel’d, A. “O tolkovanii khudozhestvennogo proizvedenia.” Russkoe bogatstvo, 1912, no. 2.
Beliaeva-Ekzempliarskaia, S. N. “Muzykal’naia germenevtika.” Iskusstvo, 1927, book 4.
Schleirmacher, F. Hermeneutik und Kritik…. Berlin, 1833.



1. the science of interpretation, esp of Scripture
2. the branch of theology that deals with the principles and methodology of exegesis
3. Philosophy
a. the study and interpretation of human behaviour and social institutions
b. (in existentialist thought) discussion of the purpose of life
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