PHI 347: Hermeneutics and Deconstruction John C. Zvokel


                                                Protocol of Sept. 1st Class (1st Meeting)


                                                Notes on Course Requirements:

What Prof. Silverman expects from protocols: an account of what went on , what was discussed in the class the previous time – key themes that were presented and discussed, re-presented in an intelligent way. E-mail it to him (preferably via html/webpage format) or give him a disk with protocol on it. The day you select is the day you take notes on; then you type it up and present it the following week.

Paper assignment: OPTION: Take a text – a painting, poem, film – and, for the first of your three papers, read it hermeneutically (as Heidegger would); then, for the second paper, write on how Derrida would respond to your Heideggerian/hermeneutic reading; finally, write the third paper as Derrida would read and comment on this same text. OR, ALTERNATIVELY: Take a thematic and trace it through three stages according to: Heidegger, Derrida/Heidegger, Derrida.

                                                        Opening Remarks:

Consider bridges, and the relationship between the circumference/periphery and the center of anything. (Cf. Silverman’s passage in Textualities on Stony Brook’s “Bridge to Nowhere.”)

Most philosophies focus on essences, centers, cores, whereas deconstruction focuses on marginalities, minorities, being on the outside.


                                                  Introduction to Hermeneutics

What is hermeneutics? Why do a course on hermeneutics and deconstruction?


Historical Background.

The 19th- and 20th-century philosophical scene came out of two traditions: British Empiricism and Continental Rationalism. In the 19th century, the British Isles and the Continent were divergent; there was a dichotomy between these two major modes of thought.

 British philosophy descended from Empiricism, the Empiricist tradition, according to which knowledge is derived from experience, from sense data – e.g., Locked, Hobbes, and Hume were proponents of this type of thought. This tradition was set off from Rationalism, according to which what we know, we know by having ideas about things. Knowledge is mind-generated and not derived from sensory experiences, which can and do confuse us. Rationalists such as Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz felt that using our reason was more reliable than trying to derive knowledge from sensory observation. Examples they typically cited in support of this view that our senses are unreliable: A tower looks round from a distance but up close it’s seen to have square edges; a spoon in water looks crooked (when we know in fact it’s not). Descartes felt that “clear and distinct ideas” are the only things we can know for certain. We know that 1 + 1 = 2 not from sensory experience but a priori, through our reason, independently of empirical data, and we should model our knowledge on this type of rational, mathematical certainty. Descartes’ Meditations begins by doubting everything (universal, methodological doubt) and concludes, finally, that because I cannot doubt that I’m doubting, there is one thing indubitable and certain – namely, that I am thinking (in the form of doubting); and that therefore there must be a thinking thing (res cogitans), and that, indeed, I am that thinking thing. This is all based on reason.

In the late 18th century, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), writing in Konisgsberg, East Prussia (then part of Germany), wrote three critiques: Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason, and Critique of Judgment. Kant thought that we could use both reason and experience, that we could rely on reason and experience, not merely one or the other – both empirical data and the “I think.” Knowledge was for him a combination of the two. The thinking self with its rational cognitive structure orders sensory experience according to its built-in conceptual schematization: both “sensibility” and “understanding” are necessary, for Kant, for us to have valid cognitions (knowledge – Erkentnisse in German). This idea is an Enlightenment – Aufklarung – notion, that reason as well as sensory experience (derived from outside world) form our knowledge. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason articulates a notion of reason according to which we can talk about metaphysics – e.g., issues of God (e.g., proofs of God’s existence), freedom (are we free or determined?), and the immortality of the soul. We don’t have empirical or rational knowledge of these, but if we use our reason in a certain way (i.e. “Critically”) then we can establish the limits to what we can know and at least talk about these issues in a valid way without necessarily cognizing them in themselves or having rational demonstrations or deductions concerning them.

In the early 19th century, soon after Kant and under his influence, another German thinker, G.W.F. Hegel, conceived of knowing in terms of Geist – “Spirit” or “Mind” – and propounded the grandiose (and totalizing) notion that knowledge/reason can encompass experience. He thought that “the real is the rational and the rational is the real,” and that the rational was located in the thinking spirit or mind. He thought we can, by beginning from sensory experience – then moving to consciousness of sensory experience then to self-consciousness – eventually get to Absolute Knowledge (in terms of Geist - mind, spirit). Hegel represented German Romanticism and Idealism. So did Holderlin, a German poet who was roughly a contemporary of Hegel and who would later provide a source of fascination for Martin Heidegger.

Karl Marx used this dialectical method of Hegel’s but inverted it, turned it on its head, so that the foundation was not spirit or mind but material forces. Marx used Hegel’s dialectical method to talk about political economy, because he felt political and economic issues were not covered adequately by Hegel. Marx re-thinks Hegelian philosophy and “inverts” it. This inversion of the Hegelian philosophy became the basis of Communism.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), another 19th-century German writer (trained in philology) was another source of fascination and inspiration for Martin Heidegger, who did a series of lectures in 1939 (published in book form and simply called Nietzsche ). Nietzsche lends himself to various readings (Derrida will have a different reading, for example), and his first book, the 1872 book The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music got ideas from German thinker Arthur Schopenhauer.

Schopenhauer thought of the world as will and representation (or idea). His main work is entitled The World as Will and Representation (or “. . . as Will and Idea,” ‘Vorstellung’ being the German word for “representation” [ which was a key term for Kant, who influenced Schopenhauer, though better translated as “presentation” in the Kantian context], alternatively translated “idea”). Schopenhauer saw the world as a representation or idea combined with will. So Schopenhauer’s view was similar to Hegel’s except that he added will to the equation. This would influence Nietzsche, who would use the concept of will in his own way.

Another 19th-century figure mentioned is Danish Protestant theologian/philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, a foundational figure of the Existentialist movement, who was roughly contemporary with Nietzsche. In 1964 Heidegger gave lectures on Kierkegaard called “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking.” The word for ‘thinking’ in German is ‘Denken’, a very important word for Heidegger.


                                                        * * * * *


So the stage was thus set for the emergence of hermeneutics. These were the traditions and modes of thought that provided the backdrop for its advent.



The Emergence of Hermeneutics.


At the end of the 19th century there were two major, foundational figures in this discipline: Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey.




Schleiermacher was interested in Biblical studies and observed that all of Christian Biblical studies up to that time was focused primarily on exegesis, that is, on the strict reading of the Bible. “What does the Bible say?” “What is God saying in the Bible?” were the main problematics for exegesis. This wasn’t an interpretation; it was a strict reading. Schleiermacher, however, introduced a whole methodology for interpreting the Bible, a theory and science of interpretation. The problematic centered not on the question, “What does the Bible say?” but rather on “What does the Bible mean?” The task, for Schleiermacher, is to find out what it means. Schleiermacher developed a method whereby one interprets in order to get at the meaning.


Hermeneutics is concerned with two things: meaning and interpretation.


In German, the word for ‘meaning’ is ‘Sinn’ (which would become the core of the phenomenological tradition of Husserl). Another (cognate) translation of ‘Sinn’ in English is “sense.” The denotation and connotation of the word Sinn “happen to” connect empiricism (bodily, empirical data associated with one meaning of “sense”) with rationalist philosophy (inasmuch as it asks about meaning, a cognitive, transcendent, rational domain). But Sinn also has to do with direction; there’s a directionality to this notion of Sinn.


directionmeaning } Sinn has to do with these.

 the senses


Schleiermacher wants to get at the Sinn or sense of passages in the Bible. What the Bible means, what direction it’s taking, what its sense is, is what hermeneutics takes as its problematic for Biblical interpretation. (This is after doing good exegesis – research, philological study [of language, culture, etc.]. Good exegesis is a necessary prerequisite to good hermeneutics.)

Schleiermacher wants to know exactly what is being said in the Bible, of course, but also then ultimately to determine what this means.


What it means for me - subjectivity

                                                            }- Hermeneutics wants to bridge (but ultimately get rid of)

What it means in itself, - objectivity these two poles.

on its own terms


The problematic became one of reading the Bible as a work. What is a work? Something wrought, created. This implies a creator. Scheiermacher says you can know about the Creator by looking at His work (e.g., the Bible).


*(in response to a student’s question:) We must distinguish between the signification of a work, its meaning or Sinn, from its “significance,” or “what it means to me.” Hermeneutics is not interested in the latter; it’s interested in signification in the sense of what its meaning is, what its inherent sense is.


Meaning comes out of an act of interpretation.


There are two aspects of “interpretation”:

inter-, “between” (as in intercom or interstate); links and brings two sides together;

-pretation-, placing, positing [in between].


Interpretation: literally, putting your act of questioning in between yourself and that which you are interrogating, asking about, studying, trying to understand.


Verstehen, German, “to understand”; understanding; pushing off from yourself to what you’re trying to understand.

Ver-, pushing off

-stehen, standing


“Understanding” denotes also getting underneath something, standing under it. Hermeneutics tries to get at what’s behind or underneath what’s being interpreted.


Hermeneutics is concerned with these three things: (1) interpretation, so that we can get at the (2) meaning of something so that we will have (3) understanding of it.


The task, for Schleiermacher, is to understand the Bible. You do this by interpreting it so that you get its meaning.


*(in response to student questions:)

We must distinguish between beliefs and meanings. They are not the same. Belief is like Doxa, (Gk., opinion, belief; Lt., dogma) and has to do with subjectivities, things you bring to what you’re studying, as opposed to what you’re (purportedly) bringing out of your subject matter. We can’t get rid of these beliefs, we can’t really eradicate or eliminate them (nor would we want to), but we are to avoid imposing them. The way to set your beliefs aside – the only way – is to make them evident, to articulate them, to say what they are and distinguish them from what’s going on in (for example) the Bible passage. The task of Biblical hermeneutics is to bring out the meaning. How YOU “respond” to something is on the side of the subject and not important for hermeneutics. It will just get in the way. (Hermeneutics not at all interested in “reader response” in the sense of, say, Reader Response criticism in literary theory.)


The task of hermeneutics is to get at “the” meaning of the book, to do interpretation so that you get the book right, not to establish orthodoxy for others. But getting at “the” meaning is a tough one, and a real problem with hermeneutics! A big question for contemporary hermeneutics is: “Is there one meaning or are there many meanings?” There are two answers to this, according to the two divergent strands of hermeneutic thought: (1) There is only one meaning, and our task is to bring “it” out. (2) It’s absurd to say there is only one meaning; there are many meanings and we can actively exhibit them.


The idea of Schleiermacher was to get at the meaning of the Bible in a fairly scholarly and individual way, to get at the essence of the Bible, the essence of Christianity. ‘Meaning’ and ‘essence’ are almost synonymous in this case – as in a sense of the core.


*(response to student:) Hermeneutics is a method for understanding, not a mechanism.


Hermeneutics is defined as ‘the art or science of interpretation’. Is it an art or a science? Our word ‘science’ comes from Lat. scientia and Grk. episteme, which mean “knowing.”

Aim: to do an intepretation of a work (e.g., the Bible) so that we can know what it says. The task is to bring out what is already there.





Dilthey was a German (surprise, surprise) professor who died in South Tyrol, an autonomous province in Italy – though German is spoken there (breathe a sigh of relief) – and a place where Professor Silverman spent eight days this past summer, up in the mountains, and which also is a great place to do a seminar – as Prof. Silverman has done for the past 14 years – and then do some hiking. (Cf. Encyclopedia of Philosophy under “Philosophy of Outdoor Activities” for an entry on “hiking”. – No, not really. Just kidding :)


Dilthey was a cultural historian who developed historical hermeneutics, which endeavors to do an interpretation and to get at the meaning and to get an understanding of a whole historical period. It asks, “What does this period – e.g., the French Revolution – mean?”


According to Dilthey, we are to ask three questions when doing historical hermeneutics (considered under three terminological rubrics [given in German]):


(1) Verstehen. What does the period in question mean? How shall we interpret it? How shall we understand it?

(2) Zeitgeist. Going beyond the mere historical facts, we should ask, What is the Spirit of the Times? What was the spirit, sense, feeling of the this historical period? How did it seem to go?

(3) Weltanschauung. [‘welt’ = “world; ‘anschauung’ = “intuition” (‘an’=toward, in the direction of; ‘schauen’=looking, showing (thus literally “looking in the direction of”)]What was the worldview of the people? What did the people tend to think? What were their cultural attitudes? What was the general, common opinion? E.g., During the French Revolution the dominant worldview featured an attitude of the rejection of monarchy.


According to Dilthey, if you’re going to do historical hermeneutics you need to take account of the above three features in order to get at the period’s meaning.




Martin Heidegger


Schleiermacher and Dilthey represented hermeneutics at the time Martin Heidegger’s problematic was put forward. Heidegger was interested in the interpretation of Being (understood as differentiated from beings). He was interested in the issue or question of what it is to be – which is considered metaphysics. Heidegger’s central question: “What is the meaning of the Being of beings?”




                                                <end of seminar meeting>