Michael Russo

Cultural Hermeneutics


Protocol #2, 2/7/11

                We began the seminar with a discussion of the previous week’s protocol.  In this discussion certain ambiguities became apparent, particularly with regards to the Greek concept of paideia which took us into modern and contemporary notions of consensus and multiculturalism.  Gadamer, in Truth and Method (1960) deals with the problem of consensus and how this notion of a common “with-sense” can lead to an authoritarian bias.  Multiculturalism, according to Dr. Silverman, is accepting other cultures as they are and making space for them in a society, and is not merely focusing on their historically interesting periods.  It emerged in the 20th century in Britain and America as away to attack the univocity of this Enlightenment concept of a universal consensus in order to allow for other world views to be heard in the political and cultural arena.

                In addition, we also re-examined the root meaning of the word “interpret.”  This comes from the prefix “inter-“ which means “between” and the suffix, “-pret” which is related to the German Setzen, and means “to place or posit.”  “Interpret” thus means “to place or posit or affirm something as in-between.”  In the context of Hermeneutics, to interpret means to seek that meaning which arises from what is “there,” the object of interpretative study.  Meaning, then, is found in the place between the inquiring subject and the object of inquiry (see fig. 1), in a place which has no space and thus can not be taken up.  This is the “inter-“ of interpretation.  Several questions were raised in regards to the ontological standing of meaning: (1) Is the subject doing the expressing or does the expression have its own meaning not derived from the subject; (2) What is the nature of the relationship between sense/sens/senso/Sinn and meaning, and which is to be the proper object of Hermeneutics’ investigation?

                After our review of the previous week’s discussion we continued onto new matter, which was concerned mostly with a quick history of Hermeneutics.  As has previously been discussed, Hermeneutics as we understand it was began with Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) who was concerned with non-allegorical Biblical interpretation.  Dr. Silverman briefly spoke on the fourfold method of classical interpretation, developed either by John Cassian (360-435) (Gadamer  45) or later, according to Dr. Silverman’s research, by Hugh of Saint Victor (1098-1141).    In either case, this method is best exemplified by Dante Alighieri’s (1265-1321) The Divine Comedy (1308-1321), consciously constructed by Dante according to this interpretative model, which proceeds thus: (1) literal meaning- what is linguistically said by the text; (2) allegorical meaning- what is to be understood by the literal meaning according to a culturally available vocabulary of symbols; (3) moral meaning- what is to be taken as the normative lesson communicated by the actions of the allegorical figures; (4) anagogical meaning- the religious (spec. Christian) meaning of the text, or how the reader is to see God within the work.  Stages 2-4 are all deeper levels of allegorical interpretation, taking the reader further away from what is immediately present within the text.  Martin Luther (1483-1546) and the Protestant tradition after him wanted to return to a literal engagement with the text and accused allegorical interpretation of being too Catholic.  Luther felt: it was authoritarian, and left the task of interpretation to the clerical elite (Priests, Bishops, Pope); it served to alienate the individual from a personal relationship with the Bible, and; it could lead to confusion and intentional misuse of the Bible.  Schleiermacher operated within this Protestant tradition, but offered Hermeneutics as a non-allegorical alternative distinct from literal interpretation that seeks for what is said and what is meant while avoiding reliance on a dogmatic language of signs and symbols to be interpreted by a clerical elite.

                Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) broadened the subject matter of Hermeneutics to the Geisteswissenschaften (see fig. 2) in general.  He also added three further dimensions of interpretation: (1) Zeitgeist (Spirit of the Times)—this element of Dilthey’s Hermeneutics concerns itself with questions of how an historic people lived and thought and what common attitudes where.  It is part of the interpretative meaning of that historical period necessary for arriving at a proper sense of the work by considering the spirit of that historical people which produced it; (2) Verstehen (Understanding)—a general understanding of culture, society or period which acts as a companion of an active interpretation.  When a subject interprets an object, it is not just a matter of saying or reproducing the meaning, but of deeply understanding that meaning being brought forward.  However, to do so, it is necessary for the subject to begin interpreting that meaning in order to arrive at a Verstehen.  The two feed into each other, although it is possible to begin an interpretation elsewhere, arrive at an understanding of the meaning being communicated by the object, and then progress further with your interpretation via the accompaniment of Verstehen; (3) Weltanschauung (Worldview)—from the German root schau (to look or see, to be seen), or schauung (a kind of seeing intuition), this is an historical people’s worldview.  It differs from a culture’s Zeitgeist in that it involves issues of subjectivity and an outward looking perspective or P.O.V..  To arrive at this, the interpreter must ask such questions as “How does a culture see the world?” and “What is the perspective of this people?”

                Moving onto Gadamer’s direct intellectual heritage, Dr. Silverman introduced us to the peculiar figure of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938).  Husserl was originally trained as a mathematician who first forayed into the realm of philosophy with his book, The Philosophy of Arithmetic (1891).  His mature philosophy begins with The Logical Investigations (1900), in which he founded the school of philosophical thought, Transcendental Phenomenology.  He developed his method of phenomenological investigation in Ideas I (1913), which he hoped to use to establish philosophy as a rigorous science.  Phenomenology is the science (logos) of phenomena (phainomenai).  Phainomenai are those things which show themselves to us, and Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology is the science of the directedness of consciousness at that which is questioned in order to discover the meaning of what is under investigation.  Some key terms for understanding this method are: Subject/ Transcendental Ego—that which stands behind all directedness of consciousness; noesis—the meaning giving act, or the directedness of consciousness; noema—the meaning given in consciousness which the Transcendental Ego is reflecting upon, produced when the subject is reflecting on the directedness of consciousness, in many circumstances the noema is indistinguishable from the eidos; eidos—the essence or “idea” of the thing, the essential being of the phenomena which constitutes the transcendental understanding of the thing as it is in itself without considering any of the accidental qualities of it, and; hyletic data—the material elements which appear in consciousness, the “stuff” that accompanies the eidos of the thing.  To see the interaction of these elements see figure 3 below.

                Husserl’s method of phenomenological investigation consisted of two “reductions,” or attitudes towards the object of investigation which effect a disengagement with our usual way of thinking, stepping back from an involvement with the world in order to take as an object of investigation the way phenomena announce show themselves to the subject and the relationship of the two.  These reductions are: (1) eidetic reduction—by which the investigator tries to get to the eidos (essence or idea) of what is being investigated, leaving behind all non-essential qualities belonging to the particular hyletic data.  For Husserl, the essence of a thing only comes out when an object is perceived, is arises as a phenomenon out of the experience of the thing.  Experience is necessary to arrive at the eidos, and the eidos is part of the thing.  Disengagement of the materiality of the thing, focus on the perceptual content or noema the directed consciousness has of the thing; (2) transcendental reduction (epoché)—a suspension of judgment, including those of the existence or non-existence of the thing, in order to investigate it at the transcendental level.  Disengagement of the directed consciousness from all considerations other what it is directed at, making the content of the consciousness rather than the source of that content an object of study.

                By performing both of these reductions, the subject creates a space of transcendental objectivity where the thing is encountered in its pure essence (as phainomenai or revealed presence for the directed consciousness of the subject).  Ultimately, any reality external to consciousness is left behind and Husserl’s ideal was to create a philosophy which studied the operations of mind and how it is able to create and assign meaning to phenomena with a mathematical precision and rigor.

                Martin Heidegger (1899-1978), Husserl’s assistant at Freiberg, was one of Gadamer’s teachers, and a guiding figure throughout his work.  Heidegger was interested in phenomenology as well as Hermeneutics and developed both in his work.  His chief concern was developing a Hermeneutics of Being and, as such, he split intellectually with Husserl over the question of why the existence of the object had to be left behind.  For Heidegger, all beings (Seiendes) have something in common, Being (Sein), or their “is-ness.”  Being was what Heidegger wanted to investigate, as well as the relationship of truth (Aletheia) to Being.  He begins Being and Time (1927), his most famous investigation of Being, with a methodological note on where one should begin such an investigation: according to Heidegger, in order to start an interpretation of the meaning of the Being of beings, one has to question that being among beings which is there (da-) and has some native understanding of its relationship to Being.  Thus Heidegger famously begins his investigations by questioning the investigator, Dasein (existence), that being which, in its Being-(T)here somehow already understands the fact of its Being.  He proceeds by slowly teasing out of this “average everyday” understanding further matter for deeper and deeper interpretation of the meaning of the Being of beings.  Thus, Heidegger constructs a hermeneutic circle and offers an excellent example of the role Verstehen must play in a deep hermeneutic.


Fig. 1

Russo - Figure 1



Fig. 2

Figure 2 (Russo)




Fig. 3

Figure 3 (Russo)