The word hermeneutics is a term derived from ‘Ερμηνεύς, the Greek word for interpreter. This is related to the name of the Greek god Hermes in his role as the interpreter of the messages of the gods. Hermes was believed to play tricks on those he was supposed to give messages to, often changing the messages and influencing the interpretation thereof. The Greek word thus has the basic meaning of one who makes the meaning clear.

Scriptural hermeneutics

Main articles: Biblical hermeneutics, Pesher, and Tafsir

A common use of the word hermeneutics refers to a process of scriptural interpretation. Throughout religious history scholars and students of religious texts have sought to mine the wealth of their meanings by developing a variety of different systems of hermeneutics. Philosophical hermeneutics in particular can be seen as a development of scriptural hermeneutics, providing a theoretical backing for various interpretive projects. Thus, philosophical hermeneutics and scriptural hermeneutics can be seen as mutually reinforcing concepts.

Rabbi Ishmael of the Amoraic era of Judiasm interpreted laws from the Torah through 13 hermeneutic principles. This is the first appearance of hermeneutics in the world, through the exegesis interpretation of Biblical texts.

History of Western hermeneutics

Hermeneutics in the Western world, as a general science of text interpretation, can be traced back to two sources. One source was the ancient Greek rhetoricians’ study of literature, which came to fruition in Alexandria. The other source has been the Midrashic and Patristic traditions of Biblical exegesis, which were contemporary with Hellenistic culture. Scholars in antiquity expected a text to be coherent, consistent in grammar, style and outlook, and they amended obscure or “decadent” readings to comply with their codified rules. By extending the perception of inherent logic of texts, Greeks were able to attribute works with uncertain origin.

Ancient Greece and Rome

Aristotle strikes a chord in his treatise On Interpretation that reverberates through the intervening ages and supplies the key note for many contemporary theories of interpretation. His overture is here:

Words spoken are symbols or signs (symbola) of affections or impressions (pathemata) of the soul (psyche); written words are the signs of words spoken. As writing, so also is speech not the same for all races of men. But the mental affections themselves, of which these words are primarily signs (semeia), are the same for the whole of mankind, as are also the objects (pragmata) of which those affections are representations or likenesses, images, copies (homoiomata). (Aristotle, On Interpretation, 1.16a4).

Equally important to later developments are texts on poetry, rhetoric, and sophistry, including many of Plato’s dialogues, such as Cratylus, Ion, Gorgias, Lesser Hippias, and Republic, along with Aristotle’s Poetics, Rhetoric, and On Sophistical Refutations. However, these texts deal more with the presentation and refutation of arguments, speeches and poems rather than the understanding of texts as texts. As Ramberg and Gjesdal note, “Only with the Stoics, and their reflections on the interpretation of myth, do we encounter something like a methodological awareness of the problems of textual understanding” (Ramberg & Gjesdal).

Some ancient Greek philosophers, particularly Plato, tended to vilify poets and poetry as harmful nonsense—Plato denies entry to poets in his ideal state in The Republic until they can prove their value. In the Ion, Plato famously portrays poets as possessed:

You know, none of the epic poets, if they’re good, are masters of their subject; they are inspired, possessed, and that is how they utter all those beautiful poems. The same goes for lyric poets if they’re good: just as the Corybantes are not in their right minds when they dance, lyric poets, too, are not in their right minds when they make those beautiful lyrics, but as soon as they sail into harmony and rhythm they are possessed by Bacchic frenzy.” (Plato Ion, 533e-534a)

The meaning of the poem thus becomes open to ridicule — whatever hints of the truth it may have, the truth is covered by madness. However, another line of thinking arose with Theagenes of Rhegium, who suggested that instead of taking poetry literally, what was expressed in poems were allegories of nature. Stoic philosophers further developed this idea, reading into the poets not only allegories of natural phenomena, but allegories of ethical behavior.

Aristotle differed with his predecessor, Plato, in the worth of poetry. Both saw art as an act of mimesis, but where Plato saw a pale, essentially false imitation in art of reality, Aristotle saw the possibility of truth in imitation. As Critic David Richter points out, “for Aristotle, artists must disregard incidental facts to search for deeper universal truths”–instead of being essentially false, poetry may be unversally true. (Richter The Critical Tradition, 57). In the Poetics, Aristotle called both the tragedy and the epic noble, with tragedy serving the essential function of purging strong emotions from the audience through katharsis.

Early Biblical hermeneutics

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The early Jewish Rabbis and the early Church Fathers deployed similar philological tools; their Biblical interpretations stressed allegorical readings, frequently at the expense of the texts’ literal meaning. They sought deeper meanings below the outward appearance of the text. Examples of such interpretations include the writings of Philo of Alexandria, Origen, and the Talmud.

Medieval hermeneutics

Medieval Christian interpretations of text incorporated exegesis into a fourfold mode that emphasized the distinction between the letter and the spirit of the text. This schema was based on the various ways of interpreting the text utilitized by the Patristic writers. The literal sense (sensus historicus) of Scripture denotes what the text states or reports directly. The allegorical sense (sensus allegoricus) explains the text with regard to the doctrinal content of church dogma, so that each literal element has a symbolic meaning. The moral application of the text to the individual reader or hearer is the third sense, the sensus tropologicus or sensus moralis, while a fourth level of meaning, the sensus anagogicus, draws out of the text the implicit allusions it contains to secret metaphysical and eschatological knowledge, or gnosis.

The hermeneutical terminology used here is in part arbitrary. For almost all three interpretations which go beyond the literal explanations are in a general sense “allegorical”. The practical application of these three aspects of spiritual interpretation varied considerably. Most of the time, the fourfold sense of the Scriptures was used only partially, dependent upon the content of the text and the idea of the exegete…. We can easily notice that the basic structure is in fact a twofold sense of the Scriptures, that is, the distinction between the sensus literalis and the sensus spiritualis or mysticus, and that the number four was derived from a restrictive systematization of the numerous possibilities which existed for the sensus spiritualis into three interpretive dimensions. (Ebeling 1964, 38).

Hermeneutics in the Middle Ages witnessed the proliferation of non-literal interpretations of the Bible. Christian commentators could read Old Testament narratives simultaneously as prefigurations of analogous New Testament episodes, as symbolic lessons about Church institutions and current teachings, and as personally applicable allegories of the Spirit. In each case, the meaning of the signs was constrained by imputing a particular intention to the Bible, such as teaching morality, but these interpretive bases were posited by the religious tradition rather than suggested by a preliminary reading of the text.

The customary medieval exegetical technique divided the text in glossa (“glosses” or annotations) written between the lines and at the side of the text which was left with wide margins for this very purpose. The text was further divided into “scholia” which are long, exegetical passages, often on a separate page.

A similar fourfold categorization is also found in Rabbinic writings. The fourfold categorizations are: Peshat (simple interpretation), Remez (allusion), Derash (interpretive), and Sod (secret/mystical). It is uncertain whether or not the Rabbinic division of interpretation pre-dates the Patristic version. The medieval period saw the growth of many new categories of Rabbinic interpretation and explanation of the Torah, including the emergence of Kabbalah and the writings of Maimonides.

Renaissance and Enlightenment

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The discipline of hermeneutics emerged with the new humanist education of the 15th century as a historical and critical methodology for analyzing texts. In a triumph of early modern hermeneutics, the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla proved in 1440 that the “Donation of Constantine” was a forgery, through intrinsic evidence of the text itself. Thus hermeneutics expanded from its medieval role explaining the correct analysis of the Bible.

However, Biblical hermeneutics did not die off. For example, the Protestant Reformation brought about a renewed interest in the interpretation of the Bible, which took a step away from the interpretive tradition developed during the middle ages back to the texts themselves.

The rationalist Enlightenment led hermeneuts, especially Protestant exegetes, to view Scriptural texts as secular Classical texts were viewed. Scripture thus was interpreted as responses to historical or social forces, so that apparent contradictions and difficult passages in the New Testament, for example, might be clarified by comparing their possible meanings with contemporaneous Christian practices.


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Friedrich Schleiermacher explored the nature of understanding in relation not just to the problem of deciphering sacred texts, but to all human texts and modes of communication. The interpretation of a text must proceed by framing the content asserted in terms of the overall organization of the work. He distinguishes between grammatical interpretation and psychological interpretation. The former studies how a work is composed from general ideas, the latter considers the peculiar combinations that characterize the work as a whole.


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Wilhelm Dilthey broadened hermeneutics even more by relating interpretation to all historical objectifications. Understanding moves from the outer manifestations of human action and productivity to explore their inner meaning. In his last important essay “The Understanding of Others and Their Manifestations of Life” (1910), Dilthey makes it clear that this move from outer to inner, from expression to what is expressed, is not based on empathy. Empathy involves a direct identification with the other. Interpretation involves an indirect or mediated understanding that can only be attained by placing human expressions in their historical context. Understanding is not a process of reconstructing the state of mind of the author, but one of articulating what is expressed in the work.

for more information: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy[1]


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Main article: Martin Heidegger

Since Dilthey, the discipline of hermeneutics has detached itself from this central task and broadened its spectrum to all texts, including multimedia and to understanding the bases of meaning. In the 20th century, Martin Heidegger’s philosophical hermeneutics shifted the focus from interpretation to existential understanding, which was treated more as a direct, non-mediated, thus in a sense more authentic way of being in the world than simply as a way of knowing.

Advocates of this approach claim that such texts, and the people who produce them, cannot be studied using the same scientific methods as the natural sciences, thus use arguments similar to that of the antipositivism. Moreover, they claim that such texts are conventionalized expressions of the experience of the author; thus, the interpretation of such texts will reveal something about the social context in which they were formed, but, more significantly, provide the reader with a means to share the experiences of the author. Among the key thinkers of this approach are the sociologist Max Weber and the philosopher Martin Heidegger.

Contemporary hermeneutics

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Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics is a development of the hermeneutics of his teacher, Heidegger.

Paul Ricoeur developed a hermeneutics based on Heidegger’s concepts, although his own work is not hermeneutics in the Gadamerian sense at all.

Andrռs Ortվz-Osռs has developed his Symbolic Hermeneutics as the mediterranean response to north european Hermeneutics. His main statement regarding the symbolic understanding of the world is that the meaning is the symbolic healing of the real injury.

Hermeneutics and critical theory

JՖrgen Habermas attacked the principles of hermeneutics as conservative and advocated critical theory as an alternative, although in contemporary usage one could reasonably call hermeneutics an aspect of critical theory.

Themes in hermeneutics

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Hermeneutic circle

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The hermeneutic circle describes the process of understanding a text hermeneutically. It refers to the idea that one’s understanding of the text as a whole is established by reference to the individual parts and one’s understanding of each individual part by reference to the whole. Neither the whole text nor any individual part can be understood without reference to one another, and hence, it is a circle. However, this circular character of interpretation does not make it impossible to interpret a text, rather, it stresses that the meaning of text must be found within its cultural, historical, and literary context.

With Schleiermacher, hermeneutics begins to stress the importance of the interpreter in the process of interpretation. Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics focuses on the importance of the interpreter understanding the text as a necessary stage to interpreting it. Understanding, for Schleiermacher, does not simply come from reading the text, but involves knowledge of the historical context of the text and the psychology of the author.


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Hans-Georg Gadamer describes the process of interpreting a text as the fusion of one’s own horizon with the horizon of the text.

Applications of hermeneutics


In sociology, hermeneutics means the interpretation and understanding of social events by analysing their meanings to the human participants and their culture. It enjoyed prominence during the sixties and seventies, and differs from other interpretative schools of sociology in that it emphasises the importance of the content as well as the form of any given social behaviour. The central principle of hermeneutics is that it is only possible to grasp the meaning of an action or statement by relating it to the whole discourse or world-view from which it originates: for instance, putting a piece of paper in a box might be considered a meaningless action unless put in the context of democratic elections, and the action of putting a ballot paper in a box. One can frequently find reference to the ‘hermeneutic circle’: that is, relating the whole to the part and the part to the whole. Hermeneutics in sociology was most heavily influenced by German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (see ‘Truth and Method’, 1960).

Hermeneutics as applied to sociology can be traced to the work of Max Weber who coined the term “action” to denote behavior to which the individual attaches subjective meaning. The subdiscipline in sociology, the sociology of knowledge, seeks to understand how one’s position in the social structure relates to how one sees the world, so hermeneutics must be seen in the context of such variables as social class, group and subgroup memberships. Karl Marx, by postulating that the economic organization of society, its “substructure,” determines its “superstructure,” that contains the dominant ideas of that society, also contributed to our understanding of hermeneutics within sociology. So, in a capitalist society we have “capitalist art,” “capitalist education,” “capitalist philosophy,” etc. As he put it: “The ruling class has the ruling ideas.” One’s social class position, according to Marx, largely determines his or her view of the world; his or her values and ideologies. Also, the subdiscipline of symbolic interaction utilizes hermeneutics by emphasizing how one perceives the world through his or her construction of reality, most notably promulgated by W.I Thomas’ “definition of the situation,” which states that if people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. That is, we relate to each other and to the world largely based on our perceptions, rather than merely the objective features of a given situation. The interpretative nature of our social relations is a crucial area of study and may be seen to define hermeneutics within the discipline of sociology.


Main article: Jurisprudence

Some scholars argue that law and theology constitute particular forms of hermeneutics because of their need to interpret legal tradition / scriptural texts. Moreover, the problem of interpretation is central to legal theory at least since 11th century. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the schools of glossatores, commentatores and usus modernus distinguished themselves right by their approach to the interpretation of “laws” (mainly, Justinian’s Corpus Iuris Civilis). The University of Bologna gave birth to a “legal Renaissance” in the 11th century, when the Corpus Iuris Civilis was rediscovered and started to be systematically studied by people like Irnerius and Gratianus. It was an interpretative Renaissance. After that, interpretation has always been at the center of legal thought. Savigny and Betti, among others, made significant contributions also to general hermeneutics. Legal interpretivism, most famously Ronald Dworkin’s, might be seen as a branch of philosophical hermeneutics.

Computer science

Researchers in computer science, especially those dealing with artificial intelligence, computational linguistics, knowledge representation, and protocol analysis, have not failed to notice the commonality of interest that they share with hermeneutics researchers in regard to the character of interpretive agents and the conduct of interpretive activities. For instance, in the abstract to their 1986 AI Memo, Mallery, Hurwitz, and Duffy have the following to say:

Hermeneutics, a branch of continental European philosophy concerned with human understanding and the interpretation of written texts, offers insights that may contribute to the understanding of meaning, translation, architectures for natural language understanding, and even to the methods suitable for scientific inquiry in AI. (Mallery, Hurwitz, Duffy, 1986).

Hermeneutics and semiotics

The being of a symbol consists in the real fact that something surely will be experienced if certain conditions be satisfied. Namely, it will influence the thought and conduct of its interpreter. Every word is a symbol. Every sentence is a symbol. Every book is a symbol. Every representamen depending upon conventions is a symbol. Just as a photograph is an index having an icon incorporated into it, that is, excited in the mind by its force, so a symbol may have an icon or an index incorporated into it, that is, the active law that it is may require its interpretation to involve the calling up of an image, or a composite photograph of many images of past experiences, as ordinary common nouns and verbs do; or it may require its interpretation to refer to the actual surrounding circumstances of the occasion of its embodiment, like such words as that, this, I, you, which, here, now, yonder, etc. Or it may be pure symbol, neither iconic nor indicative, like the words and, or, of, etc. (Peirce, CP 4.447).

See also Abductive Inference and Literary Theory – Pragmatism, Hermeneutics and Semiotics written by Uwe Wirth.


•           Aristotle, “On Interpretation”, Harold P. Cooke (trans.), pp. 111–179 in Aristotle, Volume 1, Loeb Classical Library, William Heinemann, London, UK, 1938.

•           Ebeling, Gerhard, “The New Hermeneutics and the Early Luther”, Theology Today, vol. 21.1, April 1964, p. 34-46 Eprint

•           Peirce, C.S., Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vols. 1–6, Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (eds.), vols. 7–8, Arthur W. Burks (ed.), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1931–1935, 1958. Cited as CP vol.para.

•           Peirce, C.S. (c. 1903), “Logical Tracts, No. 2”, in Collected Papers, CP 4.418–509. Eprint.

•           Plato, Ion, Paul Woodruff (trans.). in Plato: Complete Works. Ed. John M. Cooper. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997. p. 937-949.

•           Ramberg, BjՔrn, Gjesdal, Kristin, “Hermeneutics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Eprint.

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