Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory… The Dialectical Nature of the Circle

PALMER, R.E. (1969) Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

“Understanding is a basically referential operation; we understand something by comparing it to something we already know. What we understand forms itself into systematic unities, or circles made up of parts. The circle as a whole defines the individual part, and the parts together form the circle. (…) an individual concept derives its meaning from a context or horizon within which it stands; yet the horizon is made up of the very elements to which it gives meaning. By dialectical interaction between the whole and the part, each gives the other meaning; understanding is circular, then. Because within this ‘circle’ the meaning comes to stand, we call this the ‘hermeneutical circle’. Of course the concept of the hermeneutical circle involves a logical contradiction; for, if we must grasp the whole before we can understand the parts, then we shall never understand anything. Yet we have asserted that the part derives its meaning from the whole. And surely, on the other hand, we cannot start with a whole, undifferentiated into parts. Is the concept of the hermeneutical circle invalid? No; rather, we must say that logic cannot fully account for the workings of understanding. Somehow, a kind of ‘leap’ into the hermeneutical circle occurs and we understand the whole and the parts together. Schleiermacher left room for such a factor when he saw understanding as partly comparative and partly intuitive and divinatory matter. To operate at all, the hermeneutical circle assumes an element of intuition. With its spatial image, the hermeneutical circle suggests an area of shared understanding. Since communication is a dialogical relation, there is assumed at the outset a community of meaning shared by the speaker and the hearer. This seems to involve another contradiction: what is to be understood must already be known. (…) One must already have, in some measure, a knowledge of the matter being discussed. This may be termed the minimal preknowledge necessary for understanding, without which one cannot leap into the hermeneutical circle.” (pp87-88)


Palmer, unlike Hirsch, champions the hermeneutic circle. He argues that the circular, seemingly logical contradiction he summarises as “if we must grasp the whole before we can understand the parts, then we shall never understand anything” (p87) does not make the hermeneutic circle invalid. He sees this interaction between the parts and whole in order to make an interpretation can happen as the dialectical nature of the circle creates a shared area for understanding. He sees not contradiction to logic as, “One must already have, in some measure, a knowledge of the matter being discussed” (p88). To understand this further it is important to see this act of understanding as referential, “we understand something by comparing it to something we already know” (p87). The form understanding takes therefore happens within a horizon of meaning and pre-understanding, and forms itself into a systematic unity of meaning, which contains parts that form the whole meaning. To understand something then both the whole unity and the parts that make up that meaning need to be understood. Understanding is therefore circular as each gives the other meaning, and the meaning arises within the hermeneutic circle. Any misunderstanding of a part of a meaning will skew the understanding of the whole meaning, and lead to interpretations that are not true. Therefore an individual aspect of an experience gains it’s meaning from its context within the experience. It is a part of the experience that if understood in itself and in its context, can lead to a full understanding of the whole experience. Like ways, if the whole experience is considered first then it will be clear that it is made up of different aspects that need to be studied and interpreted to see what is actually happening. The experience gains understanding when seen in its context, yet the context is derived from different parts that allow the experience to be seen as a whole. Palmer argues that ‘logic’ does not solely create understanding; intuition has a part to play (as has been seen). To enter the hermeneutic circle to understand and interpret meaning, it takes an intuitive leap to understand both the parts and the whole together, and not a logical step.

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