Friday, 3 August 2012

Validity in Interpretation… Succinct Definition of a Hermeneutic Circle

HIRSCH, E.D. (1967) Validity in Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press

“We found the types of meanings we expected to find, because what we found was in fact powerfully influenced by what we expected. All along the way we construe this meaning instead of that because this meaning belongs to the type of meaning we are interpreting while that does not. If we happen to encounter something which can only be construed that, then we have to start all over and postulate another type of meaning altogether in which that will be at home. However, in the very act of revising our generic conception we will have started all over again, and ultimately everything we understand will have been constituted and partly determined by the new generic conception. Thus, while it is not accurate to say that an interpretation is helplessly dependent on the generic conception with which an interpreter happens to start, it is nonetheless true that his interpretation is dependent on the last, unrevised generic conception with which he starts. All understanding of verbal meaning is necessarily genre-bound. This description of the genre-bound character of understanding is, of course, a version of the hermeneutic circle, which in its classical formulation has been described as the interdependence of part and whole: the whole can be understood only through its parts, but the parts can be understood only through the whole. This traditional formulation, however, clouds some of the processes of understanding in unnecessary paradox. It is true that an idea of the whole controls, connects, and unifies our understanding of parts. It is also true that the idea of the whole must arise from an encounter with parts. But this encounter could not occur if the parts did not have an autonomy capable of suggesting a certain kind of whole in the first place. A part – a word, a title, a syntactical pattern – is frequently autonomous in the sense that some aspect of it is the same no matter what whole it belongs to. A syntactical inversion such as ‘Fair stands the wind for France’ is perceived as an inversion no matter where it occurs, and knowing that such an aversion belongs in a certain type of utterance and not in another, we experience the invariant aspect of the part as a trait which characterizes one type of meaning rather than another. Then, having experienced that trait, we come to expect others belonging to the same type, and this system of expectations, at first vague, later more explicit, is the idea of the whole that governs our understanding. Of course, we may make a wrong guess, and, of course, it is true that our guess does control and constitute man of the traits we subsequently experience, but not all traits are genre dependent (the same ones can belong to different genres), and not everything in verbal understanding is variable. Understanding is difficult, but not impossible, and the hermeneutic circle is less mysterious and paradoxical than many in the German hermeneutical tradition have made it out to be. Consequently, to define the hermeneutic circle in terms of genre and trait instead of part and whole not only describes more accurately the interpretive process but also resolves a troublesome paradox. This description does, however, raise problems of its own -  the most important one being that ‘genre’ still represents an imprecise and variable concept.” (pp76-77) 

Hirsch is primarily discussing a hermeneutic circle in the specific context of literary theory. Despite this, and with some careful parsing of his thoughts to apply to interpreting experiences, he does give a very concise definition of how a hermeneutic circle works. The interdependence of the parts and the whole of an experience is crucial to understanding and interpretation as, “the whole can be understood only through its parts, but the parts can be understood only through the whole” (p76). This is succinct and helpful. Further to this he identifies an important point that a part of an experience must in itself suggest an autonomy for it to be identified as a ‘part’ of something ‘bigger’. The part must be whole in itself. Before this discussion gets bogged down in abstraction leading to a nano-level explication of the nature of a thing, which will stall the flow of an idea, let’s just accept that a whole is made of parts, and that whole could be a part of something else. If we accept that concept then this will get easier. How the understanding and the interpretation of what constitute a part of an experience and a whole of an experience is what happens within the hermeneutic circle. But Hirsch is critical of the inherent paradox within this process. He suggest replacing part with a genre (of experience) and a trait (the whole) it not “describes more accurately the interpretive process but also resolves a troublesome paradox” (p77), but in doing so he does admit the idea of genre is still “an imprecise and variable concept” (ibid.).

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