Hermeneutics as a Theory of Interpretation and as a Literary Theory

Hermeneutics Applied to Text, Language and African Society

Scientific Essay 2012 30 Pages

Literature - Africa



1. Introduction

2. Hermeneutics

3. Theory of Interpretation

4. Hermeneutics in the Humanities and Literary Sciences

5. Case-Study and Application (New Criticism)

6. General Application Of The Theory of Hermeneutics

7. Conclusion

8. Possible Findings




Ag. Head, Department of Foreign Languages And Literary Studies University Of Nigeria Nsukka.

1. Introduction.

Theories of language, linguistic and non linguistic communication are diverse. In the Humanities there are so many interpretative tools. These tools are means to an end and not the end in themselves. Just as we have equations in the natural sciences so do we have theoretical frameworks, literary criticisms and approaches to literature and the communication arts in the Humanities. These interpretative tools are keys to opening and analyzing works in the Humanities and other disciplines. Most of these theories are borrowed from other disciplines other than the ones exploiting them. In the literary sciences, rooms are given for inter-textual interpretations as well as for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches. Hence one could analyze a given fiction, drama or poem using one or more approaches as the case may be. At the primary and secondary school level, essays are simply written and novels are simply read and interpreted by simple minds. But at the tertiary educational level, one would expect the reader, the critic or the recipient to be thorough, analytical and scientific in his appraisal of the text before him. In receptions-theory the analytical mind is not left empty handed in this art of researching on or beyond the text .For one to access these tools effectively one must be equipped with literary terms. Interpretative tools are legion. Some are text-centered and linguistic and others are extra-textual and non linguistic. Hermeneutics and the sister theoretical frameworks like the positivism, formalism, explication de texte, New Criticism, Structuralism, post-structuralism, Semiotics, de-construction etc are text-centered interpretative tools while the society based theories like Marxist-socialism, psycho-analytic theory, feminism, receptions-theory, racial theory, cultural and intercultural studies, Literature and the media, literature and history, literature and biography etc fall under the beyond textual interpretative approaches. Our interest in this exercise is on the raw textual analytic approach. Many students usually prefer the easier approaches which are mostly society based and abhor the dry and puritanist approaches. This paper is aimed at introducing the audience to the rigors of scientific approaches to the study of texts, images and languages.

2. Hermeneutics:

This is the study of the theory and methodology of interpretation. When it has to do with theology and the Scripture, it deals with the science of interpretation, and particularly of biblical exegesis. Generally, traditional hermeneutics is the science of interpretation of texts in the fields of law, religion and literature. Hermeneutics covers all versions of interpretative process of written verbal and non-verbal communications. Etymologically the word hermeneutics stems from the Greek – hermeneutike and it dates back to Hermes the Greek mythological deity who serves as a go-between among gods and between gods and human beings. (Allkemper/Otto Eke (2004:15b).

Aristotle introduced it into philosophy through his work (Peri Hermeneias – De interpretatione (Latin); on interpretation (English). It dates back to c360B.C. and handled the relationship between language and logic. Klein (2000:344).Hegel and Kant amongst others excelled in philosophical hermeneutics, even as Dithley emphasized romantic Hermeneutics. Allkemper/Otto Eke (2004:156) attempts some definition of Hermeneutics and trace the earliest origins and usage thus:

Auslegen, Deuten, Interpretieren – So Lasst sich das das griechische Wort “hermeneuein” umschreiben. Hermes, ein umtriebiger griechischer Gott, ist der Bote der Goetter, der den sterblichen Menschen den Willen der Unsterblichen übersetzt, in ihrer Sprache auslegt, ein Vermittler zwischen zwei Welten, die sich anscheinend ohne Vermittlung nicht verstehen können oder wollen. Die Hermeneutik befasst sich daher mit dem verstehen and Auslegen von Texten. Hermeneutische Überlegungen werden dann nötig, und das zeigen bereits die Anfänge der Hermeneutik, wenn das Verstehen problematisch wird. Das gilt in der griechischen Antike für die Texte Homers dessen Gottesmythen besweifelt wurden und deshalb uminterpretiert werden muessten zu philosophischen Prinzipien oder zu moralischen Tugenden; und das gilt ebenso für die biblischen Schriften des Alten Testamentes als Voraussetzung fuer das Neue Testament interpretiert werden.

Hermes is reputed to be the deity who ferries the dead to the underworld. Since his mediatory role is between the seen and the unseen he had to originate signs and symbols so as to get the two strange worlds embrace each other. Some schools have therefore ascribed the art of Language and Speech invention to Hermes, who equally has been a reputable liar, trick star, interpreter and a thief. Hermes exploited namely the ignorant condition of his recipients.

Socrates became interested in the ambiguity of language which can be used for falsehood and for truth. He analyzed the ability of the transmitter, nay the translator or interpreter to manipulate the ambiguity of his unintelligible message for his selfish purposes (Grondin 1994:21). Grondin notes that the original usage of the term hermeneutics was rooted in the sense of the sacred. The deity transmitting the divine message got it shrouded in mystery and uncertainty; there is no logic, no reasoning. Everything is veiled in ambiguity and irrationality. The recipient is simply visited with madness, and the only healer of this ailment remains the hermeneutic, the possessor of a rational and intelligible method of breaking down and untying these knot so as to restore the sanity of the receiver. Hence Schleiermacher sees interpretation (hermeneutics) as the act of dodging misunderstanding and this act is psychologically oriented. He is reputed to be the father of modern hermeneutics. Modern Hermeneutics is also enlightened and psychological in nature. Dithley took the romantic and structural angle of Hermeneutics and sees such an approach as a means of understanding other cultures and bettering ones horizont of the given passage and the verbal and non verbal communication of the author or artist.

3. Theory of Interpretation

Aristotle’s De Interpretatione lays the foundation for our modern day theories of semiotics and interpretation. He sets the ball of modern science of interpretation rolling when he observed in on Interpretation (1:1634) that:

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).

Hermeneutics evolved from the Greek to the Scriptures. The Protestant Reformation broke the period of silence with the entry of Luther and Calvin. Hermeneutics, especially Protestants began to view the Scriptures as secular texts. Here therefore one could distinguish the following manners of interpreting scriptures:

(a) Sensus historicus (literal sense) – literal Sense
(b) Sensus allegoricus (allegorical sense) – symbolic sense.
(c) Sensus tropologicus/Sensus moralis (the moral application of the passage to the hearer or reader)
(d) The Sensus anagogicus (the gnosis or secret metaphysical undertones).

In a word one can delineate between the two major Corpus of exegesis: the Sensus literalis and the Sensus mysticus. These usages were exploited by the Church Fathers during the Patristic era (Allkemper/Otto Eke, 2004:156-157)

Die Kirchenvaeter des 2 und 3. Jahrhunderts entwickelten hierzu die Lehre vom mehrfachen Schriftsinn: der Wort-und Literalsinn bezeichnet die Tatsache (z.B. die stadt Jerusalem); der figuerliche oder allegorische Sinn interpretiert die Stadt Jerusalmem als Kirche, der moralische Sinn deutet Jerusalem als menschliche Seele, die sich moralisch richtig verhalten soll; der anagogische Sinn Jerusalem als himmlisches Jerusalem, als Paradies der Seligen. Die WillKürlichkeit dieser Zuordnungen und Bedeutungszuschreibungen wird legitimeirt durch eine göttlich autorisierte Auslegungsinstanz: die kirchliche Autorität.

4. Hermeneutics in the Humanities and the Literary Sciences

The exploits of Science in the late 19th century changed the way humanity understands the natural world. The hitherto explanation and interpretation of the natural world that was based on faith, speculation, myth and opinion had metamorphosed to demonstrable facts and data. Natural Science so triumphed over literature and the humanities that the latter was seen as the leper in Western Education. This uncomfortable condition of the humanities forced many scholars to launch literary study into a rigorously based and logically deductible discipline. The study of literature began to lay greatest emphasis on research into facts such as the textual history of a literary piece, the authorship and the historicity of the literal text. The Germans for instance began to see literary study as a science proper – Literaturwissenschaft. Literary studies mounted in this way the stage of scientific scholarship. Apart from looking at imagery, plot, setting, character, point of view, one should go a step further by analyzing form (structure) and seeing the form and language of every literary work as being unique. The French l’art pour l’art - explication de texte, the German Werkimmanenz, the American close Reading and New Criticism and Russian formalism were various forms of healthy competitions in this modern way of doing literature. Just like in natural science, literary studies became a technically complex exercise; became dry and a highly disciplined text-concentrated exercise. Many scholars see any attempt to look beyond the text as mere distraction. There is preference for a close focus on the complexities of meaning that are loaded on the text of a literary work (Westermann, 1993:31). In all these exercises, the prevailing word is interpretation. Interpretation in this context becomes a methodical and rigorous analysis of a written or verbal communication. This rigor should even tower above the creator or author of the given work. The set standards of gauging a work should in all objectivity be applied on a given work. This is what Kant meant when he noted: it is possible to understand an author even better than he understands himself (Diemer/Frenzel, 1967:98):

Wenn Kant bemerkte, dass es moeglich sei, einen Autor “besser zu verstehen, als er sich selbst verstand” (Kr.d.r.v. B370), so deutete er u.a. gerade dies an, dass man einen Text auch ueber das, was der Schoepfer dabei gedacht und gewollt habe, hinausschliessend interpretieren koenne.



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hermeneutics theory interpretation literary applied text language african society



Title: Hermeneutics as a Theory of Interpretation and as a Literary Theory