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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Hermeneutics: Origins and Etymology

Hermeneutics, the study of understanding, has ancient roots. It comes from the Greek word hermeneuin, “to interpret” and is associated with the god Hermes. The priest at the Delphic oracle was called a hermeios. The oracle’s visions were ambiguous and needed to be interpreted. They occurred while the oracle was in a trancelike state, induced, it seems, from inhaling ethylene fumes (Roach, 2001, online). The verb hermeneuein (to interpret), and the noun hermeneia (interpretation), are found as far back as Plato and Aristotle. Although, as Palmer (1969) tells us, “Hermes is associated with the function of transmuting what is beyond human understanding into a form that human intelligence can grasp . . . bringing a thing or situation from unintelligibility to understanding” (p. 13); he is also a trickster. With these enigmatic beginnings, we can anticipate that ironically, hermeneutics may not be very easy to understand or very straightforward. Krajewski (1992) provides a taste of what is in store:

Given that Hermes carried words from the gods, his messages were often oracular, ambiguous, strange, and his appearance was not always welcome—he was said to lead souls into the underworld at death. Hermes invented language and speech. In the Cratylus, Socrates points out that Hermes could be called interpreter or messenger, but also thief, liar or contriver. Socrates says that words—Hermes’s invention—have the power to reveal, but also to conceal and to withhold. Speech can signify almost anything and turn things this way and that. Indeed, we can never get a grasp on words, hold them still, fix them (as if something was wrong with them.) Words’ meanings always change, because contexts are always changing. It is in the Cratylus that Hermes begins to receive a tainted reputation. (p. 7-8)

Palmer (1969) explores three different directions and functions of the word hermeneuin: (1) to say or express in words—which alludes to the richness of the oral tradition underlying the written tradition; (2) to explain—which refers to saying something about something else in order to make it clear or understandable; and (3) to translate—the notion of bringing what is strange, foreign, or unintelligible into something meaningful that “speaks our language.”

But it seems that we are getting ahead of ourselves. The question remains, how do we understand in the first place? Bontekoe (1996) explains that “understanding is

essentially circular. It begins in medias res, in the middle of things: what has already been understood always forms the basis for grasping what still remains to be understood” (p. 2). Thus, understanding is basically a referential procedure; we understand something by comparing it to something else. For example, if one looks up the definition of “three” in the dictionary, it says a number between two and four; the definition of “four” is a number between three and five, etcetera. Gallagher (1992) describes the workings of hermeneutic circle:

The meaning of the part is only understood within the context of the whole; but the whole is never given unless through an understanding of the parts. Understanding therefore requires a circular movement from parts to whole and from whole to parts.… The hermeneutical circle, therefore is not a vicious circle, the more movement in this circle, the larger the circle grows, embracing the expanding contexts that throw more and more light upon the parts. (p. 59)

A caveat is in order here. Going around in circles can make one very dizzy and disoriented. What is essential to understand is that there is a back and forth motion between the parts and the whole that eventually results in greater understanding. Palmer (1969) likens this partial understanding to using already placed pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to figure out what is still missing:

The interpreter must preunderstand the subject and the situation before he can enter the horizon of its meaning. Only when he can step into the magic circle of its horizon can the interpreter understand its meaning. This is that mysterious “hermeneutic circle” without which the meaning of the text cannot emerge. (p. 25)

The pre-understanding thus changes in the act of understanding. As one acquires new information about either the parts or the whole, new insights continue to develop and understanding deepens.

Bontekoe (1996) notes that understanding is an essentially integrative activity that occurs only when we recognize the significance of the various items that we notice, that is the way in which those items relate to each other: “A number of things which antecedently stand in a meaningful pattern of mutual dependence, but which we initially encounter as separate objects of perception are now seen as belonging together” (p. 3).


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