Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises


Critical hermeneutics

core definition

Critical hermeneutics takes the interpetive process of hermeneutics further and addresses issues of power and ideology and situates hermeneutic analysis in a wider social, eceonomic and historical setting.

explanatory context

Critical hermeneutics tends to adopt a dialectical or deconstructive approach.

Radnitzky (1973) explained aspects of critical hermeneutics. For him, the hermeneutic circle in critical hermeneutics is essentially a very general model of the development of knowledge through a tacking procedure or dialectical analysis. Central to it is the thesis of ‘no knowledge without foreknowledge’.

The anticipation of the global meaning of a text becomes articulated through a process in which the meaning of the parts is determined by the whole and also determines the global meaning of the text as a whole. The hermeneutic circle is a circle one must get into, unlike the tautological circle of logic.

Radnitzky says of the hermeneutic circle that:

A common example from metascience is that descriptions are guided by anticipated explanations, i.e. that before we can explain it, the explanadum has to be processed by reformulating it in the language of the theory by means of which we hope to explain it. (To explain, say, planetary laws by means of Newtonian theory we must give the descriptions in a relevant form, but to do this we must have certain foreknowledge. We must already ‘know’ that we are concerned with ‘gravitational’ phenomena: have an idea of ‘gravitation’, which has grown out of explanations and guides further explanations.... To produce a metascientific theory of growth of knowledge one needs case studies from the history of science, but for such case studies one needs a metascientific platform. (Radnitzky, 1973, p. 216)

[Note: The difference between the hermeneutic circle and middle-range theorising is that the latter is paradigm bound. The hermeneutic circle may appear to be too but it acts to mediate between traditions. However, they both fail to adopt a critical attitude (essential to the growth of knowledge). Critical hermeneutics overcomes this problem to some extent.]

The tacking process is infinite at both ends. Knowledge can always be improved but, also, there is no presuppositionless knowledge…. Cartesian solipsism contradicts the phenomenological position which asserts the situatedness of thinking - i.e. thinking in a foreknowledge influenced context. Thus we cannot go back to the sane ‘absolute’ beginning….The philosophical tradition has a name for this: the dialectic of the open situation: beginning at certain points in the vast ‘text’—be it language or history—but always reflecting on the whole. Losing this holistic ‘prenotion’ or ‘precognition’ out of sight leads to formation of an ideology (a false consciousness). (Radnitzky, 1973, p. 218)

Radnitzky outlines three cannons of [critical] hermeneutics.

1. Sinn Erweiterung : to widen in concentric circles the unity of the grasped meaning. (Gadamer).

2. To search after an interpretation that makes the text maximally good or reasonable.

3. Autonomy of the object, the text must be understood from within itself. Understanding through attending to the text and learning to possess the terms in which the thing is talked about in the text.

Provisional interpretation of parts should be tested against the global meaning of the text as a whole and possibly against other parallel texts by the same author or same tradition.

Radnitzky says of the third cannon that this ‘historistic’ notion of Verstehen, which

attempts to overcome the historicity of interpreter and text is defined in E. Betti’s elaborate theory of interpretation. However, it is clear that we cannot rely on the text alone: traditions are not mediated through texts; and a language without ‘pragmatic mechanism’ for giving meaning to certain primitive terms would not be intelligible. (Radnitzky, 1973, pp 218–19)

He adds:

Hermeneutic human sciences study the objectivations of human cultural activity (texts, etc.) with a view to interpreting them, to find out the intended, or at least the expressed meaning, in order to establish a co-understanding or possibly even consent which has not (yet) been obtained or repairing the same—such which has been disturbed; and in general, to mediate traditions so that the historical dialogue of mankind may be continued or reassumed, and also deepened. (Radnitzky, 1973, p. 214)

Ricoeur on hermeneutics

Paul Ricoeur adopts a dialectical appoach to hermeneutics. In Ricoeur's view there is no 'general hermeneutics'. There are only 'various separate and contrasting hermeneutic theories'.

Ricoeur was born in 1913 and was director of the Centre for the Study of Phenomenology and Hermeneutics in Paris as well as holding part time professorships at Chicago and Nanterre.


For Ricoeur, language is a medium of expression that offers a resource for reflection. System and discourse may be radically distinguished and applied to language. Language is a totality that may be articulated into a series of levels, each characterised by a distinctive and constitutive unit-words, sentences, paragraphs; and phoneme, morpheme, semanteme.

According to Ricoeur, 'we change levels when we pass from the units of a language (phoneme, etc) to the new units constituted by the sentence or the utterance. This is no longer the unit of language, but of speech or discourse'. The word is 'a trader between the system (of language) and the act (of speech), between the structure and the event'

Discourse is essentially dialectical—event and meaning are contradictory. The event of speech may be transitory; the meaning of the speech in writing may be re-identified as the same on subsequent occasions. Thus speech is transitory; the text is inscribed discourse. Texts serve 'to mediate between speaker and hearer by establishing a common dynamics capable of ruling both the production of discourse as a work of a certain kind and its interpretation according to the rules provided by the "genre"'. The consequence is that Ricoeur's view of hermeneutics is that it is a theory of interpretation that enables explanation and understanding to be identified by a 'constructive dialectic..rooted in the text'.

The object domain of hermeneutics is the text. The objective meaning of a text is something other than the subjective intentions of its author and the 'problem of right understanding can no longer be solved by a simple return to the alleged intention of the author'. Whilst texts may allow several interpretations, the elimination of inferior interpretations is a matter of rational argument and debate. For Ricoeur, this is the first movement in the dialectic of interpretation. (It can be understood as sense or explanation The second movement is the severance of the relation of discourse to the circumstances of the situation and the individuals involved. This amounts, in principle, to achieving understanding-'to something disclosed by the text-a possible world'(Reference or understanding). The final dialectical moment culminates in an act of understanding mediated by the explanatory procedures of a structuralist analysis.

According to Thompson (1981), 'these procedures ensure that the object of understanding is not identified with something felt, but rather with a potential reference released by explanation, that is with a possible world disclosed by the text'. Essentially, Ricoeur's theory of interpretation subordinates the subjective intentions of the author to the objective meaning of the text and then offers the reader an opportunity to join the text to the world of the readers consciousness. This appropriation of the text is, according to Thompson, a dispossession in which the self-understanding of the immediate ego is replaced by a self-reflection mediated through the world of the text. This cannot be reduced to subjectivism for it proceeds under the objective guidance of the text. 'In short, the self of self understanding is a gift of understanding itself and of the invitation from the meaning inscribed in the text'


We can consider the nature of this analysis by considering Ricoeur's paper: What is a Text?



analytical review

Gardiner (1999, p. 63) summarized the active role of the interpreter in critical hermeneutics:

The hermeneutic approach stresses the creative interpretation of words and texts and the active role played by the knower. The goal is not objective explanation or neutral description, but rather a sympathetic engagement with the author of a text, utterance or action and the wider socio-cultural context within which these phenomena occur.

Kinsella (2006) explains the critical potential of hermeneutics [Note that the upper case names are in the original]:

Nonetheless, in addition to the productive insights of GADAMER, I propose to illuminate the critical potential of hermeneutics. Such critical possibilities are highlighted by many who work within the hermeneutic tradition or who seek to extend the boundaries of hermeneutics (BAKHTIN, 1981; CAPUTO, 1987, 2000; DERRIDA, 1989; KEARNEY, 1988, 2003; KÖGLER, 1996; GARDINER, 1992; HABERMAS 1990a, 1990b; JARDINE, 1992; RICOEUR, 1981; RORTY, 1991; VATTIMO, 1997; WALLACE, 2000). These theorists attempt to respond to critiques, such as those posited by GARDINER (1992) that GADAMER's hermeneutics ignores the crucial dimensions of power, and the specifically ideological deformation of language use. For instance, CAPUTO (1987, 2000) depicts what he calls "radical hermeneutics" as a merging of HEIDEGGERian hermeneutics and the deconstructionist work of DERRIDA. In response to critiques that such an approach is destructive or nihilistic, CAPUTO argues that radical hermeneutics offers productive insights by "owning up to the fix we are in." While I have not chosen to adopt CAPUTO's radical hermeneutic framework, his notion of "owning up to the fix we are in"—what SPIVAK (1990) refers to as acknowledging our "vulnerability"—speaks eloquently to the ends to which critical hermeneutic inquiry is directed....

DELUCA (2000) has suggested that in "theoretical marriages" ...both partners do not have to agree on all points; rather the marriage is enriched when each brings a unique identity and differing opinions to the table. Likewise, the marriage between critical perspectives and GADAMERian hermeneutics does not represent a synthesis on all counts...

Furthermore, I suggest that if one follows GADAMER's line of argument through to its logical conclusion, an implicit critical dimension is evident in his thought. Although GADAMER's interest in tradition is sometimes branded as conservative...

As HOY (1991) highlights in his discussion of the possibilities of hermeneutics, "although we start from a context, we can nevertheless transcend that context" (p.159). An example comes to mind. For instance, individuals may grow up in a conservative Catholic family and bring the history of this perspective to adulthood, but they also possesses the possibility of transcending this history with respect to their choice of how to practice their faith in adulthood. They may choose to adopt what has been handed down through tradition, they may choose a more radical branch of the Catholic Church, they may choose another faith altogether, or they may choose to reject faith. As individuals we begin from a context that cannot be denied. We cannot escape our history; however, the possibility of transcending our context does exist....

In this spirit of a critical hermeneutics, meaning a critical approach that extends one's insight about the fix we are in, one can recognize that all interpretation and all communication take place within what RICH (2001) calls a "tangle of oppressions." Criticism can be viewed in the sense that EISNER (1998) talks about, as "an art of saying useful things about complex and subtle objects and events so that others … can see and understand what they did not see and understand before" (p.3). In general, according to EISNER, the aim of criticism is to "illuminate a situation so that it can be seen or appreciated" (p.7). To achieve this aim one must use language to reveal what, paradoxically, words can never say, which means as EISNER points out that the elusive quality of voice must be heard in the text....

Indeed, SCHOTT (1991) argues that a hermeneutic philosophy of interpretation must take on an overtly critical position. SCHOTT recognizes that "groups whose discourses, histories, and traditions have been marginalized need to struggle for the self-affirmation that is both a condition and consequence of naming oneself as an interpreter" (p.209). This stance requires a consciousness about who is absent from conversations, and a commitment to assist individuals who are marginalized or subordinated to become active interpreters. In this way a critical hermeneutic approach affords a space for repressed voices to speak out, and neglected texts to get a reading (see KEARNEY, 1988). Although the situated nature of interpretation is recognized, the possibility of engaging a self-critical thinking consciousness and of transcending the insights of the present context, are always present....

Lesniewski (undated, no references appended) makes a case for Stanislaw Brzozowski (1878–1911) being inter alia a pioneer of critical hermeneutics:

It is a very well-known truth, but unfortunately still not outside Poland, that Brzozowski was the first thinker who interpreted Marxism in a new antinaturalistic way..... The most important hermeneutical notion of Brzozowski’s thought is “ideogenetic type”: When we determine some system of beliefs, notions, values, it is very important to understand with what kind of life’s process they are connected. This process or fact we can call ideogenetic type of given culture (The Legend of Young Poland, p. 98). For example “ideogenetic type” of Renaissance’s man was man freed from medieval social and philosophical limitations. As we see, “ideogenetic type” is such a kind of understanding that double move of thinking takes place: from given work to its “ideogenetic type”, and back to the work, but after the second move we can interpret this work in the light of its determination: beyond each notion we are looking for the group that has constructed it, and character of this group is the only measure of its ideological works (Letters, v. 1, p. 410). What is worth noticing is that hermeneutical category of Brzozowski’s critics is not reductive one – it does not serve to destruct given work and to treat it as meaningless, but to better understanding of this work. Brzozowski wrote in his peculiar style: Man is deeper than any thought, any sentence spoken by him: to find life beyond thought, to show it – meaning to disclose its deepest content (The Legend of Young Poland, p. 171).

associated issues


related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section

Researching the Real World Section 5.9



Bakhtin, M., 1981, The dialogic imagination (Holquist, M., Ed.; Emerson, C. & Holquist, M. Trans.), Austin, TX, University of Texas Press.

Caputo, J., 1987, Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, deconstruction, and the hermeneutic project, Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press.

Caputo, J., 2000, More Radical Hermeneutics: On not knowing who we are, Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press.

DeLuca, S., 2000, Finding meaning places for healing: Toward a vigilant subjectivity in the practice of a nurse educator. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto.

Derrida, J., 1989, 'Three questions to Hans-Georg Gadamer', in Michelfelder, D.P. & Palmer, R.E., (Eds.), Dialogue and Deconstruction: The Gadamer-Derrida encounter (pp. 52–54), New York, State University of New York Press.

Eisner, E.W., 1998, The Enlightened Eye: Qualitative inquiry and the enhancement of educational practice, Upper Saddle River, NJ, Merrill.

Gadamer, H.G., 1976, Philosophical Hermeneutics (David E. Linge, Ed. & Trans.), Berkeley, University of California Press.

Gadamer, H.G., 1996, Truth and Method (2nd rev. ed., Joel Weinsheimer & Donald Marshall, Trans.), New York, Continuum.

Gardiner, M., 1992, The Dialogics of Critique: M. M. Bakhtin and the theory of ideology, London, Routledge.

Habermas, J., 1990a, 'A review of truth and method' in Ormiston, G. & Schrift, A. (Eds.), The Hermeneutic Tradition: From Ast to Ricouer (pp. 213–44), New York, State University of New York Press.

Habermas, J., 1990b, 'The hermeneutic claim to universality' in Ormiston, G. & Schrift, A. (Eds.), The Hermeneutic Tradition: From Ast to Ricouer (pp. 213–44), New York, State University of New York Press.

Hoy, D., 1991, 'Is hermeneutics ethnocentric?' in Hiley, D., Bohman, J. & Shusterman, R. (Eds.), The Interpretive Turn: Philosophy, science, culture (pp. 155–75), Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press.

Jardine, D., 1992, 'Reflections on education, hermeneutics, and ambiguity: hermeneutics as a restoring of life to its original difficulty' in Pinar, W.F. & Reynolds, W.M. (Eds.), Understanding Curriculum as Phenomenological and Deconstructed Text (pp.116–30), New York, Teachers College Press.

Kearney, R., 1988, The Wake of Imagination, London, Routledge.

Kearney, R., 2003, Strangers, Gods, and Monsters: Interpreting otherness, London, Routledge.

Kinsella, E.A, 2006, 'Hermeneutics and critical hermeneutics: exploring possibilities within the art of interpretation', Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research 7(3), Art. 19, available at, accessed 28 May 2013, still available 2 June 2019.

Kögler, H.H., 1996, The Power of Dialogue: Critical hermeneutics after Gadamer and Foucault (Paul Hendrickson, Trans.), Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

Lesniewski, N., undated, 'Stanisla Brzozowski's crirical hermeneutics', available at, accessed 28 May 2013, still available 2 June 2019.

Radnitzky, G., 1973. Contemporary Schools of Metascience, Chicago, Regnery.

Rich, A., 2001, Arts of the Possible, New York, W.W. Norton.

Ricoeur, P., 1981, Hermeneutics and Human Science: Essays on language, action and interpretation (John Thompson, Trans.), London, Cambridge University Press.

Rorty, R., 1991, 'Inquiry as recontexualization: an anti-dualist account of interpretation' in Hiley, D., Bohman, J. & Shusterman, R. (Eds.), The Interpretive Turn: Philosophy, science, culture (pp. 59 –80), Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press.

Schott, R., 1991, 'Whose home is it anyway? A feminist response to Gadamer's hermeneutics', in Silverman, H.(Ed.), Gadamer and Hermeneutics (pp. 202–09), New York, Routledge.

Spivak, G., 1990, The Post-colonial Critic: Interviews, strategies, dialogues (Sarah Harasym, Ed.), New York, Routledge.

Thompson, J., 1981, 'Introduction' in Ricoeur, P., 1981, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Vattimo, G., 1997, Beyond Interpretation: The meaning of hermeneutics for philosophy, Cambridge, UK, Polity Press.

Wallace, J., 2000, En/Countering resistance to gender equity policy in educational organizations. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Toronto, ON: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto.

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