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



core definition

Hermeneutics takes a variety of forms but in essence is a means of interpretation, principally of historical events, phenomena or texts.

explanatory context

Hermeneutics has been described as the science of interpretation. Hermeneutics, although with a history stretching back to the Ancient Greeks, developed in the Middle Ages as a mechanism for Biblical exegesis. It subsequently became transformed into a philosophical and later sociological form of enquiry and, with the work of Heidegger, into an ontological principle.


For different approaches to hermeneutics see Heidegger, Dilthey, Gadamer, Betti, and for critical hermeneutics see Ricoeur and Habermas.

Schleiermacher and the origin of modern hermeneutics

Hermeneutics was originally devised as a method of textual interpretation by a German philologist and theologian called Friedrich Schleiermacher. Schleiermacher's problem was to establish a true Biblical text: that is to say an accurate copy of the original text. The problem of corrupt texts occurred, originally, in the process of copying. The original was copied many times and, in a manner similar to the oral transmission of a message, the text became distorted in the copying from the original. The difficulty is that in the period when copying was necessary accurate copies may have been made of inaccurate versions. This was however a problem for theologians for any analysis and interpretation of Biblical text presupposed an accurate text to base the analysis or interpretation upon.

Schleiermacher, invoked a fundamental shift in hermeneutic practice. By maintaining that misunderstanding of historically situated cultural products was the norm becaause changing world views, word meanings and so on, inhibited understanding. Thus, what a text says, for example, is not, for Schleiermacher, what it appears to say - instead its meaning must be recovered by a disciplined reconstruction of the historical situation or context in which it originated. Thus a critical, methodologically controlled interpretation of texts was required.

Scheleiermacher's method is as follows:
i) establish a dialectical relationship between the parts and the whole (the totality)
ii) provide an interpretation which is maximally good;
iii) the sign (signitive system, the text, the object, etc) must be understood from within.

Essentially, this is Schleiermacher's hermeneutic method. It rests upon a fundamental assumption that the relationship between sign (text) and meaning can be established unambiguously. For, Schleiermacher the researcher's own current situation can have only a negative value as the source of prejudices and distortions that serve to inhibit understanding. Schleiermacher tends to the Cartesian idealist view that the individual can disengage from the present in order to understand the past.

There is also an assumption in Schleiermacher's approach that the dialectical interchange between parts and the totality represents the totality as both subject and object. The process of analysis is the recapitulation of the dialectical engagement between totality and parts in such a way as to provide a hermeneutic circle.

Dilthey's historicist hermeneutics


Dilthey was concerned to establish an objective method for interpretive history. His approach to hermeneutics is the traditional historicist approach.

Dilthey was concerned with cultural creations and the meaningfulness of human activity. Echoing Schleiermacher, Dilthey reconfirmed the need for re-experiencing meaning within the original context in order to develop understanding (Verstehen).

For Dilthey, Verstehen was essentially historical. It required an appreciation of the author of the text from the perspective of the author's own milieu. He therefore developed Schleiermacher's position by incorporating a historical dimension into the hermeneutic circle. Verstehen, for Dilthey, involved a shuttling between part and whole and between past and present. The relationship between past and present was seen by Dilthey as an interpretive process; but one that could be objectified. This position, in modified form, is supported by Betti's recent work, (Betti, 1962).

Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften

Dilthey's development of a hermeneutic historicist metascience is rooted in the distinction he draws between the natural and social sciences, Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften. Hermeneutics is the method of the latter.

The distinction provided the frame of reference by which Dilthey was able to establish a study of socio-cultural phenomena that incorporated a hermeneutic dimension and that attempted to emulate scientific objectivity.

For Dilthey, the relation of subject and object was fundamental to the Naturwissenschaften–Geisteswissenschaften distinction rather than any difference in the object itself or the method of investigation. Dilthey saw Geisteswissenschaften and Naturwissenschaften differing in that Geisteswissenschaften relate to the world of the knower while nature is an alien, mute force. Social processes, entered into, but not created by the knower, evoke emotional responses, while mute nature only does so through the application of the knower's imagination. The peculiar subject-object relation of the Geisteswissenschaftenen necessitated, for Dilthey, that they be understood through grasping the 'subjective consciousness' from within. The Naturwissenschaftenen, on the other hand, are causally explained (erklaren) from the outside.

For the Geisteswissenschaftenen, the basic relationship is one of lived experience, knowledge is dependent upon the researcher remaining within the sphere of understanding. As the Geisteswissenschaftenen are concerned with the practical self knowledge that people have and that inform day-to-day activity, the content of objectified processes are not the major concern of social scientists. Rather, the Geisteswissenschaftenen are about assimilating and expanding knowledge about the ordering of social affairs both private and public. Dilthey posits a common base for the Geisteswissenschaftenen that distinguishes it from the 'everyday' concept of science by which a definition of the Naturwissenschaften are informed.

Dilthey refers to science as having a determined and constant set of concepts which retain validity for a given system of thought wherein conceptual connections have been 'justified' with the purpose of communicating knowledge about a segment of reality.


Geisteswissenschaften, by contrast, involve a self awareness on a prescientific level. Its main aim is to derive value and purpose from the creation of 'mental elements', thus demarking, For Dilthey, an independently operative mental universe.


The difference between Geisteswissenschaften and Naturwissenschaften lies, then, in the activity of will, (which Dilthey regards as sovereign) which actually produces something new as opposed to the 'mechanical process of changes in nature where the product is already contained at the inception.' (Dilthey, 1964-66, Vol. 1, p. 6 quoted in Bleicher, 1982, p. 57).


Dilthey sets his historico-critical approach in opposition to the natural science orientation of the positivists. Dilthey argues that Comte, Spencer and Mill have contributed much to the establishment of the Geisteswissenschaften but have been overly speculative in proposing social science as a whole conceived as analagous to the ordering of knowledge gained from the natural world. Dilthey maintains that the Geisteswissenschaftenen have developed differently and that they must be approached historically.

Empirical data, theory and value judgements

Dilthey is not anti-empirical. Indeed he applauds empirical investigation. However, the Geisteswissenschaften involve a double perspective which requires prescribing spheres of interest for physical and socio-historical enquiry and elucidating their interrelationships. This comes about because humans are both a complex of mental realities when viewed from the point of view of their inner perceptions while also being a bodily whole apprehended through sense-perception.

The Geisteswissenschaftenen, then, consist of three types of statement, those pertaining to 'objective' sense perception, those expressing value-judgements and those attempting to develop theoretical constancies. For Dilthey, initially the descriptive psychological study of individuals is central to the Geisteswissenschaften endeavour, as it analyses the elementary unit of socio-historical reality and deals with the process by which humans gain knowledge of this reality. The Geisteswissenschaftenen thus provide an immediate apprehension of the object of study through the reflective consciousness whereas the Naturwissenschaften arrive only at a hypothetical approximation of the content of knowledge gained externally through the senses.

[Doesn't this apodictic type of analysis run into the same kind of problems as Husserlian phenomenology ?]


However, psychology is not the sole focus for the Geisteswissenschaften because it takes no account of the social totality of which the individual is part. While psychology may provide the analytic knowledge of the general characteristics of humanity and thereby provide the basis for the construction of socio-historical reality, it is not, alone, sufficient for the development of the Geisteswissenschaften. The other social sciences provide historically based classifications of social structures (anthropology), comparative analyses of uniformities in such structures (ethnology) and the analysis of social formations as they emerge from interaction between individuals (sociology, economics, politics).

Around 1900, Dilthey shifted his views so that he no longer regarded psychology as so fundamental. He introduced a hermeneutic view of understanding rather than the psychologistic forms of empathy and reliving that had dominated his conception of Geisteswissenschaften.


Instead, understanding for Dilthey became associated with hermeneutic interpretations of 'objectivations of mind', which he considered to be the fundamental mode of getting to know the subject.


Dilthey, like Schleiermacher, identified the meaning of text, (action, etc.) with the subjective intention of the author and saw the hermeneutic task as one of recovering the context in order to understand the author as the author intended to be understood.

Understanding therefore involves an imaginitive act whereby the researcher/knower overcomes, or indeed negates, the temporal distance that separates him/her from the cultural object of enquiry and becomes contemporaneous with it.

For Dilthey (like Schleiermacher) the researcher's own current situation can have only a negative value as the source of prejudices and distortions that serve to inhibit understanding. In effect Dilthey (and Schleiermacher) resort to the Cartesian ideal of the individual act of disengagement with the present in order to understand the past.

So the Geisteswissenschaften are now seen as being concerned with objectivations of life that the scientist stands in living relationship with. This raises the problem of how a universally valid knowledge of the historical world can be possible. This problem he linked with that of the 'objectivity' of hermeneutic interpretation of meaning. Dilthey attempted to resolve this problem through methodic devices on the one hand and ontological assertions on the other.

For Dilthey, life 'as the web supporting the reciprocal interpretations of social actors provides the intersubjective support for individual interpretations and the context within which they aquire their meaningfulness. What is shared by all must, further, be objective in the sense of transcending and encompassing the merely subjective as the private or idiosyncratic'. (Bleicher, 1982, p. 63).

This philosophy of life accounts not only for the criteria Dilthey develops to distinguish the Geisteswissenschaften and Naturwissenschaften, but also provides insights about the possibility of valid knowledge in the former. Dilthey sees the shared productive force of humanity, which he refers to as 'life', as providing an explanation of how an interpreter is able to reconstruct objectivations.

'The first condition for the possibility of a science of history consists in the fact that I myself am an historical being, that he who researches into history is the same as he who makes it.' (Dilthey, 1964–66, Vol 7, p. 278)

In attempting to establish how the individual's knowledge of objectivations of life can be generally valid, Dilthey is unable to transcend a scientistic notion of objectivity. As Dilthey wishes the products of the Geisteswissenschaften to be translated into social and political activity he requires that they take on the attributes of the Naturwissenschaften, i.e., that they be 'certain' and 'objective'.

Lived experience is the ultimate unit for hermeneutics, it is 'given'. Observation is replaced by 'reliving', in Dilthey's analysis. As Habermas (1969, p. 226) notes: 'lived experience' and 'reliving' 'both fulfil on the empirical level the criterion for a copy theory of truth; they guarantee, it seems, the reproduction of something immediate within an isolated consciousness that is free of any subjective elements'.

Dilthey thus regarded historical objectivations as 'givens' open to being deciphered via hermeneutic techniques. he thereby undervalued the interpreter-text relationship and effectively converted it from the subject-subject relationship (conceived epistemologically) to a subject-object relationship. Dilthey thus overlooked the impact that an historical object has on an interpreter's perceptions of it. He ignored the self-reflective process which is necessarily contingent upon tradition and language.

In short, as Bleicher, 1980, argues, in attempting to establish an objective Geisteswissenschaften, Dilthey denied the essential nature of the hermeneutic experience, and his metascience failed to escape scientistic limits.

Dilthey was the dominant intellect of the Heidelberg School and he advocated a blend of unorthodox neo-Kantian and neo-Hegelian philosophy. Historical knowledge was an inward experience which was comprehensible because history was composed of objectivations of human mind. Such objectivations were accessible because the contemplative thinker (subject) was an actor in history - one of the 'components'/'recipients' of universal mind. The world of human spirit was essentially knowable via an imaginative reconstruction of the realtionship between the past as a whole and particular individual products (e.g. art works) which were concrete manifestations of the era -i.e. via hermeneutics.


Betti on hermeneutics*
Objective interpretation

Betti provides a basis for objective understanding in his analysis of the relationship between perceiving mind and object.

Like Dilthey, Betti accepts the Kantian idea that knowledge is not a passive mirror of reality but that its objects are determined by how they are comprehended. Furthermore, Betti argues that values belong to a 'second dimension of objectivity' which 'follows its own lawfulness' in representing an 'ideal objectivity'.

Given the autonomous character of values, how can consciousness discover them ?

For Betti, the solution lies in the ability to adopt an open-minded, unprejudicial attitude on behalf of the knower. [In this he is diammetrically opposed to Gadamer.] Betti posits [idealistly] that values are absolute and have essentially an 'ideal existence-in-themselves'. Mental idisyncracies do not effect values but they may be reached through consciousness via a transcendental approach. Such an approach shelves the empirical self and appreciates a 'shared spiritual cosmos'.

The knowing subject, then, continuously develops knowledge and self-recognition through communication with objective forms that contain meaning. As the subject's judgement changes so, then, an historical analysis is required to elucidate the 'inner coherence of style of various meaningful constructs'.

The ideal objectivity of values, can, however, only be comprehended through the 'real objectivity' of sensible objects. Verstehen is the process of interpretation of objectivations of mind, and through it 'meaning-full' forms are re-translated into the 'ideal objectivity of the values which have been realized in them'. (Bleciher, 1980, p. 29).

Interpretation is thus confronmted by a mongrelized ideal/real objectivity. Taking Humboldt's philosophy as illustration, Betti draws a parallel with language and human conception of an ideal cosmos. the ideal goes beyond linguisticboundaries but is too constrained by it when investigation of the ideal world takes place.

Betti's central point is that interpretation is an activity that aims at arriving at understanding through analysis of meaning-full forms. These forms are 'givens' and provide the precondition for both intersubjective communication and the objectivity of the results of interpretation.

Although an objectivist, Betti settles for 'relative objectivity' because of the limitation of the dialectical relationship between the 'actuality of understanding' and the objectivations of mind. (Bleicher, 1980, p. 30).

The subject (individual or collectivity) and the object (objectivation of mind) of the process of interpretation 'are locked together in an antinomous relationship: mind has congealed into permenent forms and confronts the subject as an 'other', but both are dependent on one another 'because the given, interested subjective mind requires objectivations as a support in order to free himself by growing in consciousness; and the objectivations contained in what is handed down are themselves completely dependent on an interested mind in order to be brought to the understanding, i.e. to be reintroduced into the sphere of understanding via the process of interpretation' (Betti, 1967, p. 93).' (Bleicher, 1980, p. 30)

Objectivity is an existent 'other' which may be comprehended through conceptual frames that are appropriate to its concrete expression. Thus Verstehen is distinct from explanation since it is concerned with the meaning or value contained in phenomena, which is different from 'merely representing a case of something general'.

Interpretation is to render intelligible and this task is more difficult the greater the gap between 'speaker' and 'listener'. Betti relates interpretation to the distinction between language and speech. Understanding is always more than knowing the meaning or signification of words used in speech. This is the elementary level of understanding. The listener/reader has to participate in the same 'form of life' in order to understand in the sense of being able to share the communication of thought offered.'Understanding is directed at a whole and presupposes a total engagement on the part of the subject.'

Understanding is then directed at a meaningful totality which constitutes a precondition both for the object of attention and also for the experience of the subject.

Understanding as a reconstruction of intention

Betti, like Schleiermacher and Dilthey, sees interpretation as a process that is therefore the inversion of the process of creation. The author's intended meaning is what is derived from expressions and the task of interpretation is to 'reconstruct the train of thought underlying it'.

A corrolory of this necessity to enquire into the author's full intentions, via an analysis of the available creations, is that, to do justice to the 'worth of the creation' author and interpreter should be of similar intellectual and moral stature. (Bleicher, 1980, p. 33).

'Just as creative activity does not take place out of nothing but draws on an immense range of past achievements and present influences, so understanding too has to be envisaged as total perception that goes beyond abstractive considerations or atomistic observation. Given sufficient inner affinity such an act can take place, in it interpretive activity plays an ancillary role'. (Bleicher, 1980, p. 33).

Precondition for correct understanding

The existence of a gap between subject and object, which led to the interpretive procedure, requires a reflective approach in which the 'otherness' of objectivations of mind is recognised and [leads to] humility in approaching the interpretation. Ones own prejudices must be confronted in order to develop understanding. Five aspects of prejudicial behaviour are identified as important by Betti.

First, the resentment of unusual ideas (particularly those contrary to the 'norms' endorsed by the observer).

Second, the consequent denigration and distortion of such ideas.

Third, the self-righteousness which embraces such a stance and sees issues in terms of a simple good-bad dichotomy and being unaware of their dialectic relationship.

Fourth, the conformity towards dominant conceptions and the acceptane of 'conventional bias' in judging others.

Fifth, the lack of interest in other cultures indicative of an intellectual moral narrowness or laziness.

Betti sees the extreme of such 'contorted thought' in the 'fanatic and party member who is possessed by an ideology'.

Betti argues that although successful interpretation requires openness, this does not lead one to confuse interpretation as process with general speculation or 'self-understanding'. Indeed, he feels that Dilthey was misguided in conflating understanding and interpetation through an inadequate distinction of Verstehen and Erleben such that the 'inner lived experience' became confused with Verstehen. Hence, in Dilthey's work, Verstehen and causal explanation could not be easily distinguished.

Betti attempted to elaborate a methodology that would confront the dialectic between subjectivity and objectivity, take into account the relative nature of objectivations of mind, and address the problem of the 'actuality' of the knower.

Betti sees the tension between objectivity and subjectivity as a precondition of a personal or cultural 'style' in which an inner coherence is manifested.

Betti proposes four methodological canons for hermeneutic analysis.

Betti considers the 'dialectic of the process of interpretation' to be asymmetrical in that the subject has a prior set of experiences that are brought to bear on the object. The latter is not approached spontaneously, the meaning of the object is anticipated. Consequently, interpretations can never be complete or final as these prior experiences cannot be transcended 'in toto'.

The practice of interpretation

Essentailly, Betti was not concerned with the ontology of understanding. He aimed at:

1) clarifying the problem of undestanding by a close analysis of the process of interpretation
2) forming a methodology that barred subjectivist intrusions into the objectivist interpretation of objectivations of mind.

Betti noted four theoretical moments with the interpretive process.

1. philological - reconstruction of the logical coherence of spoken or written speech.
2. critical - critique of text, allows for assessment of incongruities and distinguishing of originals.
3. psychological - re-cognise the author's intellectual position
4. technical-morphological - consideration of the object as object independent of external factors.

And Betti distinguishes 3 types of interpretation.
1. recognition - understanding for its own sake.
2. reproduction - communication of an experience.
3. noramative - guide for action.

Methodological canons

Betti proposes four methodological canons for hermeneutic analysis:

a1. the canon of the hermeneutical autonomy of the object and immanence of the hermeneutical standard;
a2. the canon of the totality and coherence of hermeneutical evaluation;
b1. the canon of the actuality of understanding;
b2. the canon of the harmonization of understanding—hermeneutical correspondence and agreement. (Bleicher, 1980, p. 37).

Summary and conclusion
For Betti, interpretation is a means towards understanding. Objective interpretation permits understanding by facilitating the 're-appropriation of objective mind by another subject' (Bleicher, 1980, p. 47).

The necessity for relatively objective knowledge calls for a subject-object relationship as focus of the hermeneutic endeavour rather than subject-subject, despite the object being an expression of another subject.

The interpretive act is a triadic process in which meaning loaded objects mediate between the author's mind (as objectivated in the object) and the interpreter's mind.

The object is, therefore, something 'other'. The difference between this view of interpretation and any other subject-object view of cognition lies in the fact that the object is not object per se but an objectivation of mind and interpretation needs to re-construct (or re-cognise) the ideas, messages, manifested in them.

Interpretation is an internalisation process in which the interpreter transposes the meaning of the forms into a different subjectivity (derived from the author).

Elementary understanding occurs, therefore, through the mediation of language. The expression of the object is an 'appeal' that the interpreter grasps through reconstructing the intended meaning via the interpreter's categories of thought and diligent sifting of pieces of evidence.

Adequate understanding, though, depends on a basis of correct knowledge, which requires a close analysis of the phenomena under consideration.

Critique of Betti's approach
Betti is concerned to elucidate a method and emphasise the importance of demonstrable knowledge. He manages, in so doing, to conceptualise hermeneutics as a subject-object relationship (not a subject-subject relationship) and does not provide, or use, a consistent account of the role of the subject.

Bleicher (1980, p. 39) considers that Betti's metascience is, then, scientistic. He uses a 'natural science mode of knowledge' to reduce the interpreter's historic situated-ness' to a 'factor making only for subjectivism and relativism'.

Betti's methodology is thus trapped by the same constraints that had inhibited Dilthey. Unlike Dilthey, Betti opposed the fusion of 'understanding' and 'lived experience'. He did not however deny the moment of self-development in the interpretive process although Bleicher cannot see how/where he uses this insight.

Betti's clashes with Gadamer's historicalist hermeneutics.

Betti's canon of the 'autonomy of the text', which attempts an understanding of the author's intention even better than the author understood him or herself, was seen by Gadamer as an objectivist remnant.

Gadamer's demand that one needs to partcipate in understanding seems (on the face of it) to reflect Betti's canon of the actuality of understanding. However, the latter ignores the historical, tradition bound situation of the interpreter that is vital to Gadamer. Betti saw interpretation and understanding as involved in a triadic relationship of author, researcher, and meaningful forms. The latter acting as mediator. The objective interpretation serves as a means to understanding.

Betti has focused on the admission of prejudice in his criticism of Gadamer.

Betti saw his chief task as one of clarifying the relationship between understanding and interpretation. He regarded interpretation as objective. Gadamer, on the other hand, opposed this view and attacked the objectivist remnants of Betti's Geisteswissenschaften historicism, which ignored historicality of knowledge.


Betti makes a useful distinction between key concepts: explanation and understanding; elementary understanding (of significations) and (totalistic) understanding; understanding and interpretation (the latter seems to be closer to elementary understanding); understanding and abstraction; total perception (of understanding) and atomistic observation (of explanation); Verstehen and erleben (inner lived experience).


It seems, thought, that Betti is attempting to overcome the mind matter dualism via an idealist version of dialectic invoking an elitist view of the ability to grasp knowledge, which he maintains can result in objective knowledge untainted by a prejudicial mind.

Bleicher's view of Betti's work

Bleicher considers Betti's work as the most sophisticated exposition of the methodology of the interpretation of objective mind. However, Betti's emphasis on self-knowledge limited his hermeneutic endeavour to a reconstruction of an objectivation of mind that would only be relatively objective. An historicalist hermeneutic attempts a transcendental analysis in which the interpreter is aware of a traditional indeptedness such that the hermeneutic endeavour becomes, not the reconstruction of a something that has 'congealed into an object but instead 'indicates a new way of being' (See Bleicher, 1980, p. 97).

Bleicher suggests that Betti's focus on objective interpretation precludes the practical dimension of aquisition of theoretical truth - viz. the dialectical process between two subjects.

(Further critique of Betti, see Bleicher, 1980, pp 120–26).


Gadamer on hermeneutics

The Task of hermeneutics
For Hans-Georg Gadamer hermeneutics is ‘a philosophical effort to account for understanding’. Understanding is the process of ‘being in man’; ‘the ontological process’. How then can hermeneutics do justice to the historic process of understanding?


For Gadamer the task of philosophical hermeneutics is an ontological one aiming to illuminate the fundamental conditions that underpin the process of understanding (as universally applicable). It seeks to reveal the conditions that constitute understanding as an event over which the ‘interpreting subject does not ultimately preside’. As Gadamer says, ‘the question is not what we do or what we should do, but what happens beyond our willing and doing’ (Gadamer, 1960, p xiv, quoted in Linge (Ed.), 1976, p xi).


Hermeneutics is applicable to all situations where meaning is not immediately graspable, i.e., where interpretation is required, in short, in situations where intersubjectivity is breached. Thus, for Gadamer, hermeneutics is not to be restricted to Geistenwissenschaft [human sciences such as philosophy, history, philology, musicology, linguistics, theater studies, literary studies, media studies] but can be a universal procedure of enquiry, or mode of philosophy and not merely the methodological foundation of the human sciences.


Hermeneutics as viewed by Gadamer undermines the physicalist view of the unity of all science (i.e., the universality of the natural science ‘paradigm’).


The historicality of understanding

For Gadamer, historicality can be viewed both ontologically and epistemologically. Ontologically, historicality is the view that ‘human life is responsible for the future’. Epistemologically, historicality refers to understanding as the knowledge one gains about self and existence on the basis of ‘prejudice’, ‘within a changing horizon’ (Bleicher, 1981, p. 268).


Taking Heidegger’s notion of the fore-structure of knowledge, Gadamer widens it by making it concrete and relating it to Bultmann’s emphasis on pre-understanding which Gadamer transforms into ‘prejudice’ (in a wide and positive sense). Prejudices constitute a horizon of understanding.


For Gadamer, the rejection of prejudices as evidenced by its subsequent negative connotation was the product of an alliance between the rationalists of the Enlightenment (incorporating the natural sciences which themselves were a product of the Enlightenment) and the nineteenth century historistic Geisteswissenschaften in search of objectivity and the ‘conquest of myths by logos’.


Gadamer fundamentally opposes the Rationalist view because it ignores the ‘fact that Reason can only actualise itself in historical conditions’.


The Nature of understanding

Gadamer agrees with Dilthey that understanding (Verstehen in Dilthey’s terms) is distinct from explanation but argues that it is not based on re-enactment but the result of an interchange between two different cultural frames.


Gadamer reflects Bultmann in emphasising that Verstehen is never a reliving of mental processes but a projective anticipating and mediating (of old or strange texts by concepts possessed by the researcher). Understanding develops as a priori creative steps are mutually complemented (or corrected) by empirical checking (or error eliminating) processes.


Gadamer thus sees Verstehen not as a subjective process, ‘but rather an entering into another tradition such that past and present constantly mediate each other’ (Gadamer, 1960, p. 275).


‘Understanding a text from a historical period remote from our own, for example, ... is, according to Gadamer, essentially a creative process in which the observer, through penetrating an alien mode of existence, enriches his own self knowledge through acquiring knowledge of others.’ (Giddens, 1976, p. 56).


Understanding, then, comes from grasping the form of life that gives it meaning rather than through getting inside the subjective experience of the author. Verstehen depends on discourse; language is the medium of intersubjectivity and the concrete expression of cultural forms.


In abandoning the idea of ‘reliving’, Gadamer also forsakes the search for ‘objective’ knowledge. All understanding is situated in history and is understanding from within a particular frame of reference, tradition or culture.


[Giddens, 1976, notes as part of his critique of Gadamer’s historicality thesis that he sees hermeneutics as a discipline that guarantees truth, as truth inheres in being. This is an ‘error of existentialism’, which Gadamer’s appeal to dialectics does not overcome.]


The possibility of objective reconstruction of the past

The older school of hermeneutics attempted to empathise with the author of texts. Gadamer argues that what is necessary, if one wants to imagine oneself in the place of an other, is not to attempt empathy with the other’s thoughts but to assess what these thoughts, or the sentences expressing them, are about. This means that the researcher requires more familiarity with the topics of the text than with authors’ biography.


Gadamer, in his view of the dialogical mediation of past and present argues that a work becomes detached from its author. The work (which may contain insights the author is unaware of) may develop widened meaning through the interpretive process. Something emerges that was not there before as a text is reconsidered through the ‘tacking’ between past and present. Understanding a text is not a process of going back, rather it is a participating now, a disclosure of the world.


This approach of Gadamer’s is opposed to Schleiermacher’s ‘affinity of minds’, Betti’s canon of the ‘autonomy of the text’, and Dilthey’s view of the fixity of meaning of the text which Gadamer sees as objectivist remnants which attempt an understanding of the author’s intention even better than the author understood him or herself.


Gadamer’s demand that one needs to participate in understanding seems (on the face of it) to reflect Betti’s canon of the actuality of understanding. However, the latter ignores the historical, tradition-bound situation of the interpreter, which is vital to Gadamer. Betti saw interpretation and understanding as involved in a triadic relationship of author, researcher, and meaningful forms. The latter acting as mediator. The objective interpretation serves as a means to understanding.


Gadamer collapses interpretation, understanding and application into one another. Gadamer freed hermeneutics from the concern with ‘objectivity’. Hermeneutics provided a universal perspective for viewing scientific progress.


Gadamer also denies the possibility of the disengagement of the researcher/historian from the past simply by adoption of an attitude. The possibility of disengagement, he argues, rests on the idea that the researcher’s historicity is merely an accidental and subjective condition. If this were so then a reflective act of disengagement (the adoption of an attitude to history) would be possible.


But, Gadamer argues, historicity is an ontological condition, which means that the researcher’s own present situation is already a constitutive element of understanding. (In this he reflects Heidegger who argued that only a person who stands in history can hope to understand history.) The current horizons of the researcher/knower should then be regarded positively. Pre-knowledge should be seen as a positive constituent of understanding, rather than viewed negatively as an impediment to understanding (as Dilthey and Schleiermacher do when they see pre-knowledge as prejudices and distortions which serve to inhibit understanding).


Gadamer argues that the subject interpreting the text expects to learn something new but that this new knowledge is ‘gathered’ in the context of foreknowledge or ‘prejudice’. It is necessary therefore to consciously assimilate these prejudices.


‘The important thing is to be aware of ones own bias, so that the text may present itself in all its newness and thus be able to assert its own truth against ones own fore-meanings’ (Gadamer, 1960, p. 238, in Bleicher, 1981, p. 110.).


As understanding (and all knowing) is based on pre-knowledge then current prejudices do not divorce the knower from the past but serve, initially to open up the past to the knower.


Gadamer therefore differs from the historicist hermeneuticians in seeing no requirement to re-cognise past events in the concepts employed at the time in order to arrive at ‘objective’ results.


More than any other aspect of his thought, Gadamer’s notion of prejudice indicates his determination to acknowledge the ‘unsuspendable finitude and historicity of understanding’ and to exhibit their positive role in the transmission of meaning. The preponderant view of both historists and early hermeneuticists was that only a neutralised, value free consciousness guarantees objectivity. The historicity of the knower is effectively ignored.


Gadamer joined Heidegger in attacking this subjectivist position (albeit claiming objectivity). The dominant ideal of knowledge and the ‘alienated self-sufficient consciousness it involves’ is itself a powerful prejudice that has dominated and controlled philosophical analysis since Descartes.


The resolution for Gadamer is, to treat understanding not as reconstruction but as mediation. Understanding for Gadamer is not to be the methodologically dominated subjective process of disengagement but as the entering into ‘an event of transmission in which past and present are constantly mediated’ (Gadamer, 1960, pp. 274–75).


The past is not a set of objects to be recovered; mediation involves a realisation that the past informs the researcher’s present horizon, current prejudices are given by the movement of tradition. Our participation in history is constituted through our prejudices. Prejudices ‘inform’ our being or, as Gadamer maintains, prejudgements constitute our being.


This admission of prejudice has been the focus of Gadamer’s most acrimonious critics, see for example, Betti (1962) and Hirsch (1967).


For Gadamer, then, understanding is a ‘fusion of horizons’; the hermeneutic endeavour is mediation of past and present to bring about such a fusion. This fusion resembles a dialogue (rather than a methodologically controlled investigation - a vestige of scientific method never shaken off by early hermeneuticists).


A dialogue is about something and, unlike the reconstitutive hermeneutics of Dilthey and Schleiermacher, which took language as a cipher standing for something lying behind the text (e.g., the Weltanshauung of the author), Gadamer focuses on what the text says to successive generations. Literary works are detached from their origin and acquire a contemporaneity of their own. This contemporaneity ‘speaks’ to each new generation. Hermeneutic endeavour should be to enter into the communication a text makes to us at the present time. Dialogue involves not looking at the other, but looking with the other, at what is being communicated.


Hermeneutic circle and the role of pre-understanding

Gadamer argued that the hermeneutic problem underpins all knowledge, and, at least as far as the Geistenwissenschaften are concerned, this necessitates a disavowal of the scientific method and a demand that the historic character of the object of the Geistenwissenschaften be viewed as a positive moment rather than as an impediment to objectivity.

According to Gadamer's notion of the Hermeneutic Circle, all understanding requires some pre-understanding which allows for, or indeed makes possible, the development of further understanding.

This view of the Hermeneutic Circle is derived from Heidegger who argued that 'Any interpretation which is to contribute to understanding must already have understood what is to be interpreted.' (Heidegger, 1962, Being and Time, quoted in Giddens, 1976, p 56).

Gadamer does not see the understanding derived via the Hermeneutic Circle as a method nor can it generate accounts adjudged 'correct' or 'incorrect' vis a vis the author’s intended communication.

For Gadamer: 'The meaning of a text does not reside in the communicative intent of its creator but in the mediation that is established between the work and those who understand it from the context of a different tradition' (Giddens, 1976, p. 63).

Understanding of a text (as opposed to speech) can never be completed, it is tradition bound. Each spatio-temporal reading invokes new understanding. Gadamer, following Heidegger, argues that what an author means to communicate cannot be recaptured because of the ontological gulf between past and present. Being is in time, temporal space is a differentiation of being.

That being the case, then, the hermeneutic circle is not a method but instead the ontological process of human discourse in operation, in which via the agency of language, 'life mediates itself'. Understanding a language does not comprise an interpretive procedure, rather such understanding involves the ability to 'live in' the language. As Giddens (1976, p. 57) puts it: 'The hermeneutic problem is therefore not a problem of the accurate mastery of a language, but one of the correct understanding of the things that are accomplished (geschicht) through the medium of language'.

The historicalist process

Gadamer is opposed to the kind of historicism advocated by Schleiermacher and Dilthey (Geistenwissenschaften historicism) because it treats the gap between past and present as dichotomous whereas Gadamer sees it as a continuous distance that is bridged by tradition. Tradition provides the interpreting subject with the cognitive potential for understanding.

For Gadamer, understanding is the process of placing oneself within a tradition ‘in which past and present are constantly fused’, rather than merely an action of ones subjectivity. Gadamer argues that the obsessive concern with method has obscured the necessity to locate traditions.


The appreciation and encountering of prejudices is not something that can be achieved in any total sense. The interpreter is embedded in a prejudice-ridden traditional context. It is impossible to spell out, for oneself, (let alone others) what the prejudice’s are and to sort out the ‘productive’ from ‘misleading’ ones. The temporal distance acts as an instigator for the sifting out of prejudices. This occurs in the dialectic between object and tradition, between novel and familiar. The interpreter does not therefore aim at a reproduction of the author’s intended meaning. On the contrary, it is read differently in latter periods, and, in being reconstructed in a different tradition, actually represents more than the author intended. The synthetic result of object and interpreter constitutes something over and above the original product. This must always occur, thus interpretation is a productive endeavour. The object and the interpreter are interrelated and both develop through the understanding process. The hermeneutic consciousness is not concerned with ‘objective reconstruction’. Objective reconstruction ignores the ‘effective history’ which depends upon the observer’s (interpreter’s) awareness that he or she has a tradition bound ‘horizon’ (via ‘prejudices’); that there is a ‘dialogue’ between interpreter and text, that there is a dialectic between question and answer, and that traditions need to be open. Closed horizons, as embodied in a view of closed historical epochs is an illusory abstraction for the hermeneutic consciousness. Hermeneuticians must then locate themselves within a tradition but in an open way so that perceptions derived from alternative traditions may be integrated.


Further, the interpreter’s own tradition is continually changing as a result of ‘testing’ out prejudices in the constant encounter with the past.


The scientific method, since Bacon, has based its objectivity on the possibility of repeatable experiences that can be communicated thereby guaranteeing intersubjectivity of findings. The scientific endeavour, then, is intent upon removing any trace of history from knowledge. Hermeneutic experience conflicts with this scientific view in as much as it incorporates historicality. Hermeneutics is not interested in absolute knowledge, in knowing everything, but simply in being open to new experience. true experience ‘is that of ones own historicality’.


The possibility and nature of objective science

Gadamer considers science in the following way. Science, like all knowledge is historically situated and tradition therefore effects knowledge (including science, for example, in effecting the direction of research).


However, (rather confusingly, perhaps) Gadamer argues that science may still be regarded as objective. If one considers scientific method within its context and in relation to its subject matter, scientific method can be seen to secure degrees of certainty about controllable processes. But this does not extend to Truth claims. Truth claims are at variance with the problematic posed by hermeneutic philosophy, namely the problem of ‘pre-existing’ scientific method.


Gadamer (1960), in his major work,  Wahrheit und Methode [Truth and Method], rejects the idea of hermeneutics as a method (Habermas, for example, claims it as a method) viewing it more as a process that brings to light the nature of the interpretive process. Interpretation is ‘working out the structure of forms in terms of the things themselves’ For Gadamer, this is achieved by an examination of history and language. When applied to history, the understanding of history occurs through a process of consciousness standing in the present but also standing in a ‘stream of consciousness’ stretching from the past through the present to the future’ This consciousness of the present is understood through the ways of seeing, the preconceptions and the intentions bequeathed us from the past in the form of tradition. Understanding is always, says Gadamer, the historicality of the past, present and future. Historicality is also linguistic.


The past, that is to say, is experienced as history through tradition and as language through heritage. One’s heritage ‘is not simply an event which one recognizes through experience and comes to control; rather it is language, that is, it of itself speaks, like a thou’ (Truth and Method, p. 340)


Gadamer argues that the understanding of both language and history (of the past, present and future) occurs through the forms of the I-thou relationship. There are three of these:
(i) where the other is seen as something specific;
(ii) where the other is seen as a historically constructed particularity
(iii) where the thou is understood and the I is willing to hear and be modified by the other.
[These seem to resemble, superficially, Schutz’s three worlds of consociates, contemporaries, etc.]


In this last form, authentic understanding through history and language takes place. The other two forms can be seen, and understood, as constraints on understanding, representing distortions similar (although the parallel between Gadamer and Habermas cannot be pressed in any sense) to the idea of distortions introduced by Habermas in his concept of communicative competence.


One commentator on Gadamer has suggested that Gadamer grounds his theory of human knowing in a phenomenological investigation of the basic activity of life as lived and that this integrally interpretive structure of human life precedes and contextualises the usual hermeneutic opposition between suspicion and recovery. Human living is the condition of possibility. This is decidedly different from the analysis provided by Habermas. Habermas argues that hermeneutics is a method for establishing the distinction between authenticity (the ideal speech situation) and the objective lie; namely truth. Gadamer sees hermeneutics as uncovering the nature of understanding with the implicit condition that understanding may be, almost undoubtedly is, relative.


For Gadamer, Heidegger lays bare the ‘completely unexplicated concept of consciousness’ arguing that ‘traditional metaphysics’ sought to ‘conceal the question of being’. Self-understanding is ‘always-on-the-way’: it is a path whose completion is impossible. Explanation is complete (Habermas’s view of hermeneutics as a method for achieving explanation) whereas understanding is incomplete and, hence, relative. Once we presuppose that there is no such thing as a fully transparent text or a completely exhaustive interest in the explaining of texts, then all perspectives relative to interpretation shift. Lawrence puts it thus (in his introduction to a collection of essays by Gadamer): ‘one of the more fertile insights of modern hermeneutics is that every statement has to be seen as a response to a question - the only way to understand a statement is to get hold of the question to which the statement is an answer’.


Gadamer’s view is that understanding is always a risk: it is restricted by the resistance offered by statements or texts and brought to an end by the regaining of a shared possession of meaning (between the text and the reader). Understanding is always a risk: if successful understanding becomes a growth in inner awareness. Hermeneutics is to do with a theoretical attitude towards the practice of interpretation.


Note on interpretation and understanding

Betti saw his chief task as one of clarifying the relationship between understanding and interpretation. He regarded interpretation as objective. Gadamer, on the other hand, opposed this view and attacked the objectivist remnants of Betti’s Geisteswissenschaften historicism, which ignored historicality of knowledge.


‘From his hermeneutic situation the interpreter, or social scientist, derives a comprehensive pre-understanding which guides the questions he formulates within a framework of societal norms. His standpoint is initially determining and it is only after reflecting upon his immediate preoccupations that he can exclude the more direct influence of his own environment,. Value-freedom as envisaged by, for example, Max Weber, is consequently from the outset unattainable and can only result in a blind decisionism as to the aim of research .... It can be maintained only on the basis of a strict nominalism which is unable to take account of the use made by words in everyday life. Understanding is not a construct from principles but the development of knowledge we have gained of a wider context which is determined by the language we use’ (Bleicher, 1981, p. 121).

The researcher must be reflective of prejudices, as he or she must avoid inhibiting the dialogue.


Note that Gadamer comments on Nietzsche as follows: Nietzsche’s doubts extend to the illusion of reflective self-consciousness, the idols of self-knowledge. This doubt was more profound than Descartes who did not doubt explicit self-knowledge.


[It could be argued also that the problem of modernity dates from the 19th century efforts of Marx and Nietzsche to solve the problems bequeathed to them by the collapse of the Enlightenment project.]


See also the role of Ricoeur and of Habermas in developing critical hermeneutics.


FOOTNOTE: *The following derives mainly from Bleicher (1980, p. 27–50) and assesses the metascience of hermeneutics as Betti developed it.See also the reading from Betti in Bleicher (1980, pp. 51–94)

analytical review

Ramberg and Gjesdal (2005) introduced the topic of hermeneutics thus:

The term hermeneutics covers both the first order art and the second order theory of understanding and interpretation of linguistic and non-linguistic expressions. As a theory of interpretation, the hermeneutic tradition stretches all the way back to ancient Greek philosophy. In the course of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, hermeneutics emerges as a crucial branch of Biblical studies. Later on, it comes to include the study of ancient and classic cultures.

With the emergence of German romanticism and idealism the status of hermeneutics changes. Hermeneutics turns philosophical. It is no longer conceived as a methodological or didactic aid for other disciplines, but turns to the conditions of possibility for symbolic communication as such. The question “How to read?” is replaced by the question, “How do we communicate at all?” Without such a shift, initiated by Friedrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey, and others, it is impossible to envisage the ontological turn in hermeneutics that, in the mid-1920s, was triggered by Martin Heidegger's Sein und Zeit and carried on by his student Hans-Georg Gadamer. Now hermeneutics is not only about symbolic communication. Its area is even more fundamental: that of human life and existence as such. It is in this form, as an interrogation into the deepest conditions for symbolic interaction and culture in general, that hermeneutics has provided the critical horizon for many of the most intriguing discussions of contemporary philosophy, both within an Anglo-American context (Rorty, McDowell, Davidson) and within a more Continental discourse (Habermas, Apel, Ricoeur, and Derrida).


Mantzavinos (2016) states:

Hermeneutics as the methodology of interpretation is concerned with problems that arise when dealing with meaningful human actions and the products of such actions, most importantly texts. As a methodological discipline, it offers a toolbox for efficiently treating problems of the interpretation of human actions, texts and other meaningful material.

University of Toronto (undated):

Hermeneutics is the art of interpreting. Although it began as a legal and theological methodology governing the application of civil law, canon law, and the interpretation of Scripture, it developed into a general theory of human understanding through the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey, Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, and Jacques Derrida. Hermeneutics proved to be much bigger than theology or legal theory. The comprehension of any written text requires hermeneutics; reading a literary text is as much a hermeneutic act as interpreting law or Scripture.
Without collapsing critical thinking into relativism, hermeneutics recognizes the historicity of human understanding. Ideas are nested in historical, linguistic, and cultural horizons of meaning. A philosophical, theological, or literary problem can only be genuinely understood through a grasp of its origin. Hermeneutics is in part the practice of historical retrieval, the re-construction of the historical context of scientific and literary works. Hermeneutics does not re-construct the past for its own sake; it always seeks to understand the particular way a problem engages the present. A philosophical impulse motivates hermeneutic re-construction, a desire to engage a historically transmitted question as a genuine question, worthy of consideration in its own right. By addressing questions within ever-new horizons, hermeneutic understanding strives to break through the limitations of a particular world-view to the matter that calls to thinking.
Hermeneutics opposes the radical relativist notion that meaning cannot be trans-lingual. As the speculative grammarians of the Middle Ages recognized, all languages are rooted in a depth grammar of human meaning. This ontological grammar is not a meta-language in which everything can be said. Rather, it is the single horizon of human understanding, which makes speakers of various languages members of a human community. On the other hand, hermeneutics opposes the rationalist tendency to downplay the uniqueness of languages. Hermeneutics is not satisfied with translating the language of the other; it wants to speak with the other in the language of the other.
Hermeneutics is philosophy in the original sense of the word, the love of wisdom, the search for as comprehensive an understanding of human existence as possible...


Kristin Gjesdal (2015):

The term hermeneutics refers to the interpretation of a given text, speech, or symbolic expression (such as art). However, it is also used to designate attempts to theorize the conditions under which such interpretation is possible. From Herder, via Schleiermacher and Hegel, through Nietzsche, Dilthey, Heidegger, Gadamer, and Rorty, hermeneutically oriented philosophers have been engaged at both of these levels. The advocates of modern hermeneutics have sought to change the way in which the past (in particular the classical works of Western art, science, and philosophy) has traditionally been understood. Yet they have also reflected systematically on the conditions of possibility for our having access to (or the possible reasons for our failing to access) the meaning-carrying expressions of others, be they contemporary or past, or belonging to familiar or culturally distant traditions. With Habermas and Apel, however, we see an increasing readiness to distinguish between these levels of engagement and focus exclusively on the principled, theoretical issues brought up by interpretation. The same might be said about the recent turn to hermeneutics in Anglophone philosophy. Philosophers such as Davidson, McDowell, and Brandom have referred to, borrowed from, and transformed some of Gadamer’s central ideas so as to modify their own philosophies of language and their conception of the mind–nature relation and a number of related issues in epistemology. While thematically diverse and historically long spanning, the relative coherence and continuity of the problems addressed warrant the idea of a hermeneutic paradigm in philosophy.


Daniel Little (2008):

The hermeneutic approach holds that the most basic fact of social life is the meaning of an action. Social life is constituted by social actions, and actions are meaningful to the actors and to the other social participants. Moreover, subsequent actions are oriented towards the meanings of prior actions; so understanding the later action requires that we have an interpretation of the meanings that various participants assign to their own actions and those of others. So the social sciences (or the human sciences) need to be hermeneutic: researchers need to devote their attention to the interpretation of the meanings of social actions.

associated issues

Hermeneutic circle

The hermeneutic circle operates in two ways, as a methodological device and as a form of philosophical reasoning.


For Heidegger, for example, the hermeneutic circle is the expression of the 'existential pre-structure of Dasein' (of the structure of human existence). In essence, interpretation for Heidegger is based on our pre-knowledge and the reflective process of the hermeneutic circle reveals 'scientific' knowledge by working through our preconceptions. It provides a kind of primodial knowledge.


See also Heidegger on hermenutic circle

See also critical hermeneutics

related areas

See also

critical hermeneutics


Researching the Real World Section


Betti, E., 1967, Attualità di una teoria generale dell'interpretazione, Milan.

Bleicher, J., 1980, Contemporary Hermeneutics: hermeneutics as method, philosophy, and critique, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Dilthey, W., 1964–66, Collected Works, Vol 7, [originally Stutgart, Teubner 1927]

Gadamer, H.-G.,  1960, Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik, Tübingen.

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

Giddens, A., 1976, New Rules of Sociological Method: a positive critique of interpretative sociologies. London, Hutchinson.

Heidegger, M., 1962, Being and Time. Oxford, Blackwell. [1927, Sein and Zeit] also Heidegger, 1967, Being and Time. Oxford, Oxford Univ. Press.

Gjesdal, K., 2015, 'Hermeneutics' available at, accessed 1 June 2017, still available 3 June 2019.

Little, D., 2008, 'What is hermeneutic explanation?', available at, accessed 5 June 2017, still available 5 June 2019.

Mantzavinos, C., 2016, 'Hermeneutics' first published 22 June 2016 in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available at, accessed 5 June 2019.

Ramberg, B. and Gjesdal, K., 2005, 'Hermeneutics' first published 9 November 2005 in Zalta, E.N. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2009 Edition), originally available at, accessed 4 March 2013, archived at accessed 22 December 2016. This entry replaced 22 June 2016 by new entry by C. Mantzavinos, still available 3 June 2019.

Ricoeur, P., 1981, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action and Interpretation, Translated and edited by Thompson, J.B., Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

University of Toronto, undated, 'About Hermeneutics', available at, accessed 4 March 2013, page not available 22 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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