Hermeneutics is

  1. a topic of academic inquiry focused on
    1. interpretation
    2. understanding
  2. a textual research method used to explore a range of topics, including
    • history, culture, style
    • the ways culture and social networks shape interpretation
    • the ways personality and mindset shape interpretation
    • the effects of new technologies on interpretation
    • ways interpretive practices reinscribe power relations between rhetors and audiences.

Hermeneutics is derived

  1. from the Greek word hermeneuin, which means to interpret
  2. from Hermes, the Greek god who could convey messages across realms—the underworld, the world of mortals, and the divine realms.

Key Terms: Critical Thinking; Critical Analysis; Dialectic; Flow, Coherence, Unity; Given to New Order; Semiotics; Text & Intertextuality.

Since antiquity, scholars interested in hermeneutics have asked fundamental questions of interpretation and understanding:


  1. How can the validity of an interpretation be assessed? What should one do when there are conflicting interpretations? Is interpretation invariably subjective? Is objectivity possible?
  2. What can the interpreter do to better understand the author’s aims and sociohistorical context?
  3. Can an interpretation of a text reveal insights about history and culture that even the author of the text hadn’t understood?


  1. What is understanding? What is real? Is perception of a text
  2. How does understanding occur? How does the medium or the complexity of the sign shape understanding?
  3. What can we learn about past historical periods and other cultures that will help us interpret texts?
  4. How do interpretative practices .

Hermeneutics as a Field

The term hermeneutics may

Hermeneutics as a Field of Study

Initially, hermeneutics tackled the problem of how one could interpret historical texts—especially holy texts and ancient philosophical works. If you lacked the vocabulary of the past, if you lacked the perspective of a culture or historical period, how could you hope to interpret and understand the text as the author originally intended? Thus, early theologians sought to develop tools and methods that would help them (1) understand the word of God and the lives of biblical figures; (2) translate their insights for parishioners.

Over time, theories of hermeneutics became increasingly more sophisticated and nuanced. The focus of interpretation moved away from a close reading, a line-by-line, word-by-word analysis of texts. Instead, theorists came to theorize hermeneutics as a social, interactive, integrative ecosystem.

Early in the 19th century, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), a theologian, broadened the focus of hermeneutics to look beyond sacred texts. Schleiermacher explored the psychology of interpretation, suggesting that interpreters should engage in empathy and try to relive the author’s moment of creation, to imagine the mindset, the values, and the purpose of the writer. With the benefit of insight and time, Schleiermacher raised the possibility that the interpreter might be able to uncover meanings in the text that even the author was unaware of (Lewis-Beck et. al., 2004).

Schleiermacher also contributed to the concept of the hermeneutical circle—the notion that interpretation is an iterative, integrative process:

The idea of the ‘hermeneutic circle’ or ‘double hermeneutic’ suggests that texts should be interpreted in their historical context, tracing a circle from the text to the author’s biography, the immediate social context of the text’s production to the historical period in which it was written and back to the reader and his/her context, who then interprets it. There is thus a constant interaction between reader and author. 

Miller, R. L., & Brewer, J. (2003).
See the source image

Source: Design Process Structural Model

Heidegger (1889–1976), a German philosopher added additional depth to the concept of a hermeneutical circle by questioning the role of culture in interpretation. Heidegger rejected the notion that an individual could stand outside a context, a culture. He rejected the possibility of universal truths and instead argued that understanding is ontological, a state of being. Meaning is defined by context.

As the scholarly conversation regarding hermeneutics evolved over time, the concept of the hermeneutical circle has become increasingly robust.


Lewis-Beck, M. S., Bryman, A., & Liao, T. F. (2004). The SAGE encyclopedia of social science research methods. SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412950589

Miller, R. L., & Brewer, J. (2003). The A-Z of social research. SAGE Publications doi: 10.4135/9780857020024

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