Recalling the Hermeneutics Circle

By Schmidt, Lawrence K. | Philosophy Today, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Recalling the Hermeneutics Circle


Schmidt, Lawrence K., Philosophy Today


Is it time to recall the hermeneutic circle? Must we not question whether the hermeneutic circle is a fatally flawed tool that, admittedly under pressure and only reluctantly, has to be recalled? Is it to be retooled, reshaped and re-released as a new spiral? Is such a rehabilitation already underway when the new translators of Truth and Method1use "centrifugally" to render "in konzentrischen Kreisen" in the passage where Gadamer presents the movement of hermeneutic understanding (WM, 275; TM, 291)?2 Or has the question already been decided by Heidegger, already "placed ad acta for all time? Or only adjourned, indefinitely adjourned?"3 In "Aus einem Gesprach von der Sprache," Heidegger remarks that one could hardly miss that he has ceased using the terms "hermeneutics" and "hermeneutic" in his later writings.4 However, in the same essay he states that the basic problem of Being and Time was that he ventured forth too early and too far.5 And later he states, "but this necessary acknowledgement of the hermeneutic circle surely does not imply that the hermeneutic relation is experienced primordially through the image of the acknowledged circle." He agrees to having given up his earlier position, "but only to the extent that the discussion of a circle remains always in the foreground."6

We know the hermeneutic circle was used in the methodological discussions of interpretation by Ast and then developed by Schleiermacher and Dilthey. This circularity could be termed the epistemological sense of the hermeneutic circle. It is what one traditionally associates with this term, namely, the principle that one can understand the whole only from an understanding of the parts, but also that one can understand the part only from an understanding of the whole. In rhetoric one has long recognized the interdependence of parts and whole within a sentence or larger text where the specific meanings of the words of a sentence depend upon the meaning of the whole sentence and vice versa. This may be identified as the "grammatical" or "objective" hermeneutic circle. At least since the Greeks the circle has been the perfect figure and with Hegel an expression of the good infinite and the absolute concept.

But, is the hermeneutic circle necessarily caught in the web of method and metaphysical language? Must it be, after Being and Time, after Truth and Method? Does the circle not refer to a primordial interdependence? Could this be another voice speaking through the concept of the hermeneutic circle? A voice to be listened to, to be acknowledged, a voice that may engage us in conversation? Do we then need to harken to, to recall, to re-collect the effective history of the hermeneutic circle?

With Heidegger's analysis of Dasein, the hermeneutic circle acquires a fundamentally new significance. It no longer refers to just the grammatical circle nor is it merely a methodological problem. The epistemological sense of the circle acquires new significance because understanding is discovered to be an existential of Dasein and the forestructures of understanding are claimed to be operative in all cases of understanding. This shifts the problem of the epistemological circle. It is not that one has to understand the whole in order to understand the parts and vice versa, the traditional problem, since for Heidegger the fore-structures provide for both a preliminary understanding of the whole as well as the parts.7 Therefore, the interdependency now concerns the preliminary projections of both parts and whole, on the one side, and the text, subject matter, or object that is to be understood, on the other side. It would seem that an understanding of the text requires a proper preliminary understanding of the parts and the whole, but such a proper preliminary understanding requires one to have already understood the truth of the text or subject matter.

The hermeneutic circle gains ontological significance since understanding itself is an existential of Dasein. …

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