Culture and Critique: An Introduction to the Critical Discourses of Cultural Studies

By Jere Paul Surber | Go to book overview

2
Hermeneutics: Interpretation and Critique

The French Revolution signaled the beginning of a period of tremendous political and cultural upheaval and transformation. In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and the conservative retrenchment that followed France's defeat in 1815, nineteenth- century Europe witnessed three other major periods of political revolution ( 1830, 1848, and 1870) and many more local outbreaks of resistance. Because the discourse of liberal humanism was gradually transformed from a stance of opposition to one of dominance, new critical discourses that would reconceptualize the operative notion of culture and establish new critical stances seemed necessary.

The first new critical discourse to emerge in the nineteenth century was that of hermeneutics. The term was derived from the Greek verb hermēneuein (to interpret or understand), which was based on the name of the priest of the Delphic oracle, who was in turn named for the messenger-god Hermes. Aristotle Organon on logic included a treatise entitled Peri hermēneias, thus according this area a long-standing intellectual pedigree; but Aristotle's enterprise was simply to put forward general principles for formulating statements that can be evaluated as true or false. It was not until the eighteenth century that hermeneutics attained the much broader and more complex meaning that would permit it to be classified as a modern critical discourse.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the forerunners of modern hermeneutics were principally concerned with issues of biblical exegesis and interpretation, especially as practiced within the Protestant tradition. However, the development of modern philology and historiography came to exert important influences on biblical hermeneutics, so that the interpretation of sacred texts gradually became subject to some of the same critical methods and constraints applied to texts generally. For example, as early as 1761, J. A. Ernesti had already argued that the only criteria governing the correctness of the interpretation of any text were the uses of words, their historical circumstances, and the intention of the author in using them.

By the end of the eighteenth century, under the influence of Enlightenment rationalism, the link between interpretation and critique had already been forged. The so-called lower criticism of biblical writings involved the use of external and

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