In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hermeneutics

  • Introduction
  • The Beginnings of Hermeneutics

Philosophy Hermeneutics
Kristin Gjesdal
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0054


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.

The Beginnings of Hermeneutics

Although its origins are somewhat unclear, the term hermeneutics is often traced back to the ancient Greek figure of Hermes, the messenger of the gods. In Plato, hermeneutic knowledge is understood as revealed and intuitive, and hence different from truth-oriented and discursively based theory. Yet it was Plato’s Socratic method, as brought to life in the dialogues themselves, that, through the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer, most profoundly came to influence hermeneutics (Gadamer 1991 and Gadamer 2001). As argued in Grondin 1995, the writings of Augustine further shaped hermeneutics in that he emphasized the speculative nature of language (i.e., its world-disclosing capacity). In the early modern period, Luther’s emphasis on the individual’s direct access to the scripture and the interpretation of the Bible on the basis of the text alone—sola scriptura—placed hermeneutics at the very heart of biblical studies and theology (see Ebeling 1951). Another important figure is Giambattista Vico. Vico’s outspoken anti-Cartesianism and his roots in the rhetorical tradition led him to emphasize the historicity of human thought and the intrinsic relation between understanding and self-understanding. Vico’s humanist legacy is apparent in Gadamer 2004 and Berlin 1976, and is helpfully discussed in Apel 1963. A good overview of the development of hermeneutics can be found in Bruns 1995.

  • Apel, Karl-Otto. Die Idee der Sprache in der Tradition des Humanismus von Dante bis Vico. Bonn, Germany: H. Bouvier, 1963.

    Apel’s study, which has not yet been translated into English, reviews Vico’s contribution to European humanism, philosophy of language, and hermeneutics.

  • Berlin, Isaiah. Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas. London: Viking, 1976.

    For Berlin, Vico’s great achievements consist in his historicism and his pluralist understanding of reason. Vico represents an anti-Cartesian, anti-monolithic beginning of modernity that is later continued in the philosophy of Johann Gottfried Herder (see Herder on History and Understanding).

  • Bruns, Gerald L. Hermeneutics, Ancient and Modern. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.

    Approaching the history of hermeneutics from the viewpoint of literary interpretation, Bruns offers a good overview of the theory of interpretation from the ancients, via Luther, to Heidegger. Particularly suited for students of English, modern languages, and aesthetics.

  • Ebeling, Gerhard. Die Anfänge von Luthers Hermeneutik.” Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 48 (1951): 172–230.

    Brief study of the relationship between reformation theology and Luther’s biblical hermeneutics. Ebeling’s article sheds light on an aspect of hermeneutics that is often overlooked in philosophical surveys.

  • Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Plato’s Dialectical Ethics: Phenomenological Interpretations Relating to the Philebus. Translated by Robert M. Wallace. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.

    Gadamer’s early study of the Philebus offers a good introduction to the hermeneutic aspects of Socratic dialogue. The text also outlines the premises of Gadamer’s later hermeneutics, in particular the dialogical nature of reason.

  • Gadamer, Hans-Georg. The Beginning of Philosophy. Translated by Rod Coltman. New York: Continuum, 2001.

    This lecture series provides an informal and accessible introduction to Gadamer’s life-long engagement with ancient philosophy. The lectures move between phenomenological exegeses of Plato and Aristotle and reflections on the nature of hermeneutic work.

  • Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. 2d ed. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York: Continuum, 2004.

    First published in 1960, Gadamer’s magnum opus is now a classic in hermeneutic philosophy. Gadamer’s own position is developed through the encounter with past theories of interpretation, Vico’s included.

  • Grondin, Jean. Sources of Hermeneutics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

    A short, clear, and accessible book that is particularly useful for understanding the ontological turn in hermeneutics. Grondin’s study of the historical and philosophical sources of hermeneutics centers on Gadamer’s and Heidegger’s appropriations of the philosophical tradition.

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