Schleiermacherís Hermeneutics and Criticism

Friedrich Schleiermacherís Hermeneutics and Criticism (1838) is concerned with the art of understanding the meaning of discourse, and with the art of avoiding misinterpretation of the meaning of discourse. Schleiermacher explains how understanding depends on interpretation of language and thought, and how both linguistic and psychological interpretation may be necessary in order to attain a true understanding of spoken or written discourse. Schleiermacher describes how understanding may discover the internal unity of discourse, and he explains how this internal unity may include language and thought, the grammatical and the psychological, the rhetorical and the historical, the objective and the subjective, the real and the ideal.

According to Schleiermacher, hermeneutics may be defined as the art of understanding the meaning of discourse, while criticism may be defined as the art of correctly determining the truthfulness of discourse. Hermeneutics and criticism depend on each other, in that we may only be able to determine whether a spoken or written utterance is truthful if we can understand its meaning, and in that we may only be able to understand the meaning of a spoken or written utterance if we can correctly determine its source.

Similarly, grammatical understanding and psychological understanding may presuppose each other. In order to understand the grammatical meaning of a spoken or written utterance, we may have to understand its psychological meaning, and in order to understand its psychological meaning, we may have to understand its grammatical meaning. In order to understand an utterance as an act of speech or of writing, we may have to understand it as an act of mind, and in order to understand it as an act of mind, we may have to understand it as an act of speech or of writing.

According to Schleiermacher, successful practice of the art of interpretation requires an understanding of both the grammatical and psychological elements of discourse. Grammatical interpretation may, in some cases, be more important than psychological interpretation, and in other cases may be less important than psychological interpretation. However, grammatical meaning and psychological meaning may only be fully understood if we are able to discover how they are related to each other, and if we are able to discover how they participate as elements in the unity of absolute meaning.

Schleiermacher explains that hermeneutics is not only the art of understanding the meaning of discourse, but is the art of avoiding misunderstanding. Causes of misunderstanding include: indeterminacy in the meaning of words, ambiguity in the meaning of words, contradictoriness or inconsistency in the usage of words, inattentiveness to the setting or context in which words are used, and mistaken preconceptions of the meaning of words. Errors in the interpretation of the meaning of discourse may be quantitative (formal) if they cause misunderstanding of the rules or principles according to which discourse is developed, or may be qualitative (material) if they cause misunderstanding of its content.

Schleiermacher also explains that grammatical interpretation of acts of speech or writing may be used to clarify the difference (or opposition) between their literal and metaphorical meaning, and between their particular and general meaning. Grammatical interpretation may be used to clarify the qualitative difference in the manner of connection between sentences (or between elements of sentences), and to clarify the quantitative difference in the degree of connection between sentences (or between elements of sentences).

According to Schleiermacher, psychological interpretation of acts of speech or writing may occur by means of either a divinatory or comparative method. The divinatory method is a means of understanding spoken or written language by trying to understand the motives of the speaker or writer. The comparative method is a means of understanding spoken or written language by trying to compare the statements of the speaker or writer with statements which might be regarded as universal. Both the divinatory and comparative methods may be used to develop a more unified approach to hermeneutics and criticism.

Schleiermacher distinguishes between three main kinds of criticism: 1) doctrinal, 2) philological, and 3) historical. Doctrinal (including ethical) criticism is the most universal form of criticism in its objects and concerns. Doctrinal criticism seeks to determine whether spoken or written discourse is in accord with ethical, religious, moral, social, or aesthetic values or doctrines. Philological criticism seeks to determine whether written records are authentic, and whether they have been transmitted correctly. Historical criticism seeks to determine whether written records may be viewed as historical documents, and whether they may provide an accurate understanding of history.

Schleiermacher also explains that philological criticism may be either a documentary or a divinatory form of criticism. However, documentary and divinatory criticism may depend on each other, and may both be important if we are to correctly judge the truthfulness of discourse. Philological criticism may not only reveal mechanical errors in written documents (e.g. errors which are caused by miscopying the text of a document), but may also reveal logical errors in written documents (e.g. errors which are caused by misreading the text of a document, or which are caused by misinterpreting the content of a document).

Schleiermacher maintains that while grammatical interpretation is a method of understanding how meaning is determined by the way in which language is used, psychological interpretation is a method of understanding how spoken or written language represents the thoughts of the person who is speaking or writing. Grammatical and psychological elements are always combined in discourse, and discourse is never purely grammatical or psychological. The elements of discourse are never purely objective or subjective. Thus, hermeneutics and criticism are concerned with understanding the similarities and differences which may occur between these objective and subjective elements.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. Hermeneutics and Criticism, And Other Writings. Translated and edited by Andrew Bowie. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Copywright© Alex Scott 2003

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