Hermeneutics is, to quote the founder of the method, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), “the art of understanding each other’s words”. However, it is not just a method to understand the spoken or written word, but also a way to explain historical events.

Explaining texts

Praxiteles' statue of Hermes and the Infant Dionysus. "Hermeneutics" is called after Hermes, the messenger of the gods.
Praxiteles' statue of Hermes and the Infant Dionysus. "Hermeneutics" is called after Hermes, the messenger of the gods.

A nice way of introducing the hermeneutical method is to compare it to daily life. When we first meet someone for the first time, we are still full of prejudices and stereotypes: Germans are efficient, women like gossip, teenagers are rebellious. After we have started our conversation, we get acquainted with the other and discover that we have to refine or abandon our ideas. It is not uncommon that we get to know someone else so well that we can even predict his response to certain situations.

The hermeneutical approach towards texts is more or less the same: you start reading with a certain expectation and get an increasingly adequate impression of it. For example, you suppose the epigrams of Martial to be little poems about sex (if only because the publisher will have written this on the book jacket). Quite soon, however, you will discover that there are also epigrams about the circus games and you will be moved by a poem about a departed child named Erotion. With a better impression of Martial’s poetry, you will close the book. When you decide to read it again, you have a better starting position, will discover other details, and will improve your understanding. This process is called the “hermeneutical cycle” and is equivalent to the “empirical cycle”.

There is another cycle. If you want to understand the particulars, it helps if you already understand the whole, but your understanding of the whole is based on understanding the particulars. You will have to move back and forth, on several levels:

Time and again, you can only induce the meaning of the whole from the particulars, while the meaning of the particulars can only be deduced from the whole. At every level, you spiral towards a better understanding of the object, and in this way, we may hope to overcome the subjectivity of our knowledge of ancient texts.

If we understand a text – we will discuss some problems below – we can try to establish the author’s intent. A useful signal is the freedom an author takes to express himself. If, for example, the Greek author Philostratus mentions “grazing lions”,note it is clear that he wants his readers to smile. Another example is Jesus’ insult to his audience that they were a brood of vipers, with the suggestion that their mothers had had intercourse with snakes.note These departures of what was expected tell a lot about the author/speaker: Philostratus, the refined belletrist, and Jesus the eschatological prophet.

Explaining History

If we can guess how people more or less used to think, we may hope to understand why they acted as they did. The German historian Gustav Droysen (1808-1884) distinguishes several phases during a historian’s research.

This way of reconstructing the ideas of a world long gone is valuable, because it allows us better to recognize our own prejudices. We may think that slavery is abject, but it is good to know that in other societies, one person’s liberty was believed to be dependent on other people's lack of freedom.


The nineteenth-century scholars were aware that the hermeneutic approach has a serious weakness: the scholar starts with a lot of assumptions, dictated by his own class, nation, gender, or education. Schleiermacher believed that the repetition of the hermeneutic cycle was a way to overcome this bias and come closer to the object. This, however, has turned out to be too optimistic. Too often, scholars continued in a certain direction, believing they came closer and closer to what they believed to be the truth, until a major change in contemporary culture proved that there were hidden, unrecognized assumptions: Decolonization, for example, has completely changed our ideas about imperialism and has made earlier interpretations obsolete.

This issue has been described by two famous philosophers of science. Schleiermacher’s position comes close to that of Karl Popper (1902-1994), who believed that by a repeated cycle of empirical observation, generalization, corroboration/falsification, we might achieve some verisimilitude. He was challenged by Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996), who pointed out that this was not how science actually works. Sometimes, there’s a sudden shift in perspective which changes everything. He called this a “paradigm shift”.

There’s a second objection to the hermeneutic approach. In the nineteenth century, people started to think about the causes of human behavior. Of course human history is made by humans, but not necessarily by individuals. Superindividual standards can influence our behavior and even force us to do things that are risky. For example, some people find it easy to rise early while others find it hard, and although they all have an individual freedom to choose a moment to get out of bed, most of them will rise quite early – earlier, in fact, than is dictated by the average biological clock. There’s a kind of superindividual standard that influences us. There are also superindividual institutions, like marriage: in every age, there have been men and women who married for no other reason than that this was something that was expected.

Sociologists have always been interested in religion's influence on our behavior. The French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) established that even a very personal act like suicide might be influenced by society: for example, suicide rates were lower among Catholics and Jews than among Protestants. His German colleague Max Weber (1864-1920) established that capitalism had a kind of affinity with Protestantism.

To cope with these two objections, classicists adopted the results of an approach called “formalism” while historians redefined their discipline as one of the social sciences.

More recently, brain research has seriously challenged one of the axioms of the hermeneutic approach: the existence of a human mind that is identical for all people. The idea is not new: French anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857-1939) already postulated that the “primitive mind” is different from the “Western mind”. This idea has often been criticized but may now, in a different form, call into question the possibility really to understand the distant past.

This page was created in 2014; last modified on 10 October 2020.