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Interpretation - The Hermeneutic And Interpretive Impulse In The Rise Of Social Studies, The Interdisciplinary Challenges Of Interpretation

hermeneutics modern cultural century

The problem of interpretation is as old as the written record, even as old as the capacity for human beings to disagree fundamentally. It was raised by Plato. It marked many a conflict in early Christendom. From the Middle Ages to early modernity, cultural texts proliferated. Interpretation was the task of those who were in charge of biblical exegeses and of those who judged a text's originality, authenticity, and truthfulness. As interpretation became an increasingly prominent feature of the modern conundrum, questions about a work's truth and authenticity also prompted the development of philological methods of analysis. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, however, the older concerns for religious authenticity began to give way to a modern hermeneutics that raised new questions about making historical interpretations. In this period Kantian philosophy championed the centrality of the human subject as the foundational problem for all cognition. In addition, the problem of art and the role, function, and purpose of the artist, the concern for the "inner life" (kultur) (Elias), and the rise of modern selfhood (Taylor) began to affect the study of meaning. By the nineteenth century, philological approaches gave way to a reflexive concern for how epistemology, and more specifically, history, was to be conceptualized, approached, and thus interpreted. This new impulse marked the rise of modern hermeneutics and gave it a special role in understanding how the problem of interpretation is grappled with in the twenty-first century.

The rise of modern hermeneutics is often attributed to the writings of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834). Moving beyond philology, exegeses, and art criticism, he posed a new challenge: to understand culture and lived experience. Schleiermacher asked how a denizen of one historical era might understand the meaningful experience of a life or cultural text from another. He shifted hermeneutics toward the problem of experience within a context and argued that a viable interpretation had to proceed through an identification with the subject under study. In doing so, he posed the problem of historical hermeneutics—the challenge of understanding the meaning held by historically situated actors. Thus, with Schleiermacher, the new conditions placed in context took precedence over the ritual incantation of dogma, received truths, and essences. The concerns of the modern social sciences and humanities owe much to the rise of a historically reflexive hermeneutics.

In the nineteenth century, Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911) expanded methodological hermeneutics, which sought to produce systematic and scientific interpretations by situating a text in the context of its production. According to Dilthey, all manner of cultural texts—poetry, the spoken word, art, human action—are meaningful expressions with "mental contents" and human intentionality, and thus worthy of understanding (verstehen) through critical study. Meanings are also the product of historical constraint; the content and values of cultural texts reflect the period and location of the subject. Understanding thus involves the methodological construction of the hermeneutical circle—the connections that lead from the analysis of a cultural text to the author's life and the historical context in which the author is located, and then back to the cultural work.

In the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) and Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) championed a philosophical hermeneutics by shifting concerns toward an understanding of existential meaning, in which being in the world can be grasped as a direct and unmediated condition of authenticity and subjectivity. One's knowledge and experience constitute a present horizon, which is the fundamental ground on which understanding takes place. This horizon, however, can be extended through exposure to the discourses of others, thus bringing one's own views into relief. It is through language as the core of human activity that subjects share their subjectivity, the basis of traditions, and their evaluation. Understanding has a potentially dynamic quality: it can proceed from one horizon to an emergent horizon, but is nonetheless bound to the traditions embedded in history.

Later, Jürgen Habermas (1929–) challenged Gadamer's relativism by arguing for a self-reflexive critical hermeneutics that aims at a comprehensive reconstruction of the social world. Gadamer had claimed a universality for hermeneutics; no form of knowledge can escape the limitations of interpretation and its ties to deeper traditions. Habermas rejected this constraint on interpretation and argued that the human communication process contains transcendental elements. We are not trapped in nature or history because we can know and thus transform our language. In the structure of language, autonomy and responsibility are posited for us. By overcoming the systematic distortions, the legacies of history and tradition that are embedded in language, we are able to envision an emancipated society whose members' autonomy and mutual responsibility can be realized through the development of nonauthoritarian dialogue and reciprocity.

The issues opened up by modern hermeneutics shaped the way interpretation is conceptualized, approached, and carried out in interdisciplinary studies. Indeed, the boundaries between the social sciences and the humanities have never been so porous as they are in the twenty-first century. Just as literary studies influence anthropology and cultural studies, literary theory reaches toward social theories. The convergence and confluence of questions and issues is more characteristic than the maintenance of disciplinary boundaries. With the rise of modern hermeneutics, the problem of interpretation took on a social and historical dimension, which allowed this new concern with meaning to be assimilated by anthropology, literary studies, and later, cultural studies, reception and audience studies, and aspects of feminist theory. By tracking the history of interpretation, we gain an appreciation for the interdisciplinary developments of interpretive theorizing in the twenty-first century.

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