A short note on Hermeneutics: Definition, History and famous authors

Hermeneutics is the study of the theory and the practice of interpreting texts. It dates back to ancient times when it was closely associated with the study of rhetoric. Since the beginning of the Christian era, however, it has mostly been connected to religious study, both Christian and Muslim. At issue in both cases is determining the correct way of reading scriptural texts. In the case of the Bible, it is far from self-evident how it should be read. The problems that have to be considered are manifold: first, there is the perpetual question of translation (it was not all written in the same language); second, there is the question of the change in the meaning of words over time (the Bible was not written all at once); third, there is the question of whether each of the contributing authors meant the same thing by the same words; fourth, should the stories be treated as allegories?; fifth, should the scripture be treated as fact? The list of problems to be considered could easily be extended. It was not until the 18th century that a secular form of hermeneutics was developed by Friedrich Schleiermacher, who demonstrated that the interpretation of all texts, not just sacred texts, is problematic for essentially the same reasons, namely language’s capacity for multiple meaning. His solution was to anchor meaning in the psychology of the author. Thus, Schleiermacher was the first to raise the question of authorial intention, which would remain central to textual studies until the middle of the 20th century, arguing that it has to be understood in context (a perspective that New Historicism maintains today). In the latter half of the 20th century, it is the work of Hans Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur that has been most closely associated with hermeneutics.

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