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Exploring our Experience of Being
by Reg Harris
Hermeneutics in a Historical Context
Hermeneutics is a complicated philosophy, but―over-simplified―it is “the art of interpretation.” Hermeneutics got its name from the Greek god, Hermes, who was the messenger of the gods. Hermeneutics developed as a formal discipline during the Renaissance, when scholars began to study ancient texts, including the Bible, with the intent of deriving the writer’s precise message or meaning from the text.
By the 18th and 19th centuries, hermeneutics had evolved into a philosophical discipline for exploring symbolic communication in general. In the early 20th century, with the growing interest in human sciences, European philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer expanded hermeneutic theory to encompass the existential nature of human experience and existence itself. It’s in this context, as an exploration or interrogation of our experience of “being” in the world, that hermeneutics becomes important in our studies of the Hero’s Journey.
The Hermeneutic Loop
In the context of the Hero’s Journey, perhaps the most interesting aspect of hermeneutics is the hermeneutic loop or circle. The hermeneutic loop is the cyclic pattern that develops because we can understand the whole of something only in terms of its parts and the parts only through their relationship to the whole. A change of understanding at either pole, whole or parts, triggers a change in understanding of the other pole, thus forcing us into an interpretive loop.
For example, we watch a movie based on our prior assumptions and understandings about the movie. When we finish the movie, we realize that our initial assumptions were too narrow, giving us a greater understanding of the whole. However, that greater understanding makes realize that parts of the movie had greater meaning or importance than we had originally thought. We go back through the movie, reinterpreting those parts, which, as a result, changes our understanding of the whole. This dialogue between the whole and parts leads us to deeper meaning and understanding.
Traditionally, however, the hermeneutic loop was viewed as a trap. We interpret a new event based on our current understandings about ourselves and our lives. However, because those understandings determine how we interpret new experience, they would tend to filter and slant our view of the new experience, thereby coloring or biasing our interpretations of it in a way that could reinforce what we already believe. Thus, we would be caught in a hermeneutic loop, forever interpreting new experience through the lenses of our old experience, thereby simply confirming what we already know.
The Hermeneutics of Interpreting Life
The hermeneutic loop emerges in our quest to interpret and understand our experience (Grondin, 1994). When we encounter something new or unknown, a question arises in our minds as to its significance or meaning. This question will direct our understanding by filtering the details we see and shaping our interpretation of those details. However, that question is based on preliminary presumptions we already have about the new experience. Those presumptions will “govern and even predetermine to a certain extent what can be discovered. We therefore disclose the answer in the light of what we already know” (Moran, 2000, p. 237). Our questioning sets up a pattern through which we will not only understand the experience but formulate subsequent questions and understandings.
Thus, our understanding of an experience will, to a great extent, be shaped by the preliminary presumptions or understandings we bring to it. However, if we project our preliminary understandings on to an event, and our preliminary understandings determine the understanding we have of the event, then any “new” understandings should only reinforce the preliminary understandings, trapping us in a “viscous circle” of interpretation. This is the hermeneutic loop, and it appears to be a closed circuit, preventing us from moving beyond our current horizons of understanding.
But this need not be the case. Heidegger and others emphasized that the hermeneutic circle is open if we approach it with the right understanding. For Heidegger this understanding was based on how our search relates both to our past, the impact our history and biases has on our present, and to our future, as we open ourselves to our potentials (Moran, 2000). In other words, we approach an experience mindful that our response to it will be influenced by our past, but open to what the experience could mean for our future.
When we approach life and literature with this understanding, the hermeneutic “loop” becomes an outward-spiraling cycle of growth and adaptation. This spiral takes the shape of the paradoxical dialogue between the parts and the whole that is the primary characteristic of the hermeneutic process: the parts shape the meaning of the whole and whole gives meaning to the parts.
Ever-deepening Loops of Understanding
This brings us back to the paradox where a change of understanding at either pole, whole or parts, can destabilize meaning and raise new possibilities. For example, a student reading Hamlet for the first time would fail to see much of the play’s subtlety and depth. After reading the play, however, the student might realize that certain parts of the play suggest a better understanding the whole play. With a second reading, the student would draw deeper meaning from those parts, changing his understanding of the whole. This new understanding of the whole would trigger more interpretation of the original parts and disclose potential meanings in other parts, which would stimulate more readings―and so on.
Great works of literature lead the reader into ever-deepening loops of understanding, as each new interpretation of the whole uncovers deeper significance latent in the parts. This same broadening of horizons could occur in the story of our lives. If we interpret experience openly and without fear, it will lead us to both wider and deeper understandings of ourselves and our world.
This hermeneutic dialogue between self and world is the foundation of the heroic journey pattern. An initial understanding or life (the whole) is challenged and we are called to create new meaning. We engage in the journey where the ineffective elements of that understanding (the parts) are deconstructed. This leads to a revelation of new understanding, reconstruction, and a “return” to our lives at a higher level of understanding or consciousness (a new whole).
Grondin, J. (1994). Introduction to philosophical hermeneutics. (J. Weinsheimer, Trans.),New Haven, CN: Yale University.
Moran, D. (2000). Introduction to phenomenology. New York: Routledge.