Hermeneutics & the Interpretative Process


Hermeneutics is a word that is not often heard in conversations over a cup of coffee. Patrick Slattery, in his book Curriculum Development in the Post Modern Era, describes hermeneutics as “the very delicate and controversial art and science of interpretation" (Annotated Glossary, Hermeneutics section). The science of interpretationis refered by hermeneutics or " what occurs when a really or apparently unfamiliar meaning is made intelligible" (Grondin,1991:18). Interpretation is critically important in every area of life. From players in a ballgame interpreting a game plan to politicians or lawyers interpreting the constitution, hermeneutics is there. Conflicts arise with interpretations and can become volatile. Slattery (2006) gives an example in regards to textbook selection for history classes saying that "historical interpretation is particularly volatile in school districts. Texts are regularly castigated and occasionally banned" (p.116).

When developing a curriculum, the art and science of interpretation is at the core of development. "Textbook selection and educational media reflects a prejudice in favor of certain methodologies, politics or world views" (Slattery, 2006). Reading programs, science programs, and even grades a teacher gives to a student are affected by hermeneutics. Slattery (2006) states, "The attention to hermeneutics has expanded dramatically in recent years..." (p.115). William Pinar and William Reynolds are also mentioned by Slattery (2006) when he states "they have written about hermeneutics in curriculum as a phenomenological and deconstructed text" (p.115). This makes sense when thinking about interpretation because deconstructing is a method of critical analysis and phenomenology seeks descriptions of how the world is experienced by a person. When thinking about curriculum textbooks or reading literature for students, should the nature of the learner be kept in mind? Should it be critically analyzed to ensure it is not biased in single methodology and ensure it presents a realistic picture of a global world? Slattery (2006) brings these ideas to mind when suggesting the following - “Should Columbus be presented as a hero or villain and marauder? What caused the collapse of the Soviet Union..." (p.116)? In Slattery’s (2006) chapter on hermeneutics and the interpretive process he explains “the history, theories and controversy surrounding the interpretive process in order to help teachers understand the possibilities and pitfalls of hermeneutics."

The Following is a clip taken from a lecture in Yale University by Paul H. Fry. The video is an explanation of the concept of hermeneutics.

In this 'Calvin & Hobbes' comic strip, the concept of "good" is in question. Just as religions support their own versions of interpreted text, so too, can they purport certain interpretations of values and ideals.

Six Ways of Describing Hermeneutics

1. Traditional Theological Hermeneutics
Traditional theological hermeneutics is a science of interpretation based on innate ideas and ecclesiastical views of morality. In most cases, these interpretations draw on religious texts in historical context (Slattery, 2006). This, in itself, can be problematic because of the diversity of denominations and religions; each claiming to have the correct interpretation of a text that is shared by many. Much of traditional theological hermaneutics seeks answers to complex questions by drawing conclusions form anaologies based on "established evidence that is found in [religious] texts" (A. Ibn Khaldun, 1989 p. 347). In some small ways, theological hermaneutic discourse mirrors poststructural hermaneutics in that there are often varying degrees of comfort with ambiguity. According to St. Augustine of Hippo, the Catholic church was unpretentious in its demand that "certain things should be believed even though they cannot be proved, for if they could be proved, not all men could understand the proof, and some could not be proved at all" (1961, p. 116). Nevertheless, in the tradition of theological hermaneutics, even reasoning for the inexplicable stops at one form of religious text or another.

2.Conservative Philosophical Hermeneutics
Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher and philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey established this philosophy and educational reformers such as E.D. Hirsch, have been influenced by this philosophy. These theorists maintain that we can understand other authors' intentions and reach a universal truth by thinking independent from the time and historical limitations. Correct methodology and hard work help an interpreter to think independently from the current era. Theorists define hermeneutics' intention as reproducing the meaning of the text (Slattery, 2006). Conservative Philosophical Hermaneutics is a tradition of thought born in the age of enlightenment. The idea that the universe is ordered according to established principles reflected European mentalities in an age of scientific discovery; where laws of physics and mathematics were re-defining the previously unknown. Conservative philosophical hermaneutics reflected the ideas of the time. Many philosophers, like Schleiermacher and Bacon, maintained that all universal truths could be discovered through careful applicaiton of the five senses in much the same way that the universal laws of motion where discovered. Even modern educational theorists like Ruby Payne, maintain that there are universal truths that govern the success of human interaction; what E.D. Hirsch calls, "cultural literacy" (1988). According to modern conservative theorists, there is a clear divide between those who are successfull in society and those who are not. The idea of cultural literacy implies that those who aquiesce to the literacy of the dominant culture are most likely to succeed and that those who do not, as John Ogbu often points out, do so to their own personal detriment. (1998).

3.Contextual Hermeneutics
This theory maintains that social and historical conditions are essential in the interpretive process. Hans-Georg Gadamer created the term, "the fusion of horizons." According to Gadamer, an interpreter should fuse his own perspective, his perspective of historical and social conditions, and the meaning of the texts (Slattery, 2006). According to O'Neill (2007) Gadamer relies heavily on the need for tradition, which viewed through a feminist critique is problematic. Virginia Woolf (as cited in O'Neill) questions the fact that women have not had the opportunity to be part of a philosophical or poetic tradition and are therefore left out of the historical context. O'Neill concludes that "In Woolf's embodied hermeneutics interpreters are called to remember that texts are embedded in contexts of gendered possibilities and limitations" (p. 337). This implies that there needs to be a broader use of the context used for interpretative purposes.

The following clip illustrates how words can be misinterpreted by the receiver if context is not initially clear:

4. Reflective Hermeneutics
Paul Ricoeur argues that the first understanding of text should be proven through some scientific procedures in order to ensure the sense of the text (is validated). Ricoeur also maintains that a structuralist science can never establish a structuralist philosophy (Slattery, 2006). Unlike contextualists, reflectivists, maintain that context alone is not sufficient to make sense of the world around us because individual perceptions of context, whether historic or contemporary often differ. It becomes necessary, therefore, to negotiate between a variety of interracting narratives and perceptions in order to make sense of a phenomenon in a process that Ricoeur refers to as "correlative and reciprocal" (Ricoeur, 1986).

5. Poststructural Hermeneutics
Nietzsche and Heidegger are influenced by this theory, and some deconstructionists such as Kristeva, Baudrillard, Derrida, and Foucault inspired to practice this theory. Theorists maintain that the post-structuralist interpretation process requires playing with the words of the texts. Derrida, according to Ozmon and Craver (2008,) believed texts must be deconstructed and critics must look at the various meanings of the text. They must look at "how the vagaries of language confuse central meanings of texts" (p. 323). Using texts to reach truths is not the primary concern of post-structuralists (Slattery, 2006) because, based on this theory, there are not any universal meanings or truths.

In much the same way as the movie "The Matrix" calls into question a known reality, post-structural hermanuetic discource questions common beliefs regarding what is real. Universal truths about the world are deconstructed and meaning is seen as a negotiation between various forms and functions.

6. Critical Hermeneutics
Inspired by ideas that emerged from the Frankfurt School as well as theorists such as Marx, Habermas, Marcuse, and Gramsci, critical hermaneutic discource attempts to attain individual liberation by deconstructing the hegemony of institutional power structures that create rigid class structures. Additionally, critical hermaneutic theory problematizes ideology and traditionally accepted norms that reinforce the structures of hierarchically exclusive economic and social systems. An example of this would be Gramsci's call to question the culture of hegemony, particularly the culture of western materialism, and stop the process of reification of the predominate capitalist ideology (Ozmon & Craver, 2008). Unlike post-structural hermaneutics that engages in an never-ending discourse that constantly contextualizes and re-defines meaning, the aim of critical hermeneutics is to achieve consensus in politics, religion, education, psychology, and aesthetics instead of ideology (Slattery, 2006).

History of Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics is defined as an approach to “understanding the meaning of texts, laws, language, historical artifacts and pedagogy” (Slattery, p. 115). This approach can be traced back to both philosophical study and biblical study (Slattery, p. 129). Hermeneutics appeared in the 17th century and the concept of hermeneutic came from ancient of the Greeks. Prior to the 20th century, in the exegesis of sacred, classical, or judicial texts, hermeneutic methods were used (Hansen, Rennecker, 2006). It was also used by Aristotle, as well as by an entire school in Alexandria (Slattery, 2006). The origin of the word hermeneutics is Greek from the name Hermes, the messenger of the Greek gods. The name is ironic because Hermes was a trickster who delivered messages which were characterized by clarity and ambiguity. This propensity toward delivering such messages is often ascribed as well to modern-day authorities (Slattery, 2006).

Hermeneutics is “concerned with the ambiguous nature of life itself” (Slattery, p 115). It can be considered a type of curriculum inquiry thatcounteracts the absolute, linear view of knowledge. Instead, hermeneutics fosters ambiguity and contextual knowing by deconstructing assumptions to knowledge through the lens of multiple perspectives. Interpretation is central to school curriculum. In choosing textbooks and school media materials, for example, curricularists' leanings toward particular worldviews will be evidenced. Hermeneutics is widely seen with historical interpretations and can be limited by people who may ban certain books or only tell one side of a story. An example of the controversy that can arise over interpretation is the firing of Martin Harwit of the Smithsonian. He was fired because he attempted to present a different view of the use of nuclear weapons, during WWII. He was fired because he attempted to change the status quo. Museums and textbooks can either encourage the status quo or critical thinking (Slattery, 2006). Educators and directors should encourage historical analysis by presenting different viewpoints (Slattery, p118) However, hermeneutics can be seen as threatening to those in power because interpretations may not be in line with their way of thinking (Slattery, 2006). If one is to follow Slattery's line of thinking, one must ask the question how far can one take hermeneutics? Can an alternate intreptation of the WWII holocuast be accepted as a legitmate academic discourse? Or, are there universally accepted interpretations that transcend the need for further analysis?
Further examples of the variance in hermeneutics are seen in differing Supreme Court decisions by each justice—despite the fact that they are reading the same document. (Slattery,2006). Some justices believe in the intentionalist approach of trying to figure out what the framers of the Constitution intended. Others such as Justice Antonin Scalia follow a textualist approach, seeking to establish the meaning of the wording of the text itself.
The reading of religious documents can show further variance as in the examples of “fatwas” in Muslim laws (Slattery, 124). Another religious example can be seen in the use of the Bible against the practice of abortion despite the fact that word abortion was not actually mentioned at all in the Bible (Slattery, 2006).

Hermeneutics in Education

external image guncontrol.JPG

-Some teachers feel caught in the middle as technology proponents push for so-called constructivist learning strategies just as state curriculum standards, state tests and NCLB press for basic skills and memorization of much curriculum content.

This cartoon depicts hermeneutics in education. Here we are faced with a traditional approach to curriculum that does not allow room for interpretation and an interpretive approach where students are allowed to question. Both methods involve the same curriculum but from different point of views. Which one is preferred is up the perspective and the interpreter.

Hermeneutics is prevalent in the curriculum-making process. It can be readily observed during the selection of textbooks, educational resources, and literature. The type of books and material chosen varies from teacher to teacher and school board to school board depending on how that group of individuals interprets the importance and relevance of each text. On a larger scale, some curriculum developers and educators favor a more traditional, anti-hermeneutic approach to curriculum. Examples may include the succession through a set of concepts and skills with the view that all knowledge is absolute and unchanging. The curriculum does not allow room for interpretation, nor for students to question or evaluate knowlege that is presented to them. Other curriculum developers and educators seek a more interpretive approach, where knowledge is temporal and authority can be questioned. This type of approach harmonizes with the postmodern vision of hermenetics, which favors mindful evaluation and deeper understanding of the lived experience that each individual brings forth. Whichever method they prefer, it tends to echo a preference of certain political, social or philosophical perspectives (Slattery, 2006). A goal of curriculum in the postmodern era is the inclusion of a "community cirlce of creative interpretation" that is woven into the very fabric of the school experience (Slattery, 2006, p.141).
Major controversies over the historical and moral interpretation of textbooks and literature arise when dealing with hermeneutics. For example, some texts differ in the presentation of historical figures and events such as Columbus and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the English classroom, the choice to include Walt Whitman's works which praise Abraham Lincoln are included while his works praising same gender love are not. Or again in the study of other established works such as those by Shakespeare, there are only certain interpretations which are considered acceptable in the traditional classroom. In this sense, hermeneutics can be used to combat onesidedness in education. It can be used as a process of reflection upon the curriculum and the null curriclum. Hermeneutics is a way of acknowledging the implications that are tied to the interpretation of the curriculum (Slattery,2006).
external image naked.jpg

*This cartoon shows how hermeneutics can be used to illustrate onesideness in education. When we narrow a curriculum, we usually remove that what we want our children not to learn.

Within the science world, there have been multiple attempts at creating a hermeneutics-minded approach to teaching science. That is, should we focus more on the "whole-ness" of science, instead of breaking it down into highly specific chunks, equations, and individual concepts? Perhaps, in education, Slattery would be proud of a holistic approach in science education, where students start with a subject, such as "bettering the planet" and apply what they learn through different science units, all in an effort to make the world a better place (especially when it comes to solving pollution, slash-and-burn processes, and the ozone hole). In fact, science can help us care for nature if we actually use what we learn in the four walls of the classroom and apply it to the earth around us (Joldersma, 2009).

Another venue in which the access to knowledge can at times be affected by hermeneutics is museums. Like schools and curriculum, museums can be a double-edged sword. If ideas are free to educate the masses with knowledge that is not adjusted to fit the political or governmental agenda, it can “open up spaces for reflection… [and] create epistemological curriculum spaces.” If not, they “limit access to ideas and possibilities” (Slattery, 2006, p. 118).
Slattery (2006) states that curriculum development in the postmodern era “will focus on the community of interpreters working together in mutually corrective and mutally collaborative efforts” (p. 141). Although postmodern hermeneutics may worry traditional curriculum developers and bureaucrats, this “community of interpreters” can aid in not only comprehending the text and experiences of others, but enter the hermeneutic circle together (Slattery, 2006, p. 141-142).

Hermeneutics in Politics

Hermeneutics can also be found at the root of many political debates. A major difference between politicians is the way they interpret and exercise the U.S. Constitution. Slattery (2006) states some justices and politicians use previously held “assumptions about the meaning of the language of the Constitution, [their] unique political philosophy… [and] conflicting interpretations of the historical legal record of previous cases” to guide their understanding of the text (p. 124). Factors like timing and historical conditions can influence how politicians make decisions and carry out sentences (Slattery, 2006).

When examining candidates for an office, matters concerning a nominee’s position on controversial topics such as abortion can sometimes be a deciding factor for senators or voters. For example, there are some people who still oppose the 1973 ruling in the Roe v. Wade trial which eliminated states’ rights when it came to abortion decisions (Slattery, 2006). During the trial it became a religious debate in which Hebrew and Christian scriptures were used to justify certain beliefs and arguments. Hermeneutics was used to interpret the meaning of the religious passages. However, “even if two people share virtually identical philosophies, theologies, and political ideologies, they will often diverge in the way they believe the rules should be implements or understood in various circumstances” (Slattery, 2006, pp. 124-125). This is what makes it difficult to use the interpretations of text to validate ideas. It is important to realize that no one will interpret or understand the meaning of any type of text the same way as the next person.

external image king.jpg

*Much like King George III of Britain whose rule led to the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, this King George shows little respect for the rule of law, the sanctity of the home or the principles of freedom. He uses the word freedom more often but with less understanding than any president before him.
While the Constitution clearly leaves the states prime responsibility for educational policy and funding, this Administration and Congress have dictated educational policy in ways that violate the Tenth Amendment, telling states they must test annually and even directing which reading texts they might purchase.

This illustration depicts how law is applied up to the interpreter. In politics, how laws are interpreted effects decisions and verdicts. This illustration shows how one administration interprets the law and freedom.

Why is Hermeneutics Controversial?
Upon reading and deconstructing Slattery’s chapter on hermenutics it is obvious that it is a controversial issue. Two problems are discussed. The first problem surrounds the one true meaning of text (Slattery, 2006). Postmodernists, according to Slattery (2006) believe in truth with a small "t," not a capital "T." This means that there are multiple understandings of texts and events which leave room for doubt, eclecticism, ecumenism, etc. One of the obvious problems with the belief in fundamental truth is the fact that there are so many schisms and vastly different interpretations within any institution, including every major religion and judicial bodies. Whole factions grow out of various interpretations of one text, for example in the church, the role of women and gay individuals is a hotly debated topic. This is not unique to Christianity. Jews, Muslims, Hindus debate interpretations of their sacred texts. The problem arises because of the issue of power. If major organizations allow everyone to have a say in their beliefs on the correct interpretations of events or texts, control may be lost.
The second controversial issue is “the nature of the interpretive process itself” (Slattery, 2006, p.125). Stanley Fish (Fish, 2005) uses the example of the problems which arise in the Supreme Court when interpreting the U.S. Constitution. There are two main camps - intentionalists and textualists. Intentionalists believe that they must try to understand what the framers had in mind, and they are confident that this is the only way to interpret the Constitution. However textualists disagree and claim that all that is open to interpretation is the text itself for there is nothing else to examine. The argument against this is that words do not have a life unto themselves. There are multiple meanings of words. Because of these problems with both views, activism states that it is inevitable that some amount of interpretation is inherent in any reading and any interpretation is ultimately open to being challenged.

In Slattery’s summary on textualism and intentionalism he writes, “we cannot rely simply on what the text communicates, and we cannot arbitrarily impose contemporary understandings on the text. ….all texts are complex and must be deconstructed on multiple levels.” (Slattery, 2006, p. 127).

Based upon Slattery's coverage of the hermaneutics phenomenon, it is interesting to note that one can actually quantify a plethora of prejudices. "Despite similarities between sexism, racism, sexual prejudice, ageism, classism, and religious intolerance, investigators do not routinely investigate these intolerant beliefs simultaneously" (Aosved, Long, & Voller, 2009). A group of three researchers were able to quantify people's prejudices and combined several thoughts into one test called the "Intolerant Schema Measure (ISM)", which the researchers found to be significantly consistent in testing procedures (Aosved, Long, & Voller, 2009). In general, it's as if we can test someone with a set of predetermined questions, gather their scores, and seemingly mark them as "prejudiced" (to certain degrees) or not (is the "not" ever possible?).

Closing Thoughts on Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics is seen as a dangerous science by powerful and wealthy people because the structures which keep them in power may be challenged through reinterpretation. Churches, mosques, courts, and councils prefer to reflect only one true meaning of the text. However, hermeneutics may perceive and interpret the meanings in multiple ways. Most religious institutions, governments, and corporations desire people who do not question the rules. Many people accept laws, rules, holy books, texts, religious leaders, civil authorities, and educational institutions without any hermeneutic interpretation. The accepted approach by such may be reflected in the belief that one should never question "your pope, president, principal, pastor, or parent (p. 127)." Slattery (2006) asserts we cannot rely on the text's initial meaning as all texts are complex and must be deconstructed in various ways.

In education especially, the hermeneutic circle is understood to be the process of understanding through multiple viewpoints that is recursive in nature. The traditional technical approach is "dehumaninzing" according to Hans-Georg Gadamer, as opposed to the dialogue which leads to better understanding called for by the idea of the hermeneutic circle (p. 137). Theology and philosophy have been challenged "to enter the hermeneutic circle (Slattery, p. 139) and it is now also the challenge to the field of curriculum. Educators must provide an opportunity for understanding, explanation and critical assessment through a "community of interpreters [who] must work to unmask ideological distortions" and analyze the meanings of texts themselves (Slattery, 2006). Curriculum developers and teachers should "open spaces for reflection" which allow for counter-hegemonic understanding of text to occur.



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