Hermeneutics is the art of interpreting. Although it began as a legal and theological methodology governing the application of civil law, canon law, and the interpretation of Scripture, it developed into a general theory of human understanding through the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey, Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, and Jacques Derrida. Hermeneutics proved to be much bigger than theology or legal theory. The comprehension of any written text requires hermeneutics; reading a literary text is as much a hermeneutic act as interpreting law or Scripture (see the four tenants below).
Without collapsing critical thinking into relativism, hermeneutics recognizes the historicity of human understanding. Ideas are nested in historical, linguistic, and cultural horizons of meaning. A philosophical, theological, or literary problem can only be genuinely understood through a grasp of its origin. Hermeneutics is in part the practice of historical retrieval, the re-construction of the historical context of scientific and literary works. Hermeneutics does not re-construct the past for its own sake; it always seeks to understand the particular way a problem engages the present. A philosophical impulse motivates hermeneutic re-construction, a desire to engage a historically transmitted question as a genuine question, worthy of consideration in its own right. By addressing questions within ever-new horizons, hermeneutic understanding strives to break through the limitations of a particular world-view to the matter that calls to thinking.
Hermeneutics opposes the radical relativist notion that meaning cannot be trans-lingual. As the speculative grammarians of the Middle Ages recognized, all languages are rooted in a depth grammar of human meaning. This ontological grammar is not a meta-language in which everything can be said. Rather, it is the single horizon of human understanding, which makes speakers of various languages members of a human community. On the other hand, hermeneutics opposes the rationalist tendency to downplay the uniqueness of languages. Hermeneutics is not satisfied with translating the language of the other; it wants to speak with the other in the language of the other.
Hermeneutics is philosophy in the original sense of the word, the love of wisdom, the search for as comprehensive an understanding of human existence as possible.
The Need for Inter-Disciplinary Collaboration
Hermeneutics cannot happen without a level of inter-disciplinary collaboration that does not yet exist on university campuses. The theologian needs the philosopher as much as the philosopher needs the theologian; both need the literary critic. Hermeneutics is a resolute break with the specialization that has isolated academic disciplines, an effort to redress fragmentation without infringing upon any science's unique area of inquiry.
The Need for Inter-Linguistic Collaboration
On a certain level, translation is impossible. What is said in a particular language is said in a distinct form of life, a historical context of meaning. The only way to understand a text is to read it in its original language; the only way to read a language is to be familiar with its form of life. Nonetheless, as Walter Benjamin put it, we must translate. Translation is not a simple substitution of language, but a hermeneutic exercise of interpreting how a meaning can be transposed into a historical-linguistic horizon different from the one in which it originated. What emerges in the target language is not identical to the original, nor wholly different; it is a new expression of the meaning, an effect of its history (Wirkungsgeschichte).
The Need for Inter-Religious Collaboration
Hermeneutics has had immense impulses from theology through the work of Roman Catholic theologians Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Bernard Lonergan, Protestant theologians Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth, and Jewish theologians Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and Emmanuel Levinas. The philosophical and literary traditions of the world are intimately bound up with the practice of human religion. Understanding traditional texts is not possible without a religious context. This understanding can be independent of an individual religious commitment. Hermeneutics acknowledges that the meaning of a religious text is uniquely disclosed within the horizon of a particular faith; however, hermeneutics is equally interested in reading religious texts within the horizon of un-belief. In the hermeneutic universe, no voice is excluded from the conversation because of a faith commitment or a lack thereof. According to Hans-Georg Gadamer, our pre-judgments do not impede understanding; on the contrary, they make it possible.
The Need for Inter-National Collaboration
The world of business knows that the economy is global; the world of academia has been slower to recognize the global unification of research through communication technology. A university can no longer remain content within its national boundaries; it must become a center for inter-national collaboration. We only understand the other by entering their horizon. We only enter the horizon of the other by acknowledging its otherness. We must meet. We must interpret. The contemporary university must become a center for inter-cultural and intra-cultural dialogue if it is to remain relevant in the twenty first century.