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From Biblical to General Hermeneutics: A Historical-Thematic Development
Abdul Rahim Afaki


What is Hermeneutics?

There may be at least two ways to respond to the question: What is hermeneutics? First, one may attempt to define the term hermeneutics in a single statement through abstraction. Second, one may try to understand it by considering all of its various aspects in detail.

If one follows the first way, one, like Bleicher, may ‘loosely’ and generally define hermeneutics ‘as theory or philosophy of the interpretation of meaning.’1 Following the same way, six different particular (rather than general) definitions of hermeneutics may also be obtained with respect to the six different senses it has been used in, throughout its historical development; that is, it may be defined as: ‘(1) the theory of biblical exegesis; (2) general philological methodology; (3) the science of all linguistic understanding;(4) the methodological foundation of Geisteswissenschaften; (5) the phenomenology of Dasein and of existential understanding; and (6) the systems of interpretation, both re-collective and iconoclastic, used by man to reach the meaning behind myths and symbols.’2 Considering the six particular definitions of hermeneutics one confronts with the interpretation of meaning in each case while the object of interpretation varies respectively. For instance, in (1) & (2) the object is the biblical text; in (3) the text is general ; in (4) , Geisteswissenschaften; in (5), Dasein; and in (6) ‘the collection of signs and symbols susceptible of being considered as a text’.3 So through all of the seven definitions (one from Bleicher & six from Palmer), one finds no common thread being a defining characteristic or a fixed single essence of the term hermeneutics except the phrase -- the interpretation of meaning -- which is not an absolutely appropriate answer to the question: What is hermeneutics? Instead one may find here, as Wittgenstein put it: ‘A complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail’.4 Therefore, the better way of grasping this complex term is to consider, in detail, the specific arguments and theories of the major thinkers who build up the tradition of hermeneutics. If one follows the way concerning understanding rather then defining hermeneutics, one can comprehend the term with greater clarity as there is no restriction on one to abstract the defining characteristic of the term concerned. Instead, in this way, one tries to understand the term comprehensively by considering all of the significant aspects of it, which may help to make it more and more clear. So in order to understand what hermeneutics is, this author will have a treatment of the term regarding the two different aspects of its meaning namely (1) etymological and (2) historical thematic.

(1) Etymological Treatment of the Term Hermeneutics

Like most of the significant philosophical terms, hermeneutics is also rooted in the tradition of Greek philosophy. One of the major treatises of the Organon, the collection of Aristotle’s logical treatises, was titled as Peri Hermeneias (‘On Interpretation’).5 The word hermeneia, a noun meaning ‘interpretation’ is derived from the verb hermeneuein which means ‘to interpret’ whereas the noun and the verb both ‘point back to the wing-footed messenger-god Hermes, from whose name the words are apparently derived (or vice versa).’6 Hermes being an interpreter had to do a twofold job: he not only ‘transmitted the messages of the gods to the mortals’7, but he also rendered these messages ‘intelligible and meaningful’8 for human beings. Plato, in one of his dialogues, portrayed Hermes as an entrusted ‘ambassador or envoy to a foreign state’ whose job is to deliver the messages he is commissioned for without any distortion or falsification as one of the interlocutors says:

If an ambassador or envoy to a foreign state behaves disloyally in his office, whether by falsification of the dispatch he is commissioned to deliver or by proved distortion of messages entrusted to him by such state, friendly or hostile, as ambassador or envoy, all such persons shall lie upon to impeachment of the crime of sacrilege against the function and ordinances of Hermes and Zeus... 9

The Threefold Meaning of Hermeneuein-Hermeneia

Regarding their ancient usage, the Greek word hermeneuein and hermeneia have a threefold meaning depending upon the three-dimensional role Hermes played mediating between god and man by bringing messages from the former to the latter. These three dimensions of meaning of the verb hermeneuein are: ‘(1) to express aloud in words, that is, ‘to say’; (2) to explain, as in explaining a situation; and (3) to translate, as in the translation of a foreign tongue’.10 They can be understood with respect to the threefold role Hermes played as an interpreter, that is, he, first, had to utter the messages of the gods in front of the mortals; second, he had to explain the messages in order to make the mortals understand them; and third, the utterance and the explanation both cannot be complete until and unless the messages have not been translated from the divine and the extra-mundane language to the mundane one of the mortals.

a. ‘Hermeneia’ as Saying

Being a mediator between the gods and the mortals, the basic job of Hermes was to say or to express what the gods told him for the mortals. So the first primary dimension of the noun hermeneia is ‘saying’ or ‘expressing’. How can ‘interpreting’ be identified, though partially, with ‘saying’ or ‘expressing’? This identification may be understood by viewing the definition of ‘spoken words’ given in Aristotle’s Peri Hermeneias (On Interpretation) which states: ‘spoken words are the symbols of mental experience’.11 It implies that when we speak something, we not merely express what we have in our own mind by producing certain sounds rather, at the same time, we interpret our mental experiences through certain words manifested as symbolic sounds. So speaking itself is a process of interpretation. The role of spoken words is very significant in those religions, which are text-based like Islam. The message of Islam was oral as in the Bultmanian theology in which the scriptures are considered to be ‘kerygma, a message to be proclaimed’.12 The message of Islam was, first, orally given from God, through Gabriel, to the Prophet (sws), and then from the Prophet (sws) to all human beings. The sole purpose of the message is to be preached and communicated to every corner of the world. This task can only be achieved through spoken language, as Palmer put it (though Palmer said these words concerning Christian theology; but they are equally applicable on Muslim theology as well): ‘Certainly the task of theology is to explain the Word in the language and context of each age, but it also must express and proclaim the Word in the vocabulary of the age.’13 Interpretation, as an oral expression, reminds us of the significance of oral recitation of the Qur’ān which is very popular an activity in our religious culture. The Qur’ān derives much of Its dynamism and impact from the strength of the spoken words. It was the magical power of the spoken words that the understanding of the message was to be communicated with such a great pace throughout the Arab Peninsula. And again it was the magical power of the spoken words that the Prophet (sws) and his Companions (rta) were that much successful, as the interpreters of the Qur’ān, in transforming the human situation of their day from undeveloped to civilised in religious, political and social terms. But unfortunately our present day religious scenario is deprived of that magical power of the message as the oral recitation of the Qur’ān is absolutely devoid of any sense of understanding or interpretation. Today the overall approach of Muslims to the Word of God is not interpretative or understanding oriented instead very superficial and pragmatic. People recite the Qur’ān, as Islāhī put it, ‘to transfer the reward of its recital to their dear departed ones as well as for softening the agony of death’.14

b. ‘Hermeneia’ as Explanation

 Interpretation is not merely ‘to say’ or ‘to express’ something rather it is far more than that. If Hermes was an interpreter, he was not merely to convey the message of the gods to the mortals rather he had ‘to explain’ the message as well to make the mortals understand it aptly. This aspect of Hermes’s job determines the second dimension of the meaning of the noun hermeneia that is explanation. In Cratylus, Plato equates ‘interpretation’ with ‘explanation’ while discussing the meaning and explanation of certain divine names. In the dialogue, Socrates says that Hermes as an interpreter ‘has a great deal to do with language’ and that he is not only a speaker rather ‘the contriver of tales of speeches’.15 It means that being an interpreter Hermes was not merely to convey the words of the gods to the mortals, but he was to make them grasp the words properly through certain explanations in the form of tales or speeches etc. That is to say, when we have to ‘interpret’ some text whether it is a religious scripture, a social issue, a piece of art, or a literary work, we do not have to simply describe it but we should ‘explain’ it by giving some additional account as an elaboration of its meaning. Since the interpretation of the text as an elaboration of its meaning is always to be linked with it in certain context, therefore, it makes us understand the text more clearly. So the explanation of a text is nothing but an extension of the meaning of the very text. In the light of this second dimension of the meaning of hermeneia’ we can understand the hermeneutical role of the Prophet (sws) as a mediator between God and the mortals. He was to be raised up among the mortals not only to deliver the message of God to them rather he had to explain it as well so that they could understand it clearly. In this regard, the Sunnah and the Ahādīth of the Prophet (sws) are considered to be an extension of the meaning of the Word of God. Through the Sunnah and the Ahādīth, he made his companions understand what was to be revealed on him from God and thereby he educated them in accordance with that very revelation. That is to say, the task of the Prophet (sws) was not only to deliver the Word of God, as it is, to human beings; rather he had to explain the same in order to educate them as well as to purify their souls, as the Qur’ān says:

We sent a messenger from among you to convey our message to you and cleanse you, and teach you the Book and the Wisdom. (2:151 )16

In the nexus of this verse, the second dimension of the meaning of hermeneia, that is, ‘explanation’ is extremely important in the sense that being the educator and the purifier of soul the apostle could achieve his main purpose by ‘explaining’ the Word of God in his own words (Ahādīth) as well as by his own actions (Sunnah).

c. ‘Hermeneia’ as Translation

Being an interpreter Hermes mediates between the two worlds namely the world of the gods and that of the mortals. To the mortals, the former is an alien, foreign, strange and un-intelligible world. And the role of Hermes it is to make that world intelligible for the mortals. This role of Hermes is to determine the third dimension of the meaning of the word hermeneia, that is ‘translation’.17 The translation of a text of a foreign language into one’s own language is an attempt to render it understandable to one’s original public. It is not only an ‘act’, as Palmer18 put it ‘of finding synonyms’ and their juxtaposing in a particular manner rather by virtue of the translation one becomes able to have a meaningful view of the text in one’s own language. A good translator not only puts a particular synonym of his own language against a particular word of the text, but he coins certain composite terms or even long phrases as well to make his rendering as clear to his reader as possible. This aspect of ‘translation’ is one which makes it a hermeneutical activity as it is characterised by a touch of interpretation through the composite terms and the long phrases against a mere literal rendering of the text from one language into another by the juxtaposition of synonyms. Furthermore, the issue of Qur’ānic hermeneutics can illustrate this dimension of the meaning of hermeneia. The Qur’ān was revealed in a particular language (Arabic) onto the Prophet (sws) who was an inhabitant of a specific spacio-temporal world constituting its own social, cultural and historical horizon. The task of the Prophet (saw) was not only to impart the message of God to human beings, but he had to educate them as well as to purify their souls, as the Qur’ān says:

It is He Who raised among the children of Ismail a Messenger from amongst them, Who recites His revelations to them, purifies them and teaches them the Book and the Wisdom, for before him they were clearly in error. (62:2 )

If a today’s exegete, being an inhabitant of our own society, intends to translate the Qur’ān into our own language, then he should not work out an interpretation of its text by juxtaposing the traditions concerned; instead he should interpret the Qur’ān as a mediator between the two worlds. That is to say, his interpretation of the Qur’ān should be characterised by the fusion of the two horizons whereby he could make his readers understand the Word of God perfectly as well as it could help them in getting the right guidance in leading a good life in their own world.

(2) Historical-Thematic Treatment of the Term Hermeneutics

The phrase ‘historical-thematic’ is characterised by the view that hermeneutics is not only a historically developed tradition of the Western thought, rather there are certain ‘themes’ interwoven together to constitute it as a distinct sphere of philosophy. Historically speaking, the term hermeneutics can be traced back to Greek culture, as discussed above, but after the emergence of Christianity, the question of biblical interpretation gave rise to it as a theory of interpretation. Then since Schleiermacher onward, there started to emerge certain philosophical themes which later on developed through Dilthey, Heidegger, Gadamer, Apel, Habermas, Hirsch, Bultman and Ricouer etc. to build it up as a distinct philosophical tradition.

Biblical Hermeneutics

The ancient Greek states used to have Homer’s and Hesiod’s poems as a part of their education curriculum as they were rejected as such by Plato in the Republic.19 It shows that the Greek pedagogues had a sense of interpreting literary text though they were not aware of the term hermeneutics as we are today. That is to say, they were not hermeneuticians but still had a hermeneutical approach to drama and poetry. Aristotle, for instance, in his ‘Art of Rhetoric’ taught how to dissect the whole of a literary work into its parts, distinguish literary forms and recognise the effect of rhythm, period and metaphor.20 But technically speaking, according to Palmer, the oldest and ‘the most widespread understanding of the word hermeneutics refers to the principles of biblical interpretation’ based upon the distinction of biblical exegesis as mere interpretation from hermeneutics as the methodology of interpretation characterised by certain rules, methods and theories governing the interpretation.21 Throughout the medieval era, two methods were commonly used in interpreting the Bible namely: grammatical-historical and allegorical.

The grammatical-historical method is used in interpreting the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament and vice versa. It is based upon the view that both the Scriptures are revealed by God though in different times. The New Testament was revealed onto Jesus (sws) who is considered to be the last Prophet among the children of Israel, so it is an extension of the teachings of the previous prophets.22 In Biblical hermeneutics, one could interpret certain passages of the New Testament by referring to certain passages of the Old Testament determining as appropriately as possible what they meant to their original readers and then how they can be used in interpreting the passages of the New Testament. In this regard, the Old Testament may be useful in different ways but the most important one is that of the Old Testament prophecies and their New Testament fulfillments. There are certain passages in the Old Testament (for instant, Isaiah 9:6) that predict a royal ‘birth of superhuman king of David’s line who is both king and priest and divine’. The majority of Biblical exegetes, according to Laird Harris, have a consensus of opinions on this issue alleging that the predicted superhuman son of David is Jesus Christ.23

Besides the grammatical-historical method, the procedure of allegorical interpretation of the Bible, imported from the Stoics, had been of great significance as ‘it eliminated the conflict between religious texts and an enlightened world view’.24 The allegorical interpretation might be satisfactory for both gnostics and orthodox simultaneously as thereby one could work out both gnostic and agnostic meanings of a religious text through allegories and metaphors.

The Renaissance & the Biblical Hermeneutics

Along with several other spheres of learning in the Western world Biblical hermeneutics was also to be benefited from the Renaissance. From 1545 to 1563, the council of Trent insisted ‘on church authority and tradition on matters of’ Biblical interpretation and thereby a conflict of opinion was to arise between the Catholic Church and the Protestant reformers. The latter, rejecting the church authority and tradition, advanced the view that the Holy Scriptures are ‘perspicuous and self-sufficient’ to be interpreted so that the church is not supposed to be a necessary authority to mediate the text to the mortals.25 Both Dilthey and M-Vollmer consider Matthias Flacius Illyricus as ‘the most important Protestant theorist’ who ‘laid firm basis for the development of Protestant hermenetics’.26 Rejecting the church authority in interpreting the Bible ‘he argued that if the Scriptures had not yet been understood properly, this did not necessarily imply that the church ought to impose an external interpretation to make them intelligible; it merely reflected the insufficient knowledge and faulty preparation of the interpreters.’27 Flacius, like Luther and Melanchthon, also claimed that ‘the Scriptures contained an internal coherence and continuity’, that is to say, ‘an individual passage [of a Scripture] must be interpreted in terms of the aim and composition of the whole work’.28 This argument of Flacius’ seems to be a very initial form of the ‘hermeneutical circle’ which is the ‘canon of totality and meaningful coherence’ used as a methodological device in hermeneutical theory. In this device, a text is brought to the understanding as a ‘whole in relation to which individual parts acquire their meaning’ and vice versa.29 It reminds us of the basic doctrine of Farāhī’s school of thought concerning Qur’ānic hermeneutics. Although Farāhī had no acquaintance with Flacius’ work and he had not as well to react against any ‘Church’. But like Flacius, who played a vital role in working out new theories for biblical interpretation, he laid a new foundation for the development of Qur’ānic hermeneutics. He opined that the Qur’ān is not a set of discrete verses, instead it is an organic whole wherein the verses are integrally connected. Furthermore, a verse should be interpreted in the nexus of the other verses, that is to say, the Qur’ān should be interpreted in the light of its own rather than by any other external authority.30

Toward General Hermeneutics: Schleiermacher

Before Schleiermacher

Schleiermacher is considered to be the founder of modern tradition of hermeneutics. He was the first thinker who intended to work out a hermeneutical theory by virtue of which any kind of text could be interpreted. This hermeneutical approach was very novel comparing the classical tradition of hermeneutics in which the object of interpretation had often been the Biblical text. The Schleiermacherian approach is reported to influenced by two intellectual traditions: first, the Enlightenment philosophers who intended ‘to proceed everywhere from certain principles and to systematize all human knowledge’ and that is the approach whereby ‘hermeneutics became a province of philosophy’31; second, the Romantic tradition which Schleiermacher was himself a part of.32 In order to understand Schleiermacher’s thought concerning hermeneutics it is apt to have a view of those pre-Schleiermacherian thinkers, of both Enlightenment and Romantic traditions, whose thought has been reported to be amalgamated by him.


Hermeneutics as an Art of Perfect Understanding

As far as the development of general hermeneutics is concerned, Chladenius (1710-1759) is the most important figure among the philosophers of Enlightenment. In his view, hermeneutics is ‘the art of attaining the perfect or complete understanding of utterances, whether they be speeches (Reden) or writings (Schriften)’.33 Chladenius’s position, being a theorist of hermeneutics, can be understood clearly, as M-Vollmer put it, ‘by considering three aspects of his theory which are closely interrelated: his concept of hermeneutics, his implied notion of verbal meanings, and his theory of the ‘point-of-view’ (Sehe-Punckt) concerning historical writings.’34 Chladenius defined hermeneutics as ‘the art of attaining perfect understanding’; therefore, he gave two basic criteria as a guarantee for attaining perfect understanding of a text. First, a text is to be understood ‘wherever we have grasped the intention of the author and whenever we are able to think in our minds all that the words of the author are able to arouse in us according to ‘the rules of reason and of the mind itself.’ The authorised intention is neither an expression of the author’s personality nor his psychological state of mind rather it ‘relates to the specific genre of writing he intended to produce.’ Second, Chladenius considered the rules of reason unchangeable and so they ‘guarantee the stability of meaning and the possibility of its objective transfer through verbal expressions’. If a text was constructed in accordance with ‘the appropriate rules of discourse’ and the ideas were presented clearly by the author, then ‘his words on the page would give rise to a correct and perfect understanding: author and reader alike shared in the same rational principles.’

The most important aspect of Chladenius’s theory is ‘his notion of point-of-view or perspective (Sehe-Punckt )’ which he used to interpret history. The same historical event could be interpreted differently by two different historians. The two different accounts concerning the same historical event could not be contradictory for Chladenius as he believed that an individual understands the events and happenings surrounding him from his own perspective or point of view. ‘This relativity of perspective’ was not problematic for Chladenius as, according to him, one could still judge the truthfulness of any perspective. How could one judge the truthfulness of a perspective? When one places oneself into someone else’s perspective, one can compare what one perceives through someone else’s account with what one knows from other sources. This perspectivism of Chladenius’s concerning historical interpretation is, according to himself, to be derived from Leibniz’s Optics. But according to M-Vollmer, it seems, far more proper, to be derived from Leibniz’s ‘Monadology in which each monad always perceives the same universe, but from its own perspective and according to its own abilities.’35

Friedrich Ast

The Concept of Geist and Hermeneutical Circle

Among the Romantic thinkers, Friedrich Ast36(1778-1841) was the most important one who had a deep impact on Schleiermacherian approach toward general hermeneutics. Ast was basically a philologist whose major work Grundlinien der Grammatik, Hermeneutik und kritik (Basic Elements of Grammar, Hermeneutics and Criticism) was used by Schleiermacher as a reference in establishing his own views concerning hermeneutics. There were various conceptions in Schleiermacher’s general hermeneutics which were already worked out by Ast in his philology namely ‘the hermeneutical circle, the relation of the part to the whole, the metaphysics of genius or individuality’ etc. The main thrust of Ast’s hermeneutical views is his concept of ‘Geist’. Philology, for him, is not only a grammatical style of a work rather its ‘basic aim is grasping the spirit (Geist)’ of the age, which is revealed in the work. Philology attempts to ‘grasp the outer and inner context of a work as a unity’. The inner unity is the harmonious relation of various parts of a work while the outer unity, which is the source of the inner unity, is the unity of the spirit of the age. Here arises the crucial role of language as a prime medium to transmit the spirit of the age in an authorial work. When a reader confronts a text, he not only understands the meaning of the words but he grasps the spirit of a genius (the author) as well as the spirit of the age in which the text was written. So hermeneutics, for Ast, ‘is the theory of extracting the geistige (spiritual) meaning of the text’. And the understanding of this geistige meaning of ‘unknown view points, feelings and ideas’ of antiquity can never be possible until and unless all of them were, in some primordial way, bound up in Geist of the antiquity.

In the light of the concept of Geist, one can understand Ast’s conception of the hermeneutical circle. According to Ast, if one confronts a text of antiquity, one can get twofold understanding of it. On one hand, one can grasp the Geist of antiquity revealed as a whole in the text and, on the other hand, one can also find ‘the Geist of an individual author’ in connection with ‘higher relationship to the whole’. Now the task of hermeneutics is to clarify ‘the relationship of [text’s] inner parts to each other and to the larger spirit of the age’. So hermeneutics, for Ast, becomes a three-dimensional activity, that is, it may be the historical, the grammatical or the spiritual (geistige). In the historical hermeneutics, a text is to be understood ‘in relation to the content of the work’. In the grammatical hermeneutics. a text is to be understood ‘in relation to the language’. And in the geistige hermeneutics, a text is to be understood ‘in relation to the total view of the author and the total view of the age. Two Enlightenment thinkers Semler and Ernesti had already developed the first two respectively. But the third one was an original contribution of Ast to the rise of general hermeneutics and it is the type of hermeneutics, which was further developed by Schleiermacher.37


Interpretation as a Dialogue

Along with Chladenius and Ast the philologist, F.A.Wolf (1759-1824) is also very important in order to understand Schleiermacher’s contribution to the rise of general hermeneutics. For Wolf, interpretation is a kind of dialogue between the author and the interpreter and the dialogue takes place at the spiritual level. So the interpreter must have a talent of ‘entering into the mental world’ of the author, as without it the explanation of the text is not possible. It means that the grasping of a text is characterized by a twofold enterprise: first, the interpreter has to understand the text by a dialogical process at the spiritual level and second, he has to explain his understanding to others.38

Schleiermacher’s Contribution to the Rise of General Hermeneutics

Two Dimensional Interpretation

Schleiermacher’s hermeneutical philosophy is characterized by an amalgamation of the hermeneutical theories before him with a touch of his own creative approach.39 He defines hermeneutics as an ‘art of understanding’40, i.e., it is something to deal with the possibilities of understanding a text and its modes of interpretation. He considers a text as an utterance whether spoken or written. Furthermore, an act of speaking is only an outer side of thinking so ‘hermeneutics is a part of the art of thinking’, and is, therefore, philosophical in nature. There are two dimensions of interpretation namely grammatical and psychological; grammatical because the text is an act of speaking which is always expressed through language, and psychological because it is a manifestation of the speaker’s [the author’s] thought.

 For Schleiermacher, understanding a speech [text] always involves two moments: to understand what is said in the context of the language with its possibilities, and to understand it as a fact in the thinking of the speaker [the author].

 Understanding a text depends upon the coherence of the two moments discussed above and neither of the two dimensions is ‘lower’ or ‘higher’ in terms of its importance rather both are equally crucial. Both of the dimensions should be applied simultaneously on the text to understand it. Keeping in mind this task, the interpreter should be competent linguistically, on one hand, and able enough to know people psychologically, on the other.

The Grammatical Interpretation

Schleiermacher’s notion of the grammatical interpretation is based upon the two canons as follows:

1. ‘A more precise determination of any point in a given text must be decided on the basis of the use of language common to the author and his original public.’41

2. ‘The meaning of each word of a passage must be determined by the context in which it occurs.’

The first canon can be grasped by making a distinction between meaning (Bedeutung) and sense (Sinn) of a word. Bedeutung, for Schleiwermacher, is something ‘what a word is thought to mean ‘in and of itself’, while Sinn is something ‘what the word is thought to mean in a given context’. So having a single meaning a word could acquire a range (Cyclus) of the various senses. In the interpretation of a text, the meaning of a word should be determined by the sense in which the author used the word in the language shared by him with his original public. In order to achieve the task of the grammatical interpretation, the interpreter should be very well equipped with the comprehensive knowledge of the language shared by the author and his public. This kind of knowledge can be obtained if an interpreter grasps an author’s linguistic ‘sphere’ which is constituted by the various factors of the author’s life and his age. ‘The statement that we must consciously grasp an author’s linguistic sphere in contrast to other organic aspects of his language, implies that we understand the author better than he understood himself.’ It is so as, at times, when we interpret a text, we confront certain difficulties and problems; and when we attempt to solve that problems we ‘become aware of many things of which the author himself was unaware’.

According to the second canon, a passage in which a word occurs constitutes a ‘determinative linguistic sphere’ as a context within which the meaning of the word is to be determined. Likewise, the whole of the text is a context in which a passage of it can be understood. It may be that one moves, in order to decipher an appropriate meaning of a word, from the second canon to the first. When the context of a passage is not sufficient to explain the meaning of a word, ‘one must turn to other passages where these same words occur, and under certain conditions, to other works of the author or even to works written by others in which these words appear. But one must always remain within the same linguistic sphere’.

The Psychological or Technical Interpretation

As stated earlier a text is, for Schleiermacher, an act of speaking, that is, a linguistic manifestation of an author’s thought. So the meaning of the text is grounded upon the primordial speech act of a speaker [author]. And an author is not merely an ego, having the label of Romantic subjectivism, as a fixed substance as little as the ‘I’ in Fichte’s science of knowledge, instead, as M-Vollmer put it, ‘he must be seen in the context of linguisticality as something fluid and dynamic, something mediated, an act from which the text originates’.42This speech act of an author amalgamates the two aspects of his personality: the inner system of his thought, and the system of language as its outer expression. Therefore, both grammatical and psychological (technical) interpretations are applicable on the text at the same time. ‘But in the technical [psychological] interpretation the unity of the work [text], its theme, is viewed as the dynamic principle impelling the author, and the basic features of the composition are viewed as his distinctive nature, revealing itself in that movement’.

The Hermeneutical Circle

The psychological interpretation is based upon the hermeneutical circle at the level of thought, that is to say, an interpreter is to consider the whole of the text in terms of its parts and in every part there is a manifestation of the author’s individual thought thereby all of these parts mutually constitute the theme of the whole text. The same notion of hermeneutical circle can be seen at the linguistic level particularly in case of the second canon where the meaning of a word is to be determined in the nexus of the whole passage in which it occurs and again the meaning of the passage is to be constituted by the meanings of the individual words.

Understanding an Author’s Style: Divinatory / Comparative Methods

For Schleiermacher, the goal of the technical interpretation is the complete understanding of author’s style. An author’s distinctive style is to be established by how does he ‘organize his material’ as well as how does he use the language. As far as the understanding of author’s style is concerned, the technical interpretation involves two methods namely divinatory and comparative methods. The divinatory method involves the interpreter’s intuition. Intuitively speaking, the interpreter transforms himself into author and that’s how he immediately comprehends the author as a unique individual as well as his distinct style. While in the comparative method, as the term implies, an interpreter grasps the distinct style of an author by comparing him with the other authors of the same general type to which the author is also subsumed to belong. The divinatory and comparative methods, for Schleiermacher, can never be separated from each other; rather they should be applicable at the same time. Without the touch of comparison, the divination ‘always tends to be fanatical’ and the same is true for comparison if it is applied solely.


The conclusion I have drawn from this study is that Schleiermacherian approach toward hermeneutics is a midway between the classical tradition of Biblical hermeneutics and the modern tradition of philosophical hermeneutics. He is truly considered to be the founding father of modern hermeneutics as one can easily find certain traces of contemporary hermeneutics, like hermeneutical circle, the psychology of author, and divination etc., as rooted in his thought. The line of demarcation between him and the classical hermeneuticians is his intention to derive a universal kind of methodology by virtue of which one can interpret any sort of text rather than the Bible particularly. And then his philosophical way to work out that methodology is the characteristic, which links him with the modern sphere of hermeneutics. That’s the reason why great hermeneuticians like Dilthey, Heidegger, Gadamer etc owe a great debt to him for his distinct contribution in the development of hermeneutics. Furthermore, this study of mine shows that certain doctrines of the Western hermeneutics are somewhat similar to that of Muslim hermeneutics. So, in order to work out an appropriate methodology for understanding the Qur’ān, Muslim hermeneuticians or exegetes could benefit from the Western hermeneutics.










1. Joseph Bleicher, Contemporary Hermeneutics, London, Routledge & kegan Paul, 1980, p. 1

2. Richard E. Palmer, Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1969, p. 33

3. Ibid., p. 43

4. L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigation, Oxford, Blackwell Publisher, 1953, Part I, Section 66.

5. Aristotle, The Basic Works, ed. Richard Mckeon, New York, Random House, 1941, pp. 40-60

6. Richard E. Palmer (1969), p. 13

7. Joseph Bleicher (1980), p. 11

8. Ibid., p. 11

9. Plato, Laws, trans. A.E.Taylor, Book XII, Section 941a

10. Richard E. Palmer (1969), p. 13

11. Aristotle, On Interpretation, Part 1, Section 16a of Organon, ed. R. Mckeon (1941)

12. Richard E. Palmer (1969), p. 19

13. Ibid., p. 19

14. Amīn Ahsan Islāhī, Understanding the Qur’ān: Some Initial Conditions (chapter 1), Principles of Reflection on the Qur’ān, trans. A.R. Afaki; see the Renaissance, Lahore, Oct. 1999, Vol. 9: No. 10, p. 15

15. Plato, Cratylus, trans. Benjamin Jowett, Sections 406b-408b

16. Ahmad ‘Alī, Al- Qur’ān: a contemporary translation, Karachi, Akrash Publishing, 1984, p.29. For a detailed study concerning the Prophet’s role as an educator and a purifier of souls see Amīn Ahsan Islāhī, Tadhkiyah-i-Nafs, 2 Vols. Vol. 1, Malik Sons Pub. Faisalabad, 1994 and Vol. 2, Faran Foundation, Lahore, 1994.

17. Richard E. Palmer (1969), p. 26

18. Ibid., p. 27

19. See Books III & IV trans. Paul Shorey

20. W. Dilthey, The Development of Hermeneutics; see H. P. Rickman (ed. & trans.), W. Dilthey: Selected Writings, Cambridge, CUP, 1976, p. 250

21. Richard E. Palmer (1969), p. 34

22. The view that the NT can interpret the OT is very old which goes back to Augustine who is alleged to say that ‘the New is in the Old contained the Old is by the New explained’. See R. Laird Harris, Swee-Hwa Quek, J. Robert Vannoy (eds.), Interpretation and History, Singapore, Christian Life Publishers, 1986, pp. 57-66

23. Ibid., pp. 57-60

24. W. Dilthey (1976), pp. 251-2

25. Both Dilthey and M-Vollmer discussed this attack of the Protestant reformers’ against the Catholic Church at that time. See W. Dilthey (1976), pp. 253-4 and K. M-Vollmer, The Hermeneutics Reader: Texts of the German Tradition from the Enlightenment to the Present, New York, Continuum, 1985, p. 2

26. K. M- Vollmer (1985), p. 2

27. Ibid., p. 2

28. Dilthey, p.254 & M-Vollmer, p. 2.

29. Joseph Bleicher (1980), pp. 2, 13, 258

30. See Hamīdu’l-Dīn Farāhī, Majmū’a Tafāsīr-i-Farāhī, Urdu tr. Amīn Ahsan Islāhī, Lahore, Faran Foundation, 1991, pp. 27-34.

31. K. M-Vollmer ed. (1985), pp. 3-4. According to M-Vollmer, Enlightenment philosophers, under the influence of Aristotle’s ‘Peri Hermeneias’, considered ‘hermeneutics and its problems as belonging to the domain of logic’. Although there were certain theologians, jurists and philologists who ‘would frequently allude to generally applicable principles and concepts in their works, it was not until the philosophers of the Enlightenment made hermeneutic problems their own concern that the discipline of general hermeneutics came into being’. The contention was that like logic itself hermeneutics rested on certain generally applicable rules and principles, which were valid for all those fields of knowledge which, relied on interpretation. See his Introduction.

32. Joseph Bleicher (1980), pp. 13-16

33. K. M-Vollmer ed. (1985), p. 5

34. Ibid., p. 6

35. Ibid., pp. 4-7

36. Two of the Romantic thinkers are reported to have an impact on Schleiermacher namely Ast and Wolf. Joseph Bleicher and Richard E. Palmer both are of this view. But, as compared to Wolf, Ast had a far more deep impact on Schleiermacher. See J. Bleicher (1980) and R. E. Palmer (1969).

37. This whole discussion concerning Ast’s contribution to hermeneutics is based upon Palmer’s analysis of Ast’s work ‘Grundlinien der Grammatik, Hermeneutik und Kritik’. See R. E. Palmer (1969), pp. 75-81

38. R. E. Palmer (1969), pp. 81-82

39. In the background of Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics, Dilthey included Winkelmann’s interpretation of works of art, Herder’s congenial empathy into the spirit of ages and people as well as the philology of Herder’s, Heyne’s and Wolf’s. Along with all of these, the traditions of romanticism and of German transcendental philosophy were also combined to constitute Schleiermacher’s thought. See W. Dilthey (trans. H. P. Rickman, 1976), pp.246-263; K. M-Vollmer (1985), pp. 8-12; R. E. Palmer (1969), p. 75

40. The first book concerning Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics was published posthumously in 1838 by one of his students, F. Lucke. This book called ‘Hermeneutics and Criticism’ was composed of notes taken by the students who attended Schleiermacher’s lectures and of his own notes and outlines. In 1958, Schleiermacher’s manuscripts were published for the first time by one of Gadamer’s students, H. Kimmerle. This study of mine concerning Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics is based upon K. M-Vollmer’s selections from the English translation by J. Duke and J. Forstman of the Kimmerle edition. These selections comprise the ‘Introduction’, ‘Part I: Grammatical Interpretation’ and ‘Part II: Technical Interpretation’ of Schleiermacher’s compendium of 1819, together with his marginal notes 1828. See K. M-Vollmer (1985), pp. 72-97

41. This canon of Schleiermacher’s is very much similar to one of the principles of reflection on the Qur’ān presented by both Farāhī and Islāhī. According to the principle, the meaning of a word used in the Qur’ān should be determined in the perspective of the language shared by the Prophet (sws) and the people he addressed. Therefore, in order to understand the Qur’ān one should have a thorough knowledge of that language. Furthermore, being an interpreter of the Qur’ān one should study the whole literature of that time including Khutbāt (elocutions) so deeply that one could become capable enough of interpreting the Qur’ān in the nexus of the language shared by the Prophet (sws) and his original public. See Farāhī (Urdu trans. Islāhī, 1991), pp. 27-66 and also see the Introduction of Islāhī, Tadabbur-i- Qur’ān, Lahore, Faran Foundation, 1994, Vol. 1-9

42. K. M-Vollmer (1985), p. 11


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