Spool Five

The Hermeneutic Circle


A theory that claims, broadly, that understanding is the product of iterative interactions between wholes and parts. What constitutes a “whole” and a “part” is flexible. In the context of a narrative text, for example, the whole may be the overarching idea or world that is trying to be communicated. The “parts” are the various characters, settings, events, and so on that, through their particular juxtapositions and cross-references generate a larger picture. As a reader, you might begin on the first page with an idea of what the story will be about (an idea of the “whole”), but as you read further and further, each new twist and turn causes you to revise your idea of the whole in an iterative, recursive way.

An important, almost paradoxical aspect of the “whole” within several strands of hermeneutics, is that it, in effect, doesn’t exist. Yet, it still functions in an operative sense. For example, another case of the hermeneutic circle might be in the way in which a interesting conversation develops. The subject matter (die Sache - the stuff or the thing that is being talked about, taken in a material, tangible sense) of the conversation is something that might start out in one sense, but through the process of discussion different details emerge which transform the thing. I may be talking with a friend about a football match that happened the night before. I start out with my own (pre)understanding of the match and how it went. This understanding might also be linked to my overall ideas about football (what the best strategies are, what makes football ‘good’, etc.). Through conversations with my friend, who happens to have different ideas about football, my understanding of the game shifts. By the end of the conversation I have a new, revised understanding about not only the match the night before, but the game of football as a whole (“yes, now I do understand why they played this player on the left wing in that way”, etc.). I have arrvied at a different understanding. I may even have had an “ah-ha” moment. Yet, that is not to say that my understanding of the whole/the subject matter (the game of football) is complete in the logical/metaphysical sense. Nor can it ever be complete. Next week there may be a new match and a whole new set of strategies to discuss, and as long as there is football there will be endless discussion. Yet, it is also wrong to say that my understanding of the game did not alter, that the conversation didn’t matter, just because it never reached a complete/total understanding of the game. In the hermeneutic sense, understanding is not about arriving at total knowledge of something, it is about the process of discovery and rediscovery.

To hammer this point home in the most intimate way - another case of the hermeneutic circle might be found in our own self-understanding. As humans, we exist within a particular history and context. These histories and context provide us with various images of life. What it means to be successful, happy, to have a meaningful life and so on. These images are pre-understandings that we inherit. Throughout the course of life, as we encounter various kinds of events (hardships, successes, boredom) and other ideas about life from other cultures (we take up yoga, try different cuisnes, etc.) our vision of who we are and the kind of life we are living is constantly updated in an iterative way. The “whole” that is our self is formed from the “parts” of the different experiences and ideas we have. However, our life story will forever remain incomplete from our own perspective. After we die, we will no longer be there to give the final summary of our life, the final picture of the “whole” of our existence. If we are lucky, others will take up that challenge and tell our story, and even extend it, but from our perspective, the most crucial and intimate task we face every day - understanding who we are - will forever remain incomplete.

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