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Philosophical Presuppositions of Hermeneutic Phenomenology

By Alan S. Cajes

Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) introduced phenomenology as a method of philosophical inquiry in his Logical Investigations (1900-01), although he developed this approach further in Ideas I (1913). Phenomenology, as a method, begins by experiencing phenomenon as is. It is like letting reality be without ascribing anything into it. This means experiencing phenomenon without any interpretation. In order to make this possible, Husserl proposed techniques, such as the phenomenological epoché, or suspension of the natural attitude, as well as ‘eidetic’ and ‘transcendental reductions’. In his later work Experience and Judgment (1938), he used the phrase “prepredicative experience” (die vorprädikative Erfahrung) to come in contact with the life-world (Lebenswelt), “the world in which we are always already living and which furnishes the ground for all cognitive performance and all scientific determination (Husserl, 1938, p. 38).”

Phenomenology, therefore, begins by suspending knowledge and the approach is through a strategy of absolutely denying any knowledge. Husserl (1938) explains the need to go back to the ‘phenomenon’ that ‘appears as such’; hence, not ‘as I see it’ (p. 34). By doing this phenomenological reduction, the phenomenologist grasps the essence or the universal through a particular phenomenon. Husserl (1938) calls this eidetic intuition. Thus, phenomenology is similar to the eidetic sciences, such as the mathematical sciences.

Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) took off from Husserl, his teacher, but proposed a phenomenology that does not suspend judgment or knowledge when dealing with phenomena. He altered the direction that Husserl set and argued for a phenomenology that adopts the historicity, facticity, temporarity or concreteneness of human experience. This means a phenomenology that involves interpretation or hermeneutical phenomenology. [1]

Heidegger’s line of thought can be traced back to his 1913 doctoral thesis entitled Die Lehrevom Urteil in Psychologismus (The Doctrine of Judgment in Psychologism), which posed the question: “What is the meaning of meaning?” For him, the very act of asking the question presupposes a pre-understanding of meaning. He propounded this idea in his Being and Time (1927; trans. 1962) arguing that phainomenon is “that which shows itself in itself, the manifest (p. 28),” logos is ‘discourse’ or ‘to let something be seen’ (p. 32) and that truth or aletheia is ‘to reveal’ or disclose that which is hidden (p. 33). Thus, the hermeneutic phenomenologist interprets phenomena based on his/her ‘beingness’ in time. Clearly, Moran (2002) says, he deviated from Husserl and linked his ideas to Dilthey, who was influenced by Schleiermacher.

Freidrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) started his hermeneutic exposition with an analysis of the methodology of Georg Anton Friedrich Ast (1778-1841) and Friedrich August Wolf (1759-1824). The reason is that he wanted to provide a proper methodology to hermeneutics itself. The search for a hermeneutic method is important because “we often find instances where difficult passages are carelessly overlooked or foolishly distorted because of the interpreter’s pedantic lack of sensitivity (Schleiermacher, 1829, p. 62).”

Schleiermacher developed his methodology that he called the divinatory and the comparative or the psychological and the grammatical. The formulation of his method is based on the notion that hermeneutics or the art of interpretation aims to understand a “thought or series of thoughts expressed in words (Schleiermacher, 1829, p. 66).” The grammatical interpretation follows canons stating that a “more precise determination of any point in a given text must be decided on the basis of language common to the author and his original public,” and the “meaning of each word of a passage must be determined by the context in which it occurs (Schleiermacher, 1990, pp. 72-97.”

Grammatical interpretation, however, is not enough. The art of understanding should be “sensitive to the particular way an author combines the thoughts, for had those thoughts been formulated differently, even in the same historical situation and the same kind of presentation, the result would have been different (Schleiermacher, 1829, p. 68).” Thus, the divinatory method is necessary to understand the creative act of the author, which is “to reconstruct the creative act that begins with the generation of thoughts which captivate the author and to understand how the requirement of the moment could draw upon the living treasure of words in the author’s mind in order to produce just this way of putting it and no other Schleiermacher, 1829, p. 11).”

The two methods are the only methods of interpretation, says Schleiermacher. They are “necessary to obtain complete understanding” and must complement each other (Schleiermacher, 1829, p. 72). This is the reason why the success of the interpretation depends on the interpreter’s linguistic competence and ability for knowing people.

While Schleiermacher starts with a critique of past hermeneuticists, Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) begins with the question: Is it possible to study individual human beings and particular forms of human existence scientifically? Dilthey’s answer to this question led hermeneutics into the heart of the human sciences, particularly in the science of history.

For Dilthey (1986), the human sciences have the “advantage over the physical sciences because their subject is…inner reality directly experienced in all its complexity (P. 33).” Consequently, the human sciences deliver a form of knowledge unlike from that of the natural sciences. The difference lies primarily in the difference of the subject of the two disciplines. They physical sciences deals with physical entities while the human sciences deal with human persons who are capable of self-reflection. Humans are endowed with rationality that could turn around and examine itself. This enables them to shape their lives in response to their historical conditions. In the process of living, humans create a culture that curves a niche or historicity.

Every action is a function of what is the mind. In other words, there are no human actions that do not spring from human cognition. Thoughts, therefore, beget actions. Humans are what they think. Indeed, as Dilthey claimed, the physical expressions are manifestations of mental events or states. They appear in the world of the senses as manifestations and expressions of the mind. These manifestations of the mind are called life expressions.

There are three types of life-expressions. The first type includes conceptions, judgments, and larger ideas. The second type consists of actions. The third type covers expressions of experience. The first type of life- expressions refers to plain statements that can easily be understood when expressed. Those under the second type are not products of an intention to communicate. They are more difficult to interpret and are

generally the expression of the cultural patterns of people’s own communities. Thus, it is important to distinguish which actions are the life-expressions against the total life-structure in which the actions are grounded. The third type are the most difficult to interpret because of the special relation that exists among expressions of experience, the life from which they emerge, and the mind that interprets them.

The mind, however, can penetrate the ‘inside’ of these life-expressions through an activity called understanding. This is what Dilthey (1986) calls “the process by which we recognize some inner content from signs received by the senses.” Indeed, “understanding is the process of recognizing a mental state from a sense-given sign by which it is expressed (p. 94).” This “systematic understanding of recorded expression” is called “exegesis or interpretation (p. 94).”

Understanding takes the form of what he calls elementary and higher understanding. Elementary understanding refers to the immediate understanding of life-expressions in one’s familiar community. The meaning of these expressions can be immediately understood without a need for further investigation. The higher forms of understanding are more complex due to the possible contractions between the expression and the mental state or event. Thus, interpretation of these forms of understanding demands further verification.

What makes understanding or interpretation systematic? According to Dilthey (1986), “the analysis of understanding…is the basis of making interpretation systematic…The possibility of valid interpretation can be deduced from the nature of understanding (p. 103).” This point is important because it constitutes the anvil by which Dilthey forged his hermeneutical theory. In fact, the analysis of understanding is his hermeneutic methodology. The problem now is not what people can know, but how people know. In other words, the hermeneutic problem is concerned with the nature of historical knowledge because life- expressions are the responses of human beings to their own historical condition.

Dilthey made his point clear. Humans react to their own historical condition. This reaction takes the form of life-expressions. Life-expressions are the manifestations of the mental states or events that ground them. Understanding is the process by which one recognizes the mental states or events.

But what makes understanding possible? The possibility of understanding life-expressions hinges on the common nature shared by human beings and the fact they express their thoughts in language. What Dilthey is saying is that human beings can understand the feelings or thoughts of other human beings through the life-expressions because they too express feelings and thoughts through life-expressions. This commonality of nature, of the way to express the mental events, makes one capable of understanding the meaning behind the sense-given signs.

In addition, human beings express their thoughts in language. Language is a product of culture, which is a system of behavior, attitudes and beliefs that all human beings have. This is the reason why it is possible to reproduce a life that is foreign to an interpreter into one’s own thoughts. By so doing, understanding could lead to the reconstruction of the author’s intentional acts in its proper cultural and linguistic context, and more so, it could mean understanding the author better than he understood himself/herself (Dilthey, 1986, pp. 103-104).

Through the critique of historical reason, Dilthey (1986) answers his hermeneutic problem: What is the nature of historical knowledge? Given the nature of the inquiring consciousness, then human beings should

be studied in the light of it. It is on this basis that hermeneutics, as the theory of interpretation of life- expressions, can be the epistemology of the human sciences (p. 152).

For Hans Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), the question plays a central role in hermeneutics. It is the questions that beget assertions. Every assertion is an answer to a question. Gadamer (1986) says, “which answers to which question fits the facts. This phrase is in fact the hermeneutical Urphanomen: No assertion is possible that cannot be understood as an answer to a question, an assertion can only be understood in this way (p. 185).” Indeed, he says, the “real power of hermeneutical consciousness is our ability to see what is questionable (p. 186).”

Productive questions are products of the imagination, which in turn is a function of reason. The imagination does not only create questions, it anticipates them. This was the case of Galileo who “worked out the laws of the free fall at a time when no one could have observed a free fall empirically, since it was only in post- Galilean times that a vacuum was experimentally produced (Gadamer, 1986, p. 63).” Gadamer (1986) explains:

“It is imagination (phantasie) that is the decisive function of the scholar. Imagination naturally has a hermeneutic function and serves the sense for what is questionable. It serves the ability to expose real, productive questions, something in which, generally speaking, only he who masters all the methods of his science succeeds (p. 186).”

Gadamer stresses the value of imagination against method, especially the methodology of the natural sciences. The use of the imagination in hermeneutics can only be equaled by one who masters all the methods of his science. In other words, the art of hermeneutics should not be limited to one or several methodologies. It should encompass all of the methodologies ever known to man. Whether it is possible to know and master all the existing methodologies, that is another question.

The reason why Gadamer has a critical attitude towards method is that it does not guarantee the acquisition of valid and certain knowledge. Gadamer (1986) explains,

Whoever wants to learn a science has to learn to master its methodology. But we also know that methodology as such does not guarantee in any way the productivity of its application. Any experience of life can confirm the fact that there is such thing as methodological sterility, that is, the application of a method to something not really worth knowing, to something that has not been made an object of investigation on the basis of a genuine question (p. 54).

Thus, science is not anymore the crowning glory of rationality as its devotees have claimed. It is “no longer the quintessence of knowledge and of what is worth knowing, but a way. It is a way of addressing and penetrating into unexplored and unmasked realms (Gadamer, 1986, p. 242).”

Gadamer has declared an all-out intellectual war against the method of science, most especially the modern sciences, which, through method, impose on natural consciousness a deep-rooted alienation. The notion of alienation corresponds to what he calls the I-It relation, that is, when the interpreter treats the text as a mere object of interpretation and not as an Other, whose otherness is an invitation for a dialogue.

Science, with its inherent alienation, is directly opposed to Gadamer’s idea of hermeneutics as an I-Thou activity, a communication, and a dialectical process. Bernstein (1986) explains,

As Gadamer frequently reiterates, ‘the hermeneutic phenomenon is basically not a problem of method at all. It is not concerned with a method of understanding, by means of which texts are subjected to scientific investigation like all other objects of experience. It is not concerned primarily with amassing ratified knowledge that satisfies the methodological ideal of science – yet, it is concerned, here too, with knowledge and with truth.’…For Gadamer’s perspective, it has been the obsession with Method, and with thinking that the primary task of hermeneutics is to specify a distinctive method of the Geisteswissenschaften, which plagued and distorted nineteenth-century hermeneutics (p. 88).”

He further emphasized that Gadamer constantly plays on the idea that it is philosophical hermeneutics, not epistemology, method or science, which can achieve what philosophy has always promised humankind – “some profound access to truth that is not available to us by the limited and normal methods of science (p.


The hermeneutic problem, for Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005), was “first raised within the limits of exegesis, that is, within a framework of a discipline which proposes to understand a text – to understand its beginning with its intention on the basis of what it attempts to say (Ricoeur, 1980, p. 236).” This means that the goal of interpretation is not merely to decipher the literal meaning of a text but, more importantly, the genesis of the text so that the interpreter would be able to ground what it attempts to say. That is why Ricoeur (1980) considers interpretation as the “work of thought which consists in deciphering the hidden meaning implied in the literal meaning (p. 245).”

Since Gadamer has discounted the capacity of methodical science to interpret, how would Ricoeur answer the hermeneutic problem? First, Ricoeur (1986) says, that the methodology of the sciences implies an assumption of distance, which presupposes the destruction of the primordial relation of belonging: without which there would be no relation to the historical as such (302).” Now, this idea of ‘distanciation’ hinders a person from understanding the text beyond its literal meaning, that is, the cultural epoch that conditions the embodiment of thought in the text. To correct this distanciation brought about by the methodology of the sciences is a precondition for understanding. This is so because the “purpose of all interpretation is to conquer the past cultural epoch to which the text belongs and the interpreter himself. By overcoming the distance, by making himself contemporary with the text, he makes its familiar, that is, he makes it as his own (Ricoeur, 1980, p. 249.” Overcoming the problem of distance is, therefore, the starting point of Ricoeur’s hermeneutics. This implies that the methodological attitude of the sciences has to be abandoned because “placing at a distance is a methodological attitude (Ricoeur, 1986, p. 311).”

By rejecting the scientific methodology, Ricoeur attempts to bring back hermeneutics to ontology. Ricoeur (1986) declares that the “struggle against methodological distanciation transforms hermeneutics into a critique of critique; it must always push the rock of Sisyphus up again, restore the ontological ground that methodology has eroded away (p. 315).” Method has robbed humans of their historical existence and to correct this necessitates a radical repositioning of epistemology. Ricoeur (1986) explains,

“To restore the historical dimension of man requires much more than a simple methodological reform… Only a fundamental upheaval that subordinates the theory of knowledge to ontology can bring out the real

sense of the Vorstruktur des Verstehens – the forestructure (or structure of anticipation) of understanding – that is the condition for any rehabilitation of prejudice (p. 306).”

Thus Ricoeur (1980) grounds hermeneutics in ontology via what he calls the short route, just like what Heidegger did. He says,

"I call such an ontology of understanding the ‘short route’ because, breaking with any discussion of method, it carries itself directly to the level of an ontology of finite being in order to recover understanding, no longer as a mode of knowledge, but rather as a mode of being… Instead of asking: on what condition can a knowing subject understand a text or history? one asks: What kind of being is it whose being consists of understanding? The hermeneutic problem thus becomes a problem of the Analytic of this being, Dasein, which exists through understanding (p. 239).”

With the radical overhaul of the epistemic framework, understanding ceases to be a mode of knowledge. As a result, the question of truth “is no longer a question of method; it is the question of the manifestation of being for a being whose existence consists in understanding being (Ricouer, 1980, p. 242).”

By giving hermeneutics an ontological dimension, interpretation is brought to a new context. The subject who interprets signs or symbols “is no longer the cogito rather, he being who discovers, by the exegesis of his own life, that he is placed in being before he places and possesses himself (Ricouer, 1980, p. 243).” This paves the way for what he calls the overcoming of distance, in which hermeneutical phenomenologists can make themselves a contemporary of the text, and can thereby make it as their own.

In summary, hermeneutic phenomenology recognizes the importance of a phenomenon as the object of knowing. However, it does not suspend any interpretation of the phenomenon unlike the Hussserlian approach. What hermeneutic phenomenology seeks is to understand the phenomenon by interpreting it as if the interpreter enters into a dialogue with the phenomenon.

[1] This approach is associated with Heidegger, Gadamer and Ricouer and is distinguished from Transcendental phenomenology (Eugen Fink, et. al.), Existential phenomenology (Merleau-Ponty, et. al.), Linguistic phenomenology (Derrida, et. al.), and Ethical phenomenology (Scheler, et. al.) Retrieved August 3, 2014 from


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