What Is Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics connotes the style of thought of classical scholarship. It was at first in the scholarly exegesis of texts that those problems arose which led to the evolution of various methods of interpretation whose relative merits have to be assessed by the criteria of access to intrinsic meaning.

Whenever we read a text, we want to grasp its meaning, and an effort of interpretation is called for. Where our text is of a narrative nature, we must understand how the various parts of the story we are told are related to one another, in order to grasp its full meaning. Where it is of exhortatory character, we need to be sure we understand what we are exhorted to do or to omit. Where it contains a religious or legal prescript, we have to ascertain that we understand precisely to what kind of cases it applies. In all such cases we have to interpret the text to pervade to its meaning.

For centuries past, long before the rise of modern science, scholars have applied these methods, whether they studied the Bible or the Pandects, read Polybius or Tacitus, or translated Averroes or Avicenna from the Arabic. Theirs was a hermeneutical activity.

As we are reading a text, page by page, we do not merely grasp the meaning of sentences and passages, but while doing so we gradually form a notion in our mind of what the author wants to tell us in his work. The meaning of the text as a whole gradually emerges before our eyes from the network of meanings constituted by single passages. When we come across a passage hard to under stand we must attempt to interpret it in the light of the 'major meaning' we derive from our reading of the text as a whole.

In all this we are applying a principle of limited coherence, the coherence of all the utterances of the same mind. From our general knowledge of life and letters, we feel we have a right to assume that an author will not want to contradict himself. A 'difficult passage' has to be interpreted so as to cohere with what we take to be 'the spirit of the whole'. In awkward cases, where this proves impossible, we may have to revise our interpretation of the 'major meaning' of the text. Or we may conclude that the author 'changed his mind' before writing the passage under examination—that our text is not the manifestation of 'one mind at one time', but that it reflects, almost as a mirror would, the change of the author's mind over time. Since a voluminous text may be the work of many years, the existence of such a possibility is not surprising.

In all these cases our interpretation is an application of critical reason. Hermeneutics is in conformity with the maxims of critical rationalism. Our interpretation of a text is in principle always 'falsifiable' .

How do we pass from letters to life, from ancient texts to modern business transactions? What texts and phenomena of action have in common is that they both are utterances of human minds, that they have to exist as thoughts before they become manifest as observable phenomena. A text needs to be thought out before it is written down, a business transaction before it is entered upon.

A great step forward was taken, and the range of application of hermeneutical method considerably enhanced, when it gradually emerged from the work of historians (already of Greek and Roman historians) that these writers did not merely provide a chronicle of events but attempted to explain these events as human action in terms of ends and means, that they thus attempted to interpret action. This was an important insight of classical scholarship.

It is but a short step from historiography to the theoretical social sciences which produce ideal types of recurrent events, and thus provide historians with the analytical tools they need. And here we reach the point at which we are able to catch a glimpse of what the role of economics as a hermeneutic discipline might be like, and of the kind of ' interpretive turn' we might hope to impart to it.

Most economic phenomena are observable, but our observations need an interpretation of their context if they are to make sense and to add to our knowledge. Only meaningful utterances of a mind lend themselves to interpretation. Furthermore, all human action takes place within a context of 'intersubjectivity'; our common everyday world (the Schutzian 'life-world') in which the meanings we ascribe to our own acts and to those of others are typically not in doubt and taken for granted.

Our empirical knowledge of economic phenomena obtained by observation must in any case be interpreted as embedded within this context. Elucidation of their meaning cannot here mean that the economist as outside observer is entitled to assign to them whatever meaning suits his cognitive purpose. It must mean elucidation of the meaning assigned to them by various actors on the scene of observation within this context of intersubjective meanings.

Hermeneutic interpretation of economic phenomena therefore has to take place within a horizon of established meanings, with one such horizon for each society. Our phenomena observed have to be placed within an order constrained by this framework.

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