||The study of interpretation and meaning. Hermeneutics derives from the Greek word hermÄ“neuein meaning to announce, to clarify, or to reveal (Thompson, 1996, p. 360). In this sense, hermeneutics has been practised since the first stirrings of language. However, its first stirrings as a formal discipline began with its exegesis of biblical texts. Hermeneutical theological scholars used philological methods to clarify the meaning of God\'s word. They also adjudicated among competing interpretations, which during the Reformation became particularly important as Protestants challenged Rome over biblical interpretation. With the work of F. Schleiermacher (1768-1834), by the end of the eighteenth century hermeneutics had broadened to include the interpretation of historical texts more generally. By suggesting that the interpretation of a text required scrutiny of the very intentions of its author, advocates of hermeneutics implicitly challenged the relevance of the emerging scientific method for the human sciences.
Wilhelm Dilthey\'s (1833-1911) writings both generalized hermeneutics, and made its critique of natural science explicit. He argued that the human sciences (Geisteswissenshaften), because of their subject matter, required a special methodology, hermeneutics, which was very different from the empirical methodology of the natural sciences (Naturwissenshaften). In both cases, though, \'objective\' knowledge was obtainable. Specifically, Dilthey argued that meaning is found in all kinds of activities and objects: in written texts, certainly, but also in the non-textual, for example, in works of art, in tools, and in landscapes. In all of these cases we find meaning because each is an \'objectification of life\', to use Dilthey\'s phrase. The methodology of natural science denies such meanings, however. It examines each by means of an abstract universal vocabulary: laws of physics, chemical formulae, geometrical relations. But in so doing the very object of study of the human sciences is lost, for it is meanings that must be understood.
But how is meaning to be explicated? The hermeneutical model of interpreting a text provides the key. In trying to understand a text we bring to it a whole set of presuppositions. By tacking back and forth both between our presuppositions and the text itself, as well as between individual parts of the text and its whole, we eventually gain meaning and understanding. Known as the hermeneutic circle, this same procedure can be used to clarify meanings within the sphere of the non-textual as well, such as for works of art, for tools, and for landscapes. More generally, the hermeneutic method is a creative, progressive and open-ended process of interpretation, that is circular, indeterminate and perspectival (Bohman, 1993, p. 116). It is circular because it involves a constant movement from us, the interpreter, to the interpreted, and back again, thereby also implying that every interpretation is itself interpreted. It is indeterminate because that loop of interpretation has no end. And it is perspectival because interpreters are embedded in their situations which makes their knowledge always partial and incomplete. That said, Dilthey makes clear that interpretation is never just personal whim and fancy, that is, purely subjective. Rather, our interpretations are always made against a set of socially agreed upon canons and texts (albeit interpreted ones), which are themselves publicly accessible in the case of disputations (Rouse, 1987).
In the twentieth century the German philosopher Martin Heidegger took Dilthey\'s epistemological rendering of hermeneutics and transformed it into an ontological one, that is, he made the focus \'being\' rather than \'knowledge\' (see ontology). The details are very complex, but the gist is that problems of understanding unfold from our \'being in the world\'. Just as the hermeneutic circle for Dilthey involved tacking between parts of a text and its whole, for Heidegger it involves a movement between an anticipatory pre-understanding, which comes from our very \'being-ness\', and our role as knowing subjects with knowledge about objects in the world.
Later Hans-Georg Gadamer (1975) took Heidegger\'s notion of pre-understanding and showed its relation to notions of prejudice, authority and tradition. Since the Enlightenment, argues Gadamer, there has been prejudice against prejudice. For Gadamer, however, \'pre-judgement\', or prejudice, is what makes understanding possible. In particular, the prejudices of historical \'traditions\' are vital; without immersion in traditions there can be no understanding. Not that traditions are frozen and immutable. Rather, Gadamer\'s point is that we can never escape traditions and the historical perspective they bring. Historical understanding proceeds by a movement from our prejudices (traditions) to the historical totality and back again, making understanding \'an open and continuously renewed â€œfusionâ€ of â€œhistorical horizonsâ€\' (Thompson, 1996, p. 381; cf. culture).
Gadamer\'s work, in turn, has been picked up by the neo-pragmatist philosophers, Richard Rorty (1979) and Richard Bernstein (1983). Both argue that Gadamer provides an opening into the \'human conversation\' which means being ever receptive to new evidence and ideas even though they may not be commensurate with existing ones. Of course, such openness to challenging the old by the new, the known by the unknown, is only another way to restate the importance of the hermeneutic circle. In addition, it also highlights hermeneutics\' critical edge. Implied by hermeneutics\' openness is a critique of the closed nature of Grand Theory and other forms of foundationalism. Here we can also see an affinity between hermeneutics and post-structuralism, for both are engaged in an anti-foundationalist enterprise (a link made explicit by both Rorty and Bernstein).
More broadly, the use of a hermeneutical approach has become widespread across a wide range of disciplines during the last two decades and is found in anthropology (Geertz, 1983), the history and philosophy of science (Rouse, 1987), and economics (Lavoie, 1991). The result is a major challenge to the approach of natural science, and, in particular, the notion that there are fixed methods for revealing the truth.
In geography hermeneutics was originally introduced to contest the empiricism and positivism found in spatial science. Buttimer\'s (1974) \'dialogical approach\' which involved bringing together inside and outside views was an important early contribution, as was Y.-F. Tuan\'s (1974) reflexive approach to topophilia (\'to know the world is to know oneself\'). These early forays were codified in the late 1970s under two different rubrics: humanistic geography and critical theory. Humanistic geography made human meaning and intentionality the very core of its concern, while critical theory, as proposed by Gregory (1978), attempted to link the hermeneutical approach to a critique of, in particular, traditional historical and regional geography. This critical impulse was more generally formalized by Harrison and Livingstone (1980) under their presuppositional approach. Since then the explicit working out of the hermeneutical approach has become less important, although there have been significant elaborations of spatial ontology prompted by Heidegger\'s work (Schatzki, 1991; see spatiality). Nonetheless, the spirit of hermeneutical inquiry, that is, the recognition of the importance of interpretation, open-mindedness, and a critical, reflexive sensibility, is as great as it has ever been, and certainly evident in the discipline\'s recent cultural turn and interest in the poetics and politics of representation (see also post-structuralism).Â (TJB)
References Bernstein, R.J. 1983: Beyond objectivism and relativism: science, hermeneutics and praxis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Â Bohman, J. 1993: New philosophy of social science: problems of indeterminacy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Â Buttimer, A. 1974: Values in geography. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Geographers, Commission on College Geography, resource paper 24.Â Feyerabend, P. 1975: Against method. London: Verso.Â Gadamer, H.-G. 1975: Truth and method. New York: Seabury Press.Â Geertz, C. 1983: Local knowledge: further essays in interpretive anthropology. New York: Basic Books.Â Gregory, D. 1978: Ideology, science and human geography. London: Hutchinson.Â Harrison, R.T. and Livingstone, D.N. 1980: Philosophy and problems in human geography: a presuppositional approach. Area 12: 25-31.Â Lavoie, D., ed., 1991: Economics and hermeneutics. London: Routledge.Â Rorty, R. 1979: Philosophy and the mirror of nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Â Rouse, J. 1987: Knowledge and power: toward a political philosophy of science. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Â Schatzki, T. 1991: Spatial ontology and explanation. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 81: 665-70.Â Thompson, J.B. 1996: Hermeneutics. In A. Kuper, and J. Kuper, eds, The social science encyclopaedia. London: Routledge, 360-1.Â Tuan, Y.-F. 1974: Topophilia: a study of environmental perception, attitudes and values. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Suggested Reading Bernstein, R.J. (1983).Â Gregory, D. (1978).