[Editor’s Note: The following new entry by C. Mantzavinos replaces the former entry on this topic by the previous authors.]
Hermeneutics as the methodology of interpretation is concerned with problems that arise when dealing with meaningful human actions and the products of such actions, most importantly texts. As a methodological discipline, it offers a toolbox for efficiently treating problems of the interpretation of human actions, texts and other meaningful material. Hermeneutics looks back at a long tradition as the set of problems it addresses have been prevalent in human life, and have repeatedly and consistently called for consideration: interpretation is a ubiquitous activity, unfolding whenever humans aspire to grasp whatever interpretanda they deem significant. Due to its long history, it is only natural that both its problems, and the tools designed to help solve them, have shifted considerably over time, along with the discipline of hermeneutics itself. The article focuses on the main problem areas and presents some proposals that have been put forward for tackling them effectively.
There has been a highly developed practice of interpretation in Greek antiquity, aiming at diverse interpretanda like oracles, dreams, myths, philosophical and poetical works, but also laws and contracts. The beginning of ancient hermeneutics as a more systematic activity goes back to the exegesis of the Homeric epics. The most remarkable characteristic of ancient exegesis was allegorisis (allegoría, from alla agoreuein, i.e., saying something different). This was a method of nonliteral interpretation of the authoritative texts which contained claims and statements that seemed theologically and morally inappropriate or false (Tate 1934). Such exegetical attempts were aiming at a deeper sense, hidden under the surface—hypónoia, i.e., underlying meaning. Allegorisis was practiced widely from the sixth century BCE to the Stoic and Neoplatonistic schools and even later (Scholz 2016: 18ff). In the Middle Ages the most remarkable characteristic of the interpretative praxis was the so-called accessus ad auctores; this was a standardized introduction that preceded the editions and commentaries of (classical) authors. There were many versions of theaccessus, but one of the more widely used was the following typology of seven questions (Detel 2011: 84f.):
- Who (is the author) (quis/persona)?
- What (is the subject matter of the text) (quid/materia)?
- Why (was the text written) (cur/causa)?
- How (was the text composed) (quomodo/modus)?
- When (was the text written or published) (quando/tempus)?
- Where (was the text written or published) (ubi/loco)?
- By which means (was the text written or published) (quibus faculatibus/facultas)?
Johann Conrad Dannhauer was the first to present a systematic textbook on general hermeneutics…