The big paper I was working on for the past two weeks was on that very subject, phenomenological hermeneutics. Now, I’ve gotten several emails and comments from people basically laughing at how silly and pointless the mental masturbation like this seems. So, in order to justify my own existence, I’ll give a little run-down of the contents and try to show that this is actually significant.
Hermeneutics is the art of interpretation. Up until the mid-20th century, it was dominated by the thoughts of Friedrich Schleiermacher and his acolytes, all of whom basically tried to develop better methods of interpretation so that we could understand things — primarily, texts — better. Then along came Hans-Georg Gadamer, who, in two major works (Philosophical Hermeneutics and Truth and Method) argued very persuasively that hermeneutics is all there is. In other words, all we human beings do is interpret; it is the human condition. Thus, hermeneutics is about truth, not method.
Actually, it’s not really about truth, per se. It’s about meaning. Gadamer followed in a line of philosophers, most notably Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, who developed the philosophical discipline of phenomenology. To oversimplify, phenomenology is the philosophical study of consciousness and its structures; that is, phenomenology is not concerned with metaphysical “truth” which lies “out there somewhere,” but is concerned instead with uncovering “meaning,” which is already latent within the human being (there’s lots of talk in phenomenology about the state of “being”). In other words, we can’t really talk about “truth,” only about our experience of “truth” — which doesn’t actually make it less “true,” but more “true.” (Here I must defer to Bennett Brauer for the appropriate use of “air quotes.”)
Gadamer said that the way to get to this meaning is to better understand how it is that human beings interpret things. He posited that we each have a “horizon of meaning” that we walk around with every day. This horizon, like our field of vision or hearing, originates within us, but is also out in front of us, interacting with our surroundings. What happens when I read a book or see a movie or have a conversation is that my horizon “fuses” with the horizon of that book or movie or person. As a result, I walk away from that encounter forever changed, since my horizon has been changed. Although he meticulously avoids developing a method, Gadamer does argue that the more open my horizon to the horizons of others, the more fully human I will be.
The great thing about practical theology as a discipline is that I am required to bring this stuff to bear on the life of the church. So the paper was to take a particular line of hermeneutics (I chose Gadamer — most of the rest of the seminar chose Paul Ricoeur — and to put it in conversation with a (very) particular practice of ministry. I used “Youth Group Movie Night” as the practice and ultimately argued that a better hermeneutic of film would lead to a much more effective use of film in the context of youth ministry. My overarching recommendation that “the opening of horizons of meaning” should be a guiding telos for all of youth ministry.