Phenomenological Hermeneutics

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.

  • Anonymous

    What’s the appeal of Gadamer for you? I always understood that though his description of the two horizons has profoundly effected all hermeneutics, that Ricoeur criticized it well for being too subjective (an endless hermeneutical ‘circle’) and Thiselton and Vanhoozer and others in a more nuanced way posit the idea of a hermeneutical ‘spiral’ which takes into account our cultural-situatedness and yet also holds that we can make some real progress toward knowing things ‘as they are.’ Tim Keller

  • clave

    I understood the Bennett Brauer part. He was a big, funny man.

  • mark

    nice description tony. in the field of homiletics, phenomenology was most used by David Buttrick in his classic “Homiletic: Moves and Structures.” Buttrick seems confident that that an unbiased reconstruction of the “consciousness” of original congregations is possible. Recent conversation moving out of positivistic paradigms into more postmodern streams of thought seriously questions the ability to attempt reconstruction in a pure and unmediated way. In other words, if there is even a “consciousness of the Corinthian congregation,” there is no way for preachers two thousand years later to impartially and “factually” describe it. Taking the critique a step further, does this seemingly mysterious community consciousness really “exist” and if it does, is it more than simply a arbitrary constructed category of meaning formed by an unavoidably prejudice preacher?i always thought the rocky horror picture show would make a great youth movie night..

  • Fajita

    My field is marriage and family therapy. So when I read the term, hermeneutics, used in one of my therpay books, I was curious. I had only heard of it in religious circles. My own heritage (American Restoration Movement) has a weird one to support its own dysfuntions, but anyway…Harlene Anderson wrote, “Conversation, Language, and Possibilities,” promoting a kind of postmodern therapy in the “Narrative Therapy” family of therapies. She contends that understanding someone in a helping role (or just flat understanding a person at all) is an exercise in hermeneutics. We read their present, past, and future, through our own present, past, and future – and thus we interpret. I agree with Anderson and I would contend that hermeneutics can be more than interpretting the written word, but, as you mention Gadamer (who I don’t from Eve), it is interpretting a lot more than that. It could be that we are storied and storying all the time, writing if you will (only not on paper) that story – and that story not only must be interpretted, but in reality cannot not be interpretted.

  • Kevin

    Tony,Beautiful. Is there any way those of us not traditional enough to endure the post-grad education system can read your paper? I’m interested particularly because your film hermenutics seem like something that might help me expand my youth’s “horizon.” Nothing more practical than that eh?-Pkj.

  • tony

    sure, Kevin, send me your email at tony.jones@ptsem.edu, and I’ll send it to you. However, I think you’re some kind of masochist.Tim: I will respond to your question in a post tomorrow…T

  • Jason_73

    When’s the paper due on mental mastubation? That’s awesome imagery!

  • Mark

    Hey Tony, I’m a grad student in a counseling program and I am looking for a theoretical orientation to “subscribe” to. I identify with some aspects of several main stream theories and don’t expect to find any that I completely agree with. However, the areas of philisophical disagreement are too big for me to buy into the “big ones.” I am looking for an agentic model so that clears many theories from my menu of choices. Your posting has my interest and I too would like to read your paper. My email in marktina@juno.com. I appreciate your help. Mark


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