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Hermeneutics theory

In document Health Literacy: (Page 128-132)

Chapter 4 Research Methodology and Method

4.4 Hermeneutics theory

Hermeneutics, defined as the theory of interpretation, occupies “both an epistemological and methodological space” (Prasad, 2002, p. 29) as a philosophy and method of interpretation. While originally the rules and principles of hermeneutics were applied particularly to text, they have become used also for interpreting human behaviour, practices, events, and situations (Crotty, 1998;

Leonard, 1989). Applying a hermeneutic methodology demands an understanding of the philosophical concepts and then acknowledgement of consequent obligations for the methodology. This section outlines the philosophical concepts of hermeneutics theory and Section 4.5 explains the key elements of hermeneutics as a methodology.


Three main perspectives can be identified within hermeneutics. These are the objectivist approaches following Schleiermacher (2002) and Dilthey (1976), the subjectivist approach following Heidegger (1967) and Gadamer (1989), and critical hermeneutics combining interpretation of text with critical reflection (Ricoeur, 1974a). The following section explains these three different perspectives within hermeneutics and the fundamental elements of philosophical hermeneutics.

4.4.1 Objectivist approach to hermeneutics

Under the objectivist approach hermeneutics seeks to reconstruct the original meaning of a text as intended by the author (Bleicher, 1980; Connolly & Keutner, 1988). Both Dilthey (1976) and Schleiermacher (2002) consider the process of interpretation the inverse of the process of creation as the interpreter systematically brings to consciousness the author’s meaning. Understanding therefore is a process of exploring the only meaning of the expression. The objectivists believe that the “meaning of the text is an objective fact, something which in principle could be discovered once and for all” (Connolly & Keutner, 1988, p. 14) in a uniquely correct interpretation corresponding to the unique authorial intention. Schleiermacher considers this to have two aspects - grammatical understanding of the words of the text and the psychological aspect of understanding the author’s intention.

Speech and texts, according to Betti (1980), are objectified representations of human intentions which, along with actions, are expressions of meaning (Crotty, 1998). The intentionalism of the text is achieved through a system of interpretative rules, providing for a unity of procedure in bringing to light the meaning of the text (Schleiermacher, 2002). Through reliving the author’s experience, objectivists can claim understanding and in this way the meaning of the text is removed from the contemporary world of the interpreter. However, Dilthey also maintained that the interpreter must understand the text in its social and historical context moving back and forth between the author’s context and the text (Crotty, 1998; Prasad, 2002). This has connotations of the concept of the


hermeneutic circle, which is that the text can only be understood by the interpreter iteratively moving between the parts and the whole; the understanding of the whole and the parts are mutually interdependent and interpretation is considered as an interminable process never coming to an end (Bleicher, 1980).

The objectivist approach to hermeneutics also assumes that the interpreter can set aside his/her prior knowledge and judgements through the process of bracketing (a term used by Husserl, 1931 as cited in LeVasseur, 2003) so that attention is shifted to the essence of the phenomenon being interpreted (Laverty, 2003;

LeVasseur, 2003). Given this subject (interpreter)-object (text) dichotomy, the true character of the phenomenon can be seen.

4.4.2 Subjectivist approach to hermeneutics

Gadamer (1989) and Heidegger (1967) took a subjectivist hermeneutic approach that does not subscribe to the subject-object dichotomy of the objectivists.

Gadamer, in expanding Heidegger’s views, maintained that there can be no elimination of pre-conceptions or prejudice as the researcher is an involved actor in every research or interpretation process. Understanding is achieved through language and openness to the perspective of others; “knowledge of our everyday existence is inter-subjective, temporal and relational” (Vandermause & Fleming, 2011, p. 369). Subjectivists place pre-understandings as a central element in interpretation in maintaining that all understanding proceeds from what precedes it - including tradition, authority and pre-judgments / prejudice (Gadamer, 1989).

In understanding a text, the subjectivist acknowledges that the interpreter’s own thoughts have gone into that interpretation and, in the process of interpretation, the horizon of the text merges with the horizon of the interpreter. Therefore, interpretation is mediated through “…a subject that is itself located within a context of traditioned meaning” (Bleicher, 1980, p. 216).

Gadamer (1989) points out that there is no final correct interpretation of the text;

there can be multiple interpretations of the one text that may go beyond the intended meaning of the author. Understanding and interpretation are always evolving so a definitive interpretation is unlikely to be ever possible. Gadamer


talks of the openness of texts based on the idea that all understanding derives from the interpreter’s own pre-judgments and pre-understandings that are embedded in the interpreter’s historical and cultural ‘situatedness’ (Gadamer, 1989; LeVasseur, 2003). Heidegger claimed that nothing can be encountered without reference back to an individual’s pre-understandings; a person cannot put aside his/her own consciousness. Similarly, Gadamer does not intend that prejudices are suspended (as do the objectivists) but rather he challenges interpreters to appreciate the presence and complexity of pre-judgments in understanding text. Tradition and pre-judgments play a productive role in the interpretive process. According to this approach, the same text can have different meanings to different interpreters.

According to subjectivists, interpretation comes from involvement with the text.

The dialogue between interpreter and the text occurs within the context of the pre-judgments, historical situation and traditions of the interpreter. Gadamer (1989) uses a metaphor of ‘horizon’ to explain the process whereby the interpreter makes sense of the text against the backdrop of his/her own assumptions, ideas, and experiences. Interpretation and understanding occur through a fusion of the horizons between the text and the interpreter, beginning with a rudimentary understanding of the phenomenon/text. As deeper understanding develops during the process of interpretation, new meanings emerge which are then applied back to the starting point of the text (Crotty, 1998; Geanellos, 2000). This circular process, Gadamer termed a dialogical fusion of horizons, occurs as interpretive understanding moves between the parts and whole of the text in a further hermeneutic circle, likened to the “dialectic between understanding and interpretation” (Geanellos, 2000, p. 114).

4.4.3 Critical hermeneutics

Critical hermeneutics is a more specialised application of hermeneutics that focusses on critiquing dominant ideologies and how these dominant ideologies have shaped and impacted the phenomena being investigated. Critical hermeneutics is often termed emancipatory as it requires the researcher to make known the “…lived experiences and personal voices of persons who are not members of privileged groups…” (Lopez & Willis, 2004, p. 730). The insights


provided allow the researcher to view the world differently helping to enact change; rather than merely interpreting reality, critical hermeneutics is concerned with changing reality through the critique of tradition and authority (Bleicher, 1980).

Habermas, while acknowledging Gadamer’s position that interpretation is constituted through an interpreter’s prejudices, maintains that all prejudices are not inevitable or legitimate (Prasad, 2002). Through active, critical self-reflection certain prejudices may be confirmed while others are rejected. Similarly, at a linguistic level, Habermas holds that language itself is a vehicle for privileging certain ideologies and power structures. Consequently, interpretation following a critical hermeneutic approach must include a critique of the nature of the language itself for the ideological elements that may be perpetuating particular forms of domination and privilege.

Ricoeur (1973a, 1981, 1990) offers a resolution of the differences between Gadamerian hermeneutics and Habermas’ critical position by arguing that both positions are necessary to hermeneutic interpretation. Gadamer calls on interpreters to critically reflect on their pre-understandings to filter out

‘unproductive’ prejudices (Prasad, 2002) and the ideological critique of Habermas is part of Gadamer’s ‘traditions’ which are re-interpreted in the hermeneutic process of interpretation and understanding.

In document Health Literacy: (Page 128-132)