Hermeneutics -- what are they, and should I fear them?

I’ll admit it – I read the sort of books in which the word “hermeneutics” often appears somewhere in the text.

I’ll also admit that I have only the vaguest idea of what the heck the word means. My dictionary offers up the following:

Which is all very well and good, except I don’t really understand that either, at least not in practical terms.

Can someone, therefore, give me either a better layman’s definition of the term, or (even better) some examples of how this works in practice? I’m trying to get my head around “musical hermeneutics”, and am not having much luck.

That is a decent definition. MAybe you could give us an example of the context in which you are finding that word, and then we could explain it in context?

Hmrf. The more I try, the less I feel comfortable with what I’m gonna say. But, here goes:

Hermeneutics deals with interpretation. As applied to texts, originally with the bible, it is the recognition that what is written is not only a limited expression of the author’s view, but that the reader’s view also affects their understanding of what is written. The idea is that repeated readings allow one to refine the meaning of the text, eventually zeroing in on a more accurate interpretation. Part of this is to understand the circumstances that the writer was in when writing the text, part of it is understanding how the reader’s context differs from that of the author, etc.

I’ll wait for some philosophy or literary stud to correct my weak but practical description. Hope that helps some…


Your definition is mostly correct.

you wrote about hermeneutics…

Brian Shealy, writing for the Masters Seminary Jounal addressed this concern for the re-defining of the word hermeneutics, he states of the problem…

Sorry to go off on a tangent.

Basically…“hermenuetics” is the grammatical, historical study of the words to correctly understand their meaning. It is the set of rules for biblical interpretation. Application of that meaning follows the study of the meaning

I’m sure you didn’t mean it, but the quote from Mr. Shealy is the same as what I said. I’m interested in how he defined it, as I’m sure it’s different than what I said. (Although I’d be awfully impressed if it wasn’t! It would lend some credibility to the “million monkeys in front of a million typewriters” scenario!) Could you post the proper quote? Thanks…


Within philosophy, the term ‘hermeneutics’ is mostly linked to specific philosophers. Very briefly (and leaving out lots of nuances):

  1. Hermeneutics is primarily seen as a theory about interpretation: asking what interpretation is, what understanding a text means and how it comes about. The theoretical concepts devised to describe interpretation are usually associated with hermeneutics as well.

  2. The origin of the term AFAIK is with Schleiermacher, who wrote about biblical interpretation.

  3. In the 20th century Gadamer (influenced by Heidgger) generalized hermeneutics to a general theory of interpretation. He coined the notion of ‘amalgamation of horizons’, to describe the process in which one person’s interpretative context (‘culture’) could blend with the interpretative context of the author of the text. The basic idea is that you can only understand any text of statement from accepting certain ‘prejudices’ (=unspoken assumptions of the culture)on . It may look a bit like value-relativism/conservatism, but is much more sophisticated than that.

  4. Lots of later philosophers have to some extent built on Gadamer’s ideas. There is AFAIK not a very clear-cut basic concept of hermeneutics that is generally accepted; it depends who you ask.

AFAIK Gadamer is the first name that springs to mind if you ask a philosopher about hermeneutics these days. The books the OP mentioned probably have him or related theory in mind.

True, I was only addressing the definition as it applies to Biblical studies. I honestly did not know that in other studies the word had a different shade of meaning. :o

Mr. Shealy’s paper can be viewed here. It is only concerned with improper Biblical hermeneutics.

Apologies to Keeve et al. for starting this thread and then getting distracted by real life. Nevertheless, the comments thus far have been helpful.

Since I was thinking specifically of hermeneutics in a musical context, I’ve dug up a few quotes to show the sort of thing I mean:

So if I’m reading these snippets and your comments aright, “musical hermeneutics” deals with the identification of intrinsic meaning in music (including nonprogrammatic interpretation) which may or may not be tied up in the subjective experience of the listeners. Yes? Or am I talking nonsense?

Hmmmm…upon further Googling, I find this. I think I need to think about this some more…

My brain hurts.

I’d say you got it there (but then, I’m no expert in musical theory either). Maybe more precisely it would be simply "deals with the identification of meaning in music ".

The quotes you provided use it in a slightly different sense, like “having to do with meaning/interpretation”. Sometimes the word and its derivatives seem to be used simply as a fancy way of saying ‘analysis of’, ‘approch to’, but the page you linked to seems to mean a definite kind of theory, involved with the question whether music does have meaning and how to find what the meaning of a specific piece is. That is hermeneutics allright.