I read this book for a graduate seminar on philosophy of art. Richard E. Palmer's "Hermeneutics" is an excellent guide to reading and understanding Hans-Georg Gadamer's "magnum opus" "Truth and Method," which is a seminal work not just for the field of the philosophy of art, but also for epistemology, ontology, teleology, history, and the social sciences. This book has caused me to "see" everything in a new philosophical light. When reading Gadamer, one instantly finds that he was influenced by Martin Heidegger, who he studied under, Hegel, and Aristotle. Hermeneutics is an interpretive methodology of a historically situated, linguistically mediated, contextualist and antifoundationalist theory of understanding. I know that is a mouthful, so the following will unpack this definition. The God Hermes is the source of the word "hermeneutics" Hermes the "messenger" was the go between the Gods and humans thus the word hermeneutics.
For Gadamer, interpretation is always connected with the "as," interpretation assumes that there are multiple ways or "lenses" with how we engage works. A different lens will produce a different way of seeing things. So, if our "as" is "cognitive knowledge" then we would approach a thing accordingly. If our "as" is "practical usefulness" then we approach it accordingly. For example, a botanist wants to understand what makes a tree a tree, a carpenter sees a tree as a source of lumber. Thus, hermeneutics is about the idea that there are many ways to interpret, which is why history is so important. It can also be present the world. Does historical inheritance allow for a blank slate? No, no divorce from what we are to be able approach a work in pure disinterestedness as Kant would have us do. No separate space in time. No pure present separated from the future. History doesn't tell us about the past, but about ourselves. Every present has sense of future, not just the past.
Gadamer's idea of interpretation is to turn away from the idea of truth as a simple matter of fact, or certainty or a single principle. The idea of interpretation is that it is something that is "open." We use the word "interpret" that way when we say, "well how do you interpret that work"? This question means that there is not one way of reading the work. Unfortunately, though the difference between interpretation and fact is that a fact is not something open to interpretation, and therefore interpretation is seen as some kind of deficiency. It is seen as a lesser matter because it is open, and can't be secured by some kind of decisive result. A wide array of possibilities is what hermeneutics looks for; it is not just making it up. Hermeneutics does not mean one can't believe in objective truths; for example, there was a Civil War, it is a fact, what isn't a fact and has multiple truths and interpretations is what where the "causes" of the Civil War. Thus, hermeneutics for Gadamer doesn't mean that anything goes, it just means that there are multiple interpretations and possibilities when coming to terms with a text or artworks. The history of art is filled with different interpretations. There are multiple interpretations to many truths like in art.
An important feature of hermeneutic interpretation is that it emphasizes the historical circumstances of art and by historical, means not only what we said before about the piece. We would have to know what historical circumstances were, and what it was like for the work to be performed at that time, that is one thing. However, as a deeper sense of historicallity and that is to say, any approach to art always carries the art history with it. When we approach a work of art, before we even engage it we are already equipped with inheritances from our tradition and our culture that come to us by way of education and other kinds of influences. No engagement with a work of art is a blank slate we are not a tabula rasa. The word "Hermeneutics" equals "an interpretation." Hermeneutics talks about how we interpret a work of art. Hermeneutics is an interpretive circle. Hermeneutics believes that when we are making a statement we are trying to be either objective or subjective about art. Whether we are inside the work itself and what it might mean, or if we overemphasize the subject, the perception of it, and what's going on in the subject, that if we emphasize either side of that then we would be missing something more important. Thus, hermeneutics is circular. The separation between the work and the perception is broken there. There is an interconnection. One of the things about the hermeneutical approach is its meant to be an alternative to the subject-object division, which in modern thought sets the stage for how we talk about modern art in terms of art as being an object or art as referring to objects and then the subject and the subjects relation to the object. However, one of the things about Heidegger and Gadamer, is that they discounted this whole idea. In art theory, you would have this idea that the work that is standing before the subject and the subject comes across the work and the subject gets impressions from work. One of the things we have seen in the historical art world theory is which is sort of along the lines of hermeneutics that in a way Descartes wanted to put off the history of influences and get a start from scratch. That is sort of his position. Therefore, what the hermeneutics theory says is that can't be done. There is no start from scratch position. Historical influences are always shaping how we begin to see anything.
With respect to art theory now, it would be impossible to talk about coming across a work in some pure uninterpreted space, and that we start from the work and us and go from there. There are already operating influences in how we regard anything and art would be included in that. One of the ways to understand this is in child development. Every adult has been a child, and every child has been shaped by cultural influences through all sorts of ways, education, rearing, etc. So we sometimes forget about this because we are adults and no longer children, so we are on our own way so to speak. Every rearing of a child in terms of a certain set of historical influences or assumptions that the parents bring with them which they inherited from their parents and so on. In other words, any human self, will always be equipped with ways of seeing, and therefore there is no such thing as coming to see something as all by itself. However, as we'll also see, hermeneutic theory doesn't want to fall into the trap of saying "mere interpretation," because if it is mere interpretation it means there is something inadequate about it. If interpretation goes all the way down, then interpretation can't be deficient. It is simply a matter of getting clear what interpretations there are that shape us and being clearer about those. This doesn't mean that things can't change, it just means that whatever happens in human experience there is an already shaped factor to it. And because there is this already shaped factor that we did not produce ourselves, (since human child development has already been set), then it could be called mere interpretation in the sense that it is just an invention, an allusion, an appearance a relativism, that won't work either. Because, there is something about us being shaped by our culture that opens up our world for us, it is not just a matter of personal opinion.
Gadamer mentions history, thus the use of the historical artworld model is used by Gadamer, and brings in the notion of temporality, which means time. There obviously is a temporality in play, the game, the execution the time, the outcome. However, temporality for Gadamer is richer, a Heideggerian notion temporality is not just past present, and future, it is of fluid kind of circulation for people for selves who exist in time by experiencing these dimensions. It is impossible to live in the now. Because every sense of the present is formed by the past, if we didn't have a past there would be no shaping us to the point to the now, and every now is informed by the future. We have to live in the past and the future, everything we do is geared to the future. Past and future have a kind of openness to them. Heidegger's point is that idea of the abstractions of the past and the future as not now, and not yet now, or no longer now that very abstraction is created by an intellectual reflection that is not real. Therefore, any recollection is the present for the past. Thus, any anticipation is the present for the future, because you anticipate the future now, and you remember the past now. Thus, in a sense the past and the future are not abstractions that do not exist. There is a reality of the future and the past with anticipation and recollection. We all have various ways that the future is alive through anticipation and hope for example. The past is alive with things like nostalgia and regret. Temporality (time), is a circulation of these dimensions rather then three separate zones. Once that is done, the idea of history becomes a concrete temporality, history means what is the temporality of culture of people with actual means that occupy their lives, it is not just past, present, and future, its remembering the injustices of the past, to fix them in the future for example. Thus, history becomes an important temporality. It is filled with significance and meaningfulness rather than just the bare notions of the past. Because of Heidegger's open character of temporality in one sense the past is gone, but not totally gone, as we all know the past is something that can be revisited. The past is open to re-estimation; thus, structure of history is the same as temporality, it is open; thus, because of the open character it leads philosophers like Heidegger and Gadamer to say, that is why the idea of hermeneutics is interpretation and its model is open as well just like temporality. For instance, when we are trying to interpret and find meaning in something that is going on it is because we are presently trying to figure out what the hell happened in the past because of the future worries and consequences of what has happened. So we are inhabiting this circulation, and because the past is not like a objects that just stand there its open we can't really go back in time so we can only try to revision it, and the future is unknown and there is no way to be certain about what was said. It doesn't mean certain things can't be established, they can, but that doesn't end anything. No certainty however, the history of culture is therefore the history of temporal movement.
So, interpretation is not just simply opinion, interpretation refers to ways of seeing. Those ways of seeing are embedded in the world; they are not just subjective opinions. So, on the one hand we have the subject-object divide. The subjective is our opinions of the art, our impressions of it, neither one can hold in the hermeneutic theory, there can't be anything purely objective free of interpretation on the one hand, nothing can stand by itself, on the other hand it can't be merely subjective either, because we don't just make it up. This is the important point, we don't make it up. It shapes us. This hermeneutical way of "seeing" is analogous to a lens. A lens is something that lets us see in a certain way. A lens is only an analogy it isn't something that you could take off. A lens is a way of seeing that influences the way the thing appears, just as a lens does. However, a lens is nothing apart from what is being seen, so even though a lens is some kind of mere subjective concoction the lens is a way of seeing things. A lens is not a body of beliefs that is just simply in our heads, it is a way of seeing. However, according to the theory of interpretation, using the analogy, there is no "lens less seeing." Different cultures might have different lenses of a kind, or different periods in history might have different lenses. And here is one of the important ideas which needs to be stressed, art is something that has to do with ways of seeing. Therefore, art can affect our lenses. Art can be a lens that opens up something that we otherwise might not have seen.
What I like about Gadamer's notion is that in the modern period, the idea of the objective world was just scientific fact and so on, and the subjective world was ethics, art, and values, and so art is just how the human mind can see a thing. Gadamer talks allot about the phrase "Medial Structure," which is one way of trying to get over the subject/object divide, which is talked about in modern thought like the mind on one side of the fence and everything else on the other side. The idea of a medial structure is whatever is going on in experience or in the act of reading or responding is medially structured, that is to say that you can't pinpoint the source or the core of the truth on one side of the fence or the other of the work no object/subject divide.
Well one of the things about hermeneutics is it doesn't want to play that game of in the mind or in reality. So art, especially when we talk about Greek tragedy and myth, we might think of art as one facet of culture among others. Alternatively, we might think of art as having a limited set of possibilities that it is meant to bring out. Heidegger wants to talk about art as world disclosive, not just merely subjective but is world disclosive. One of the problems is that because of the modern conception of art, it can sound too big and we don't know what we even mean by the word art in so many ways. There are so many complications about it to be understood. And the more we go back in time and listen to the vantage of the ancient material the more we are going to see that our concepts about art are maybe way too limited to express well, what was going on in Homer for example, what was going on in Greek tragedy. I think it is fair to say that those forms of art were world disclosive because they were "a way of seeing the world." They were not just entertaining stories. Not just stimulating stories, they were ways of seeing. Another way to put this is well it seems like a lens or something that would deny objectivity because it is always colored by us. The history of objectivity, what we mean by objectivity was a historical discovery, so, objectivity is a lens as well. Another words, the call to see the world objectively is another way of seeing or thinking and as you well know, objectivity is not usually the first thing that comes to mind, it has to be drilled in, coaxed, educated, disciplined. So, another words, to become objective is to discover another kind of lens.
You have to have responsiveness to the artwork, but for Gadamer, the question of, "what is art"? Art is a complex not an object, not a location. It is an interactive complex. What I find most intellectually satisfying about the hermeneutic circle is that whenever someone tries to pick a point, the artist, the work, the audience, and the art institutions you can point to each as interconnected not one anymore important than the other. Doesn't mean it is rigid, the very activity that is going on in this field is fluid. One of the aspects of hermeneutics is that things that are perceived as going out of bounds may in fact be creating new bounds.
I recommend this work for every thinking human; especially anyone interested in philosophy, epistemology, ontology, philosophy of art, art history, history, and the humanities. Get off the couch and read his book!!!