Literary theory is somewhat bewilderingly in the news, and it is worth pausing over this well-written book, in which a young American Germanist develops his thoughts about the variety of it known as hermencutics. One sometimes hears this word uttered in tones of deep distrust or derision, as if it were some foreign novelty recently imported into a soundly pragmatical Britain by trendy malcontents intent on disturbing the peace: in fact, it is very ancient, though it has, of course, widened its scope and altered its aims. In its earlier forms, it usually amounted to prescriptions and prohibitions relating to the interpretation of Scripture. Its promotion to the status of the science or art of interpreting texts generally was effected in the early 19th century by Schleiermacher; and it achieved with Heidegger a philosophical apotheosis. Modern hermencutics is predominantly German in provenance. Central to it are Schleiermacher's principle of the hermeneutic circle, which will be mentioned below; and the distinctions developed by his successors between the natural sciences and humane studies (Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften). Neither of these developments has attracted much comment over here.
LRB 7 May 1981 | PDF Download