What is Hermeneutic Phenomenology?
This post is the second in a series on the main branches of mature phenomenology. You might want to start with the prior posts about transcendental phenomenology and existential phenomenology if you have not already done so.
The third major branch of mature phenomenology uses hermeneutic methods to gain deep insights into the meaning of language, acts of communication, and the inner world of thinking and feeling beings. Martin Heidegger also initiated this branch of phenomenology, and although there are similarities and overlap with the existential branch, this approach can be seen as distinct from that one. There are strong connections to the work of Dilthey and other hermeneuts who both sought to interpret people’s written words and speech so as to understand what they were thinking and feeling. When this is brought together with phenomenology, it is focused on what various acts of communication can tell us about what is common to lived experience in general. Hermeneutic phenomenology seeks to discern the meaning of speech acts, texts, gestures, and lived expressions and all that might unite and tie together the experience of living with one another in a common world.
Interpretation of human society and culture is complex, with so many variables that are interacting with each other in ways that it is very difficult to sort out, but the idea is that one can find ways of focusing on one aspect at a time and studying its own unique nature. Indeed, there are numerous people involved in any social situation interacting with each other in complex ways and they each have their own thoughts, feelings, and motives, which are extremely difficult to discern, but we can carefully try to assess each subculture and in some cases each person and each motivating factor separately. This can involve considering the historical development of ideology and cultural beliefs and practices over the generations by carefully looking at history and the various time periods and what the people within each generation had and didn’t have at their disposal and what they believed and didn’t believe and what they were dealing with in their own lives and the problems they were trying to address in their lives. This project is extremely difficult, but the main thinkers who formulated this branch of phenomenology would argue that progress can be made on this front. We have access to troves of artifacts from the distant and recent past, so it should not be entirely impossible to understand the most significant patterns of thought and motivation that guided the development of human society and that are at work in our contemporary world and are driving us into the future.
Heidegger saw how the usage of language is important to how problems are framed and how solutions are formulated, and this is what inspired him to focus on hermeneutics in his work. He argued that phenomenology could be used to address the central questions of metaphysics which had been misconceived and taken for granted throughout the history of philosophy. He thought that philosophers had been fundamentally misled by language going all the way back to the work of Plato and he figured that the pre-Socratic philosophers had more open-minded ways of thinking about the nature of being and the relation to time. He figured that generation after generation since then up to his time in the Twentieth Century, most philosophers had taken for granted the traditional notions of how being relates to time and they had not thought much about it. He sought to use hermeneutics to open people’s minds.
Several notable thinkers continued the development of hermeneutic phenomenology after Heidegger, including Hans Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur. Gadamer’s phenomenological hermeneutics is based on self-understanding as a means of understanding others. Gadamer stressed the historical and linguistic nature of our understanding. Whenever we understand something, be it a text, machine, or gesture, we understand ourselves as well. Gadamer believed that hermeneutics is universal to human understanding and interaction with the world. He realized one could gain insight through the communicative power of works of art and culture and he saw that our encounters with arts and literature give us insights into the human condition. He didn’t think that any methodology could capture how the process of mutual understanding is constructed and refined, but he felt that people could utilize a variety of communicative tactics so as to achieve a “fusion of horizons” between their inner worlds.
Ricoeur sought to be more methodical than Gadamer. He theorized and practiced a vast arc of narrative structural analysis that incorporated empathy, trust, suspicion, and distrust as overarching sentiments driving prior thinkers, since each of these are interwoven with human experience. Ricoeur argued that hermeneutics is built on the basis of phenomenology, but he also argues that phenomenology is incapable of constituting itself without a hermeneutical presupposition. Also Ricoeur said that our social life inevitably involves some combination of empathy and suspicion, which are opposites that interplay with each other to produce a gradually more explanatory model of the motives and ideologies of people and the cultures and subcultures that they are associated with. Both empathy and suspicion are essential to a true understanding. Overall, we are trying to understand the present by interpreting the past and vice versa.