Sunday, February 27, 2011

Becoming a Writer: Schleiermacher's Hermeneutics (PART I of II)

stamp series, men of the history of Berlin II,...Image via WikipediaBecoming a Writer: Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768 - 1834)
The father of Hermeneutics was a German philosopher and theologian who lectured on a new method of understanding textual material. From his students' notes of his lectures his basic innovative ideas have been organized and published in a book titled Hermeneutics.

Of importance to writers is his insight into what today we know as the "hermeneutic circle." This is a conceptual device that enables readers to get a better understanding of a text by examining its parts, and then extending this understanding to the whole, and vice-versa.


1. The common beginning for both the technical and the grammatical interpretation is the general overview which grasps the unity of the work and the main features of the composition. The unity of the work, the theme, will be viewed here as the writer's motivating principle and the foundation of the composition as his peculiar nature as it is manifested in each motif.

The unity of the work derives from the manner in which the grammatical constructions available in the language are composed or connected. The author sets a verbal object in motion as communication. The difference between popular and scientific works is that the author of the former arranges the subject according to his peculiar style, which mirrors itself in his ordering. Because each author has minor conceptions each of which is determined by his peculiarities, one can recognize them from among anal­ogous omissions and anomalous inclusions.

I perceive the author as he functions in the language: partly bringing forth new things by his use of language, partly retaining qualities of language which he repeats and transmits. In the same way, from knowledge of an area of speech, I can perceive the author's language as its product and see how he operates under its aegis. Both methods are the same process begun from different starting points.

[Note the incipient basis for the seminal idea of the hermeneutic circle]

2. The ultimate goal of the psychological [technical] exposition is nothing other than to perceive the consequences of the beginning; that is to say, to consider the work as it is formed by its parts, and to perceive every part in light of the work's overall subject as its motivation; this is also to say that the form is seen to be shaped by the subject matter.

When I have looked at everything individually, there is nothing left over to understand. It is also obvious in itself that the apparent contrast between understanding the individual parts and understanding the whole disappears when every part receives the same treatment as the whole. But the goal [of good interpretation] is only achieved in the continuity of both perspectives. Even when much is only to be understood grammatically, it is not understood fully unless one can make an intrinsic analysis which never loses sight of the genesis of the work.

[Schleiermacher’s ideas on style]

3. The goal of good interpretation is to understand the style completely.
We are accustomed to understanding style as the handling of language. We presume that thought and language intertwine throughout, and the spe­cific manner with which one understands the subject requires an under­standing of the arrangement of words: i.e., the handling of language.
The peculiarity of an individual conception results from what is missing or added to a conventional conception. Whatever peculiarity results from imitation or habit it results in a bad style.

To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers. When I write fiction --or fiction writing of novels and short stories-- I consult Toolbox for Writers.

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