The hermeneutic circle (German: hermeneutischer Zirkel) describes the process of understanding a text hermeneutically. It refers to the idea that one's understanding of the text as a whole is established by reference to the individual parts and one's understanding of each individual part by reference to the whole. Neither the whole text nor any individual part can be understood without reference to one another, and hence, it is a circle. However, this circular character of interpretation does not make it impossible to interpret a text; rather, it stresses that the meaning of a text must be found within its cultural, historical, and literary context.
Friedrich Schleiermacher's approach to interpretation focuses on the importance of the interpreter understanding the text as a necessary stage to interpreting it. Understanding involved repeated circular movements between the parts and the whole. Hence the idea of an interpretive or hermeneutic circle. Understanding the meaning of a text is not about decoding the author's intentions. It is about establishing real relationships between reader, text, and context." Even reading a sentence involves these repeated circular movements through a hierarchy of parts–whole relationships. Thus, as we are reading this sentence, you are analysing single words as the text unfolds, but you are also weighing the meaning of each word against our changing sense of the overall meaning of the sentence you are reading, or perhaps misunderstanding, or maybe this sentence is reminding you of, or clashing with, another view about interpretation you have, in the past, advocated or disparaged. Hence we are brought to the sentence's larger historical context, depending on its location, and our own circumstances.
Wilhelm Dilthey used the example of understanding a sentence as an example of the circular course of hermeneutic understanding. He particularly stressed that meaning and meaningfulness were always contextual. Thus the meaning of any sentence cannot be fully interpreted unless we know the historical circumstances of its utterance. And this means that interpretation is always linked to the situation of the interpreter, because one can only construct a history from the particular set of circumstances in which one currently exists. Thus Dilthey says: "Meaningfulness fundamentally grows out of a relation of part to whole that is grounded in the nature of living experience." For Dilthey, "Meaning is not subjective; it is not projection of thought or thinking onto the object; it is a perception of a real relationship within a nexus prior to the subject-object separation in thought."
Martin Heidegger (1927) developed the concept of the hermeneutic circle to envision a whole in terms of a reality that was situated in the detailed experience of everyday existence by an individual (the parts). So understanding was developed on the basis of "fore-structures" of understanding, that allow external phenomena to be interpreted in a preliminary way.
Another instance of Heidegger's use of the hermeneutic circle occurs in his examination of The Origin of the Work of Art (1935–1936). Here Heidegger argues that both artists and art works can only be understood with reference to each other, and that neither can be understood apart from 'art,' which, as well, cannot be understood apart from the former two. The 'origin' of the work of art is mysterious and elusive, seemingly defying logic: "thus we are compelled to follow the circle. This is neither a makeshift or a defect. To enter upon the path is the strength of thought, to continue on it is the feast of thought, assuming thinking is a craft. Not only is the main step from work to art a circle like the step from art to work, but every separate step that we attempt circles this circle. In order to discover the nature of the art that really prevails in the work, let us go to the actual work and ask the work what and how it is.":18
Heidegger continues, saying that a work of art is not a simple thing (as a doorknob or a shoe is, which do not normally involve aesthetic experience), but it cannot escape its "thingly character," that is, being part of the larger order of things in the world, apart from all aesthetic experience.:19 The synthesis of thingly and artistic is found in the work's allegorical and symbolic character, "but this one element in a work that manifests another, this one element that joins another, is the thingly feature in the art work".:20 At this point, however, Heidegger raises the doubt of "whether the work is at bottom something else and not a thing at all." Later he tries to break down the metaphysical opposition between form and matter, and the whole other set of dualisms which include: rational and irrational, logical and illogical/alogical, and subject and object. Neither of these concepts is independent of the other, yet neither can be reduced to the other: Heidegger suggests we have to look beyond both.:27
Hans-Georg Gadamer (1975) further developed this concept, leading to what is recognized as a break with previous hermeneutic traditions. While Heidegger saw the hermeneutic process as cycles of self-reference that situated our understanding in a priori prejudices, Gadamer reconceptualized the hermeneutic circle as an iterative process through which a new understanding of a whole reality is developed by means of exploring the detail of existence. Gadamer viewed understanding as linguistically mediated, through conversations with others in which reality is explored and an agreement is reached that represents a new understanding. The centrality of conversation to the hermeneutic circle is developed by Donald Schön, who characterizes design as a hermeneutic circle that is developed by means of "a conversation with the situation."
Paul de Man, in his essay "Form and Intent in the American New Criticism," talks about the hermeneutic circle with reference to paradoxical ideas about "textual unity" espoused by and inherited from American criticism. De Man points out that the "textual unity" New Criticism locates in a given work has only a "semi-circularity" and that the hermeneutic circle is completed in "the act of interpreting the text." Combining Gadamer and Heidegger into an epistemological critique of interpretation and reading, de Man argues that with New Criticism, American Criticism "pragmatically entered" the hermeneutic circle, "mistaking it for the organic circularity of natural processes."
For postmodernists, the hermeneutic circle is especially problematic. Not only do they believe one can only know the world through the words one uses to describe it, but also that "whenever people try to establish a certain reading of a text or expression, they allege other readings as the ground for their reading". For postmodernists, in other words, "All meaning systems are open-ended systems of signs referring to signs referring to signs. No concept can therefore have an ultimate, unequivocal meaning".
Judith N. Shklar (1986) points out the ambiguity in the meaning and function of the "circle" as a metaphor for understanding. It taken to refer to a geometric circle, rather than a circular process, it seems to imply a center, but it is unclear whether the interpreter him/herself stands there, or whether, on the contrary, some "organizing principle and illuminating principle apart from him [is] there waiting to be discovered." Furthermore, and more problematic for Shklar, "the hermeneutic circle makes sense only if there is a known and closed whole, which can be understood in terms of its own parts and which has as its core God, who is its anchor and creator. Only the Bible really meets these conditions. It is the only possibly wholly self-sufficient text." A further problem relates to the fact that Gadamer and others assume a fixed role for tradition (individual and disciplinary/academic) in the process of any hermeneutic understanding, while it is more accurate to say that interpreters have multiple and sometimes conflicting cultural attachments, yet this does not prevent intercultural and/or interdisciplinary dialogue. Finally, she warns that, at least in social science, interpretation is not a substitute for explanation.
Heidegger (1935–1936):18 and Schockel (1998) respond to critics of this model of interpretation who allege it is a case of invalid reasoning by asserting that any form of reflection or interpretation must oscillate between particular and general, part and whole. It does not 'beg the question' because it is a different approach than formal logic. While it does imply presuppositions, it does not take any premise for granted. Schokel suggests a spiral as a better metaphor for interpretation, but admits that Schleiermacher's influence may have 'acclimatized' the term.
- Intentionalism, however, does not necessarily exclude an embrace of the notion of the hermeneutic circle, as Søren Harnow Klausen shows in "Levels of Literary Meaning," Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 41, No. 1 (April 2017): 70-90. "I conclude, almost to my own surprise, that something like the traditional idea of the hermeneutic circle is indispensable. We must work back and forth among intentions of lower and higher order, assigning to them varying relative weights as we go along, striving for some kind of balance, coherence, or overall appropriateness that cannot, however, be defined in advance or analyzed in terms of more basic principles.
- Ramberg, Bjørn and Kristin Gjesdal, "Hermeneutics: Continuations", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2003, 2005.
- Richard Palmer (1969). "Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer". Evanston: Northwestern University Press. p. 120.
- Heidegger, Martin. "The Origin of the Work of Art." Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. NY: Harper Collins, 1971.
- "Hans-Georg Gadamer", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2005.
- Schön 1983:
- de Man 1983: 29
- Adler, E. 1997. "Seizing the Middle Ground: Constructivism in World Politics", European Journal of International Relations 3: 321–322
- Waever 1996: 171
- Shklar, Judith N. "Squaring the Hermeneutic Circle." Social Research. 71 (3), 2004, pg. 657–658 (Originally published Autumn 1986).
- Schokel, Luis Alonso and Jose Maria Bravo. A Manual of Hermeneutics (Biblical Seminar). Trans. Liliana M. Rosa. Brook W. R. Pearson (Ed.). Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998, pg. 74.
- de Man, Paul (1983). Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-1135-1.
- Gadamer, Hans-Georg (1975). "Hermeneutics and Social Science". Philosophy Social Criticism / Cultural Hermeneutics. 2 (4): 307–316.
- Heidegger, Martin (1962). Being and Time. New York: Harper & Row [Originally published in German, in 1927]. ISBN 0-612-11114-8.
- Schön, Donald Alan (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-06874-X.
- Wæver, Ole (1996). "The rise and fall of the inter-paradigm debate". In Steve Smith; et al. International Theory: Positivism and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P.