for spring 2006


This Web page is meant only to give you an idea of what the course is. Not all the readings listed below will be required.


REL 312: Text and Meaning


Il y a plus affaire à interpréter les interprétations qu’à interpréter les choses.

[roughly translated: We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things.]

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, 1533–92


Course Description:

Hermeneutics is an interdisciplinary study of the methodological principles of interpretation and examines how human beings experience the world and life as intelligible. We will ask fundamental questions regarding such intelligibility: What is a text? What is a context? What is language? What is meaning? Can everything we perceive be considered texts, including people and the world itself? What are principles and methods of understanding the world of human “objects,” i.e., forms of human expression such as paintings, laws, literature, music, religions?


How will this course augment Westminster’s liberal studies core?

This course will be quintessentially interdisciplinary in that it asks questions regarding all of human understanding. Hermeneutics is inherently interdisciplinary since it deals with the human, i.e., historical, world of human experiences and expressions that are objectifications of human experiences. Hermeneutics, as the art and theory of interpretation, has as its object of inquiry nothing short of the entire spectrum of human experiences and expressions (e.g., facial expressions, paintings, legal codes, economic systems, social structures, religious texts). It is by design interdisciplinary, revisiting some of the themes of Inquiry, and will complement advanced courses in many departments, including the capstone.


How will this course benefit other majors and disciplines? How will it overlap the offerings of other majors or disciplines?

Because of reasons briefly mentioned above, this will be proposed as an advanced seminar to include students from various other disciplines to examine common questions of interpretation. The course is intended to be a seminar for seniors and juniors (and qualified sophomores with permission from the instructor) who will read and discuss significant writings in the field of philosophical hermeneutics and consider how theories of interpretation inform various disciplines, including the natural sciences but especially the human sciences—in fact, the course will consider the differences between the human sciences and the natural sciences. Since texts can be any objects of human interpretation (e.g., facial expressions, paintings, legal codes, economic systems, social structures, religious texts), the theoretical reflection of the nature and principles of interpretation can be illuminating for all disciplines. (NB: Having already garnered initial support from several departments, I will request official approval of the course as an elective for majors or minors, or both, in Art, English, History, Modern Language, Music, Philosophy, Physics, Psychology, Religion, Sociology, and Theater.)


Course Outcomes:

By exploring and articulating the nature and principles of interpretation, students will refine their critical thinking abilities through questions of meaning and interpretation posed on various levels for critical application in various disciplines.

Students will become familiar with the vast arena of language as any symbolic world of expression or meaning, especially, though not limited to, written texts. Students will read relevant literature on hermeneutics and reflect critically on what the understanding and critique of human expressions (i.e., any objectifications of human culture) may look like.

Students will be able to understand and articulate the significance of the following questions:


• What is a text? What is language?

• What is experience? What is expression? How are they related? What does it mean to say that human experiences are ex-pressed and objectified?

• What can be regarded as text: research data, scientific theories, social structures, economic theories, political systems, political rhetoric or propaganda, legal codes, people, gestures, historical events, history itself, religious rituals, works of art or music, movies, TV commercials?

• What is meaning? Can meaning be fixed or narrowed? How or why not?

• What is interpretation? How does it occur?

• Can there be “bad” or “wrong” interpretations? If so, how are they determined as such?

• In what sense can an interpretation be “objective”?

• What is understanding? How is understanding possible?

• What is pre-understanding? How is it the condition for all understanding?

• What is the relationship between the world of objects or phenomena and the interpreter?

• What is the significance of the relationship between subject and object? What is meant by such a distinction?

• What is the world (both natural and human, i.e., historical)?

• What is a worldview?

• What is science? Is there a distinction between the natural sciences and the human sciences? What would be the significance of any distinction?


Students will explore the hermeneutics of suspicion that penetrates into, below, or behind perceived phenomena. For example, they can try to understand an election campaign advertisement by asking questions about its implicit worldview, discernible intentions, historical context, cultural  presuppositions, unconscious or subconscious messages, etc., as well as why and how it is intelligible. Furthermore, they can ask questions about various interpretations of the phenomenon itself, e.g., how a Democrat or a Republican would react to the same campaign advertisement and why, or how a Korean and American may react differently to the same hand gesture.


Possible Texts (please see indications underlined in parentheses):


secondary sources:

Richard Palmer, Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer (required)

David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept

Georgia Warnke, Gadamer: Hermeneutics, Tradition and Reason (history, authorial intention, problems of subjectivism, critique of ideology)

Gaule Ormiston & Alan Schrift, The Hermeneutic Tradition: From Ast to Ricoeur


primary sources:

Karl-Otto Apel:

“Scientistics, Hermeneutics, Critique of Ideology: An Outline of a Theory of Science from an Epistemological-Anthropological Point of View” (possible)

Rudolf Bultmann:

“Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?” (probable)

Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference:

“Force and Signification”

Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences(probable)

“‘Genesis and Structure’ and Phenomenology”

Wilhelm Dilthey:

“Ideas Concerning a Descriptive and Analytic Psychology” (possible)

“The Understanding of Other Persons and Their Expressions of Life” (required)

selections on experience, expression, and understanding; also on time, awareness, reality, etc.

Johann Gustav Droysen:

“History and the Historical Method” (probable)

Hans Georg Gadamer

Truth and Method, selections on application (i.e., interpretation as application), art, aesthetics, authority, hermeneutics, law, prejudice, tradition, truth (probably excerpts)

“The Discrediting of Prejudice by the Enlightenment” (probable)

“Aesthetics and Hermeneutics”

“The Nature of Things and the Language of Things”

“Philosophical Foundations of the Twentieth Century”

“Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and the Critique of Ideology” (probable)

“The Science of the Life-World”

“The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem” (probable)

Jürgen Habermas (hermeneutics & the social sciences)

Knowledge and Human Interests:

“The Idea of the Theory of Knowledge as Social Theory” (probable)

“The Self-Reflection of the Natural Sciences: The Pragmatist Critique of Meaning” (possible)

“Dilthey’s Theory of Understanding Expression: Ego Identity and Linguistic Communication”

“The Self-Reflection of the Cultural Sciences: The Historicist Critique of Meaning”

“On Hermeneutics’ Claim to Universality”

Martin Heidegger

Being and Time, sections 31–34: Being-there as Understanding; Understanding and Interpretation; Assertion as a Derivative Mode of Interpretation; Being-there and Discourse. Language & The Everyday Being of the “There” and the Falling of Dasein

“A Dialogue on Language” (probable)

“The Nature of Language” (probable)

“The Way to Language” (possible)

“The Origin of the Work of Art” (on truth and art)

Wilhelm von Humbolt

“The Nature and Conformation of Language”

“On the Task of the Historian”

Edmund Husserl

Logical Investigations, selections

“Expression and Meaning” (possible)

“On the Theory of Wholes and Parts” (probable)

Walker Percy (particularly interesting to majors in English, Modern Language majors)

Lost in the Cosmos:

“The Exempted Self: How Scientists Don’t Have to Take Account of Themselves and Other Selves in their Science and Some Difficulties that Arise when they have to” (possible)

“The Lonely Self: Why the Autonomous Self feels so Alone in the Cosmos that it will go to any Length to talk to Chimpanzees, Dolphins, and Humpback Whales” (probable)

The Lonely Self (II): Why Carl Sagan is so Anxious to Establish Communication with an ETI (Extraterrestrial Intelligence)” (possible)

Signposts in a Strange Land, from section 2 on “Science, Language, Literature”

“Is a Theory of Man Possible?”

“Naming and Being” (probable)

“The Coming Crisis in Psychiatry”

“The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind” (probable)

Paul Ricoeur

Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning:

“Language as Discourse”

“Speaking and Writing” (possible)

“Metaphor and Symbol” (probable)

“Explanation and Understanding” (probable)

The Conflict of Interpretations

Friedrich Schleiermacher

Hermeneutics and Criticism, selections on general hermeneutics


Assignments and grading criteria:

15%: midterm exam

15%: presentation on how questions and insights from philosophical hermeneutics are applicable in the students’ major

20%: active participation in class discussions (the class will be conducted as a seminar with a sprinkling of introductory lecture) & preparation for class discussions (brief written reflections to be shared with the class)

50%: research paper on a topic chosen from a list of possible topics or on one of the readings











































Richard Palmer, The Hermeneutics Compendium