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Hermeneutics in American Philosophy (forthcoming in The Routledge Encyclopedia of American Philosophy)

Hermeneutics has two separate, but related meanings. In the most general sense it refers to questions of interpretations, particularly the interpretation of texts or works of art. In this sense it has a long history connected to philology, rhetoric, and art and literary criticism. What makes hermeneutics philosophically significant is the additional belief that interpreting is not just one of many activities humans engage in, but a central human activity essentially connected to judgment. Hermeneutics in its narrow sense refers to branch of phenomenology inaugurated by Martin Heidegger and developed by Hans-Georg Gadamer. This tradition arises out of a critique of the phenomenological emphasis on pure descriptions of experience; instead hermeneuts argue that all experience is interpreted, and therefore questions about the nature of interpretation will inform questions about the nature of perception, cognition, and even human nature. We will refer to this movement as Philosophical Hermeneutics. Paralleling the two meaning of hermeneutics, we will distinguish those classical pragmatists who addressed and contributed philosophically to questions of the nature of interpretation from those contemporary American philosophers who attempt to draw connections between classical pragmatism and Philosophical Hermeneutics.

Charles Sanders Peirce, Josiah Royce, John Dewey, and William James all argue that interpretation is a central activity of the mind, and understanding the nature of interpretation is crucial for understanding the way an organism consciously interacts with its environment. Peirce puts interpretation front and center when he claim that all meaning requires an interpretation to connect the sign and its reference. He writes that a sign is "anything which determines something else (its interpretant) to refer to an object to which it itself refers (its object) in the same way, the interpretant becoming in turn a sign, and so on ad infintum" (2.303). Although Peirce never developed a theory of textual interpretation, and although interpretants are not just thoughts, but any sign that establishes the meaning of another sign, he shares with the hermeneutic tradition the view that interpretation is a central philosophical concept.

               Royce's late writings were strongly influenced by Peirce's logic, and in the Problem of Christianity he argued that interpretation was a distinctively human act, separate from perception and conception. While perception and conception are binary—they relate a person and an object or a concept—interpretation always involves three parties, the interpreter, the interpreted, and that person for whom the interpretation takes place. Royce expands on an example provided by Henri Bergson. Perceptions are like gold coins—they present their value directly. Conceptions are like bank notes, they are promissory of being exchangeable for cash; they contain the expectation that they will have perceptual value in practice. Royce extends the example by pointing out that exchanges of currency are always between two people, and just as one's coin may carry no value in another land, so too might one's perceptions not be shared by another person. In the currency example, there needs to be an exchange rate, a way of mediating the varying values of the coins, so that the currency can remain valuable; likewise there needs to be an interpretation that will show the conceptual significance of diverse perceptions, and this activity of interpretation is separate from simply validating conceptions with perceptions. Through recognizing the essential and distinctive place of interpretation in social life, Royce thinks we can arrive at a conception of a "community of interpreters," who unite around the goal of shared insight. This ideal state of communally shared insights can then function normatively as an account of truth irreducible to criteria of use, as is stereotypically found among pragmatists. In contrast to Royce, John Dewey thinks all judgment is interpretive and all perception and conception are judgments, so while he makes interpretation more ubiquitous than Royce, he also lessens the need for a specific theory of the nature of interpretation.

Finally, Charlene Haddock Seigfried has argued that although William James had no explicit theory of interpretation, his writings reflect interpretive principles consistent with his pluralistic, radical empiricism. What he does say, and what his writings confirm, is that he believed that in order to interpret a text one must imaginatively grasp the "center of vision" of the author, that which unifies the style and the content of the text. Often this requires understanding the historical and cultural context of the production of the text. Just as is the case with perception, the meaning of a text is not determined prior to the interactive interpretation, but arises through that interpretation. As James sees all interpretive activity as purely reflective, its results, however, are provisional upon concrete investigations into the relevant experiences.

More recently, some philosophers have drawn comparisons between views in American pragmatism and views in Philosophical Hermeneutics. Most Anglo-American philosophers became aware of hermeneutics only with Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. There Rorty, having already established himself as a neo-pragmatist, argues that philosophers should abandon the philosophical questions that arise with a representational theory of mind and a correspondence theory of truth. Instead of epistemological questions, we need hermeneutics, which he takes as the attempt to seek new insights and understandings—"edification"—through the creative use of language. The aim of philosophy, according to Rorty, should be the successful continuation of "the conversation of mankind"; it should function in the service of creating greater solidarity among human beings and should abandon the impossible project of intellectually grasping essences. He eventually abandoned and regretted using the term hermeneutics, but he did not stop seeing Dewey and James's approach to philosophy as sharing essential features with Heidegger and Gadamer's approach. Above all, both pragmatism and Philosophical Hermeneutics are antifoundational and holist. They reject the representational account of the mind, take the world to be symbolic through and through, and see theorizing as arising out of practice. Rorty's work has led a number of philosophers to look more closely at the intersections of pragmatism and Philosophical Hermeneutic; Richard Bernstein and Joseph Margolis are perhaps the two most prominent thinkers engaged in this project. 


David Vessey


References and Further Reading

Bernstein, Richard. Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.


Dewey, John. How We Think. In vol. 6 of the Middle Works. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.


Margolis, Joseph. Pragmatism without Foundations. New York: Blackwell, 1986.


Peirce, C. S. Collected Papers, vols. 1–2. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1960.


Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.


Royce, Josiah. The Problem of Christianity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.


Seigfried, Charlene Haddock. William James's Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.



See also John Dewey, Intepretant, William James, Joseph Margolis, C. S. Pierce, Radical Empiricism, Josiah Royce, Richard Rorty.


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