Hermeneutics and The Sciences – An Introductory Outline

Hermeneutics, then, is a general field of study which, though broken up into various distinct and often conflicting interests and methods, is nevertheless founded on these basic premises:

1) Language, and not images or numbers, is the basis medium of human thought; indeed Language, and not physical time and space, is the basic medium of human existence. In a shift anticipated by Diderot, though formulated in far more radical terms, the ear now takes precedence over the eye.

2) A proper understanding of human knowledge and experience requires that we sensitively use critical reading skills to uncovering the basic differences which make each utterance entirely unique and therefore strange.

3) No cultured activity, science included, can exist without writing, and consequently a proper understanding of all knowledge and activity, scientific or otherwise, necessary requires interpretive acts.

Because of his investigation into the inevitability and consequences of the use of language, and most specifically writing, in any scientific research, Lenoir’s work makes a significant contribution to the hermeneutics of the sciences. So, is there no difference then between Lenoir and Richards? Clearly there is. We see in these two authors to very distinct methods of hermeneutic investigation, which lead to very different results.


To recognize one’s own in the alien, to become at home in it, is the basic movement of spirit, whose being consists only in returning to itself from what is other. Hence all theoretical Bildung, even acquiring foreign languages and conceptual worlds, is merely the continuation of a process of Bildung that begins much earlier. Every single individual who raises himself out of his natural being to the spritual finds in the language, customs, and institutions of his people a pre-given body of material which, as in learning to speak, he has to make his own. Thus every individual is always involved in the process of Bildung and in getting beyond his naturalness, inasmuch as the world into which he is growing is one that is humanly constituted through language and custom. Hegel emphasized that a people gives its existence in its world. It works out from itself and thus exteriorizes what it is in itself. . . .

We must realize that the idea of perfect Bildung remains a necessary ideal even for the historical sciences that depart from Hegel. For Bildung is the element in which they move. Even what earlier usage, with reference to physical appearance, called the ‘perfection of form’ is not so much that last state of development as the mature state that has left all development behind and makes possible the harmonious movement of all the limbs. Its is precisely in the sense that the human sciences [psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, et alia] presuppose that the scholarly consciousness is already formed and for that very reason possesses the right, unlearnable, and inimitable tact that envelops the human sciences’ form of judgment and mode of knowledge as if it were the element in which they move.

The way that Helmholtz describes how the human sciences work, especially what he calls ‘artistic feeling and tact’, in fact presupposes this element of Bildung, within which the mind has a special free mobility. Thus Helmholtz speaks of the ‘readiness with which the most varied experiences must flow in the memory of the historian or philologist.’ That may seem to be a description from the an external viewpoint: namely, the idaeal of the ‘self-conscious work of drawing iron-clad conclusions,’ according to which the natural scientist convinces himself. The concept of memory as he uses it, is not sufficient to explain what is involved here. In fact, this tact or feeling is not rightly understood if one thinks of it as a supervening mental competence which uses a powerful memory and so arrives at cognitive results that cannot be rigorously examined. What makes tact possible, what leads to its acquisition and possession, is not merely a piece of psychological equipment that is propitious to knowledge in the human sciences.

Moreover, the nature of memory is not rightly understood if it is regarded as merely a general talent or capacity. Keeping in mind, forgetting, and recalling belong to the historical constitution of man and are themselves part of his history and his Bildung. Whoever uses his memory as a mere faculty–and any ‘technique’ of memory is such a use–does not yet possess it as something that is absolutely his own. Memory must be formed; for memory is not memory for anything and everything. One has a memory for some things, and not for others; one wants to preserve one thing in memory and banish another. It is time to rescue the phenomenon of memory from being regarded merely as a psychological faculty and to see it as an essential element of the finite historical being of man. In a way that has long been insufficiently noticed, forgetting is closely related to keeping in mind and remembering; forgetting is not merely an absence and a lack but, as Nietzsche in particular pointed out, a condition of the life of mind. Only by forgetting does the mind have the possibility of total renewal, the capacity to see everything with fresh eyes, so that what was long familiar fuses with the new into a many-leveled unity.”

–Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Significance of The Humanist Tradition”

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