Heidegger’s Hermeneutical Phenomenological Method

V. C. Thomas
Pondicherry University, Pondicherry

 What does Hermeneutics mean?  

Hermeneutics is an expression very often heard in the context of theology, literary criticism, and for over a century now in the context of different kinds of phenomenologies. What does hermeneutics mean? Hermeneutics deal with two things: (a) the task of interpretation and (b) the meaning of understanding. What is to be interpreted is a work of man and it is not just a thing or an object. Normally work refers to the human. It follows from this that hermeneutics needs to locate initially the human hand. And, the work of human hand is called the text. Hence the texts of Plato or Kant. But Heidegger expands the meaning of the text by stating that the text is that which can speak to us.  When the texts speak to us, all that we need, Heidegger adds, is to have a benevolent willingness to listen to them with generous and receptive ears.

We have noted the Husserlian contention that it is possible for us to arrive at the meaning of pure datum, the noema. This arriving at the meaning of noema involves two steps, holds Husserl: by means of eidetic reduction and the psychological reduction we grasp the noema.  Having arrived at the noema, we assign different meanings to the noema by means of transcendental reduction. Depending upon the noema grasped, different meanings are assigned. Although both the processes, (grasping the meaning and assigning meaning), take place simultaneously, conceptually, they are not the identical; they are two different processes.

Although Heidegger agrees with many things said here, there is at least one point of difference.  From Heidegger’s point of view the fact that we understand something means that we have understood it interpretatively.  For interpretation is a function of understanding; we always understand something only interpretatively. However, Heidegger himself points out that hermeneutic phenomenology has a limitation for it can be applied only to human existence. Interpretation is rendering explicit what is already understood.  Interpretation begins on everyday mode of existence. Everydayness is the ordinary, mediocre, routine kind of existence where we spend most of our lives. It consists of daily tasks routine duties, unquestionably and   indisputably performed. In that kind of existence we forget our prerogatives and privileges as human beings and go down to standards much lower than expected of us. Yet it the most fundamental mode of existence such that all other modes of existence are derived from it. Can such a mode of existence be redeemed? Yes, but how?  By way of fundamental ontology and fundamental ontology renders explicit our vague obscure understanding of Being.

Who interprets? It is Dasein who interprets. Dasein is an entity which in each case I myself am. Dasein’s awareness of itself (as) existing distinguishes it from everything else and constitutes it as its core or essence because of which Heidegger points out that existence is the essence of Dasein.

Nature of Understanding:  Understanding is the second aspect of hermeneutics.   Understanding reveals that Dasein’s potentiality for Being. Potentiality is the foundation of understanding. Understanding throws ahead its possibilities and then moves forward to grasp the thrown possibilities. It is I myself moving ahead of myself. The meaning of understanding is the self-disclosure of Dasein in terms of projects and possibilities.

Hermeneutical Circle: Hermeneutical circle reveals the special relationship between interpretation and understanding for interpretation is a process of clarifying what is already understood. In the hermeneutic procedure of knowing, there is a transition from what is implicit to what is explicit. It is a movement from vagueness to clarity. It is called grasping that which is differently the same.

This is not a vicious circle, and in fact not even a circle at all. Understanding is a never ending process, always open to further and further possibilities of explication and clarification. Hermeneutic circle demands a going down deeper and deeper in to the same theme.  Instead of using the metaphor of circle, it is better to use the metaphor of a tree. The deeper the roots go down into the depths of the earth, the branches grow higher and higher. Similarly, deeper the understanding, the better the interpretation and vice versa.    Heidegger also holds that Presuppositions are important to any interpretation.  Presuppositions are not outside hermeneutic circle   but a constitutive part of it.