40 Hermeneutics and the Power of Interpretation: An Introduction to the Hermeneutic Approach
I want to dedicate my writing to my highschool religion teacher Rev. Talcott. She first taught me about the word hermeneutics and the power of interpretation when reading texts or having discussions with others. She also taught me a lot about myself and how I should be compassionate while caring for others. Furthermore, she exemplifies putting others above herself and is always willing to listen to people when they are going through tough times.
Keywords: Interpretation, Persuasion, Audience, Process
Throughout the course of history, historians and leaders have relied on the interpretation of specific texts to structure society the way historical figures intended, including ancient scriptures, such as the Bible, or political texts, such as the United States Constitution. Through the use of rhetorical and persuasive practices, powerful societal figures attempt to convince or inform others on how they should interpret these texts and how society can benefit from them. Because of this, it is important to look at the practice of interpreting texts, which is also known as the hermeneutic approach. In order to decipher the relationship between rhetoric and interpretation, giving the audience the ability to recognize the extent to which an experience is being interpreted or inferred is important. With the rise of media and technology in this day and age, the hermeneutic approach can still be utilized, even with the decline in significant ancient scriptures.
Therefore, the hermeneutic approach can be used in any type of rhetorical situation, but it is the most efficient when dealing with the interpretation of a rhetorical message. Doing so is necessary in order to avoid a misinterpretation of what someone is trying to convey, or allowing one to be easily persuaded by specific rhetoric that may not align with the full ‘truth.’ Through my own experiences and research, I have attempted to understand how hermeneutics is intertwined with rhetoric and what it can tell us about how we interpret and perceive methods of persuasion. By allowing an analysis of interpretation through perspective, intent, and translation, hermeneutics can be used to both take part in rhetorical practices. In this chapter, I want to describe what the hermeneutic approach is and its original and intended use, as well as exemplify the interrelationship between rhetoric and hermeneutics and what that entails in terms of whether or not the two terms are interchangeable.
What the Hermeneutic Approach Entails
By interpreting ancient scriptures and texts through a different perspective or lens, the hermeneutic approach entails inferring the original author’s intent or meaning. Although the hermeneutic approach has been used by translators to decipher written texts over the course of history, it is also a useful tool in all methods of communication, both verbal and non-verbal. According to neurologists Friston and Frith, “Hermeneutics refers to interpretation and translation of text (typically ancient scriptures) but also applies to verbal and non-verbal communication” (Friston & Frith, 2015). Early on, translators considered hermeneutics to be specific towards historical or religious texts. This is because hermeneutics takes into account everything that could impact the interpretation of something. For example, when reading a historical piece of literature, translators and historians must consider the time it was written, who it was written for, where it was written, and most importantly, why it was written. To put it in modern terms, one can think about the United States Constitution as an example. The supreme court is tasked with the job of interpreting the constitution the way the founding fathers meant it to mean. However, historians, politicians, and justices continue to argue that the authors did not intend a specific amendment to function in the modern society we live in today. The action of undertaking this process in order to infer the intended meaning is one example of the hermeneutic approach. Religious texts are also constantly being observed and analyzed due to the many different scriptures, time periods, and writers that are all trying to convey the same story. Most ancient scriptures also have to be translated from the original language, which adds another layer to the complexity of trying to interpret something that was written so long ago. Supreme court cases are an example of this being utilized in today’s society. The judges are often tasked with interpreting what the founding fathers intended in the constitution. This can have huge ramifications on people’s lives, and there is no singular ‘truth’ as to how the constitution should be read.
The hermeneutic approach can extend beyond that of interpreting historical texts, for one can take the hermeneutic approach when trying to persuade others or when one is in the act of being persuaded. When speaking to someone or a group of people, a speaker is always making decisions based on the audience, what they are trying to convey, and how the audience will interpret what the speaker is trying to convey. Therefore, one can often find an “interrelationship” between rhetoric and hermeneutics because they are essentially undergoing the same methods of interpretation (Finch, 2004). The audience can also use the hermetic approach when trying to interpret or make sense of the speaker’s message. Hermeneutics also involves the means of persuasion in a specific text. Hermeneutics can act as an interpretative practice by which the interpretation itself is rhetorical.
The process of hermeneutics can involve an effort to persuade others of the legitimacy or efficacy of that interpretation. That can involve a careful analysis of all the different factors that can impact the overall message of the text, such as addressing the time it was written, who wrote it, and who it was intended for. Priests or other religious figures do this when preaching; they take a passage of a scripture and inform the congregation on how they should interpret and incorporate it into their daily lives. In an academic setting, teachers and professors are constantly persuading students when assigning specific readings. The students are expected to interpret it themselves, but they are greatly influenced by in-class lectures in regards to the legitimacy of both the author and the text itself. The hermeneutic approach can also help one understand how the text persuades, focusing on the different structures within the text that make it persuasive to various audiences. Similar to the general study of rhetoric, one can observe the intent of the author, while also recognizing specific instances of persuasion. This can be seen when studying speeches of political figures, such as Martin Luther King Jr. In his speeches, he relies on religious overtones to preach equality; this is done purposefully in order to display the discrepancy in being Christian while also being content with segregation and inequality. During World War II, Adolf Hilter used the rhetoric of fear in order to persuade Germany to persecute Jewish people. He argued that if the Germans did not eliminate the Jewish people first, then Germany would be attacked by Jewish people. Both MLK and Hitler’s rhetoric, although attempting to do the complete opposite of each other, both utilized specific rhetorical structures in order to persuade the audience. The hermeneutic approach can involve analyzing the meaning and legitimacy, as well as how these modes of persuasion are structured in order for the audience to interpret it a specific way.
Hermeneutic and Rhetoric Interrelationship
Hermeneutics and rhetoric are not two terms that are interchangeable, even though they, more often than not, work together in order to persuade or interpret. Not every attempt to persuade involves meaning-making that relies heavily on comprehension and interpretation. Persuasion can be done using any method, such as logos, pathos, or ethos, but not necessarily using the hermeneutic approach. As rhetorical historian Steven Mallioux put it, “In some ways, rhetoric and interpretation are practical forms of the same extended human activity: Rhetoric is based on interpretation; interpretation is communicated through rhetoric. Furthermore, as a reflection on practice, hermeneutics and rhetorical theory are mutually defining fields: hermeneutics is the rhetoric of establishing meaning, and rhetoric the hermeneutics of problematic linguistic situations” (Davis, 2005). Since rhetorical theory and hermeneutics are mutually defining fields, are these terms interchangeable in the sense that both terms represent an interpretation of linguistic communication, both verbal and non-verbal? Rhetorical professor Diane Davis explores the relationship between the two in her studies and she would suggest that “there is also a non-hermeneutical dimension of rhetoric that has nothing to do with meaning-making, with offering up significations to comprehension. This dimension is reducible neither to figuration nor to what typically goes by the name persuasion; it is devoted to a certain reception, but not to the appropriation of meaning” (Davis, 2005). Simply put, not all rhetorical practices involve the process of interpretation. Because persuasive rhetoric is a broad category in terms of the methods used, Davis feels there are situations in which rhetoric does not follow a hermeneutic approach. One could persuade another through explicit facts and ideas rather than leave the intent up to interpretation.
Hermeneutics and its Relation to Interpretation
Although there is not much public discourse on the relationship between hermeneutics and rhetoric, those who study rhetoric practices could argue that rhetoric always involves the method of interpretation and hermeneutics, no matter how one is using persuasion. The reasoning is quite simple: the audience is always interpreting messages and meanings. It really comes down to how broad the definition of interpretation can be used. Anytime I try to use rhetoric in order to convey or persuade, I am taking into consideration all the factors that could impact the audience’s reception to my ideas. For example, where the audience is from, how old they are, and how much they trust me can alter their interpretation of my message. If I am trying to persuade someone using simplistic facts, numbers, statistics, or other objective representations, then how much is really left up to interpretation if the analysis of those expressions is self-explanatory? The way the speaker selects and arranges these facts, statistics, and narratives can also impact the way they are perceived. I still find it hard to conclude that all situations in which rhetoric is utilized, both intentionally and subconsciously, are directly related to interpretation. Hermeneutics and rhetoric are not interchangeable, and neither is necessary for either to take place in persuasive discourse. Rather, although not necessary, in most situations in which rhetoric is being utilized, so is the hermeneutic approach. A rhetorician could make the argument that everything humans do is as social creatures are through interpretation, so I must look at interpretation and the impact it has on rhetoric.
Why the Hermeneutic Approach Matters
I chose to write on the word hermeneutic because of the power of interpretation in our daily lives. Oftentimes, how one interprets another person’s writing, speech, or nonverbal cues can dictate what one takes away from the experience. It is important to learn about the different ways people do interpret different messages, both through the use of rhetoric and personal experience. I find it especially interesting that we rely heavily on how other people interpret different messages in order for us to understand how we might interpret it. The media can play a role in this, as well as family members or close friends. Social media and television can often alter the general public’s interpretation of an event.
For example, if a user sees only videos of Black Lives Matter protests ending in violence rather than the hundreds of peaceful protests, the perception of the movement as a whole is completely different. Because platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Google have the ability to use past user data in order to display articles or pictures that align with the user’s preferences, the media has the ability to shift the users interpretation of events, literature, or speeches. Advertisements use the same algorithm to display products that seem relevant to the users’ daily lives, thus changing the way the users interpret their own lives. Because texts are less utilized in order to seek social coercion, social media has become the new outlet to do so. When user data is stored and used to tailor texts and articles to the user, social media is functioning as a method of persuasion. It is less obvious, however, that one is being persuaded because the information is already closely aligned to the user’s previously held beliefs. This is problematic for the relationship between rhetoric and hermeneutics because the process of interpretation is already done by the technological algorithms. The spread of misinformation is much more likely because the extra step of interpretation is stripped from the user. Rhetoric is still present, yet the hermeneutic approach is being phased out. It is important for society to recognize these changes, and try to reestablish the focus on legitimacy, interpretation, and persuasion. Without the awareness of rhetoric, detrimental ideologies can be easily spread. As social creatures, we interpret different things based on the preconceptions we may already have regarding the specific message, and these media outlets utilize these preconceptions in order to shape how users interpret the world around them.
In this chapter, I first discussed the origins of hermeneutics and what it can be perceived as today in our society. After doing so, I exemplified the issue regarding the relationship between rhetoric and hermeneutics. Then, I displayed how rhetoric and hermeneutics are not interchangeable because of the broad qualifications that can fall under rhetoric without the use of interpretation, as well as the power that interpretation has. Finally, I addressed the current implications of social media and the effects it can have on the hermeneutic approach and rhetoric. Every day, we are confronted with methods of rhetoric by peers, professors, and the media in order to persuade us into thinking one way or another. It is important to understand the different aspects of rhetoric and how different approaches can be utilized both to enact persuasion or recognize it in our lives. In order to understand how one is being persuaded through rhetorical methods, one must first understand the intent or meaning behind the message. This can be done through hermeneutics, but can also be done subconsciously by differentiating between hermeneutics and rhetoric.
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