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Glossary of Literary Theory
by Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown


A term which, in its broadest sense, describes the interpretation of meanings -- explication, analysis, commentary. Originally applied to the interpretation of the Bible, hermeneutics comprised valid readings plus exegesis -- commentary on how the meanings were to be applied. In the nineteenth century, hermeneutics came to be considered as a general theory of interpretation applied to texts of all description. Wilhelm Dilthey developed Friedrich Schleiermacher's idea of the hermeneutic circle -- the paradox which emerges from the fact that the reader cannot understand any part of the text until the whole is understood, while the whole cannot be understood until the parts are understood. According to E. D. Hirsch, who sees the hermeneutic circle as nonvicious, valid interpretation involves a correct construal of the author's willed meaning. Such a construal takes into account the author's purview or perspective, his horizon of expectations -- generic, cultural, and conventional. For Hirsch, verbal meaning is stable and determinate. By contrast, Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer insist on the historicity and temporality of interpretation. For them, meaning is always codetermined, the reader's horizon of expectations attempting to fuse with the author's. An inescapable relativity and indeterminacy is thereby introduced into the notion of interpretation. (See also Phenomenology.)

© Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown,
University of Toronto
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