Schleiermacher and Hermeneutics

How the art of interpretation in modern sense developed

Friedrich Schleiermacher, a German philosopher, and theologian, is considered the father of Hermeneutics, or the art of textual interpretation, which is still a controversial topic in modern philosophy. As a Protestant theologian, he studied the Bible in terms of its meaning and developed a new method for how it could be interpreted. In his work, Hermeneutics and Criticism, he listed the principles for textual interpretation. In this sense, his method and principles were so impactful, that they were acknowledged by contemporary thinkers such as Lyotard, Lacan, and Derrida, and provided insights into various areas of research, especially literature.

Hermeneutics is concerned with the understanding and interpretation of texts that seem unintelligible at first, taking its name from a god of Greek mythology, Hermes. Historically, its development in Europe and the Middle East stems from separate disciplines such as philosophy. Modern hermeneutics began in the Romantic period with the work of Schleiermacher on hermeneutics and Criticism. His work is important since it is the first text to establish it as a contemporary field. Many of his essential principles are still in use today in many fields, including the role of language in human understanding, the structure of language understanding in one’s culture, and the text that is to be interpreted.

Originally, the definition of hermeneutics was “the art of correctly comprehending the written or spoken discourse created by others”. While defining its nature, Schleiermacher further elaborates on the relationship between speech and thought. He regards language as a crucial part of the thought process, and the aim of Hermeneutics is to clarify the connection between speech and understanding. Since speech has a significant role in this equation, it can be said that the art of rhetoric and hermeneutics go hand in hand. Schleiermacher emphasizes that comprehension is problematic, as language and thought are highly individual.

The characteristics of languages (whether they are textual or historical) and their differences further escalate this issue. Practically, Schleiermacher divides interpretation into two components complementing each other: Grammatical and technical. The former refers to linguistic structures, while the latter refers to the creative thoughts and cultural conditions of individuals. Texts are not equally open to a certain type of exposition. Thus, an utterance refers to a modification of the language, due to the innate nature of the language's ability to alter the mind of any speaker.

Another aspect is exactitude. At first, a text is misinterpreted, and only through this misunderstanding can one reach the exactitude and true meaning meant by the author. In order to reach this precise understanding, one has to put themselves in the position of the author. In order to get a solid basis for understanding, Schleiermacher provides a formula that allows the authority of the author to be identified and investigates the relation between discourse and language and how this discourse contributes to the development of that respective language.

Through the concept of exactitude, he reaches the well-known hermeneutic circle of comprehension, which is an inevitable area between the reader and the text. Complete knowledge resides in this circle, and readers are required to have the common knowledge and context of the text in order to understand it, as a mere linguistic analysis will not suffice. Through a thorough analysis, one can make the possible intentions of the author visible to today’s reader.


Stolze, Radegundis. “Hermeneutics and translation” Handbook of Translation Studies: Vol 1.