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I sometimes hear (particularly on this site) of hermeneutical "methods", such as the grammatico-historal approach, or literal-historical approach, or sensus plenior. These all seem to be tools or approaches that one can employ in the work of interpreting a text.

But in the past, I've been more familiar with hermeneutics as a study of how we interpret the text, and what we are doing when we do so. This is more of a philosophical endeavor, and more tightly linked with fields like epistemology and semiotics, yielding "approaches" to hermeneutics like the hermeneutical circle, horizons of understanding, the new hermeneutic, etc.

Are these both valid uses of the term? Is one more directly in the field hermeneutics, and the other an extension? Or is one a misuse of the term? In other words, are we primarily dealing with methodology or philosophy?

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Hermeneutics as an academic discipline is descriptive up to the point at which "rules for good interpretation" are applied.

We can, for example, speak of speech-act-theory, and discuss how one arrives at his or her own interpretation. That would be descriptive hermeneutics.

There are certainly basic rules that make some interpretations "better" i.e. - more in line with original intent or common acceptance - than others. At that point, insofar as an exegete is being taught to use these "better interpretations," hermeneutics becomes prescriptive.

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As I understand it, there are two phases to the interpretation of Scripture:

1) Knowing the text

This is where you learn the literal interpretation via a study of the language, cultural references, etc.

This phase is completely descriptive

2) Understanding the purpose behind God's decision to include this in Scripture

This is where you "get it" and finally understand what God is "trying to tell us" through a particular passage. God's ultimate purpose is always to incite a particular response. Therefore...

This phase is completely prescriptive

The term "hermeneutics" has different meaning to different groups:

  • There is a group which defines "hermeneutics" as "the rules of exegesis", and equates "exegesis" to Step 1. This group often diminishes the value of Step 2, and would tend to say "hermeneutics is descriptive".

  • There is another group which recognizes Step 2, and has redefined the terms to equate "exegesis" to Step 1, and "hermeneutics" to Step 2. (See, for instance, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth) This group would tend to say "hermeneutics is prescriptive".

  • Most of us simply use the term to describe the entire process of interpretation, including Step 1 and Step 2. If we are going to use this definition, we need to understand that it involves both a descriptive element, and a prescriptive element.

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Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)

Hermeneutics \Her`me*neu"tics\, n. [Gr. ? (sc. ?).] The science of interpretation and explanation; exegesis; esp., that branch of theology which defines the laws whereby the meaning of the Scriptures is to be ascertained. --Schaff-Herzog Encyc.

If hermeneutics defines the scientific laws for obtaining meaning from scripture, then much of what is practiced is not hermeneutics but mere Greek rhetorical invention. After having studied the words, the grammar, the historical context, the personalities of the writers and his audience, and the culture of any possible influence upon the author, the interpreter then asks, "What do I think the author meant?" and scientific observation is supplanted by free-for-all invention. [1] The guess work is justified by all the observation which is countered by another interpreter's observations.

A scientific result is reproducible by others. The results of modern hermeneutics are not. [2] The various meaning derived (even using the same method) show that the methods are not valid (a technical term applied to a methodology).

In practice, the only science being conducted is in the observation of the methods used (which is your experience), and therefor it is descriptive. As a description of a method, an individual may adopt the method as an exegetical philosophy hoping to remain within the bounds of the described ideal.

The exception is with sensus plenior, which is independently reproducible due to the nature of the constraining rules.

[1] There is no objective standard by which one can measure sufficient study of "the words, the grammar, the historical context, the personalities of the writers and his audience, and the culture of any possible influence upon the author". The law of Universal ignorance declares that you cannot know what you do not know. Perhaps the author's unknown second cousin did something to the author in childhood that cannot be known, but influenced his intent. Piling facts upon the text does not ensure scientific objectivity. The final step is always subjective, and is therefor not scientific.

[2] If a standardized reproducible result cannot be produced, there can be no measure of 'good' or better' in the application of hermeneutic methods. The standard is simply 'Do I like it'. The one objective standard we have, that of the Apostles' methods, is rejected as strange and inventive.

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"scientific observation is supplanted by free-for-all invention" - only if the "exegete" ignores all of that which they just studied. Furthermore, as has been discussed here and on meta multiple times, hermeneutics and exegesis are not, strictly speaking, the same thing. So to make a conclusion about hermeneutics based upon how some practice exegesis is a flawed conclusion. – GalacticCowboy Dec 7 '11 at 3:19
I think you have forgotten what 'scientific' means. A soon as the one studying the text asks "What do 'I think' the author intended?", it becomes a subjective endeavor. I have yet to see a single rule or practice that ensures scientific reproducibility in modern hermeneutics. Even the use of 'good interpretation' and 'better' is subjective since no 'standardized' interpretation can be produced for the original intent, and certainly scientific truth is not produced by way of 'common acceptance', only by way of reproduction. – Bob Jones Dec 8 '11 at 13:05
Modern interpreters openly admit they cannot reproduce the methods of the NT authors, nor do they attempt explain why we should discount their methods and results as being inferior. – Bob Jones Dec 8 '11 at 13:07
Certainly striving for an Apostolic methodology should be a goal especially if we view them as being 'inspired'. And exegesis is simply explaining what you found in hermeneutics so the use of the word does not indicate faulty logic. Hermeneutics without exegesis is silent. The particular statement was "What do I think the author meant?". This is not a statement about how exegesis is done, it is about how one arrives at the final conclusion about meaning of the text, otherwise I would have said, "If the exegete asks 'How do I explain what I think the author meant?" – Bob Jones Dec 8 '11 at 13:13
Hermeneutics is the study of the text. It's science. You're continuing to focus on exegesis. Exegesis is more akin to the exercise of law. – GalacticCowboy Dec 9 '11 at 3:49

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