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Hermeneutics is not only concerned with the science of interpretation, but also with the philosophy of interpretation. One of the major questions under examination in modern discussions about hermeneutics is how one's presuppositions, framework, theology, biases, and agendas affect their interpretation. (To make things simple, I'll use the term "bias" to refer to all of these.)

I think everyone would agree that we all have bias. I think everyone would even agree that it is impossible to eliminate all bias. What is less clear is whether bias can be held tentatively by the interpreter so as to enable them to effectively assess an alternate perspective, and perhaps change their view as a result of this "unbiased" analysis. The technical term for this idea is "bracketing," and it basically refers to the capability to hold your view as tentative while entertaining another view, thereby enabling you to assess the relative merits of both your view and the view under examination.

So the question on the table is: Is it possible to "bracket" your bias during interpretation, enabling you to essentially approach the text in an "unbiased" manner, despite the bias that is technically present?

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Since our site is heavily weighted toward exegesis questions and not hermeneutics questions, and since the hermeneutics questions that we do have are heavily weighted toward methods and not philosophy, I had trouble finding an existing tag to fit the question, so I made one up. Mods, feel free to edit the tags if you've got a better idea. –  Jas 3.1 Nov 26 '13 at 18:37
I've received two excellent answers so far. I'll wait a bit to see what other answers come in and how the votes come in before accepting one. –  Jas 3.1 Nov 26 '13 at 23:50
Strictly speaking, a single example would be sufficient to answer this question in the "yes" direction. But I assumed you wanted a reasoned argument and not just that. –  Gone Quiet Nov 26 '13 at 23:51
This questions seems more appropriate for meta than for the main site. –  Bruce Alderman Jan 22 at 16:12
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6 Answers

Is it possible to "bracket" your bias during interpretation, enabling you to essentially approach the text in an "unbiased" manner, despite the bias that is technically present?

It is possible to "bracket" a subset of your bias but not all of it.

As an analogy, if you do not like the look of a certain food you can agree to take a blind taste test to find out whether you like the taste, knowing that you wouldn't be able to escape your bias against the visual appearance of the food if you were not blindfold.

However, the philosophical question becomes much more, well, philosophical, when you start talking about setting aside your framework or worldview. The problem is that we are now talking about issues at the deepest level of our understanding, and they encompass the very action we are trying to undertake. Consider this question: what is the meaning of 'biased' or 'unbiased'? Does not the answer depend on your worldview? A postmodern might believe there is ultimately no such thing. Everyone else will have their own perspective.

Logically, you cannot set aside all your most foundational beliefs. This is because all your decisions are ultimately based on these foundations, including your decision to try and set them aside. In other words setting them aside would also involve setting aside your decision to set them aside: a logical nonsense.

So, can we "bracket" your bias during interpretation?

The question is unanswerable unless you define the domain in which you are trying to set aside bias. Once you have defined 'bias' in the domain in question you can seek to set it aside, but trying to be wholly objective is impossible: just framework-blindness by another name.

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Is it possible to be unbiased? No; everybody has biases about all sorts of things. Is it possible to bracket one's biases for the sake of open inquiry? Yes, it is. In fact, some say that bracketing is essential to study talmud (which is based in text).

More broadly, there are scientific and unscientific ways of enquiring into the meaning of biblical texts. The scientific method calls for developing a hypothesis, devising a test to evaluate it, carrying out that test, and revising one's understanding as a result. (With much iteration, of course.) Bias, such as confirmation bias (confirming what you already "know" or want to be true), is a concern in the field. Yet scientific enquiry has not ground to a halt.

While formal experiments with proper controls over variables are harder to conduct in the field of biblical heremeneutics than in, say, chemistry, this problem is not unique to biblical studies: many fields share this challenge. (When's the last time twins were actually separated at birth and raised under careful control in pursuit of nature versus nurture?) Yet, somehow, research is conducted and vetted in fields such as linguistics, economics, and psychology, even though people have biases in all of these areas too. So clearly it is possible to bracket one's biases. How is bias accounted for? By scientists showing their work and by other scientists reproducing or refuting their results. One has only to review the peer-reviewed journals and conferences in one's favorite fields to learn that this happens routinely.

But wait, you may say -- that's fine for some fields, but biblical studies involves religion, which is deeply personal, strongly-held, and bound up in people's fates for eternity. Surely even if in other fields people can accont for bias, religion must be different, right? Even if we understand that other fields have "religious wars", and even if we dismiss the talmud argument brought earlier, actual religion must be a special case.

But if that were so, if religious bias dominated everything else, then we would not expect people to ever change their minds. Yet, just as scientists do revise their findings and opinions, a recent study found that about 29% of Americans have changed their religions from one to another (that is, excluding transitions to and from "unaffiliated"). 29%! And that's not counting the "none"s! Even if not all of them did so out of deep personal conviction (but, for example, to unify a household), that's an awful lot of people who seem to have been willing to re-examine and alter their own personal religious biases.

If it is possible for people to change their minds about religion (which it clearly is), then on the way to doing so they must have passed through a phase where they considered a hypothesis other than the one they started with -- that such-and-such religion has the right of it despite what they've always believed. If people can postulate such hypotheses for their own consideration, then they can also postulate them in the context of formal study.

Whether people are willing to do so is a separate question.

Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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Answered at the OP's request. –  Gone Quiet Nov 26 '13 at 22:58
I agree with Jack on this one. See my comment on his answer re:pseudo-neutrality. –  Daи Nov 27 '13 at 18:26
We must not give short shrift (not that you do) to the role of persuasion in getting people to change their minds. While it is possible for people to hash things out intra-personally and consequently change their religion, I suggest it's far from common. A more likely scenario involves reading some persuasive books; participating in stimulating debate; checking out (if only initially out of curiosity) what one's religious "enemies" have to say, instead of relying on what other people say they say; and/or listening to a persuasive speech or two from the "other side." –  rhetorician Dec 5 '13 at 1:44
Anecdotally, I have worked and spoken with a lot of religious converts, and the vast majority of them started from curiosity and personal investigation, not a sales pitch. (Granted that the ones who do it for marriage are less likely to be actively involved in a congregation, so I will have less opportunity to interact with them.) –  Gone Quiet Dec 5 '13 at 1:47
@GoneQuiet-I think your last sentance sums it up: is there a 'want to'. Obviously, in promoting and maintaining a site as this one, there must be some mechanism by which a 'neutral' or 'disinterested party' can intervene, someone who has nothing to gain or lose; yet can recognize 'bias' and call for the correction or validation of it. I can design an electronic circuit eliminating bias- I just can't implant it and get it to work on people's views. To be an 'arbitrator', one must be able to 'hear' a position, filter out bias, and render an impartial judgement; in other words, another Solomon. –  user2479 Dec 5 '13 at 3:30
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This is an excellent question and you are right to tag it . If I may rephrase it slightly:

Is Hermeneutics a branch of Epistemology or Ontology?

Hermeneutics is the theory (and art) of understanding a text.

Epistemology is the philosophical examination of how people obtain knowledge. So if hermeneutics is merely an epistemological endeavour, then it's entirely possible to isolate, validate, and apply the methods of interpretation without concerning ourselves with their truth. When I read the first chapter of Genesis, I can examine whether or not the author described ex nihilo creation based on the evidence from the text and its context. At the end of the day, I can walk away satisfied with my work whether or not I agree with the Genesis cosmology.

Note that there is nothing particularly distinctive about sacred texts in this context: the techniques used for reading Plato, Philo, and Philippians are identical. If hermeneutics is a subset of epistemology, we can be confident that by applying the appropriate methodology we obtain knowledge of the meaning the author intended to convey. Many modern hermeneutical approaches assume interpretation is a skill that can be taught and that the techniques used to understand a text are unbiased and can be applied by any rational thinker.

Ontology is the study of being or existence. René Descartes famously described the relationship between thinking and being. As individuals, we don't really know that anything exists outside our own meditations. We can only infer the existence of things outside of us via reason. Traditional accounts of existence are unreliable since they depend on variable factors other than pure reason. In essence, they suffer from biases of various sorts. Therefore, we can only depend on our methods of interpretation to ensure confidence in our understanding of ancient texts.

Recently philosophers have expressed discomfort with dualism. Hermeneutics has taken an ontological turn. Explaining why the turn is necessary requires another section:

Horizons of understanding

Hans-Georg Gadamer building on the work of his teacher, Martin Heidegger, notes:

Every finite present has its limitations. We define the concept of “situation” by saying that it represents a standpoint that limits the possibility of vision. Hence an essential part of the concept of situation is the concept of “horizon.” The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point... A person who has no horizon is a man who does not see far enough and hence overvalues what is nearest to him. On the other hand, "to have an horizon" means not being limited to what is nearby, but to being able to see beyond it...[W]orking out of the hermeneutical situation means the achievement of the right horizon of inquiry for the questions evoked by the encounter with tradition.—Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. New York: Continuum, 1997, p.302 (as quoted by Wikipedia)

According to this way of looking at things, the author of Genesis desired to communicate something from within his sphere of understanding and the only way we can be confident that we know that thing is by expanding our own horizon until it fuses with the author's. Since each of us come from a slightly different situation, we have different horizons and must approach the text from different directions. We are, in a sense, inherently biased before we even take up a text to read it.

We expand our horizons on the back of other interpreters. I can't myself put my feet in the shoes of our ancient Greek and Hebrew authors and neither can you. But we can begin to understand our texts through the various commentators who have come before us. By using the tools, methods, and techniques of hermeneutics, we can bring our own biases into the conversation of the ages. I can express it no better than the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

At the end of the day, Gadamer claims, it is not really we who address the texts of tradition, but the canonic texts that address us. Having traveled through decades and centuries, the classic works of art, literature, science, and philosophy question us and our way of life. Our prejudices, whatever aspects of our cultural horizon that we take for granted, are brought into the open in the encounter with the past. As a part of the tradition in which we stand, historical texts have an authority that precedes our own. Yet this authority is kept alive only to the extent that it is recognized by the present. We recognize the authority of a text (or a work of art) by engaging with it in textual explication and interpretation, by entering into a dialogical relationship with the past. It is this movement of understanding that Gadamer refers to as the fusion of horizons. As we come, through the work of interpretation, to understand what at first appears alien, we participate in the production of a richer, more encompassing context of meaning—we gain a better and more profound understanding not only of the text but also of ourselves. In the fusion of horizons, the initial appearance of distance and alienness does itself emerge as a function of the limitations of our own initial point of departure.—Ramberg, Bjørn and Gjesdal, Kristin, "Hermeneutics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

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How would you address Monica's argument that the very (prominent) reality of people changing their worldviews is evidence that a bias can be intentionally bracketed? –  Jas 3.1 Nov 30 '13 at 0:35
@Jas3.1: I find that argument distinctly uncompelling because it sets up a false dichotomy. People (including scientists) tend to change their worldviews based on a combination of factors. It's rare to find people who've changed their religious convictions via pure reason. Gadamer suggests for humanities as Kuhn says of science: progress does not proceed by strictly following methods, but by occational, perhaps revolutionary, insights. –  Jon Ericson Nov 30 '13 at 1:55
Jon, it doesn't especially matter if the many people who've changed their religions do so by pure reason (as some certainly do; I have seen it) or by experiences. Either way they changed their minds about something fundamental, which Jack seems to believe cannot happen (and maybe you agree with him?). If your frame is baked-in, then change of any type wouldn't be possible. Yet, it happens. Also, experience is a kind of empirical evidence (but not demonstable, necessarily). –  Gone Quiet Nov 30 '13 at 23:30
@JonEricson-I have to disagree with the statement that "the techniques for reading Plato, Philo, and Philippians are identical." The fact that there are linguistic simularities exist, but beyond that, even the interpretive challenges are different, as the 'authors' used certain words to convey 'truths', not found in Plato or Philo; who had a different audience and consequently used 'language' differently to exposit their views. What I see is an attempt to 'secularize' the understanding of Scripture to a set of universal axioms; downgrading it to 'literature' which we are allowed to 'critique'. –  user2479 Dec 5 '13 at 3:05
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Years ago I read with interest Berger and Luckmann's classic The Social Construction of Reality. As near as I could tell, Berger was a sociologist who may have been (and still is?) a Christian. He taught at a variety of schools, including Evangelische Akademie in Germany, the University of North Carolina, Hartford Theological Seminary, the New School for Social Research, Rutgers University, and Boston College, and later in his career became the director of the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs (formerly the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture).

About the only thing I remember about the book is that not infrequently Berger employed the term "bracketing," particularly when the subject of religion cropped up. As near as I could tell, Berger (and Luckmann's) bracketing was an attempt to put aside (or put on hold) their Christian religious beliefs while expatiating on and developing their thesis on the sociological acquisition of the knowledge of reality.

At the time I read Berger's book (the 1980s), I simply chalked up Berger's bracketing to, at best, an attempt to retain objectivity in a discipline that wasn't then (and probably still is not) brim full of committed Christians who did not believe in hermetically sealing off their Christian presuppositions from their so-called secular intellectual pursuits; and at worst, a slight compromise to keep the peace in a predominantly anti-supernatural, anti-god milieu (not to mention, but I will, his need to make a living). Hey, sociologists have families and need to eat, too! Besides, didn’t Jesus say we’re to be as harmless and doves but as wise as serpents? After all, why get our unbelieving peers on the defensive before they’ve had a chance to ask us of the hope within us (1 Pet 3:15)?

As to whether or not Berger's tendency to bracket any and all truth claims associated with religion was the better part of wisdom and perhaps even God's will for him as a Christian in agnostic academia, I'll leave it to others to speculate. The fact remains, he bracketed any Truth claims in that particular book. Whether the bracketing continued in Berger's other books that included titles such as The Noise of Solemn Assemblies; The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion; and a Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural; I do not know. Perhaps someone more familiar with Berger's thoughts on religion and the supernatural would care to venture an informed opinion and share it with fans of SE/BH.

The purpose of my lengthy introduction is to suggest that people engage in bracketing all the time, and not just academics, exegetes, and hermeneueses (hermeneutikites?). Is it successful, at least partially? Yes, to some extent.

Some Christians even need to learn how to do so, since both deliberately and perhaps unwittingly they attempt to shoehorn theology into conversations, discussions, dialogs, and debates where it perhaps does not belong but rather sticks out like a pregnant pole-vaulter. Yes, we Christians are to be ready to give an answer to those who ask us of the hope that is within us, but notice that Peter's admonition says we are to give an answer, and an answer implies a question (1 Peter 3:15)!

Sociologists, scientists, mathematicians, doctors, lawyers, politicians, and blue-collar workers, ad infinitum, all carry certain presuppositions and assumptions with them everywhere they go. The notion that anyone at any time can be 100 percent objective is risible. We are all subjects, are we not? How can a subject separate himself or herself from himself or herself? It cannot be done. To bracket oneself is a contradiction in terms. There are things human beings (and God) simply cannot do. We cannot, for example, engage in things that are characterized by mutual exclusivity. Neither God nor any of us can make a square circle or cause two plus two to equal three.

On the other hand, we have been given the ability by our Creator to be able to look at ourselves at one remove in a self-reflexive mode. Perhaps apropos your question (or perhaps not!), I thought of “Doubting Thomas.”

Thomas wanted to believe what Jesus said, but he found it difficult to bracket his doubts and simply believe, unless he could be persuaded to do so by empirical proof. When Jesus said to him and the other disciples,

". . . I go to prepare a place for you, [and] if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself . . .. And you know the way where I am going” (Jn 14:3-5),

in response to these words, Thomas said in effect,

Lord, I don’t even know your destination, let alone how you’re getting there!

And then Jesus said to him,

”I am the way, the truth, and the life . . .” (14:6).

In conclusion, in one sense, bracketing is clearly impossible, since we cannot separate ourselves from ourselves. On the other hand, we are able to step back and question some of our assumptions when we are wrestling with an inner- and/or outer conflict. King David is known for saying,

”Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him For the help of His presence” (Ps 42:5,11).

We can bracket such things as assumptions, negative (stinkin’) thinkin’, but we succeed only in fooling ourselves if we think our brackets are hermetically sealed. Yeah, we can play devil’s advocate with others and with ourselves, but when all is said and done, we cannot simply divest ourselves of the roots of our being, which Kenneth Burke calls true piety. The only way to do so at a fundamental level is by being persuaded otherwise.

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@rhetorician-Hi Don, thank you for your insightful comments! Your 'gift' for words helps me to retain your messages-and I'll be on the lookout for 'pregnant pole-vaulters' the next time I engage in a debate... –  user2479 Dec 5 '13 at 2:37
@user2479: You're welcome, I'm sure. Thanks for the encouragement. Don –  rhetorician Dec 5 '13 at 13:18
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**1bi·as noun \ˈbī-əs\

: a tendency to believe that some people, ideas, etc., are better than others that usually results in treating some people unfairly** (Merriam Webster Dictionary).

Yes, it is possible to lay aside bias when approaching Scripture to interpret it. It is essential to humble oneself before Scriptural and the Spirit of Scripture, with faith, in such a way that the text leads one leads one away from bias and into the mind of Christ.

Hebrews 4:1 For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it.

Hebrews 4:12 For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. 13 And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things
are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account (nkjv).

Scripture is able to preform surgery on our hearts and thoughts, souls and minds. The core of an individual determines the the outcome. If self is core, there is a bias toward self; then what oneself thinks or believes already, appears more important that what one finds in the text. If one's culture or tradition is core, there is a bias toward tradition; then the way we have always done it or thought about it appears more important than the text. If one's affiliation is central, there is a denominational bias; than denominational doctrines and teachings are more important that what one reads in the text. Through such biases, we will likely render the Word of God of no effect and it will likely result in treating others unfairly. If, however, God Himself and His living Word abide in us and we in Him, and He is our core, then what He says is most important. He says it, we believe it, we confess it (say the same thing as Him). Any thoughts, beliefs, traditions or doctrines that are in keeping with what Scripture says remain. Any not in keeping with it are denied. In this way we are transformed by the renewing of our minds, from faith to faith, line upon line, precept upon precept. Unlike biases that result in unfair treatment, the mind of Christ leads to unity.

1 Corinthians 1:10 Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.

It is then irrelevant what biases we had when we came to the Scripture, it matters what biases we walk away from and whose mind we walk into.

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@Sarah-I like your answer A LOT, since I believe you are looking for Truth, and not just speculating ideas. You might consider your own answer 'biased' from a hermeneutically neutral secular empiricist who sees Scripture as just another form of literature to be dissected. To those who want to 'secularize' the study of Scripture, I would interpret your answer to be "No! God forbid!" –  user2479 Dec 21 '13 at 3:02
Is it really a case of us 'setting aside our bias' or is it a case of God opening blind eyes? It's an old question I know :) –  Jack Douglas Dec 22 '13 at 15:40
He draws us. Humility/meekness is our part and is the only right response of the creature toward the Creator. We approach His word humbly and He opens our eyes. –  Sarah Dec 22 '13 at 17:05
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"the techniques used for reading Plato, Philo, and Philippians are identical"

From the quote above pulled from answer 2 I am startled by how far we have lost sight of the simple truth that the Bible is not just another literary work but rather the inspired word of God.The single most common sign that someone has received His Holy Spirit is a new desire to read and to understand the Bible. Each of us has experienced a testimony where someone says "The Bible never made sense before, now I can't put it down".

Thus begins my supposition that each and every translation of the Bible is in of itself a mini-commentary, containing the Bias of the author(s). We are given 4 versions of the Gospel to bear witness that even the inspired Word of God is delivered through each individual's bias (life experience).

So bias exists even in the original texts; we are chasing our tails to think we can operate without bias. Embrace it and even allow it to reveal truth that no one else might see! But also pray that you are sensitive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit for it will teach you everything you need to know, rather than to lean on your own understanding. Bias exists as a tool God uses to reveal truth in a unique way for a unique time. The book of Esther revealed truths to the persecuted Jews in Europe of the early 20th century that is far different from the truths revealed to us in America here in the early 21st century.

John 14:26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

1 John 2:27 As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him.

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Hi Richard, I assume you are new to this site, as well as the discussion. I don't think any of the contributers would disagree with you, in regards to reading for personal insight and revelation; the question becomes how to 'exposit' that revelation in a forum where multiple views are expressed. "Bracketing" is an attempt by some to state their theological bias as a reference from which they can exposit their conclusions. All that to say: I agree totally with your statement, but how do you exercise that when the others say "the Holy Spirit told me..." and arrive at another conclusion? –  user2479 Dec 5 '13 at 2:21
@Richard-(cont.) Those that travel down this road have learned that providing a common basis for understanding a text requires a predetermined 'set of rules' upon which we can all agree. Our "hermeneutics", if clearly stated, can bridge the gap between our 'subjective' understanding of the text and it's 'objective' meaning; which even the uninformed passerby can conclude it's veracity. –  user2479 Dec 5 '13 at 2:31
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