Once upon a time, hermeneutics conceived of understanding as involving two processes: understanding and interpretation, to which Pietism added a third, application. The great advance of the Romantics is that they understood the degree to which interpretation and understanding are the same thing; once this truth was arrived at, language became an important piece of any philosophy, whereas it had been something on the outskirts of serious philosophical conversation.
However, the Romantics identified interpretation with understanding to the extent that application became a paltry and neglected thing. Gadamer believes that his analysis so far in this treatise has demonstrated the degree to which it is a serious mistake to treat application as something separate from understanding and interpretation. All three belong to hermeneutics equally—and all three are ultimately inseparable.
All of this would have been clear all along if there had never formed a division between literary hermeneutics and its cousins, legal and theological hermeneutics; in fact, this division formed precisely because of the literary critic’s exclusion of application from the interpretive process. But for the legal scholar and the theologian, all interpretation involves the application of a legal or sacred text to the interpreter’s particular situation; understanding itself becomes an event, and it’s hermeneutics’s job to ask “what kind of understanding, what kind of science it is, that is itself advanced by historical change” (309).
This means that all interpretation is related to all other interpretation—even things we might recognize as metaphorical interpretation, as when we talk about a pianist’s interpretation of a composer’s composition. But this sort of interpretation, according to Gadamer, actually operates on the same principles as legal, theological, and literary interpretation:
No one can stage a play, read a poem, or perform a piece of music without understanding the original meaning of the text and presenting it in his reproduction and interpretation. But, similarly, no one will be able to make a performative interpretation without taking account of that other normative element—the stylistic values of one’s own day—which, whenever a text is brought to sensory appearance, sets limits to the demand for a stylistically correct reproduction. (310)
The same, then, will be true of literary interpretation—and if we are to save the humanities from the methods and assumptions of the natural sciences, we must conduct our hermeneutics on the legal or theological model, wherein we serve the text we’re interpreting, adapting it to the needs of the present moment. Application must be part of interpretation.
Hermeneutics as Gadamer has described it thus far involves the application of a universal to a particular, which puts it in line with Aristotelian ethics. The task of the ethicist, as Aristotle conceives of it, “is to determine what the concrete situation asks of him” (313), meaning among other things that ethics is always a practical form of thought. The same can be said for hermeneutics, which, as Gadamer has already demonstrated, is not a question of pure but of applied understanding. The humanities thus look more like ethics than they look like the natural sciences.
It might be tempting, then, to identify both ethics and hermeneutics as special forms of techne, or craftsmanship. And indeed, they share certain key qualities with techne:
A person who has to make moral decisions has always already learned something. He has been so formed by education and custom that he knows in general what is right. The task of making a moral decision is that of doing the right thing in a particular situation—i.e., seeing what is right within the situation and grasping it. He too has to act, choosing the right means, and his conduct must be governed just as carefully as that of the craftsman. (316-317)
But the differences between these forms of understanding are as instructive as their similarities, and we must keep them in mind. For one thing, moral knowledge is not something that we can learn and forget, as is the case for technical knowledge. Instead, moral knowledge involves our constantly having to act; action and knowledge are so closely tied together in ethics that it seems almost silly to talk about application.
For another thing, technical and moral knowledge differ in their approaches to their respective ends. More specifically, ethics has a general rather than a particular end—the end is for the ethicist to live correctly. But this means that moral knowledge is always going to involve a self-questioning that is simply not present in technical knowledge, which can sometimes even be reduced to following a list of steps. In ethics, one chooses the means.
Finally, moral knowledge is a very special kind of knowledge that is as different from technical knowledge as it is from theoretical knowledge. It is sympathetic—for me to give you moral advice that you take seriously, you have to at least believe that we are seeking the same ends (that we are, in Aristotle’s formulation, friends).
Aristotelian ethics, then, can give us a good metaphorical picture of the task and methodology of hermeneutics:
The interpreter dealing with a traditionary text tries to apply it to himself. But this does not mean that the text is given for him as something universal, that he first understands it per se, and then afterward uses it for particular applications. Rather, the interpreter seeks no more than to understand this universal, the text—i.e., to understand what it says, what constitutes the text’s meaning and significance. In order to understand that, he must not try to disregard himself and his particular hermeneutical situation. He must relate the text to this situation if he wants to understand at all. (324)
Hermeneutics thus involves the relation of a universal object to a particular situation—and the great weakness of hermeneutics since the Enlightenment is that they have tried to disregard the particular situation, creating a sort of deontological hermeneutics that denies the validity of the interpreter’s unique situation.
Traditionally, literary hermeneutics has been seen as something quite different from legal hermeneutics, but Gadamer doubts that this is true. Instead, he is going to posit legal hermeneutics as the model for all hermeneutics—at least in terms of the relationship between the interpreter and the tradition: “The judge who adapts the transmitted law to the needs of the present is undoubtedly seeking to perform a practical task, but his interpretation of the law is by no means merely for that reason an arbitrary revision” (328). Application is always involved in legal interpreter—but so is fidelity to the law. The interpreter makes the law concrete by applying it to a specific case.
The same is true for theological hermeneutics, with the difference that no new act of theological interpretation or preaching actually adds to Scripture, as legal interpretations add to the law. But Scripture resembles the law in that “it has an absolute priority over the doctrine of those who interpret it” (331). Theological hermeneutics presupposes what Bultmann calls “fore-understanding”—a relationship between the text to be interpreted and the person who is to interpret it. This, too, demonstrates the degree to which the interpreter is guided by the text; application is not the freedom to say whatever you want.
The same is true, then, of literary hermeneutics. Initially, there appears to be a divide between the prophets of eloquence (what we might call humanist criticism) and the prophets of history. The latter will appear to be more scientific, in that they will attempt to go beyond the individual text to its context. The truth, however, is that the historians are only looking at a larger text, the entire culture or even world history itself. Application is still a part of what the historian does because all interpretation, all understanding, leans on application:
[T]he reader before whose eyes the great book of world history simply lies open does not exist. But neither does the reader exist who, when he has his text before him, simply reads what is there. Rather, all reading involves application, so that a person reading a text is himself part of the meaning he apprehends. He belongs to the text that he is reading. (340)
All hermeneutics, then, is involved with what Gadamer calls “historically effected consciousness” (340)—an examination of which will make up the bulk of the next section.