Interpretation, Exegesis, Hermeneutics

1. The arts of understanding

Hermeneutics, exegesis and interpretation are the arts involved in the understanding of complex texts such as the Bible, the Criminal Code, the Koran, the Iliad, the Communist Manifesto, the Talmud, the Upanishads, etc. (Boeckh [1886], p. 133 ; Gadamer [1967], p. 277 ; p. 280). Texts require an exegesis because they are written in forgotten languages, or are historically distant, or hermetic. The community considers that vital things depend on what such texts precisely say and mean. This meaning is not immediately accessible to the contemporary reader. It must be established and preserved to be transmitted as well as possible.

Hermeneutics is a philosophical approach to interpretation, defined as an effort to share a form of life, a search for empathy with the text, its author, the language and culture in which it was produced. The hermeneutical understanding is thus opposed to the physical explanation sought in the natural sciences, where “to explain” has the meaning of “subsuming under a physical law”.

Psychoanalysis and linguistics have shown that ordinary acts and words also may require interpretation.

The theoretical language of interpretation is complicated by the morphology of the lexicon, as is always the case when a theory develops within ordinary language. What difference should be made between hermeneutics, exegesis and interpretation?
Their three respective lexical series include a term designating the agent exegete, hermeneutist, interpreter; two of them include a noun referring to the process and result, interpretation, exegesis, which, as hermeneutics, can also refer to the field of investigation. Only one series includes a verb, namely to interpret: This verb will therefore be used for the three series, imposing its meaning upon the whole lexical field.

In the philological and historical sense, exegesis is a critical activity whose object is typically a text belonging to a cultural or religious tradition taken in its material conditions of production and original practices, linguistic conditions (grammar, lexicon), rhetorical conditions (genre), historical and institutional context, genesis of the work in its links with the life and milieu of the author. Philological exegesis establishes the text, reveals its meaning(s), contributing thus to resolving conflicting interpretations or articulating different levels of interpretation. It stabilizes the “literal meaning”, that is the core meaning of the text, and thus lays down the material to be interpreted. In a broad sense, exegesis encompasses interpretation; both endeavor to overcome the distance carved by history, between the text and its readers.
The purpose of philological exegesis is to express the meaning of the text; it tries to create the conditions for a certain projection of the reader into the past. Interpretative exegesis (or interpretation, hermeneutics) seeks to reformulate this meaning to make it accessible to a contemporary reader; it actualizes the meaning of the text. This is where the link between hermeneutics and the rhetoric of religious preaching lies.
Exegesis aims at understanding the meaning as expressed by the text; interpretation and commentary push the meaning of the text beyond the text itself. Contrary to philological exegesis, interpretation can be allegorical. The philological interpretation is exoteric, whilst hermeneutics can be esoteric.

2. Rhetoric and hermeneutics

The hermeneutic task is to make intelligible to one person the thought of another via its discursive expression. In this sense, rhetoric as the “art of persuading” is the counterpart of hermeneutics as the “art of understanding”; their directions of fit are complementary.
Rhetoric adopts the perspective of a speaker/writer striving to persuade an addressee, the listener/reader. In contrast, hermeneutics adopts the perspective of a reader/listener striving to understand a speaker/writer addressing him or her through a text.
Rhetoric is related to live speech, taking into account the listener’s beliefs, trying to minimize his or her efforts; hermeneutics is linked to distant speech, to reading; the reader having to adapt to the meaning of the text.

Taken together, hermeneutics and rhetoric establish a dual cultural communicative competence, to understand and to be understood. The rejection of rhetoric in the name of pure intellectual demand results in the transfer of the burden of understanding to the reader, and so requires hermeneutics.

3. Interpretation and argumentation

The interpretative process applies to any discourse component, from words to whole texts, in order to derive their meaning, and this meaning is necessarily (expressed in) another discourse. The interpretive relationship thus binds two discourses, the link between the interpreting and interpreted utterance being made according to transition rules that are not different from the general argumentation schemes.

In the case of argumentation, the argument might be any statement expressing a true or accepted vision of reality. In the case of interpretation, the data, the argument statement, is the utterance to be interpreted, in view of the precise form it has in the text. Once this statement is available, the linguistic mechanisms are the same. If we consider the argument-conclusion relation in its greatest generality, we shall say that the conclusion is what the speaker has in view when the argument is stated, the conclusion being the meaning of the argument. The argumentative relation is therefore no different from the interpretative relation. When the listener/reader has grasped the conclusion of the text, he or she has achieved an authentic understanding of this text. This amounts to considering that meaning is always lacking within the statement, and the statement will be allocated a meaning only in relation to a later statement. Meaning is thus construed within an endless process, S. Orientation.

Just as with argumentation, interpretation is valid insofar as it is based on principles that correspond to a transition law accepted by the interpretative community concerned, the community of jurists or theologians for example:

The rabbis saw the Pentateuch as a unified, divinely communicated text, consistent in all its parts. It was consequently possible to uncover deeper meanings and to provide for a fuller application of its laws by adopting certain principles of interpretation (middot; “measures,” “norms”).
Jacobs & Derovan, 2007, p. 25

The same principles apply to the Muslim legal-religious interpretation (Khallaf [1942]), or to legal interpretation. The argumentative forms used in law are the same as those which govern the interpretation of all texts to which, for whatever reason, a systematic character is attributed. This is because they are considered as the best expression of the legal-rational views of the time, because they flow from a divine source or from an individual genius, S. Juridical Arguments.

This postulate of strong, even perfect coherence is fundamental for the structuralist interpretations of texts, as for the interpretation of legal texts or religious texts, as mentioned in the preceding quotation. It may conflict with the genetic argument constructing the meaning of a text by derivations justified by “preparatory works”, such as the manuscripts, or the intentions of the writer, as they can be grasped through his or her correspondence, for example. Arguments from genetic evidence are one aspect of the philological interpretive work on the text. They may be regarded with suspicion by true believers, for genetic arguments suppose that a non-divine origin, at least partly human, can be attributed to the text.