On Hermeneutics and Computing

Is there a conceptualization of “the hermeneutic method”, which can be directly supported by computational tools?

[ A slightly reformatted pdf of this post for printing is available here  ]

Hermeneutics and the Digital Humanities are frequently seen as opposites. This became particularly clear a few years ago, when the Volkswagenstiftung, one of Germany’s most important funding agencies for the Humanities, asked for projects to be funded under the heading “Interaktion qualitativ-hermeneutischer Verfahren und Digital Humanities: ‘Mixed Methods’ in den Geisteswissenschaften?”. This post tries to explore the relationship between hermeneutics and computational methods. That relationship can be expressed in two ways: In one sense it is trivial. Nothing prevents a humanist to “understand” something displayed on the screen as well or as badly as something on a printed page. And when we consider [Earhart 2015]’s history of digital literary studies, describing a teleological, if not outright chiliastic, development towards the availability of hitherto hard to get texts of minority communities in digital form as the quintessence of the Digital Humanities, “understanding” a text on the screen seems indeed to be the crowning achievement of such ‘Mixed Methods’. Volkswagenstiftung’s intentions were somewhat more ambitious. So, are mine: Is there a conceptualization of “the hermeneutic method”, which can be directly supported by computational tools?

A Word of Warning

After fifty years in academia encountering permanently humanists and historians who hide against the usefulness of computational methods behind vaguely formulated praises for a glorious past where hermeneutics / narratives / a solid humanistic education allegedly created a golden age for historiography, I am the typical grumpy septuagenarian when it comes to such claims. So, sections 1, 2 and the appendix contain a quite vituperative quarrel with what I consider the weakness of the glories of hermeneutics as a semi-religious visionary experience. Section 3, particularly 3.2 onwards, is a quiet discussion of  possibilities and problems of hermeneutics as a sober and solid type of reasoning, concentrating on technical problems as in most of my previous posts. Jump to section 3, if you want to be spared the vitriolic.

  1. A Personal Position towards Hermeneutics

Researchers have not only methodological positions, but also methodological prejudices. One of mine is certainly not in favor of hermeneutics: I encountered the term originally in the seventies of the last century from septuagenarians, primarily historians, who claimed that it would be possible to “understand” the meaning of documents so perfectly well for a researcher deeply steeped in humanistic training, that all the crazy ideas of sociologists, leave alone the empirical variety waving statistics about, was not only no progress, but simply the end of historical research. So, if you wanted to understand history ignore La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen à l’Epoque de Philippe II and immerse yourself in the wisdom of Tolstoy’s War and Peace – a recommendation I received literally in 1976. By a historian, not a professor of literature.

The result was that for me in my twenties, hermeneutics simply stood for old fools who were too lazy to read all the literature on historical methodology springing up at the time and hiding behind hermeneutics as a fancy label for “as we always did it”. In my defense I may point to [Tendler 2011, 128-157] reaching a not completely dissimilar view of German speaking historiography in the sixties, albeit expressed much more politely. Further in my defense:[Plenge 2019] presents a doctoral thesis, which tries to connect the theoretical constructions historians create for their field and the theories and concepts philosophers and theoreticians of history have developed. The red line going through his 610 pages is deep despair that these two conversations mostly ignore each other. At least historians tend to apply philosophical concepts in a rather superficial way until today. The “as we always did it” school is alive and well in history. And while it is possible to construct computational tools which can be applied to the Humanities in general, their application to history is my primary purpose.

An additional problem was – and is – that of course all the players at hermeneutics in the seventies of the last century were deeply immersed in a classical humanistic education, which unfortunately was frequently sterile and formalistic. And has until today a tendency to sanctify the unproven: Why should you look at modern theories of cognition and perception, if you can quote Aristotle’s speculations? I do of course not doubt, that I am just another dwarf on his shoulders; nevertheless, the most diminutive dwarf on the shoulders – or head – of the mightiest giant still has a wider horizon than said giant. So, I am guilty of some slight impatience with my fellow dwarves voluntarily reducing the width of their outlook. This slight impatience is expressed in detail, possibly more detail than it warrants, in the appendix.

Being a septuagenarian myself nowadays, I try to stay aware that many things which you think to be self-evident at that age are so only because you have forgotten what assumptions hide behind your opinions, and you should check them again and once more. I try. I do not claim to succeed always.

The reason, why I think it worthwhile to look more closely at hermeneutics and what computational methods could do for it, is simply that somewhere under the complacent “I understand things so well, what do I need methods for?” there is, indeed, that wonderful psychological moment, when having shifted the evidence for three weeks suddenly you see the light and believe that you have understood what happens in the problem your looking at. And, of course, you may be right with that believe. Unfortunately: or not.

So, fifty years after my early encounters with hermeneutics, I see two types of it: (1) A stale phrase, excusing people from reflecting more in detail on what you are doing in your discipline; how you proof the correctness of your results; and how you can communicate what is essentially an incommunicable inner vision to others. (2) A pragmatic description of what people in Humanities research actually do, which can be useful to start exactly on achieving what the users of the unreflected phrase excuse themselves from.

A final note: Research of any type must result in knowledge which can be communicated without loss. Personal enlightenment, intuitive insights, visions, and knowledge arrived at by similar experiences are by definition subjective experiences which can never be shared completely. As such in my world they belong to the domains of art and religion. Not to the domain of research; be it in the Humanities or any other of its subdivision. 

  1. A Closer Look at the Development of Hermeneutics

Most discussions about the epistemic specificity of the Humanities refer close to the beginning towards a  group of philosophers of science, as in [Smith 1996b, 14]: “Hermeneutics develops out of the work of Dilthey, Husserl, Weber, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Gadamer. Its central claim is antinaturalist in that it does not see the social world as in any sense amenable to the kind of treatment that empiricism, and especially positivism, assumes.

I would like to point out that as far as Dilthey, the first of the line, is concerned. the strict juxtaposition between the “naturalist” and the “social” world is a bit overdone. Dilthey undoubtedly argues extraordinarily strongly against the type of positivism represented by Comte. This is not very surprising, as Comte opens with: “The law is this: that each of our leading conceptions – each branch of our knowledge – passes successively through three different theoretical conditions: the Theological, or fictitious; the Metaphysical, or abstract; and the Scientific, or positive.” [Comte 1853,1]

As Dilthey started his academic life in theology, and repeatedly assumes matters religious to be profoundly important for the Humanities [cf. Dilthey 1922, 98], he could not very well not be annoyed and, indeed, indignant about Comte’s view on Theology. And it is correct, that he emphasizes the differences between the hard sciences and those disciplines for which after some discussion he decided to use the term “Geisteswissenschaften” (“Humanities”). But it is in no way true, that he sees the two fields as irreconcilable. He quite explicitly sees both as two halves of one superordinated concept: “Ich schließe mich dem Sprachgebrauch derjenigen Denker an, welche diese andere Hälfte des globus intellectualis als Geisteswissenschaften bezeichnen.” [Dilthey 1922, 5] (“I follow the usage of those thinkers who call this other half of the globus intellectualis Geisteswissenschaften.“) And the sworn enemy of positivism repeatedly even refers to the “positiven Wissenschaften des Geistes” [Dilthey 1922, 39, 55] when he wants to emphasize the part of the Humanities to be taken seriously.

It is certainly true, however, that he assigns to Humanities’ cognition an approach which is different from the hard sciences: the famous Verstehen. Let me start my discussion of this concept with two quotations:


Die Möglichkeit des Verstehens besteht in der uns congenialen Art der Aeusserungen, die als historisches Material vorliegen.

Sie ist dadurch bedingt, dass die sinnlich geistige Natur des Menschen jeden inneren Vorgang zu sinnlicher Wahrnehmbarkeit äussert, in jeder Aeusserung innere

Vorgänge spiegelt. Wahrgenommen erregt die Aeusserung, sich in das Innere des Wahrnehmenden projicirend, den gleichen inneren Vorgang. Den Schrei der Angst vernehmend, empfinden wir die Angst des Schreienden u. s. w.

Den Menschen, menschlichen Aeusserungen und Gestaltungen gegenüber sind wir und fühlen wir uns in wesentlicher Gleichartigkeit und Gegenseitigkeit, — jedes Ich geschlossen in sich, jedes jedem anderen in seinen Aeusserungen sich erschliessend.“ [Droysen 1882, §9 p. 9/10]

In my translation:

The possibility of understanding arises from the congenial way of the utterances, which exist as historical material.

It is created by the way in which the sensual mental nature of the human being projects every internal process in a sensually perceivable way, in which each utterance reflects an internal process. Perceived the utterance, projecting itself into the mental apparatus of the perceiver, arouses the same internal process. Hearing the agonized cry, we feel the agony of the crying one etc.

With humans and their utterances and creations we are and feel in essentially identical and reciprocal ways, – each ego closed upon itself, each one to every other one opening him- or herself  by their utterances.


“Wo Verständigung ist, da wird nicht übersetzt, sondern gesprochen. Eine fremde Sprache verstehen bedeutet ja, sie nicht in die eigene Sprache übersetzen müssen. Wo einer eine Sprache wirklich beherrscht, bedarf es keiner Übersetzung mehr, ja erscheint jede Übersetzung unmöglich. Eine Sprache verstehen ist selbst noch gar kein wirkliches Verstehen und schließt keinen Interpretationsvorgang ein, sondern ist ein Lebensvollzug. Eine Sprache versteht man, indem man in ihr lebt – ein Satz der bekanntlich nicht nur für lebende, sondern sogar für tote Sprachen gilt.“ [Gadamer 2010, 388] (My emphasis)

In my translation:

Where there is understanding, people do not translate, but speak. To understand a foreign language does not mean, to have to translate it into one’s own language. If somebody really understands a language, no translation is possible, actually any translation seems impossible. To understand a language is by itself no real understanding and does not include any process of interpretation, but it is an act of living. One understands a language by living in it – a sentence which, as we know, is not only valid for living languages, but for dead ones as well.” (My emphasis)


If we look at these two quotations, it is exceedingly difficult not to interpret them  as a statement, that it is possible to transfer precise meanings and feelings between human beings. This is not what cognitive studies and philosophy of meaning say which in recent years more and more describe the process of communication as a negotiation about the meaning of the messages exchanged [Rapaport 2003], even if attempts at partially reconciling the positions have been made [Galbraith 1995]. Nor is it, what linguistic attempts to handle semantics imply: [Lakoff 2013, 196-197] quite explicitly declares the notion that communication consists of passing messages with fixed meaning to be false.

One could indeed confront Droysen ‘s and Gadamer’s belief with the results of the disciplines quoted and those of modern neuroscience, as e.g.: “It is the limited sharing of meanings between brains for social purposes that requires reciprocal exchanges of representations, each presentation by a transmitting brain inducing the construction of new meaning in the receiving brain.” [Freemann 2000, 93-94] which almost reads as a direct refutation of Droysen, with its emphasis on the missing of shared meanings. One could easily collect a lengthy bibliography negating the assumption behind the two opening quotes: [Neumann 2006] may suffice. In the rare cases, where “understanding” is discussed as a concept within the information disciplines, it is something quite different [Bawden 2016].

If we read Dilthey with the focus on how Verstehen is precisely operationalized, we notice after some time: He does not say so. Indeed, noticing how frequently he is quoted as one of the fathers of hermeneutics, it comes as a surprise, when we notice that the second volume of the Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften has never been published. Which is somewhat unfortunate, as the first volume closes: “An dem Punkte der intellektuellen Geschichte, an welchem die metaphysische Stellung des Menschen endigt, wird das folgende Buch ansetzen und die Geschichte des modernen  wissenschaftlichen Bewußtseins in seiner Beziehung zu den Geisteswissenschaften darlegen, wie es durch die erkenntnistheoretische Stellung zu den Objekten bedingt ist.”[Dilthey 1922, 407] In my translation: “The next book will start at that point of the intellectual history, where the metaphysical orientation of the human ends. And it will show the history of modern rational[1] consciousness in its relationship to the Humanities, as it is caused by the epistemic position towards the objects.” i.e., the Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften has been brought forward only to the point, where Dilthey intended to continue with the specific epistemology of the humanities. This is even more unfortunate, as on the previous page, he explicitly emphasizes “Das Seelenleben selber verändert sich in der Geschichte der Menschheit, nicht nur diese oder jene Vorstellung”. [Dilthey 1922, 406] In my translation: “The inner life of humanity itself changes within history, not just one perception or the other.” Which  in my reading explicitly negates the possibility of  “complete understanding” of the utterances of previous periods.

While no second volume of the Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften has been published in the thirty years Dilthey lived after the publication of the first, he spent the remainder of his intellectual life with the project of a consistent epistemology for the Humanities and published shortly before his death in 1910 den Aufbau der geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften [Dilthey 1927, 79-153]. Reading this text, particularly in the rich context of unpublished preparatory papers for it, as well as for the never published second volume of the Einleitung, into which the editor of [Dilthey 1927] has embedded the short essay, one cannot well avoid deep admiration for this honest lifelong struggle with an elusive problem, which is documented here.

In my opinion the central point to summarize the background of the method which vaguely arises out of this struggle is the assumption Dilthey’s, that out of the psychological understanding of the historically observable individuals a concept and vision of Universalgeschichte must be derived. This fascination of Universalgeschichte leads Dilthey e.g., to the appreciation of Ranke not for his insistence upon critical treatment of archival sources, but for the great weight he puts upon  Universalgeschichte. This juxtaposition between the derivation of the broadest possible view of history out of the understanding of individual people is a bit surprising to the modern reader. Learning about the totality of history from understanding individuals may look more natural if you implicitly assume that history is the result of the actions of very few important people. But even so its internal contradictoriness may be the main reason for the fact that Dilthey found it impossible until the end to explain to his readers, how this act of understanding should be achieved in a way which could be learned systematically.

I find the following statement in one of the unpublished papers particularly enlightening: “Die Möglichkeit, in meiner eigenen Existenz religiöse Zustände zu erleben, ist für mich wie für die meisten heutigen Menschen eng begrenzt. Aber indem ich die Briefe und Schriften Luthers, die Berichte seiner Zeitgenossen, die Akten der Religionsgespräche und Konzilien wie seines amtlichen Verkehrs durchlaufe, erlebe ich einen religiösen Vorgang von einer solchen eruptiven Gewalt, von einer solchen Energie, in der es um Leben und Tod geht, daß er jenseits jeder Erlebnismöglichkeit für einen Menschen unserer Tage liegt. Aber nacherleben kann ich ihn. Ich versetze mich in die Umstände: …” [Dilthey 1927,231/232] In my translation: “The possibility to experience religious mental states is very limited for me, as for most contemporary humans. But, by reading the letters and writings of Luther, the reports of his contemporaries, the acts of theological debates and councils, as well as his official exchanges, I experience a religious process of such eruptive power, of such energy of life and death, that it is completely beyond the possibility of experience for a human of our time. But I can relive it. I put myself into the circumstances: …

One could belittle this paragraph by being astonished how to “experience” something which, according to the previous sentence, one is very “limited to experience”. (As in the German original.) But I find it easy to understand, how an attempt to explain in detail, how to achieve this ability and how to communicate the result is something Dilthey wrestled with unsuccessfully, decade after decade. And the confusion contained in the experience of something which cannot be experienced may simply be an involuntary expression of the situation Dilthey found himself in.

Dilthey did not explain how to go precisely and practically about this Verstehen, even if he claimed it to be the essence of the Humanities. Gadamer, in our initial quotation even claimed, that perfect understanding of a dead language would be possible. Nevertheless, he, too, could not explain, how to apply it practically. Which lead to an exceptionally long and seethingly angry footnote in [Rüsen 2013, 55, note 38] in which he complains that Gadamer not only did not prove the “Wissenschaftsanspruch” of the Humanities (“claim to be a field of rational study”), but made it possible more easily to challenge that claim. And that he completely avoided any discussion of the concrete methods daily employed by the disciplines of the Humanities. The significance of that note may not be immediately apparent for the English reader: Rüsen is a contemporary German theoretician of historical studies, highly visible in at least the German community, whose theories are very strongly based upon Droysen, the exegesis of Droysen’s text being a permanently recurrent theme of his voluminous publications. So, one of the most consistent followers of Droysen’s hermeneutics doubts the soundness of the hermeneutics of Gadamer. That Gadamer does not think too highly about methodological precision is no great surprise – he endorsingly quotes Hegel with “Die wahre Methode sei das Tun der Sache selbst” (“The true method consists in doing it”), albeit with some stipulations how to “do”. (I hope I have not turned a certain species of Digital Humanists in paramours of Hegel by that quotation.)

So, from Verstehen as the basic method to implement rational Humanities (Droysen) to Verstehen as denial of the possibility of a rational implementation of the Humanities (Gadamer). Which may hint at some inherent differences between historians and philosophers or literary scholars; but then Gadamer certainly has strong opinions on history as well.

Despite Droysen and Gadamer, and Dilthey’s ability to experience the un-experienceable: hermeneutics is possible without perfect understanding in the view of its followers.  To wit, Wittgenstein: “We … say of some people that they are transparent to us. It is, however, important as regards this observation that one human being can be a complete enigma to another. We learn this when we come into a strange country with entirely strange traditions: and what is more, even given a mastery of the country’s language. We do not understand the people.” [Wittgenstein 1958, 223] (Wittgenstein’s emphasis)

So Wittgenstein most certainly did not share the dogma of implicit complete understanding; nevertheless [Kerr 1965] praises the later Wittgenstein (and the later Wittgenstein is the one of the Philosophical Investigations) for replacing an understanding of language “… as an instrument which serves to point to things known independently of it and to utter thoughts formulated prelinguistically.”, by “… [an]other attitude … [where] language is regarded not so much as the instrument as the matrix of understanding, not just the organ but first of all the source.

If we accept the “complete understanding” of Droysen and Gadamer as a prerequisite of hermeneutics, the latter simply goes against all we know in the meantime about cognition in communication. And the role of language in communication; which is only important, though, if we accept the fixation of Dilthey and Gadamer on hermeneutics as the art of understanding text literally as well as with all its implications. Wittgenstein seems, in the abandoning of his early concepts of the precise nature of language, to be able to apply hermeneutics, nevertheless. If we accept that hermeneutics does not imply this pre-condition of “complete understanding”, one could and should discuss, what role it can have as a theoretic background for the application of digital methods within the Humanities. There definitely are indications that that is possible: In his “Philosophy of Information” [Floridi 2011,116] emphasizes, that the more a semantic theory relies on the ability of the recipient of information to be able to understand it contextually, the more it requires a hermeneutic approach.

This acceptance of the impossibility of “complete understanding” leads us to the phenomenon, which frequently is considered the weakness of hermeneutics: the hermeneutic circle. The whole text cannot be understood, when we do not understand the individual parts; and the individual parts cannot be understood, when we do not understand the text as a whole. One can only admire Dilthey in trying to cut through this circle, which shows an intellectual courage, which postmodernism seems to have lost.

The later assumption is at least my interpretation of the complaint about the infinite recursion between signs signifying other signs: “The substitute does not substitute itself for anything which has somehow existed before it. Henceforth, it was necessary to begin thinking that there was no center, that the center could not be thought in the form of a present-being, that the center had no natural site, that it was not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of nonlocus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play. This was the moment when language invaded the universal problematic, the moment when, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse — provided we can agree on this word—that is to say, a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely.” [Derrida 2001b, 353/354]

Despite all the differences in expression, I believe to see the same problem here, which Dilthey proposes to confront, and Derrida seems[2] to recommend capitulating in front of.

Derrida derives  much of his rejection – or desperation? – about the infinite recursion of signs referencing other signs from Peirce. But as [Barnouw 1986] shows quite convincingly (to me) they go into completely different directions from there: Peirce creating a semiotic system, which is much richer as Derrida seems to have perceived and thereby showing a way which allows one to live conceptually with this infinite recursion. (According to Barnouw Derrida mixed up Peirce’s signs with Saussure’s.)

At this stage I see three questions:

  1. We accept the phenomenon of the hermeneutic circle. Do we have to capitulate (Derrida) or is it worthwhile to try for a solution nevertheless (Dilthey), discarding the requirement of “complete understanding”?
  2. If the answer is Diltheyan, how can information technology be used to directly support such a pedestrian hermeneutics?
  3. Where does the argument come from, that hermeneutics eventually leads to aesthetics, rather than research? (Gadamer)


3.1 Can the Hermeneutic Circle be operationalized?

If we look at the reasons Dilthey gives for the Humanities requiring an epistemology of their own, we discover the following:

Die Frage [der korrekten Epistemologie für die Geisteswissenschaften] ist nicht … ob solche Wissenschaften einer deduktiven Entwicklung fähig seien, welche dann einer induktiven Verifikation und Anpassung an die komplexen Verhältnisse des tatsächlichen Lebens unterliege, oder ob sie induktiv zu entwickeln und dann durch eine Deduktion aus der menschlichen Natur zu bestätigen seien. Diese Fragestellung selber ist in der Übertragung eines abstrakten Schemas aus den Naturwissenschaften gegründet. Nur das Studium der Arbeit des Erkennens, welche unter den Bedingungen der besonderen Aufgabe der Geisteswissenschaften steht, kann das Problem des hier bestehenden Zusammenhanges auflösen.“ [Dilthey 1922, 46]

In my translation:

The question [of the correct epistemology for the Humanities] is not … whether such disciplines are able to develop a deductive concept, which afterwards is inductively verified and adapted to the complex situation of real life, or whether such concepts should be developed inductively and afterwards proven by deductions from human nature. Posing the questions this way is the transfer of an abstract scheme from hard science. Only the study of the workings of understanding, under the conditions imposed by the specific task of the Humanities, can solve the problem of the relationships encountered here.

The problem for me seems to be, that Dilthey restricts the “scientific” strategies (to be avoided, as not applicable) to deduction and induction. He seems not to have been aware of the work of Charles Sanders Peirce at the same time in the United States. (Perfectly understandable, given the multiplicity of topics which Peirce also worked on, which were of no relevance to Dilthey at all.) Peirce developed a theory of abduction [Kruijff 2005] as an alternative to inductive and deductive reasoning. (If you have been scandalized by my handling of Aristotle above, you may be reassured, that he also already discussed something like abduction, known as ἀπαγωγή.)

Peirce builds all his theories on the base of a theory of signs, or rather semeiosis, or Sign-processes. What we notice first is, that a sign is not a static entity, but embedded in a semiotic process. At least for me that answers Derrida’s horror about permanent sign-substitutions. If a sign is not a distinct entity, but a dynamic process, it is inherent in its nature to change. Consequently, logic is not a set of sharp distinct steps, but an ongoing “critical process of getting from a set of premises to a particular conclusion” [Kruijff 2005, 439].

Within this process observations, including surprising ones, can happen. Abduction can be understood as the sequence:

The surprising fact C is observed,

But if A were true, C would be a matter of course;

Hence there is reason to suspect that A is true.” [Kruijff 2005, 443]

So, abduction starts with an observation; it uses it to find the simplest and most likely conclusion from this observation; this conclusion is plausible, but not finally verified; by further observations the plausibility gets greater or smaller. In philosophy of science this leads to the concept of “Inference to the Best Explanation”, a concept eyed somewhat distrustfully, but consistent for specific purposes [Ben-Menahem 1990], as e.g., the decision between different candidate explanations for observed phenomena – a situation not unknown in the Humanities. I would also point to the fact, that this focusing on “surprising facts” could easily be rephrased as a focus on serendipity – which for many is a central aspect of hermeneutics.

Peirce has been attacked for also producing a circle [Mersch 2010, 137], which, in my opinion, only shows, that his reasoning is very close to the hermeneutic circle we started from. The major difference for me seems to be, that Dilthey was questing for the grail of a final and definite explanation by complete hermeneutic understanding, while Peirce simply accepts that (under certain circumstances) all conclusions are tentative. I find it quite naturally, therefore, that abduction has been proposed as the natural form of reasoning for “Kulturwissenschaft” [Wirth 2008],  which for the purposes of this paper we can simply consider a synonym for Geisteswissenschaften.

We can summarize the thesis presented in this section as far as: When hermeneutics is cleaned of the element of “complete understanding” what remains is a paradigm, which is highly pragmatic. Or: a paradigm which can be applied without the metaphysical leanings hermeneutics has more or less strongly expressed in all theoretical descriptions I have encountered.

We have mentioned above that [Floridi 2011,116] emphasizes, that the more a semantic theory relies on the ability of the recipient of information to be able to understand it contextually, the more it requires a hermeneutic approach. This is based on his understanding, that “hermeneutic” is the opposite of “quantifiable”. This juxtaposition in Floridi is quite soft, however, and in no way systematically contrasting the two. Hermeneutics – briefly mentioned seven times in the 400+ pages volume – is not exactly central to him, so it seems to be a residual category for cases where the more precise forms of argumentation he prefers are not applicable. And one can also observe that Floridi’s world of information is rather crisp: “vague” occurring eight times, “fuzzy” three. Let a writer with a much greater interest in vagueness and fuzziness assume, that what Floridi sees as outside of his model of quantifiability, could be easily brought back into the fold, if we look at the possibilities to fuzzify his model of quantification.

While hard sciences frequently can build a new conclusion on the ground prepared by earlier conclusions, the Humanities are frequently in the situation to have to check whether previous conclusions are still consistent among themselves when a new conclusion is added to the building. This inherently iterative way to proceed can be seen as a demystified hermeneutics, as an inherently iterative way of acquiring knowledge or as an abductive model of reasoning.

Or let us change the second part of the preceding paragraphs first sentence to “the Humanities are much more frequently in the situation to have to check” the consistency of the existing conceptual building when a new element is to be integrated, than the hard sciences. I at least hear here echoes of what [Carr 1961,59] quotes in 1961 from “a standard textbook on scientific method by two American philosophers” in 1934: “We obtain evidence for principles by appealing to empirical material, to what is alleged to be ‘fact’; and we select, analyse, and interpret empirical material on the basis of principles.

And, indeed, an iterative procedure is required in contexts, which definitely are removed considerably from the center of hermeneutic debate: Floridi, whose very moderate interest in matters hermeneutic we have already mentioned, nevertheless diagnoses: “The informational circle: How can information be assessed? If information cannot be transcended but can only be checked against further information—if it is information all the way up and all the way down—what does this tell us about our knowledge of the world? The informational circle is reminiscent of the hermeneutical circle.” [Floridi 2011, 40]

I may remind the reader at this stage, that we started this section by the observation that Dilthey did not as, frequently claimed, intend to show that hard science and the Humanities where incompatible, but assumed explicitly that both were contained under the roof of “Wissenschaft” – which terminologically is missing in English. As Carr deplored already in 1961 as an “eccentricity” of the English language, responsible for a long tradition of meaningless controversy [Carr 1961, 56].

3.2 How can information technology support research based upon the Hermeneutic Circle?

If we have reduced the almost mystic exalted experience in a hermeneutics based on visions like complete understanding to a rather pedestrian iterative approach of doing research, the answer to the question how do apply information technology becomes quite simplistic: just like all the other pedestrians do. Support all steps of the iteration.

To prepare for that I would like to show the relationships between the various models for the acquisition of insights and their argumentative support by graphic means. Some of the arguments develop along similar lines to the introduction above. To shorten the argumentation, I have not repeated the bibliographic references.

Figure 1, to start from the very beginning, shows the simplest version of the hermeneutical cycle.

Or: To understand the whole of a problem, you must understand its parts; to understand the parts you must understand the whole.

Figure 2 shows the same cycle, but emphasizes the cognitive processes involved and focuses on text.

Or: Everyone who tries to understand a text, has some kind of preliminary understanding of the context which it sheds light on and from which it derives. Understanding the text improves that preliminary understanding, which in turn makes it possible to understand the text more completely.

If we emphasize the cognitive processes involved, and allow for other types of material than texts, we arrive at figure 3.

Note: On the term “token” for an item to be understood of any kind of data – text, image, artefact … see [Thaller 2020, 18 and passim].

 Or: Everyone who tries to understand an artefact, a token left by some culture, has some kind of preliminary understanding of the context which it sheds light on and from which it derives. Operating on that pre-understanding the observer’s perception arrives at an understanding of the token. This in turn leads his cognitive processes to a more complete understanding of the context on which it sheds light on and from which it derives.

It is fascinating that this operationalization of the processes which produce the two types of improved understanding creates a diagram which looks strikingly like the one which is frequently used to illustrate the working of knowledge creation in the hard sciences, as in figure 4.

Or: Starting from a theory on the observable phenomena, we deduct a thesis on a probable outcome, which can be empirically tested (by an experiment). The observation of the outcome of this experiment allows as to induce a probable explanation, which modifies – hopefully improves – the theoretical setting we started from.

Or: Starting from a theory on the observable phenomena, we deduct a thesis on a probable outcome, which can be empirically tested (by an experiment). The observation of the outcome of this experiment allows as to induce a probable explanation, which modifies – hopefully improves – the theoretical setting we started from.

In the hard sciences, this is considered unproblematic. Indeed, it is seen as a spiral, not a circle, verily a harbinger of permanent progress, as figure 5 shows.

Or: Refining and developing a theory by repeated empirical verification, develops the theory ever further and leads to scientific progress.

At first look it is astonishing that the generalization of figure 4 towards figure 6, is usually verbalized in a completely different direction.

Or: The constant need to modify our understanding of the whole – our general pre-understanding of the phenomenon we are interested in – to integrate the shifting understanding of the parts – the understanding of additional evidence by additional tokens – leaves the Humanities in permanently shifting conceptual sands.

Why lend two diagrams, which look so surprisingly similar, themselves to so utterly different interpretations?

If we could support the solution of the problems which are the reasons for these differences by the help of computational devices, we are at what in the introductory sections I have described as a pedestrian implementation of hermeneutics without the magic of untransparent visionary experiences of doubtful communicability. So, I shall try to describe such of those problems, which I can identify.

Engineering Problem 1: Granularity

The part of a hard science theory, from which an experiment is derived, which can be implemented as an empirically verifiable assumption, is usually clearly delineated.

The part of the pre-understanding, which supports the perception leading to the understanding of a token of evidence in the Humanities, is usually a barely delimited section of a conceptual cloud, most of which is not really formulated clearly.

Task: Find a way to represent Humanities assumptions so it becomes possible to identify those parts of the pre-understanding, which lead to the specific understanding of a token derived from it.

Engineering Problem 2: Frequency

In the hard sciences an iteration of “deduce prediction from theory” – “test prediction” – “modify theory”  usually takes days, or at least hours. Such iterations are explicit steps in research, which are consciously implemented.

In the Humanities the iterations of “deduce an understanding of the part from your understanding of the whole” – “induce the understanding of the whole from your understanding of the part”  will usually happen in extremely short periods of time, where it is extraordinarily difficult even to notice where one iteration ends and the next one begins.

Task: Find a way to document the iterations within an information system which does not slow down the cognitive processes.

The third problem needs a broader introduction. Figure 5 above is probably a pretty accurate description of a hard science research process. Figure 6 in an important aspect is not, which is connected to problem one we defined above. For a scientist most of the time it will be rather clear, which theory needs to be modified by, or has been confirmed by, an empirical test. Due to the smaller granularity of Humanities’ iterations this is far from clear. So, a much better representation of what happens in the Humanities is probably figure 7.

Or: As the different iterations modifying our pre-understanding occur very frequently and usually modify the pre-understanding only in minute ways, the constant need to modify our understanding of the whole to integrate the shifting understanding of the parts, leaves the Humanities in permanently shifting conceptual sands, leaves it completely open, how many iterations we have to go back to find that pre-understanding of the whole, which actually needs to be modified.

That difficulty goes back all the way to Dilthey, who started discussing the acquisition of knowledge completely in terms of deduction / induction, implying the existence of a broad but well-defined covering theory, from which the first deduction had to be made which was available in the hard sciences, but not in the Humanities.

Let us consider instead Peirce’s abduction which we have  introduced above already:

The surprising fact C is observed,

But if A were true, C would be a matter of course;

Hence there is reason to suspect that A is true.”

 That is, somewhere in our cognitive handling of observable tokens of evidence we have a “surprise”, that is a starting point for a significant re-orientation of our pre-knowledge. Such a significant re-orientation can be seen as the occasion, to introduce a new iteration in the sense of our pedestrian hermeneutics, as in figure 8.

Or: For historical purposes operationalize hermeneutical understanding as a hierarchy of processes, each starting with a “surprise” provided by the sources. Iterative understanding of the implications of a surprise usually influences only the spiral starting at that surprise. Only in rare cases this will result in the necessity to rearrange the derivations from earlier surprises.

As I have said above, replacing “surprise” by serendipity would not change the argument at all, but make its connection to hermeneutics clearer.

Engineering Problem 3: Hierarchical Iterations

Generalize the solutions for engineering problems 1 and 2 in such a way, that the support such hierarchical spirals.


3.3 What does “supporting research by information technology” mean in this context?

It might have been wise to start with the following explanations. I thought, however, that they are easier to understand if we had developed the idea of research to be supported as an intentionally accepted spiral of individual steps first. This is more radical than it may appear at first look: Traditionally in historical research IT has been used to support a single step within a process which is ongoing without technical support. To examine the distribution of occupations in a historical community, you use statistical software. To write down your conclusions from this distribution, you use a word processor. There is no inherent connection between these two steps, however. The situation would not really be changed when you replaced one or both steps by manual counting and handwritten notes.

What we envisage by support for research as a spiral of understanding means that the connection between these steps is preserved. Impressionistically: (a) You have encoded a source containing occupations “in the system”, (b) you have created a statistical distribution of occupations “in the system”, (c) you have formulated a thesis about the society  producing the source “in the system” based on that distribution. Sometime later, as you have better understood your source in the meantime, you correct the encoding created in step (a). In my concept “the system” should react by reminding you, that the conclusions formulated in step (c) are possibly not valid anymore due to these changes – or even proposes changes to the conclusions.

A system like that must provide three families of solutions. On the one hand data structures and algorithms supporting the logic of such spiraling growth of knowledge. On the other hand, a user interface, which is so comfortable, that it invites – hopefully seduces – users really to keep all steps of analysis within it. I have the suspicion, that the second of these, an exceptionally comfortable user interface, which prevents users to keep some of their suspicions on a crumpled piece of paper lying around conveniently on the office desk, rather than formulating a suspicion in the interface, is the ultimately most challenging one. Even more challenging than the third family of solutions needed, an extension of entity recognition techniques which extracts appropriate entities from sources to represent them in the data structures representing the first.

Nevertheless, I will concentrate here on the first of these, the properties of the data structures needed. With the only excuse that this is my primary area of interest.


3.4 Connecting the concept of a system supporting hermeneutic reasoning with other lines of argumentation.

In some cases, the concept of a system supporting the spiraling nature of reasoning about “surprises” can be directly connected to earlier observations. The spiraling nature of “understanding” has a very great structural similarity to the concept of “information as a frozen algorithm” described in [Thaller 2018, 18-20].

To recapitulate: I proposed there to generalize Langefors’ “infological equation” [Langefors 1973]. According to him, the information communicated by a set of data, is understood to be a function i() of the available data D, the existing knowledge structure S, and the time interval t, which is allowed for the communication, given by the formula

I = i(D,S,t)

Which I generalized across a number of intermediate steps to:

Ix = i(Ix-α, s(Ix-β, t(x- β)), t(x- α))

To be read as: The information available at time x is the result of an interpretative process i() which has interpreted the information available at an earlier point of time x-α over the time span t between x and α, in the context of a knowledge generating process s(). This knowledge generating process in turn has been running over the time span t between x and β, using the available information at the point of the time preceding x by β.

What is reassuring to me is, that I derived this generalization strictly out of the information theoretical background quoted there, while in this post I started from hermeneutics, arrive at something, however, which looks strikingly like the graphic representation we reached before, as in figure 9.

This similarity, which I became aware of only while preparing this text, is fascinating, as the two abstractions confirm each other. If, at the level of the dynamic representation of the relationship between data, information, and knowledge we arrive at exactly the same scheme as on the level of hermeneutic reasoning, it might seem, that hermeneutic reasoning can be represented computationally as the top layer of a hierarchy of knowledge generating processes. So, the two engineering challenges “implement the generalized Langefors’ model” and “implement support for the hermeneutic process” collapse into one, presumably operating recursively.

I would like to point to [Thaller 2021], a paper where I described a more specialized approach towards the solution of the problems of historical record linkage, which deduces a similar system from a class of concrete research problems, rather than the general concept of support for hermeneutic reasoning. And being more concrete, might be easier to follow. I assume, that the concept of graphoids described there to be central to any implementation of the approach proposed here.

Besides these self-references I would like to point to a much older model, Gardin’s logicist model [Gardin 1979, 1980, 1991a, 1991b], depicted in figure 10.

Gardin comes from archaeology and his model is the outcome of the frustration about an un-connectedness between archaeological evidence and archaeological publications. He describes a situation, where the reports about excavations describe small objects and features in great detail – bottom line of the diagram – while the final publications – top line – contain sweeping generalizations, the connection of the two existing only in the thought processes of the author. He therefore recommends creating a system of explicit statements at many intermediate levels between level P0, the excavation report, and Pn, the final publication, each of which contains statements of increasing complexity, each of those statements being traceable from the statement to the evidence it is based on – down through the levels – as well as from the statement to the final conclusions drawn from it – up through the levels. Unfortunately, there have been extremely few attempts at implementation, even during the period of increased interest in “micro-publications” which could have resulted in such a partial implementation.

For another recent discussion of the logicist model in the context of the epistemology of digital methods for historical research see [Piotrowski 2022].

For me this model is encouraging: It is always nice to encounter similar concepts to one’s own; it is discouraging: though such a static representation of reasoning would be much easier to implement than the dynamic one I have described, it has not been implemented during the last 40 years; it is confirming an assumption made above: any such system will be accepted only, if it provides an exceptionally comfortable user interface. Not implemented during the last forty years: This is a post in a “blog” called Digital Ivory Tower.


Appendix: What about the aesthetic / postmodern interpretation of hermeneutics?

What did we find difficult with the original model of 19th century hermeneutics? It basically was the claim of Droysen, that it was possible to understand completely the thoughts of another person. For Droysen this was a short basic assumption which did not really influence the highly practical usefulness of the following considerations on the nature of historical sources and the skills needed to handle them, much of which could easily be transferred into a modern introduction of the historian’s craft when the language would be somewhat modernized. Droysen never bothered to discuss the assumption further  in his short text. Dilthey shared the idea that the ability to understand the psychology of another person was behind the possibility to “understand” past events; but as he discussed this ability in detail, he soon got into a lengthy intellectual battle, how this could be described as precisely as his understanding of positive Geisteswissenschaft – committed to the notion of objectivity – required.

While Dilthey fought, Derrida capitulated. Stoic “scientific truth” – quoted by Derrida – cannot be separated from its metaphysico-theological roots [Derrida 2016, 13], linguistics as existing “has always had to share the presuppositions of metaphysics” [Derrida 2016, 22] … and 330 pages more, why it is not possible to escape signs relating to signs and losing any meaning while they chase each other. And disable by their chase the readers, or rather: interpreters, to say what they mean; though keeping the possibility to deconstruct each other’s interpretations.

A dangerous term has entered here: the majority opinion at Dilthey’s time was that objectivity was possible, in the Humanities as well as everywhere else. Today even some hard scientists soften that claim in favor of a form of context dependent objectivity for their results (though the context – the basic physical constants of this specific universe – are not all to narrow a corset). Very few humanists do support absolute objectivity, with excellent reasons. Nevertheless, I propose to join Dilthey’s battle, though at the somewhat more pedestrian understanding of hermeneutics as an iterative paradigm rather than depending on “perfect understanding”. Which implies to replace the metaphysical concept of absolute objectivity by something more pedestrian and modest as well.

To quote a witness who is usually not considered to be scientistic: “I have never been impressed by the argument that, as complete objectivity is impossible in these matters (as, of course, it is), one might as well let one’s sentiment run loose. As Robert Solow has remarked, that is like saying that as a perfectly aseptic environment is impossible, one might as well conduct surgery in a sewer.” [Geertz 1973, 30] Personally I prefer to point out that abjuring to strive for objectivity, as complete objectivity is impossible, reminds one of a railway line who goes back to horse driven trains, as overcoming the speed of light is impossible anyway. An analogy I prefer, as the distance between what we should and could try to achieve and complete objectivity, may indeed be analogous to the difference between the speed of a highspeed train and the speed of light.

For me postmodernism, therefore, is a capitulation before the problem of cognition. Or maybe a capitulation not before cognition, but before the possibility to communicate the cognitive results. If it is completely impossible to utterly understand a text created by somebody else: How should we be able to create a text that communicates the results of our own cognitive processes? This in a sense, of course, confirms, that all statements about a problem are equally valuable: if we cannot truly communicate the reasoning behind any of them, what does it matter that the contradict each other?

Back to my persona of grumpy septuagenarian: Someone who believes in absolute objectivity is a fool; someone unwilling to achieve as much objectivity as possible an intellectual coward.

Strictly speaking this has led us away from hermeneutics, of course. So back to parts of the discussion, which seem not to be compatible with the proposal to consider hermeneutics as an iterative process by which an ever-increasing number of fragments of information are integrated into a consistent model of the problem we try to clarify, a model permanently changing during the process.

Dilthey is usually quoted as pre-eminent representative of hermeneutics by historians, while in studies of literature, this honor most of the time goes to Gadamer. Not that Gadamer would be dis-interested in historical research. Though, strangely, not in the historical research of the 20th – his – century. Focusing on the paradigm of historical research in the 19th century as “… stolzeste Frucht [der Aufklärung / aufgeklärten Romantik] …” [Gadamer 2010, 280], he explicitly says, that “…der heutige Leser … immer noch Droysen oder Mommsen lieber lesen [wird] als die neueste Darstellung der betreffenden Gebiete aus der Feder eines gegenwärtig lebenden Historikers.” [Gadamer 2010, 289] Or, in my translation: Gadamer calls the paradigm of 19th century historical research the “… proudest fruit [of enlightenment / enlightened romantic] …” and says quite explicitly that “… today’s reader … will still prefer to read Droysen or Mommsen, rather than the most recent elaboration of the respective subjects from the pen of a currently living historian.” And Gadamer dedicates whole sections to Ranke [Gadamer 2010, 207-216] and Droysen [Gadamer 2010, 216-221] but completely ignores the contemporary historical literature.

But while this shows, that Gadamer does see his concept of hermeneutic within a concept of Geisteswissenschaft deeply rooted in historical studies, it is primarily dedicated to discussing and proposing a hermeneutics of art or aesthetics. Consequentially,  Wahrheit und Methode closes with a chapter [Gadamer 2010, 478-494] that is a veritable apotheosis “des Schönen” (of beauty) which explicitly relates many times back to Plato and the association implicit in καλὸς κἀγαθός. It is only consistent, that as a result beauty and truth are also intimately connected for him and both are accessible by a hermeneutic, which leaves Dilthey’s attempts at operationalization behind and has visionary character.

This aversion to craftlike operationalization is not surprising, as already at the start of his text Gadamer explains: “setzen die Geisteswissenschaften voraus, daß das wissenschaftliche Bewußtsein ein schon gebildetes ist und eben deshalb den rechten unlernbaren und unnachahmlichen Takt besitzt, der die Urteilsbildung und die Erkenntnisweise der Geisteswissenschaften wie ein Element trägt.” [Gadamer 2010,20] (my emphasis). In my translation: “ … the Humanities assume, that the rational[3] mind is already formed and has exactly therefore the correct tact that cannot be learned nor imitated, carrying the formation of verdicts and the epistemic of the Humanities as an elementary force.”

 So, the ability to make “wissenschaftliche” decisions cannot be learned if it is not already there. And the same is true for the inherited ability to recognize universal beauty, an assumption indeed made also by both Plato as well as Aristoteles. Though even before both of them antiquity already had sceptics regarding that concept, like Xenophanes of Colophon, for some reason never quoted by Gadamer, who famously claimed:

“Αἰθίοπές τε <θεοὺς σφετέρους> σιμοὺς μέλανάς τε
Θρῇκἐς τε γλαυκοὺς καὶ πυρρούς <φασι πέλεσθαι>”

[Diels-Kranz fragment 16]

Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black
Thracians that they are pale and red-haired.

This fragment is usually discussed in the context of the religion of antiquity; the following, less well known, shows to me quite clearly that Xenophanes’ skepticism was not only directed at religious, but also at aesthetic absolutes:

“ἀλλ᾽ εἰ χεῖρας ἔχον βόες <ἵπποι τ᾽> ἠὲ λέοντες
ἢ γράψαι χείρεσσι καὶ ἔργα τελεῖν ἅπερ ἄνδρες,
ἵπποι μέν θ᾽ ἵπποισι βόες δέ τε βουσὶν ὁμοίας
καί <κε> θεῶν ἰδέας ἔγραφον καὶ σώματ᾽ ἐποίουν
τοιαῦθ᾽ οἷόν περ καὐτοὶ δέμας εἶχον <ἕκαστοι>. “

[Diels-Kranz fragment 15]

But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have.

So, Gadamer’s understanding of aesthetics and hermeneutics, as epistemology of the Humanities, is based on the concept of a universal and intuitive understanding of aesthetics and textual truth. Is it really such a useful approach to base the epistemology of the Humanities in the 21st century upon a cognitive theory of the fifth and fourth century BCE, considered doubtful already in the sixth century BCE? Modern cognitive theories are certainly only at their beginning, but I find it extremely hard to believe, that they have not improved our understanding of cognition slightly beyond the ακαδημία and the στοά.

That Gadamer in the 1960ties wrote a theory of  aesthetics and hermeneutics which prefers the past to the present may be connected to a phenomenon, we encounter, when we look more closely at the debates surrounding the consideration of sociological concepts and quantitative methodologies in history in the 1960ties and 1970seventies.

At the end of the seventies in a series of conferences on the “Theory of History” there occurred a debate between Hans Ulrich Wehler, one of the proponents of a Historische Sozialwissenschaft, the name for a specific blend between Annales and New Social History in Germany, and Golo Mann, a representative of the narrative tradition. The later veritably exploded about the fact, what an interpretation of the German History between the 19th century and 1945 based on any structural paradigm implied: „Man gibt der deutschen humanistischen Bildung, den deutschen Gymnasien, so wie sie in der Kaiserzeit und Weimarer Zeit waren, eine Mitschuld am Entstehen des Nazismus oder Dritten Reiches“ [Mann 1979,52] in my translation “They claim, that the German gymnasium, as it has been in the imperial and Weimar time, was an accomplice to the rise of national socialism or the Dritte Reich.”

The horror at the idea, that any attempt to explain the Nazi regime as a consistent development from roots existing in German society, rather than as the result of an accidental appearance of a madman, is obvious. In the case of Golo Mann, son of the exiled Thomas Mann, who had attempted to join the French army during the German invasion of May 1940 and entered Germany in 1945 in American uniform, there is not the slightest shadow of any doubt, that this horror was independent of any positive feelings of his for the Nazi ideology. But for him, deeply embedded in the cultured elite intimately connected to the bourgeois cultural consensus behind the German gymnasium, it was just unthinkable, that that very consensus might be connected to the despised ideology. For many others, the devastating verdict of [Carr 1961, 78] “Germans today welcome the denunciation of Hitler’s individual wickedness as a satisfactory alternative to the moral judgement of the historian on the society which produced him.” with its implications has been all to true. This habit of historians to emphasize unfathomable random events, when they must explain developments not to their liking, was also recognized in Germany by the way [Faber 1974,  p. 84-85]. The full argument, that on the other hand that historians preferred organic processes over chance, when they had to explain developments they applauded, can be found in [Carr 1961, passim] who later found this a useful concept also to explain trends in the general historiography of later 20th century British historical writing [Davies 1990].

This utter horror, that a new structural approach towards history, which valued hermeneutics less, might threaten the cultural environment one feels part of, led to the need to defend it, and the methodological traditions derived from that tradition and environment, against the accusation to have led to unsavory consequences. And what astonishes a bit about Golo Mann, who tried to fight and fought against Hitler’s Wehrmacht cannot really astonish about Gadamer, who most certainly did neither. Concentrating upon the inherent consistent beauty of traditional aesthetics liberated Gadamer from the need to explain how the ideal of classical humanistic education led to a sociocultural system which was compatible with the rise of Hitler. Even if that implied, that you had to ignore more recent intellectual developments and considered 19th century history as Clio’s finest hour. And made aesthetical enjoyment preferable to the bother of explanation in any case.

But there may be a more general problem behind the assumption that the Humanities need a hermeneutic which goes beyond our pedestrian concept of iterative abduction. It is defended by people who most certainly do not feel, that the traditional ideal of Humanism needs to be defended against some unsavory consequences it may have had, but that it must be protected against scientism. How is the humanistic ideal connected to the believe, that somehow there exists the “complete understanding” behind the traditional concept of hermeneutics – [Droysen 1882, §9 p. 9/10], [Gadamer 2010, 388]?

Both Dilthey and Gadamer emphasize the importance of Universalgeschichte for the epistemology of history. Which is quite convincing: if there is the inborn ability of “complete understanding” it must by definition include the understanding of “the whole”. “Den Historiker macht es aus, daß er das Ganze des Zusammenhangs der Geschichte der Menschheit verstehen will.” [Gadamer 2010, 201] In my translation: “It is the essence of the historian, that he wants to understand the whole of the interconnections in the history of humanity.

Humanistically educated persons should always embody the ideal “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto (“I am human, nothing that is human, I think, is alien to me.“) . Any properly educated humanist has, therefore, to embrace the culture of the world in its whole width.

To wit:

Auf ewig hab ich sie vertrieben,

Vielköpfige Götter trifft mein Bann,

So Wischnu, Kama, Brahma, Schiven,

Sogar den Affen Hannemann.

Nun soll am Nil ich mir gefallen,

Hundsköpfige Götter heißen groß:

O wär ich doch aus meinen Hallen

Auch Isis und Osiris los!


In my translation:

Forever I banished them,

multi-headed gods I have banned,

as Vishnu, Kama, Brahma, Shiva,

even the monkey Hanuman.

And now I shall like at the Nile,

dog-headed gods call great:

O if I could ban from my halls

Isis and Osiris as well!

This is the reaction of a highly humanistically educated person, to the discovery of Egyptian art, at his most mature age, after he had been appalled by Indian art already earlier. Some mediocre ignoramus? Well, Goethe in his Zahme Xenien (untranslatable). I should hasten to add, that I would not call Goethe an ignoramus – not only, because I am aware, that he appreciated Iranian and Indian literature very much. But if this can be observed with one of the paragons among paragons  of humanistic Education the proud “I am human, nothing that is human, I think, is alien to me“ in the reality of humanistic Education seemingly should be extended to: “I am human, nothing that is human, I think, is alien to me provided it is compatible with what I have learned in my classes in Latin and Greek.”  Which includes our inherent, unlearnable and universal feeling for beauty and truth. “Humanistic education” seems to induce a certain glorified parochiality of thinking.

You may remember that I thought it necessary to emphasize one line in my original Gadamer quotation: “Eine Sprache versteht man, indem man in ihr lebt – ein Satz der bekanntlich nicht nur für lebende, sondern sogar für tote Sprachen gilt.“ [Gadamer 2010, 388]. In my translation: “One understands a language by living in it – a sentence which, as we know, is not only valid for living languages, but for dead ones as well.” (My emphasis) Gadamer obviously was convinced that he completely and without restriction understood Latin and Greek. It would be interesting, what he would have thought of that ability of “the complete understanding” of dead languages, if he would have encountered Sumerian or ancient Egyptian. Which possibly might have revealed, that in his understanding of Latin and Greek, he completely understood his gymnasium teachers, not so much the ancients.

That this “complete understanding”, seemingly related closely to the “absolute truth”, might be a Christian concept, which according to [Assmann 2008, 139] is strictly contradictory to antique thought, is an interesting sideline.

Which antiquity is it, on the authority of which proponents of hermeneutics like Gadamer build their texts, impressive as many of them are as intellectual narratives, even when a reader strongly doubts, that it is a meaningful exercise to build an epistemology based on an obsolete theory of cognition?

When Heidegger starts his attempt to base hermeneutic thinking on conceptual ground that is strong enough to avoid the dangers of the hermeneutic cycle, he of course addresses it from the tradition of antiquity, creating a definition of a work of art, from which the way to understand it can then be derived. In a key quotation he writes:

Dastehend ruht das Bauwerk auf dem Felsgrund. Dies Aufruhen des Werkes holt aus dem Fels das Dunkle seines ungefügen und doch zu nichts gedrängten Tragens heraus. Dastehend hält das Bauwerk dem über es wegrasenden Sturm stand und zeigt so erst den Sturm selbst in seiner Gewalt. Der Glanz und das Leuchten des Gesteins, anscheinend selbst nur von Gnaden der Sonne, bringt doch erst das Lichte des Tages, die Weite des Himmels, die Finsternis der Nacht zum Vor-schein.


Standing there, the building rests on rocky ground. This resting of the work draws up out of the rock the mystery of that rock’s clumsy yet spontaneous support. Standing there, the building holds its ground against the storm raging above it and so first makes the storm itself manifest in its violence. The luster and gleam of the stone, though itself apparently glowing only by the grace of the sun, yet first brings to light the light of the day, the breadth of the sky, the darkness of the night. [Heidegger 1971, 42]

For the pupil of a Wilhelmine gymnasium whom one of his teachers almost certainly has shown a representation of the towering Acropolis as the apotheosis of a Greek temple, commented upon in the bombastic rhetoric of the late Wilhelmine era, this explanation is obvious. For a contemporary of the late 20th / early 21st century , who has seen the temples of Paestum, lying there peacefully in the meadows, without contemplating storm or violence; or the ruins at Olympia equally peaceful among the pine trees; or the temple of Asclepius organically embedded into the buildup area of Epidaurus; or … Well, for anybody who has actually seen the remainders of the ancient world, this reads more like the heroic wet dream of a Wilhelmine gymnasium pupil than an actual description of the old world and its artwork.

And Heidegger carefully avoided to visit the antiquity which drove his understanding: during his journeys to Greece in 1962 and 1967 he almost never left the ship and consistently avoided museums and excavations, and rather contemplated the gods that had left on board [Wokart 2004]. Reality might have endangered his complete understanding of antiquity.

This basing of theories on a gymnasium antiquity which never was did not prevent his reception until today, of course. The German title of  [Gumbrecht 2003] – “Diesseits der Hermeneutik. Die Produktion von Präsenz” (This side of hermeneutics. The production of presence) announces considerable distance towards hermeneutics, and quotes Heidegger’s origin of the work of art approvingly in his attempt to show, that there is an immediate understanding of art created by its material presence, which avoids the necessity of interpretation embedded in hermeneutics. That this “immediate understanding” overcoming the shortcoming of hermeneutics, is extraordinarily close to Droysen’s and Dilthey’s “complete understanding” which begot the hermeneutics endorsed by historians, thereafter, is a footnote. Though one to be appreciated by anyone enjoying irony.



All URLs accessed on May 9th, 2022.

[Assmann 2008] Jan Assmann: Of God and Gods. Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism, University of Wisconsin Press, 2008.

[Barnouw 1986] Jeffrey Barnouw: “Peirce and Derrida: “Natural Signs” Empiricism versus “Originary Trace” Deconstruction”, in: Poetics Today 7 (1986) 73-94.

[Bawden 2016] David Bawden and Lyn Robinson: “Information and the gaining of understanding”, in: Journal of Information Science  42 (2016) 294–299.

[Ben-Menahem 1990] Yemima Ben-Menahem: “The inference to the best explanation”, in: Erkenntnis 33 (1990), 319–344.

[Carr 1961] Edward Hallet Carr: What Is History?, Penguin, 1990.

[Comte 1853] Auguste Comte: The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, London, 1853 Vol. I.

[Davies 1990] Robert William Davies: “From E.H. Carr’s Files: Notes towards a Second Edition of What is History?”, in: [Carr 1961] 157-182.

[Derrida 2001a] Jacques Derrida: “Writing and Difference”, Routledge, 2001.

[Derrida 2001b] Jacques Derrida: “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, in: [Derrida 2001a] 351-370.

[Derrida 2016] Jacques Derrida: Of Grammatology, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.

[Diels-Kranz 1951] Hermann Diels / Walther Kranz (eds.): Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, Weidmann, 1951-1952.

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[1] Used for “wissenschaftlich”, the term covering both hard sciences as well as the humanities which is missing in English.

[2] In the translator’s introduction of [Derrida 2001a] I find the remarkable sentence: “It has been my experience that however syntactically complex or lexically rich, there is no sentence in this book that is not perfectly comprehensible in French—with patience.” If this is true, and it is true that it must be said explicitly, as being nonobvious, of the French original, I think it sensible not to engage too closely with the author in another language. And if the translator of the text says this, I have no chance at all with the French original.

[3] Again, used for “wissenschaftlich”, the term covering both hard sciences as well as the humanities which is missing in English.

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