A few months ago I received an email that left me feeling really unsettled. I don’t know what it was about it but I didn’t feel confident that I knew exactly what it meant. On the surface, the words that were used appeared to be straightforward and to the point. But within the broader context it didn’t quite make sense. I found myself trying to read between the lines to understand what it actually meant.
This search for meaning through the interpretation of text is nothing new. In fact, it is pretty much as ancient as it gets. It even has a fancy name - hermeneutics.
I’ll fess up and say that the reason I’m writing about this topic this week is because I’m working on the methodology section of my thesis. I’m not finding it easy to get my head around. Scientific method and interpretation of statistics comes pretty easily to me as a Pharmacist. Quantitative research and tiers of evidence are drilled into us repeatedly. But understanding the humanities and what makes for robust social science is a bit of a black box. And yet, as I said with my experience with the email, the stuff of social science is pervasive in our everyday activities. Yes, I do realise how blatantly obvious that sounds when I see it in writing. But I’m not kidding when I say that for many years my snobbery toward social sciences has been so completely out of this world that I have never given it much regard.
So back to hermeneutics, or rather what it means, which put simply is the process of interpreting and conveying messages.
I get this email and it’s words on the screen. Those words don’t have any meaning on their own. They only have meaning once they are read and interpreted by me, the reader.
When I read those words, I don’t process them like a robot. I am, in fact, a fully functioning human complete with a bank of prior knowledge in my head as well as a whole bunch of feelings and emotions about my place in the world. And all of these things come to play when I read those words whether I like it or not.
I read some words and I start putting them into the bigger picture of what it all means. I don’t even have to get past the first sentence before I start projecting this version of what I think it means. But I’m not so full of myself that I think I can understand this email midway through reading a single sentence. So I return to the text and read some more. Now with this new information I revisit my original projection and see if it still fits or needs to be adjusted. And so the process goes on zooming in and out from details to the big picture, over and over until I’m satisfied that I understand the meaning of what was said. That I’m understanding what the author intended.
This cycle between consideration of the parts and the whole is what’s called the hermeneutic circle. The process of moving between smaller and larger units of meaning in order to determine the meaning of both. Its not always a conscious thing. For things that are easy to understand or aren’t considered important we do it without even noticing. But for other things, things where the meaning is important to us and understanding that meaning is difficult in some way, it takes more conscious effort.
To do this in a structured way, you need to understand and acknowledge a few things. The first is that you can’t separate the knowledge from the knower. All of us have a whole bunch of pre-conceptions and prejudices that are in built into our minds before we even begin. This can’t be avoided. It is near impossible to abandon this and be completely objective, so don’t pretend that you are. Instead of denying this, work with it and recognise that these pre-judgements are there and need to constantly be revisited and challenged as you gain new knowledge and understanding.
The other thing is to realise that you aren’t the only person in this scenario, there is also the author. That author is not necessarily like you. They have their own values, social norms, culture…they could even exist in an entirely other period of history in the case of many texts. When you consider the whole context, it means the whole context. Think about the meaning of the text within your own context and consider the world of the author when it was written. Try to look for common ground that can help you arrive at a shared meaning. Social science people would tell you to merge the horizons.
Email miscommunications may seem trivial, but they give us an opportunity to be attentive to developing these skills. Prior to flying off the handle in a fit of rage from misinterpreting a curt set of words, we can take pause and consider the world of the sender in addition to our own. We can think about their busy work day. Their desire to be responsive. Their track record of being concise. Their consistency in avoiding adjectives or words to convey any emotion. Interpreting text is about arriving at a shared meaning, not inserting meaning where there is none.
What’s interesting to me about this, is that interpreting meaning of texts boils down to the same two things as delivering quality person-centred care: holism and empathy. Holism because we understand that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Empathy, because true listening and understanding requires us to see the world through the eyes of the person making that expression.
If you’re interested in going down the rabbit hole of philosophy of the social sciences, then this is a brief but engaging video to start with
If you want a taste of one of the philosophers in action, you can see Gadamer himself talk about it
And this is a long lecture, but full of really interesting stuff at an intro level that discusses it in the context of literature