The hermeneutic circle: a key to critical reading

For a text to be interpreted, you need a text and an interpreter. This may seem obvious, but too often we forget that our interpretation of a text is shaped by our pre-existing beliefs, knowledge, and expectations. Hermeneutics is the branch of research that deals with interpretation. When we interpret a text, it’s not a linear process: it’s a cycle, which is called the hermeneutic circle.

Understanding the hermeneutic circle is key to critical reading. The hermeneutic circle refers to the idea that our understanding of a text as a whole is based on our understanding of each individual part, as well as our understanding of how each individual part refers to the whole text.

The hermeneutic circle doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to objectively interpret a text. Rather, it encourages us to try to understand what we read in the context of a cultural, historical, and literary context, along with our own personal context. So… How does it work?

Understanding the hermeneutic circle

The concept of the hermeneutic circle was conceived by German philosopher Martin Heidegger in 1927 in his book Being and Time. The idea of the hermeneutic circle is to envision a whole in terms how the parts interact with each other, and how they interact with the whole. That may sound a little bit out there, so let’s have a look at a concrete example.

As you are reading this sentence, you are doing two things at the same time: understanding single words, and weighing the meaning of each word against your overall meaning of the sentence as the text unfolds, continuously considering whether your current understanding aligns or clashes with previous interpretations as well as existing beliefs, knowledge, and expectations.

As objective you may try to be, interpreting a text doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The hermeneutic circle captures the complex interaction between an interpreter and a text.

The hermeneutic circle

When we first read a text—whether a book, a research paper, or a blog post—we form an initial understanding. As we progress through the text, we keep on evaluating this initial understanding based on the new knowledge brought by the text as it unfolds. This new knowledge will form the basis of a new understanding, which will change our personal context in terms of beliefs and expectations. In turn, the new context will inform the way we interpret the text.

Practicing critical reading

According to psychologist Wilhelm Dilthey, meaning and meaningfulness are always contextual. In order to practice critical reading, it is crucial to be aware of the context in which a text is read.

  • Consider the context. Before reading a text, ask yourself: what are my expectations? What are my existing beliefs? What do I think I know about this topic already? Ideally, research the context of the author: what philosophical movement do they belong to? How does this text fit within their corpus of work? Finally, take into account the historical and cultural context of the text, the author, and yourself. Of course, you cannot go through this process for every piece of text you read, but having these questions in mind will help in interpreting the text in a critical way.
  • Read the text more than once. To allow for the hermeneutic circle to complete, re-read the text a couple of times. If it’s a book, you may want to re-read only the parts that are most interesting or relevant to you. Keep on considering the context as you re-read the text, especially if the first reading gave you a better understanding of it. Maybe the context you initially had in mind is more complex than you imagined; maybe you realised your personal context is more relevant than you originally thought. These are all important pieces of information to consider when re-reading the text.
  • Update your interpretation. Allow for your initial understanding to change. It is okay if your first interpretation can be improved; it’s actually a great sign of critical reading. Use your improved understanding of the context to update your interpretation. Again, interpreting a text is not a linear process. The hermeneutic circle is about constantly refining our interpretation.

Making the most of the hermeneutic circle takes time. You won’t be able to do it for every single piece of reading you come across. However, it is a great exercise to practice whenever you particularly care about critically understanding something you read. While you do so, you can even take notes to keep track of the evolution of your interpretation.

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