What does hermeneutics mean

Historical Hermeneutics: The Problem of "Understanding" and "Explaining"


As a methodological basis for important approaches in historical research on the one hand, and a methodological "antipole" for structural-functionalist or system-theoretical analyzes on the other, the topic of "historical hermeneutics" is the starting point for dealing with various approaches in historical research.

As a condition, "task" (cf. Heidegger, quoted in Gadamer, p. 251) and the limit of historical research and historical knowledge, the hermeneutic circle in particular should be made aware.
Under the aspect of "method dualism" in hermeneutics (Lorenz, p. 91), the relationship between "explaining" and "understanding" must also be discussed. While the "explanation" endeavors to establish the most plausible connections between them by analyzing individual factors, "understanding" represents the effort to achieve a holistic interpretation. Goertz regards "understanding" as a communication process in which the gap between what is "one's own" (one's own time) and the "other" (ie the past) should be overcome (Goertz, dealing with history, pp. 105-106).

The subject of "historical hermeneutics" can be dealt with using various text excerpts. Depending on the number of sessions available, you can fall back on Droysen or Gadamer, or you can use the summarizing description of the hermeneutic method in Chris Lorenz, "Construction of the Past", as the basis.

As extracts are suitable for reading

  • Johann Gustav Droysen, Grundriss der Historik, chapter "Interpretation", §§ 37-44, and chapter "Topik", §§ 87-95
  • Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, pp. 199-205 and pp. 250-256 (even better, pp. 250-269)
  • Chris Lorenz, Construction of the Past, pp. 89-134 or 147 and pp. 147-153. (Pp. 89-96, pp. 127-134 and pp. 147-153 are particularly suitable for a short presentation)

Lorenz goes into the hermeneutic tradition in detail. He shows their premise that the past has a meaning that can be inferred by means of hermeneutic interpretation, describes in detail the hermeneutic method according to Droysen, explains different variants of the hermeneutic conception, namely the intentional, teleological and narrative explanatory model, and deals with it then with the historicization of hermeneutics in Gadamer.
An introduction to the theoretical discussion on hermeneutics is also offered by Hans-Jürgen Goertz, Dealing with History. An introduction to the theory of history, Reinbek 1995.

The essays by Ulrich Muhlack and Thomas Welskopp on these topics are suitable as an introduction to the discussion on the relationship between "understanding" and "explaining" in historical studies (see bibliographic information).

The texts can be used both for the preparatory reading of all course participants with subsequent discussion or discussion as well as for the preparation of a student presentation with a thesis paper and discussion.

Bibliographical information

JOHANN GUSTAV DROYSEN, Floor Plan of the Historik (3rd edition 1882), N.D. Halle 1925 (philosophy and humanities, reprints 1st volume); critical edition in: DERS., Historik. Lectures on the encyclopedia and methodology of history, ed. by Rudolf Huebner, Munich 6th edition 1971, pp. 317-424.
HANS-GEORG GADAMER, Truth and Method. Principles of a philosophical hermeneutics, unchanged reprint of the 3rd, extended edition, Tübingen 4th edition 1975.
CHRIS LORENZ, construction of the past. An introduction to the theory of history, (Contributions to the culture of history, Volume 13), Cologne 1997.
ULRICH MUHLACK, Understanding, in: H.-J. Goertz (ed.), History. Ein Grundkurs, Reinbek 1998, pp. 99-131.
THOMAS WELSKOPP, explain, in: H.-J. Goertz (ed.), History. Ein Grundkurs, Reinbek 1998, pp. 132-168.
HANS-JÜRGEN GOERTZ, dealing with history. An introduction to the theory of history, Reinbek 1995 (here in particular Chapter 8, "Historical Hermeneutics - Understanding", pp. 105-117; and Chapter 9 "Cause and Effect - Explaining", pp. 118-129).

Articles that are suitable for deepening the topic can be found in:
KLAUS E. MÜLLER / JÖRN RÜSEN (eds.), Historical formation of meaning. Problems, time concepts, perception horizons, representation strategies, (rowohlts encyclopedia), Reinbek 1997.