Radford, G. P. (1991). Hermeneutics: An intellectual tradition for communication studies. Occasional Papers in Communication, Information, and Library Studies, 1, 6-27 (School of Communication, Information, and Library Studies, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ).
1. To lay out the field of hermeneutics and attempt a comprehensive synthesis and integration is an
enormous task because its understanding lies as much in the contexts of its development as it does
in itself. Hermeneutics draws on many traditions of philosophy, ranging from its critiques of the
realist traditions grounded in Descartes and the Cartesian subject-object split (Outhwaite, 1987) to
the emergence of Gadamer (1975), the critical theory of Habermas (McCarthy, 1982), and the
archaeology of Foucault (1972). Hermeneutics does not stand apart from these traditions. They are
all intimately entwined and to describe hermeneutics in isolation would inevitably lead to a shallow
and misrepresentative exposition.
2. The force and vitality of the hermeneutic approach lies in its opposition, in its challenge to the
existing world views of a positivist science, rather than as a method that is somehow complimentary
to that science. Hermeneutics is not simply an alternative method from the variety of methods we
have available as researchers. It is an approach that attempts to fundamentally embrace, define, and
make possible the conditions under which the other approaches can exist at all. In other words, it
takes as its problematic those assumptions that a natural science has to take for granted. To
understand hermeneutics, then, we must also understand the tradition whose assumptions it is
explicitly designed to question.
3. To attempt to review the major writers who have contributed to the formulation of hermeneutics
is a formidable task. Not only are their works formidable in size and scope, I cannot claim to be
in a position to fully understand all of it (especially going back to the primary sources), let alone
to try and synthesize it for others. Therefore, what will be attempted in this will be a brief survey
of my understanding of hermeneutics as it stands at the present time, emphasizing the main themes
and problematics as I see them and some of the major figures in its development. However, the
richness of hermeneutics can only be appreciated by reference to its role in the greater philosophical
traditions and debates, and that can only be hinted at in a paper of this sort.
Hermeneutics and the Intellectual Tradition
[Hermeneutics is]...the theory of human understanding in its interpretative aspect.
In particular, a hermeneutic is a set of practices or recommendations for revealing
an intelligible meaning in an otherwise unclear text or text-analogue (Shotter,
1983, p. 268).
4. Hermeneutic understanding is understanding based on interpretation rather than observation. It
attempts to lay out the principles by which a text and, more recently, social phenomena in general,
can mean something to the person who is experiencing it. This type of understanding is quite distinct
from a realist understanding where the attempt is made to uncover natural laws which determine the
existence and nature of objects in an objective world. In this paper, these different themes of
hermeneutics (i.e. hermeneutics as means of understanding and hermeneutics as method) will be
discussed with respect to some of the major figures who gave them voice, notably Dilthey, Husserl,
Heidegger, and Gadamer.
5. To discuss hermeneutics as a philosophy and method is to discuss another kind of world. In this
world, we must be prepared to dismiss the traditional notions of what an objective science is and
the type of knowledge it is designed to elicit. We must think of a science where explanation is
based, not on prediction and control, but on interpretation; not on accounting for the variance of
phenomena with respect to other phenomena, but on what those phenomena mean to the people who
observe them. In this world, the concepts of communication and information take on very different
identities and demand different ways of seeing and explaining them. To understand hermeneutics,
then, is to understand the nature of this new world.
6. In a sense, the two worlds we have described literally exist with respect to the study of
communication. These are the worlds of the European and the Anglo/American traditions of
communication which are both literally and metaphorically different by virtue of distance and
culture. Carey (1977) has outlined these differences in broad strokes, but nevertheless serves to
emphasize the point being made. Carey argues that:
European and American work [in communication] derives from quite different
kinds of intellectual puzzles and is grounded in two different metaphors for
communication...American studies are grounded in a transmission or
transportation view of communication. They see communication, therefore, as a
process of transmitting messages at a distance for the purposes of control...By
contrast, the predominant view of communication in European studies is a ritual
one: communication is viewed as a process through which a shared culture is
created, modified and transformed...A ritual view of communication is not
directed toward the extension of messages in space, but the maintenance of
society in time; not the act of imparting information or influence, but the creation,
representation, and celebration of shared beliefs (p. 412).
7. Carey's quote, much exaggerated as it is (and Carey admits as much in his paper), makes clear
that the European and American traditions are not two approaches to the same object of study. The
fundamental questions that drive American research are very different questions from those that
drive European thought. The consequences of this difference are profound in terms of the theory
generated and the methods used to generate theory and data. For example, it is on the basis of these
different problematics that the distinction between quantitative and qualitative methods has become
a major issue in recent American communication studies. However, to try and compare quantitative
and qualitative methodologies without recourse to the underlying philosophies which demand them
is not a useful exercise and will inevitably lead to misunderstanding. To understand the qualitative
methodologies of the European tradition is to understand them on their own terms with respect to
the different world it is attempting to uncover. One cannot understand them in terms of an
Anglo/American tradition built upon the assumptions of a realist epistemology and quantitative
8. According to Deetz (1977), hermeneutics received its first systematic formulation in "proper
biblical interpretation:" the interpretation of the word of God as it was expressed through the bible.
The hermeneutic interpretation of the bible was to take precedence over alternative or arbitrary
readings. The hermeneutic operation was necessary because of social and historical differences and
change. Different people would interpret the bible in different ways depending on their background.
The hermeneutic rendered the true meaning of the text, written in another time and place,
intelligible to the people of a different time and place.
9. This, then, is the foundation of the hermeneutic problem. As Ricoeur (1974) points out:
the very work of interpretation reveals a profound intention, that of overcoming
distance and cultural differences and of matching the reader to a text which has
become foreign, thereby incorporating its meaning into the present comprehension
a man is able to have of himself (p. 4).
10. At this point, we can see the major themes of modern hermeneutics in the problem faced by the
Texts need to be interpreted with respect to a historical and social time and place. How can
the "true" meaning of the text be expressed in these new conditions?
11. There is more than one way to interpret or "read" a text. Therefore, we have to consider
what are the criteria by which one interpretation is considered more valid, fair, or
reasonable than another?
12. In biblical hermeneutics, there is the implicit assumption that the text has two meanings: the
spiritual (or true meaning, "the word of God") and the historical. Biblical hermeneutics was the
means by which the spiritual is interpreted in terms of the historical. As we shall see, little has
changed in modern conceptions of the hermeneutic problematic.
Hermeneutics and History: Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911)
13. The adoption of hermeneutics as a general model for studying human sciences in general is
generally credited to Wilhelm Dilthey (Deetz, 1977; Palmer, 1969; Ricoeur, 1974). What Dilthey
did was incorporate the historical nature of interpretation as the basis of a general theory of
knowledge and understanding. This in turn provided the foundation of a new account of the role and
function of the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften).
14. According to Rickman (1961), Dilthey was a philosopher interested in history. For Dilthey,
history was important because it gives us an understanding of the world and how it has come to be
the way it is. However, history is not just a collection of events and dates laid out in chronological
order. It is also an interpretation: an account of how those events relate and what they mean when
they are related. As Rickman (1961) points out, in his consideration of Dilthey's work, such
interpretations could take very different forms:
Confident and optimistic spirits to whom, on the whole, life seemed good, saw,
in the course of history, the forward march towards a splendid present and an
even more splendid future. Saddened and oppressed minds saw only a futile
meandering, or even a plunge towards disaster of which they tried to warn their
contemporaries. Religious thinkers saw in history, dimly or clearly, the working
of God's purpose, liberals the spread of free institutions. Thus, in their views of
history, individuals or whole ages have expressed their own conceptions of life
15. The interpretation of a history is thus a hermeneutic operation in much same way as biblical
scholars interpreted the word of God. We believe there is some right or true account of something
that "actually happened" and that our history is an obligation to recreate those actual conditions and
the forces which formed them. Those accounts, however, were very much subject to the beliefs and
values of the people who were making them. Thus Dilthey argued that the historian cannot be apart
from the history he purports to be describing. One cannot treat history as an autonomous object
because the historian himself is part of that history. Indeed, the historian creates it. For Dilthey,
then, there can be no true account of what "really happened". As Palmer (1969) describes:
man does not escape from history, for he is what he is through history...For
Dilthey, this resulted in an historical relativism...It is in no way possible to go
back behind the relativity of historical consciousness...History is ultimately a
series of world views, and we have no firm and fixed standards of judgement for
seeing the superiority of one world view over another (p. 117).
16. According to Ricoeur (1974), the hermeneutic problem in Dilthey's terms now transcends the
issue of method and correct interpretation. It now becomes one of philosophy and epistemology. In
discussing the nature of history, we are also discussing the nature of knowledge and the status of
the things we purport to know. For example, what constitutes knowledge in a world that is
historically relative? Is it possible to really know what happened in the past with respect to an
understanding and an articulation that is located and bound in the present? Is it possible to transcend
this historical position to get at the objective meanings of what really happened? Ricoeur (1974)
describes Dilthey's paradox as follows:
Historical understanding thus involves all the paradoxes of historicity: how can
a historical being understand history historically? These paradoxes, in turn, lead
back to a much more fundamental question: in expressing itself, how can life
objectify itself, and, in objectifying itself, how does it bring to light meanings
capable of being taken up and understood by another historical being, who
overcomes his own historical situation? (p. 5).
17. In other words, how do we read, in our own historical dimension, the artifacts (or texts) left to us
Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: The Rejection of Realism
18. The hermeneutic problem as described by Dilthey is not confined to historical understanding, it
is also germane to the explication of understanding in general. Given the hermeneutic nature of
knowledge, how is it possible to understand the world and the people in it as they really are? The
natural sciences, built upon the foundations of subject object dualism of Descartes, have developed
an elaborate system which purports to bypass the problem of historical relativism with respect to
the scientific method (see Deetz, 1973) and the adoption of the assumptions of Realism (Outhwaite,
1987). Outhwaite describes the Realist philosophy as follows:
No serious account of knowledge can begin without the assumption that 'to be'
is more than 'to be perceived.' And no theory of science is conceivable without
the assumption that what we are pleased to call laws of nature operated in the
same way as they do now before humans evolved and "a fortiori" before they
began to do science. Realism is, then, a commonsense ontology in the sense that
it takes seriously the existence of the things, structures, and mechanisms revealed
by the sciences at different levels of reality (p. 19).
19. In other words, for natural science, there exists out there a true account that needs to be discovered
(as opposed to interpreted). There is something real that we can set out to describe.
20. In Dilthey's account, the assumptions of Realism are unrealizable in practice. For him, all
knowledge is historically bound. It cannot exist independent of its historical conditions. Even the
assumption of an ahistorical world with ahistorical knowledge is an historical construction! Thus
science, like history and biblical exegesis before it, is a hermeneutic operation.
21. The problematic of a true science, then, is comparable to the problematic of an objective history:
how can we get beyond the categorizations that history and science give us in order to see the world
as it really is? In other words, the world as it is before we impose relativistic history or science on
it. As Merleau-Ponty (1962) points out:
All my knowledge of the world, even my scientific knowledge, is gained from my
own particular point of view, or from experience of the world without which the
symbols of science would be meaningless. The whole universe of science is built
upon the world as directly experienced, and if we want to subject science itself
to rigorous scrutiny and arrive at a precise assessment of its meaning and scope,
we must begin by reawakening the basic experience of the world of which science
is the second-order expression (p. viii).
22. In order to answer these questions, we must have recourse to a theory of knowledge and its
relation to the world which addresses the pre-reflective nature of the world. Following Dilthey,
Edmund Husserl developed the foundations of the modern conception of Phenomenology, which
takes as its focus the reduction, description, and interpretation of the pre-reflective world of
experience. It was Dilthey who laid out the fundamental problematic of a hermeneutic theory of the
human sciences. However, it is through the philosophy of phenomenology, and its transformations
via Husserl, Heidegger and Gadamer, that it is possible to understand the status and impact of
hermeneutics in modern communication studies.
Hermeneutics and Phenomenology: Edmund Husserl (1859-1938)
23. Husserl's phenomenology is a philosophy and method that arose as a critique to the assumptions
and practices of realism as outlined above. Its task was to go beyond the preconceptions that science
brings to the objects they study in order to get to the objects themselves. For Husserl, the "object"
is not located in space and time in an objective and autonomous world outside of a detached
observer who can then come to know it, but rather as an object as it is experienced in consciousness.
This is not to say that all experiences are subjective or relative to the whims of an individual
consciousness. There is a difference between "introspection," i.e. the conscious reflection on what
we are experiencing, and "inner perception," which is the direct awareness of our own conscious
experience prior to that conscious reflection (Shotter, 1983). According to Husserl, this pre-
reflective experience is connected with the discovery of an universality, or an essence. The pre-
reflective is that moment of immediate experience wherein the universal is grasped and the object
made meaningful. Thus, in observing a die, we experience its essence of diceness which enables
us to grasp the totality of an object. It enables the object to point beyond itself. Thus, in looking at
the die, although we can only ever observe one part of it at once while the other remains hidden
from view, we still know it is a die because we continue to experience it as a die and not some other
object. In listening to music, for example, we do not experience each note as separate sense
experience. Rather we hear a melody, which exists neither in the notes, nor in the listener, but as
the experience when the two combine and the melody is formed. The objective of phenomenology,
then, is to bracket all the preconceptions we hold about a given object and to analyze it as it appears
in experience at the pre-reflective level.
24. This pre-reflective knowledge, our experience of the object in its pure form before the
categorization of language and the taken for granted knowledge we hold about the world, is the
object of study for phenomenology. As Edie (1962) argues, this constitutes the true object of a truly
in the sense that it is an investigation of the most radical, fundamental, primitive,
original evidences of conscious experience; it goes beneath the constructions of
science and common sense towards their foundations in experience. It studies
what all particular sciences take for granted and what we in "natural" everyday
experience take for granted. A "presuppostionless" philosophy is one which will
reach what is absolutely primary or most fundamental in experience (pp. 18-19).
25. Husserl's phenomenology is labeled as "transcendental" (Edie, 1962) because it takes as its object
the fundamental structures of consciousness and experience which are presumed to exist outside of
both objects and knowers. The essence which structured knowledge and perception lies behind them
both, and makes both possible. As Merleau-Ponty (1962) explains:
Perception is not a science of the world, it is not even an act, a deliberate taking
up of a position; it is the background from which all acts stand out, and is
presupposed by them. The world is not an object such that I have in my
possession the law of its making; it is the natural setting of, and field for, all my
thoughts and all my explicit perceptions (p. xi).
26. Husserl's contribution to Dilthey's Geisteswissenschaften, then, was the rejection of the Cartesian
subject-object split in which Realist epistemology is entrenched. Husserl was able to formulate an
epistemology where meaning resides at the point of contact where subject and world meet, as
opposed to meaning residing "out there" waiting to discovered by a knowing subject, or knowledge
residing in human consciousness ready to impose itself on an unresisting world. However, what
Husserl didn't do was incorporate the historical nature of Dilthey's account. In conceiving of the
fundamental structures of conscious experience as universal and transcendental, Husserl is assuming
that meaning itself could be ahistorical. For Husserl, the project was to strip away the
preconceptions of history and science to arrive at the essence of the object "as it really is" as it
appeared in pre-reflective experience. In the writings of Martin Heidegger, this assumption is
challenged and experience is located back in its historical domain.
Hermeneutics and the Life-World: Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)
27. Heidegger's (1962) major work, Being and Time, addresses essentially the same problematic of
Husserl's phenomenology; i.e. the explication of the preconceptual apprehending of phenomena.
However, whereas Husserl attempted to locate pre-reflective experience in transcendental structures
of conscious experience, Heidegger returned to Dilthey's conception of historicality. For Heidegger
the structures which underly and make possible understanding are historically bound, and the
phenomenologist who is trying to unravel so-called universal essences is also bound by those same
historical conditions. Thus the phenomenologist is in the same paradox as the "historical being
trying to understand history historically." As Deetz (1977) argues:
Husserl's early quest for a pure transcendental phenomenology, where all
presuppositions were suspended in the description of essences..proved impossible.
The phenomenologist himself is an historical being existing in a particular
language and cultural world (p. 59).
28. What Heidegger essentially did, then, was to make the move from a transcendental to an
existential phenomenology; i.e. a phenomenology in which the structures of pre-reflective
experience are historically situated rather then universal. Thus, for Heidegger, one cannot bracket
the presuppositions that come with historicality. Instead they become the structures that demand
explication. As Deetz (1977) explains:
In an existential phenomenology, one's historical and linguistic prejudices, rather
than being suspended, become resources for understanding since they are part of
the very existence to be understood (p. 59).
29. Where does this discussion leave hermeneutics as a method for understanding human experience?
In Dilthey's original formulation of Geisteswissenschaften (the human sciences), he made it quite
clear that human beings were a very different type of phenomena than natural objects, and thus
demanded a different way of studying and understanding them. As Palmer (1969) points out:
The human studies do not deal with facts and phenomena which are silent about
man but with facts and phenomena which are meaningful only as they shed light
on man's inner processes, his 'inner experience.' The methodology appropriate
to natural objects is not adequate to the understanding of human phenomena
except in their status as natural objects (pp. 103-104).
30. The adequate methodology Dilthey proposed for the human sciences was Geisteswissenschaften,
based on understanding (verstehen) and interpretation (hermeneutics). His goal was to "formulate
a methodology of understanding that will transcend the reductionist objectivity of the sciences and
return to the 'fullness of life,' of human experience" (Palmer, 1969, p.105).
31. Following Heidegger's reconceptualization of the phenomenological method, hermeneutics seeks
an understanding of human experience in its "fullness" as Dilthey envisaged it, and with respect to
its situation in a socio/historical context which gives it sense. For Deetz (1977), such an
understanding is the very key to understanding the world since "interpretation is not added to the
world: it is the world (p. 60). The world literally is the world as we know it and it is this world that
hermeneutics seeks to understand; the world as it exists to the people who live and behave in it at
a historically bounded point in time.
32. The move from seeing the world as an objective and autonomous entity to seeing it as a
hermeneutic operation that shapes both perceiver and perceived has generated methods of
investigation and understanding that are quite distinct from the quantitative based methods of the
natural sciences. For example, Ricoeur (1971) argues that human action should be considered as a
type of "text" and its "meanings" interpreted in a hermeneutic manner. Similarly, the notion of
reading human institutions as "texts" is apparent in Deetz and Mumby's (1985) "metaphor" analysis
of power in organizations.
33. The hermeneutic/phenomenological epistemology has also provided the philosophical foundations
for qualitative research in communication and the social sciences. In doing qualitative research in
communication studies the attempt is being made to understand and give an account of human action
in its own terms; i.e. in terms of the life-world of which it is both a part and contributor. This life-
world cannot exist apart from the human actors as something to be explained; the life world
produces the possibility of the actors being what they are and the actors are, in turn, responsible for
producing the life world. It is this dialectic which forms the epistemological foundations of such
qualitative methods as ethnomethodology (Garfinkel, 1967), participant observation (Anderson,
1987; Lofland and Lofland, 1984) and the ethnography of communication (Spradley, 1979).
34. Here one can see the importance of Husserl's contribution of the intentional consciousness: i.e.
that consciousness can only be consciousness of something. Both coexist and mutually create each
other. So it is with the historically located lifeworld described in Heidegger. People do indeed exist
with respect to a lifeworld, the lifeworld exists to make human experience meaningful and
understandable, but the lifeworld cannot exist independent of those people, as natural science
assumes. The lifeworld in a hermeneutic sense exists in and through the people who continually
create and recreate it in their everyday practices. It is these practices, and the lifeworld they both
create and are defined by, that are the objects of study for qualitative research in communication.
Hermeneutics and the Critique of Method: Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002)
35. The work of Gadamer, and in particular Gadamer's (1975) Truth and Method, represents the
major thrust of contemporary hermeneutics. Gadamer's work develops hermeneutics into a distinctly
philosophical discussion of the nature of understanding itself as opposed to the explication of
procedures for eliciting understanding. This distinction between "understanding" and "procedures"
(or "Truth and "Method") is fundamental in Gadamer's hermeneutics. Whereas Dilthey employed
hermeneutics to question the foundations on which the natural sciences purported to explain the
world, Gadamer takes the next step to question the assumptions of hermeneutics and its capacity to
determine the appropriate, valid, or reasonable interpretation of a text. Gadamer wishes to go
beyond both Realism and hermeneutics as methods for understanding to try and get at the nature of
understanding itself. As Hekman (1986) describes:
Gadamer defines hermeneutics as the philosophical exploration of the character
and fundamental conditions of all understanding and rejects the contention that the
task of hermeneutics is methodological investigations into the social sciences and
other disciplines (p. 92).
36. This marks a radical change of direction from the original project of Dilthey. In work of Dilthey,
the attempt was made to distinguish the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) and the natural
sciences (Naturwissenschaften). Dilthey argued that the understanding of human experience in its
"fullness," as opposed to its psychological reduction into "concepts," needed a different type of
methodology from that being used in the natural sciences. Dilthey proposed such a method based
on hermeneutics, and this was subsequently developed in Husserl and Heidegger. However, what
has remained implicit in the works of all three of these writers is the assumption of method. It has
been assumed that there is something that might be called a human science. Husserl's
phenomenology, for example, was an explicit attempt to formulate such a science. Gadamer,
however, has dug one level deeper in the strata of what we can and cannot take for granted. For
Gadamer, the very idea of "method" is itself a historical construction which can only make sense
within a prevailing historical tradition. As Thiselton (1980) describes:
Gadamer strives to show that, far from being a permanent tradition in philosophy,
a belief in the all-embracing power of theoretical reason [and method] is bound
up with particular historical factors, such as the mood of the Enlightenment (p. 294).
37. Thus, theoretical reasoning and method have not always been the norm in the creation of
knowledge and understanding. They are particular forms of thought that have arisen at a particular
point in time with reference to a particular historical tradition which gives it meaning. The
development of Dilthey's "alternative" Geisteswissenschaften cannot escape this tradition. Although
it purports to be describing a different object of study, i.e. the fullness of human experience as
opposed to objective laws of nature, hermeneutics still embraces the tenets of reason and method
as the proper means of investigation. For Gadamer, however, method is not a means by which we
can free ourselves from this history and achieve a true knowledge of things as they really are,
whether we are doing natural science or hermeneutics. Method itself is a historical construction; it
is only a certain way of achieving understanding.
38. Gadamer, then, takes the problematic of understanding one level of abstraction higher. For
Gadamer, it is the human sciences themselves that become the object of study and not the
phenomena they purport to describe and explain. In other words, Gadamer wants to describe how
understanding is possible at all, given that science (whether human and natural) is itself historically
bound. As Hekman (1986) describes:
Although Gadamer's immediate goal in [Truth and Method] is to discover the
nature of the human sciences, in order to do so he must tackle the infinitely more
difficult problem of how understanding itself is possible. Since it is clear to him
that the self-understanding of the human sciences is fundamentally erroneous he
is forced to take on the question of what kind of understanding is appropriate for
the human sciences and, consequently, the universal question of what
understanding itself is (p. 94).
39. Gadamer's views on the nature of method naturally have implications for the nature of knowledge.
Like Dilthey, Gadamer is concerned with the historicality of knowledge; the assertion that
understanding can only be achieved with reference to the historical context in which that
understanding is taking place. However, the project of a hermeneutics as proposed by Dilthey, and
later in Heidegger, was to be able to interpret some sense of an original meaning of a text that it
possessed at the time of its creation. Hermeneutics was the means by which that meaning could be
rendered intelligible to a new historical readership. Similarly, in understanding human action,
Heidegger believed that there was an underlying essence of being that, though shaped by historical
forces, was also concealed by them. As Palmer (1969) describes:
In its historicality and temporality, he [Heidegger] saw clues to the nature of
being; being as it discloses itself in lived experience escapes the conceptualizing,
spatializing, and atemporal categories of idea-centered thinking. Being was the
concealed prisoner, almost forgotten, of Western static categories, that Heidegger
hoped to release (p. 125).
40. For Gadamer, there can be no return to an "original meaning" or a fundamental "being." For
Gadamer, meaning is always new, because it is always a new experience that is contextualized in
a constantly evolving history of experiences. There is never a true, definitive, or final interpretation
of a text since new meanings can always be determined in future experiences of it. As McCarthy
If interpretation is always a hermeneutic mediation between different life-worlds
and if the hermeneutic "initial situation" is itself caught up in the movement of
history, the notion of a final valid interpretation makes no sense... Unless there
is an end to history, there can be no end to this interpretive process (pp. 173-174).
41. As like Dilthey and Heidegger, the question of historicality is central in Gadamer's hermeneutics.
However, unlike Dilthey and Heidegger, Gadamer takes the historical nature of understanding one
level further. For Gadamer, even the means we have available for achieving understanding, the
sciences, are themselves historical manifestations. In hermeneutics, it is explicitly realized that the
meaning of any text is always bound up in the historicality of its interpretation. Gadamer's
contribution to hermeneutics, then, is to take the next step and say that not only is our knowledge
of any text historically bound, so are our hermeneutic methods for interpreting it.
Hermeneutics and the Study of Communication
42. What has hermeneutics have to do with the study of communication? As stated in the introduction,
hermeneutics offers an alternative perspective to the reductionist approach of a natural science
grounded in a realist epistemology. Hermeneutics also has the potential to fulfill this same role with
respect to contemporary approaches in American communication studies (see Carey, 1977; Deetz,
1973, 1977). In the American tradition, studies of communication, like the social sciences in
general, have implicitly adopted the realist epistemology in its research (see Carey, 1977; Delia,
1987). Berger and Chaffe's (1987) definition of a "communication science" typifies much of what
communication considers as acceptable research, and this is clearly founded in the natural science
Communication science seeks to understand the production, processing, and
effects of symbols and signal systems by developing testable theories, containing
lawful generalizations, that explain phenomena associated with production,
processing, and effects (p. 17).
43. The predominance of so-called "communication models" also clearly demonstrate the reductive
approach communication scholars have adopted in explaining the so-called "communication process"
(see Ruben, 1988b, chapter 2). Even the notion of an autonomous "communication process" existing
at all is a realist assumption. Communication models such as those developed by Shannon and
Weaver (1949), Schramm (1954), Lasswell (1960), and Berlo (1960), to name but a few, all attempt
to reduce communication into component parts, which are then usually operationalised and
correlated with other variables. Stimulus-response, Sender-receiver, message-effects, and even the
more complex information processing models of communication, are all variations on this same
reductionist theme. But what they all have in common is the abstraction of communication from the
people who are producing, using, and making sense of it. Communication, then, is treated as an
object that exists out there in a natural world.
44. In a sense, to ask what hermeneutics can say about communication is already a loaded and
ultimately misleading question. By asking the question in this manner, we are implicitly buying into
the assumption that communication can exist as autonomous entities that can be objectively studied,
and that a method such as a hermeneutics can somehow shed further light on it. However, by asking
that question, we are also implicitly adopting the realist philosophy of the nature of the world that
hermeneutics seeks to reject and replace. The key point to be made here is that hermeneutics exists
to question the very idea of the "communication process" as being a valid concept at all. The role
of hermeneutics in the study of human communication today has not changed substantially from the
role it played in Dilthey's original formulation of the Geisteswissenschaften. It is a need to return
to the fullness of human experience rather than the reduction of it. In achieving Dilthey's project,
it is not enough to posit hermeneutics as a complimentary science to the natural sciences. It is a
radical alternative. To adopt a hermeneutic stance means to reject the preconceptions of natural
science altogether and to literally study a different world. The adoption of such a radically different
world view is never an easy task because it is so difficult to part with traditional ways of seeing and
explaining. It is so tempting to consider the new approach in terms of the old. As Harre, Clarke,
and De Carlo (1985) make clear in their discussion of a hermeneutic psychology of human action:
the new approaches to theory and method of enquiry in some well-established
field are often made more difficult by a natural and persistent tendency to
understand new ideas in terms of the old ways. It is important to realize that the
approach we have chosen to call 'the psychology of action'...is not just a revision
or modification of old ways of doing psychology but a radically different approach
to the understanding of human behavior. It is not just an additional theory inserted
into existing psychology but a thoroughgoing alternative to it (p. viii).
45. Thus, in contemporary texts on hermeneutic approaches to human action and communication, the
first task that has to be performed is a critique of the prevailing realist approaches to
communication. Before the hermeneutic approach can be described, the prevailing world view has
to be discounted. Thus, Harre and Secord's (1972) hermeneutic theory of human action is presented
alongside a critique of the traditional realist notion of a experimental social psychology. The same
is true of the "psychology of human action" described in Harre, Clarke, and De Carlo (1985) and
John Shotter's explicitly hermeneutic account of human selfhood (Shotter, 1975, 1984; Gauld and
Shotter, 1977). A hermeneutic theory of communication and human behavior is always a theory in
tension with and in opposition to prevailing views of the world. That is why hermeneutics is so
frequently misunderstood when it is evaluated with respect to realist criteria; criteria which
hermeneutics seeks to reject and invalidate when applied to human experience.
46. Without going into specifics of particular hermeneutic approaches, I would argue that the value
of hermeneutics for communication studies in the Anglo/American tradition lies precisely in this
tension which exists between the naturalistic and the humanistic approaches. The existence of an
alternative epistemology enables the informed critique of concepts such as the "communication
process" or the "cognitive information processing system." It allows scholars to step outside the
prevailing frames of realist thinking and give a new distance to the consideration of some
fundamental problems in the field. Thus I would agree with Deetz (1978) when he argues that:
At the minimum such an analysis should give a degree of self-awareness about
current concepts and research not possible without the distance of another
perspective. Ideally a hermeneutic stance will not only give the distance necessary
to develop a sense of perspective on current work and knowledge but will give a
legitimate mode of thinking and working which denies the battles between
subjectivity and objectivity and between idealism and empiricism (p. 12).
Hermeneutics and Critical Theory
47. What hermeneutics and critical theory hold most fundamentally in common is their radical critique
of prevailing realist epistemologies of understanding and the nature and production of knowledge.
But while the task of both approaches is the explicit undermining of such realist world views, their
objectives for doing so are very different. Following Dilthey, Husserl, and Heidegger, the goal of
hermeneutics was to develop an alternative methodology which was appropriate for the human
sciences (Geisteswissenschaften); i.e. a means of investigating the fullness of human experience in
a socially and historically situated life-world. Thus hermeneutics emerged as an explicitly
descriptive operation. It was an attempt to describe human experience as it is without the imposition
of potentially distorting value laden categories of science or ideology.
48. In critical theory however, the goal of theory is explicitly evaluative. It asks not only how are
meaning systems constructed and maintained, but in whose interests they are constructed and
maintained. Critical theory sets out, not to describe what is apparent in the life-world, but to critique
and change it. The move to a critical interpretative theory (or a critical hermeneutics) is to add
the evaluative component to the interpretive operation. Through the influence of Dilthey and
Husserl, in particular, hermeneutics has always strived to repress evaluation in its quest for a truly
"objective" and "rigorous" science. However, as Deetz and Kersten (1983) have argued, it is
through the work of Gadamer (1975) that the notion of an "objective" understanding through the use
of "method" was rejected since all understandings and methods are historically bound. For
Gadamer, meanings are constantly in the process of being "produced" afresh in the experience
between text and interpreter. Meaning is not an entity that is "reproduced" from one time and place
and place to another. Thus, Gadamer's hermeneutics explicitly recognizes that the "meaning" of a
text can never be free of the values and evaluations of the interpreter since these are an integral part
of the historical tradition of which he is a part. In other words, the interpreter must "adopt a
position" with respect to the text.
49. It follows from this argument that the same must be true of hermeneutic research itself, since it
also has to adopt a "position" with the text it wishes to make meaningful. Thus this position can
never be value-neutral (as the natural sciences purport to be through their scientific method). The
text is never free to speak for itself, it only speaks with respect to the position of the interpreter, and
this position is, inevitably, value laden. From Gadamer, then, we have the potential to move from
a descriptive hermeneutics, in which values and assumptions about the world are "bracketed," to
a critical hermeneutics, in which the readings of texts are taken to be value laden and the nature of
those value systems are taken as problematic. The philosophical base for critical hermeneutics
comes from Marxist thought, as Deetz and Kersten (1983) explain:
Even though hermeneutics and Marxism might agree that existing social,
economic, and political arrangements are constructions, hermeneutics would seek
to explain how they were constructed and how their coherence is maintained;
Marxism would seek to examine the conditions making the construction necessary
and whose interests are served by their maintenance (p. 150).
50. For a critical theorist like Habermas, the interpretation of meanings within a pre-existing social
and power structure of the kind posited by Marxism, always constitutes a case of "systematically
distorted communication" (McCarthy, 1978, p. 190). Thus, not only are meanings distorted by the
value-laden nature of ourselves as historically situated beings, those meanings are also systematically
distorted in the interests of a prevailing power structure. In a critical hermeneutics, then, the
systematic nature of this distortion must be revealed and acted upon. It is not enough to describe
things as they are in an uncritical fashion. Hermeneutics must become an agent for change. As
Deetz (1982) argues:
[Hermeneutic] insight, though interesting, is never sufficient... Whereas insight
undermines the realist assumption that things are as they appear, every individual
implicitly and every psychiatrist explicitly knows that insight into what things
mean and how they are formed is rarely sufficient for change. Interpretive
research, to be useful, must become critical (p. 139).
51. How is critical hermeneutics employed in communication research? Two examples will be offered
to show how a critical hermeneutics is being used in the analysis of communication.
52. The idea of critical hermeneutics in communication is still relatively new and is often
misinterpreted with respect to the dominant epistemology of realism in communication study (Deetz,
1978). However, critical hermeneutics is being increasingly employed in the study of organizations
and especially, organizational cultures (see Deetz, 1982; Deetz and Kersten, 1983). The adoption
of the "organization as culture" metaphor is seen as a move away from traditional realist approaches
to the study of communication, with its emphasis on concepts such as communication flow,
hierarchy, effectiveness and control (Putnam, 1983). However, a critical approach to interpreting
organizational cultures entails an examination of the prevailing power structures in which such
cultures are formed and which, inevitably, those cultures serve to maintain. The work of Mumby
(1987, 1988), for example, adopts the critical theory of Habermas and Giddens as a means of
interpreting the existence and maintenance of organizational cultures, and the nature of
organizational sense-making, in terms of power structures and ideology.
53. In mass communication, the work of Stuart Hall takes an explicitly Marxist perspective in its
analysis of mass media messages (Hall, 1977). What Hall attempts to show that is that the manner
in which mass media messages are encoded and interpreted are done so with respect to a prevailing
ideology. Thus, although a mass media message can have potentially meanings, there is associated
with a "preferred meaning" which comes with it via the ideological codes we have available to
interpret it. Hall (1977) refers to this as the "ideological effect;" the manner in which dominant
ideological codes are able to frame our interpretations of mass media events and messages. These
ideological codes are inherently linked to the interests of a dominant ideology. Hall is able to extend
this argument to all kinds of media messages, including radio news (Hall, 1981a), newspaper
photographs (Hall, 1981b), and newspaper reporting (Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke, and
54. From these two examples, we can see that a critical hermeneutics is an approach that is very
different from traditional hermeneutic approaches. Critical hermeneutics takes nothing for granted.
In fact, it is the taken for granted nature of understanding that is the object of study and, in
particular, where that knowledge comes from. Hermeneutics stops at the point of saying that
knowledge and understanding is historically and socially bound. Critical hermeneutics continues
where traditional hermeneutics leaves off, by embarking on an examination of those social and
historical conditions which make understanding possible. The Marxist approach to this project may
seem troublesome to those brought up in the capitalistic ideologies of the West. But if American
communication studies is not prepared to explicitly question the way it accounts for the world, if
it is not prepared to see beyond "scientific" and "objective" ways of seeing, if it is not prepared to
become aware that there are other ways of reading texts that, by virtue of its historical situation,
make sense "only if read this way," then it is blinding itself to the complex nature of the social
world and how understanding is possible within it. As hermeneutics critiques realism for limiting
and reducing our understanding of human experience, so critical theory critiques hermeneutics and
realism for regarding understanding in terms of "the ways things are."
55. In conclusion, hermeneutics and critical theory is not an uneasy alliance; it is one that is
fundamentally necessary to both in their endeavor to explain the historical, social, and political
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