A Note on Interpretation

Thinking and reasoning about what interpretation exactly is, is an endless source of joyful wondering. I was just rereading my own Screwmeneutics (2016) – while preparing my thesis conclusion, there was no vanity in that action! – and it struck me that there is a problem between Heidegger (2010 [1927]) and Gadamer (2013 [1960]). Heidegger thinks interpretation is purely subjective, we can only read ourselves in text. Gadamer, however, thinks that works of others can expand our horizon.

The problem I find here with Gadamar is: how can we learn something we do not have first hand experience of? Can a child before it acquires language understand the consequences of touching the hot kettle on the table before it has experienced a – hopefully limitedly – terrifying event? I assume there exists gene encoded and therefore tacitly embodied intuitive knowledge – is the physiological reflex with which the child retracts its hand from the kettle such knowledge? Possibly, but that knowledge is fully embodied and has no conscience components, is seems to me. I do not see a convincing reason yet to assert gene transferred cognitive appreciations of any kind. However, the wailing that follows convinces me that there is now more conscience understanding resulting from the experience. Not of course as concrete as “kettles may be super hot, take care not to touch kettles without sufficient checking” – more some dim realization that linguistically later on might be put as “things can hurt”.

The child, mercifully is the malleable developing brain, will forget the concrete experience, but a part of understanding has been achieved. The physiological experience extends to acquiring meaning as well. We cannot understand a meaning but before we have acquired it through an experience of some kind. The fact that information and understanding is able to flow between people by way of text (or speech) is therefore the ability to translate symbols and linguistic signs into a sort of imagined experience from which we then learn.

I think we should not confuse this with a reified semantics that is embedded in individual words or symbols or some linguistics connected to these. If I encounter a word that is fully and utterly new for me, I simply cannot understand it. I need it in a linguistic context of a sentence (and possibly a whole lot more sets of semantic signs, such as chapters and books) to help me have an imagined experience to understand – essentially performatively reconstruct – the meaning of that new word.


Hans-Georg Gadamar. 2013. Turth and Method. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. First published 1975, 2nd edition 189, Revised edition 2004; Originally published 1960 (German). London, New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Heidegger, Martin. 2010. Being and Time. Translated by Joan Stambaugh. First published 1953, rev.with A foreword by Dennis J. Schmidt, Originally published in 1927 (German). Albany (NY): State University of New York Press.

Zundert, Joris J. van. 2016. “Screwmeneutics and Hermenumericals: The Computationality of Hermeneutics.” In A New Companion to Digital Humanities, edited by Susan Scheibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, 331–347. Malden (US), Oxford (UK), etc.: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9781118680605.ch23/summary.