Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Hermeneutic Circle

Entry for 19 Oct 2008:

Note. Some time ago I was asked to write a short piece on the Hermeneutic Circle for a research website at the University of Strathclyde. After putting it off for far too long, I decided I’d try it out as a blog entry. For the past 2 weeks, it has absorbed almost all my blogging energy, but I finally finished it this weekend.

Students in research methods courses often find the word “hermeneutic” and the associated concept of the Hermeneutic Circle to be intimidating pieces of technical philosophical/research jargon. For that reason, it is worth trying to unpack and demystify these concepts.


The word “hermeneutic” is really just a technical word for interpretation, but not necessarily interpretation in the psychoanalytic sense of interpreting unconscious phenomena. Instead, by focusing on how we make sense of complicated texts, hermeneutics brings our attention to one of the central issues in human existence: how it is possible for us to understand one another at all.

Although its etymology is obscure, it appears to be related to the Greek messenger god Hermes, who provides a handy metaphor for the act of interpretation, in that he was believed to deliver messages from the gods. In ancient times, important messages, as from one king to another, were delivered in the form of a scroll contained in a carrier tube, sealed with wax and stamped with the king’s signet ring. To receive the message, one would have to break the royal seal, remove the scroll from its concealing tube, and unroll it; all of these physical acts provide metaphors for the process of interpreting a difficult text or utterance.

Although typically traced to 18th century theologian/Bible scholars, the discipline of hermeneutics in fact goes back to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (350 BCE/2007), who wrote a book on the grammatical/logical hermeneutics, commonly referred to by its Latin title, De Interpretatione (“On Interpretation”, in English). Aristotle was of course interested in the interpretation of linguistic statements in general; however, during the medieval and renaissance periods, its main focus was on the interpretation of the Bible (Biblical Hermeneutics), in terms of its multiple levels of meaning. Hermeneutics as systematic discipline became formalized by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) in the 18th and 19th centuries (Ramberg & Gjesdal, 2008).

For Bible scholars such as Friedrich Schleiermacher hermeneutics was the discipline of unpacking the meaning of ancient biblical sources, which are complicated, often damaged texts, dense with meaning of special significance to believers. Modern Bible scholars provide interesting examples of the hermeneutic method applied intensively to a single text over time: For example, Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) attempted to separate out the different layers of texts that had been written, revised and added to, over centuries.

Since Schleiermacher, modern hermeneutics has been developed successively by Dilthey, Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas, and Ricoeur. Eventually, in the 1980’s, as part of the emergence of the qualitative research paradigm, this began to reach mainstream social sciences including psychology, sociology and education. Influential evaluation textbooks, such as early editions of Patton (2001) began to include sections on hermeneutic-interpretive research; Packer and Addison’s Entering the Circle (1989) marked the emergence of interest in hermeneutic methods in psychology. Today, the interpretive-hermeneutic approach is one of the main perspectives on qualitative research, alongside Grounded Theory (e.g., Strauss & Corbin, 1998) and empirical phenomenology (e.g., Wertz, 1983). In spite of superficial differences in intellectual tradition and terminology, the three overlap substantially with one another (McLeod, 2001). For example, Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA: Smith & Osborn, 2003), as its name suggests, combines elements of hermeneutics and empirical phenomenology.

The Hermeneutic Circle: How is Understanding Possible?

Formulation of the hermeneutic circle goes back to Spinoza and is the central organizing concept in hermeneutics (Ramberg & Gjesdal, 2008), serving as key metaphor, narrative, paradox or puzzle: In encountering a text, especially a dense, complex text, our understanding of each part is based on our understanding of the whole, including its personal and cultural context; and yet we can only build up our understanding of the whole (and its context) by understanding the different parts of which the text is constructed. Initially, our understanding of the whole is made up entirely of a “forestructure” of the expectations or pre-understandings that we have brought to our encounter with the text we are trying to understand. Paradoxically, it is these that make understanding possible in the first place; and yet, clearly, these expectations or even prejudices are at the same time the major impediment to truly understanding the text. Furthermore, this paradox is fundamental not only to our understanding of texts, but also our coming to know any novel situation or even other human beings. The hermeneutic circle thus raises the question of how it is possible for human beings to understand one another.

The answer to this puzzle turns out to be repeated careful readings, which means that the hermeneutic circle is really more of spiral, as we circle deeper and deeper into understanding a text, qualitative interview protocol, or another human being. This is because each encounter or reading brings us into contact with new aspects of the text or person, deepening our understanding. Our reading moves tentatively at first in a kind of dialog, back and forth, gradually both deepening and opening up the text or person to us. Although this process is never really complete, it eventually reaches far enough to satisfy our immediate purposes, whether as researchers, or counsellors, or fellow human beings. (refs)

What does this have to do with Research?

Rennie (2000) has proposed that this process applies to all forms of qualitative analysis, even those that claim to be descriptive, and that therefore hermeneutics is the core philosophy of science for qualitative research. It can even be argued that the hermeneutic circle applies as well to the process of developing and refining measures in quantitative research. Thinking hermeneutically encourages us to be aware of the pre-understandings we bring to our research, to read our data carefully and deeply and to circle through it repeatedly in stages of familiarization, unitizing, category construction, linking up aspects of the analysis, and review/self-audit, and writing up. It cautions us to avoid the easy philosophical solutions of either realism or relativism, but instead to step carefully along what Rennie refers to the rocky middle road between the two.

To learn more about hermeneutics and the hermeneutic circle, see the references below.


Aristotle. (350 BCE/2007). On interpretation (Trans. E.A Edgehill). Accessed on 16 October 2008, at

Elliott, R. (1989). Comprehensive Process Analysis: Understanding the change process in significant therapy events. In M. Packer & R.B. Addison (Eds.), Entering the circle: Hermeneutic investigation in psychology (pp. 165-184). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Elliott, R. (1993). Carrying out a Comprehensive Process Analysis. Unpublished paper. University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio USA. [available by request]

McLeod, J. (2001). Qualitative research in counselling and psychotherapy. London, UK: Sage.

Packer, M.J., & Addison, R.B. (Eds.). (1989). Entering the circle: Hermeneutic investigation in psychology. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Patton, M.Q. (2001). Qualitative evaluation and research methods (3nd ed.). London, UK: Sage.

Ramberg, B., & Gjesdal, K. (2008). Hermeneutics, in E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition). Accessed on 5 October 2008, at .

Rennie, D.L. (2000). Grounded theory methodology as methodical hermeneutics: Reconciling realism and relativism. Theory & Psychology, 10, 481-502.

Smith, J.A. and Osborn, M. (2003) Interpretative phenomenological analysis. In J.A. Smith (Ed.), Qualitative Psychology: A Practical Guide to Methods. London: Sage.

Wertz, F.J. (1983). From everyday to psychological description: Analyzing the moments of a qualitative data analysis. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 14, 197-241.

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