History has given us less than it could have by not having given us anything at all – in all the traditions that remain alive when grandmothers narrate stories to their grandchildren and in all the written records that offer us a glimpse into the aches of the ages past, there lingers the undying worm of interpretation. When perusing the signatures of the scribe or the opinions of a famed historian, we, today, will never know if it was written with painful regret or with anxious elation. Since the artifacts from each day and age alone give away indications, nay clues nonetheless, of the mood and polity and the society of their times, there is no establishing their veracity to the point of being definitive.
The methodological problems of textual understanding are many in number, and it would be bitter injustice done if they were not understood before we proceeded further. Simply put, behind each written word there exists a purpose for that word to exist, and a reason that word in particular has been chosen instead of the many others each and every languages extends to contribute synonymously, as well as the problem of the scripture as a whole in terms of the image it portrays or, at the least, attempts to portray. Even though records may claim to be definitive works that could be employed as tools to locate the origin of an occurrence, an extensive and putative knowledge of the time is essential to understanding the intention of the author of the records themselves. Since they are our only leads, it is necessary to take an Alexandrian sword to the Gordian knot of deliberate obfuscation and purposeful misguidances.
Apart from the words of those who lived in the period we are attempting to study, two other factors govern the causality of the said period: the events that occurred before it, and the events that occurred after. The prologue, if I may so call it, would have forced the plot of the period to behave in a manner that best suited the outcomes of the strifes that preceded it, while the epilogue, in being the effect of the causes that preceded its time, represents the imprints of those changed tracks. Therefore, in order to acquire an perspective of objectivity towards the subject that is being studied, we must familiarize ourselves with all information available through all media that was created during the period, together with the information available from the prologue and the epilogue.
For example, in textual hermeneutics – which is the philosophy of interpretation concerning written records – it is essential to consider, before the consideration of a specific word itself, the presence or absence of prefixes and suffixes in the sentence that the target-word is a part of – the absence of any one of them, apart from signalling an error in either translation, transliteration or transcription, may also denote the intention to have it absent. There are, therefore, two interpretations instead of one: the first interpretation will have us assume that the absence/presence of a word was unintended, and the second will have us assume that the absence/presence of a word was deliberate. Further, if we were to make one more assumption – that of our complete knowledge of the events of that period up to the point of the text we are translating, then the matters from then on will travel one of two paths, each of which is depicted by one of our bifocal interpretations.
However, if we were to exclude the assumption of us knowing everything in that period, then our image of that section of the past itself becomes distorted and, tragically, a mystery. Mysteries do not happen by themselves in the present; they are manifestations of our inability to discover more about an object of interest. Although I do not purport myself to be a critic, nor by being cynical do I mean that a mystery by occurrence precludes a mistake, demanding their absence from the pages of our sacred books (and by ‘sacred’ I do not imply divinity) is easier said than done. Is this present obfuscation a confirmation of our ancestors’ deeds? Perhaps. We will never know.
Hermeneutics is both empirical and philosophical: empirical because it has its basis in empiricism, and philosophical because it has its application in philosophy and works of the mind. According to Pope John Paul II, “Addressing men and women, from the beginnings of the Old Testament onward, God made use of all the possibilities of human language, while at the same time accepting that his word be subject to the constraints caused by the limitations of this language. Proper respect for inspired Scripture requires undertaking all the labors necessary to gain a thorough grasp of its meaning.”
“An application of truth may be made only after the correct interpretation has been made”.
– The Application Principle
Consider an example from Talmudical hermeneutics: the concept of gematria is basically the allotment of numerical weights to words. The Hebrew word “chai” (“life”) is composed of two letters that add up to 18, whereby it has become customary that during Jewish celebrations, gifts in the form of money be multiples of $18. In another example, the translation in Hebrew of the Latin proverb “in vino veritas” is “wine entered, secret went out” – the gematric value of wine is said to be the same as for secret (70), meaning that within the Jewish community, the proverb “had to be true“.
Even though the application of such a complex-sounding label seems redundant to an activity we subconsciously perform every day, hermeneutics as such requires a lot of study in order to wholly grasp the importance of its relationship with linguistic structures and linguistics in general. The incomplete understanding of a language not only has dire impacts on one’s future but also on the interpretations of one’s past, as is obvious: the myriad allowed styles of writing, rather exposition, imply the flexibility that English alone offers, and it is only by knowing the social construct and the socio-political mood of the period can one come to a decision as to whether the style of the written-record matches the norms of the period or whether it deliberately deviates. Deviations in style, as a matter of principle, cannot be construed as mistakes for they are very hard to produce by accident. That is one. The next issue lies in the fact that most languages, if not all, employ figuratives as metaphors – and to know where the figurative is derived from, one must, once again, be well versed with the “mood” of the times. To a culture unto which daylight is anathema, references to the sun or the brightness of the sun should be deemed as pejorative metaphors; on the other hand, for a culture that worships the sun, it becomes unsure if a reference to the moon is a reference to blight or perhaps just the absence of goodness. However, in either case, the practices and traditions of the culture need to be known to the fullest so that the number of interpretations can be lowered, as well as securing the truisms of each interpretation.
The principles of hermeneutics do not just hold for history, but for contemporary works as well. When you read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, you will see that the language employed is much more dense and offers descriptions in depth; the same goes for Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon: this is done so to reduce the number of interpretations possible – they are works of the fantasy genre, so a wrong interpretation could completely deviate from the mindset the author is trying to invoke or evoke. Conflicting and controversial interpretations arise when the language is simple and does not utilize words that are stronger and suffused with more meaning – while many may opt for texts with simpler words, one has to reconcile that, with a more “children-oriented”/juvenile style, though the number of interpretations may no longer be limited, there also exists a subliminal sense of discouragement in arriving at so many interpretations: this eventually makes the work a short and quick read.
At this juncture, it is important to note the role that hermeneutics play – versing oneself with its intricacies and the thought tools is an exigent task as well as quite a reinforcing one. Today, we satiate ourselves with only knowing the superficial facts about anything, choosing to shelve the fuel it provides for “deep thought” for a later fire. By even just being aware of such a field, make it a habit to employ your mental resources to the fullest – you will discover more the world as well as earn an objectivity that others often find lacking in themselves.