The Fusion of Rhetoric and Hermeneutics

At first glance, rhetoric and hermeneutics are quite different things. Rhetoric deals with argument and persuasion, hermeneutics with examination and understanding. But, if we look more closely, they comingle in a way that makes them inseparable.

AltOriginal abstract painting by Vanessa Ives

To begin, both rhetorical and hermeneutical reflection take the form of considering existing practice (21).1 Already in the earliest surviving rhetorical theory from Plato and Aristotle, the theoretical discussion takes the form of reflection on rhetorical practice (21–22). Similarly, the Sophists and Socrates both manifest a concern for an “art of understanding,” even if this is not a full-fledged hermeneutical theory in its own right (22).

In addition, “the theoretical tools of the art of interpretation (hermeneutics) have been to a large extent borrowed from rhetoric” (24). Characteristically, rhetoric “defends the probable” and refuses to admit for acceptance only what can be fully proven empirically (24). And such too is the nature of interpretation.

Rhetoric is everywhere and even directs empiricism, as when science finds in “usefulness” a reason for taking up a particular line of research (24).2 And “no less universal is the function of hermeneutics” because “everything … is included in the realm of ‘understandings’ and understandability in which we move” (24–25).

In this way,

the rhetorical and hermeneutical aspects of human linguisticality completely interpenetrate each other. There would be no speaker and no art of speaking if understanding and consent were not in question, were not underlying elements; there would be no hermeneutical task if there were no understanding that has been disturbed and that those involved in a conversation must search for and find again together. (25)

Understanding comes about by dialog, even if it is only a dialog among oneself, a text, and the tradition that mediates between these two. Even here, as we seek to move past disruptions in this dialog and explain well what we observe, we expose a fundamentally rhetorical character of that dialog.

In what other ways do rhetoric and hermeneutics seem to be fundamentally united?


  1. Page numbers by themselves indicate citations from H.-G. Gadamer, “On the Scope and Function of Hermeneutical Reflection,” in Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. and ed. David E. Linge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 18–43. 
  2. See also Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). 

Theology’s Hermeneutic Interest

Photograph of H. G. GadamerH.-G. Gadamer concludes his essay on “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem” by commenting on the importance of language, with an interestingly theological turn. Gadamer suggests,

The … building up of our own world in language persists whenever we want to say something to each other. The result is the actual relationship of men to each other…. Genuine speaking, which has something to say and hence does not give prearranged signals, but rather seeks words through which one reaches the other person, is the universal human task – but it is a special task for the theologian, to whom is commissioned the saying-further (Weitersagen) of a message that stands written. (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 17)

To be sure, Christian Scripture and the broader Christian tradition can and do speak for themselves. But, it is doubtless specially incumbent upon those with vocations in theology, biblical studies, preaching, and other Christian education areas to see to the passing on of this testimony and to its interpretation in various contemporary milieux.

For other reflections by and on Gadamer, see also previous posts on his thought.

The Hermeneutic Productivity of the Familiar

Photograph of H. G. GadamerIn his essay on “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem,” H.-G. Gadamer draws upon Aristotle’s analogy between an army halting its retreat and the experience of coming to understanding. The halt may be so gradual that an observer can say when individuals within the army stop fleeing, but it’s more difficulty to say when the army as a whole has stopped its flight (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 14).

This situation Gadamer likens to the acquisition of language by children and comments,

In the utilization of the linguistic interpretation of the world that finally comes about [for adults], something of the productivity of our beginnings remains alive. We are all acquainted with this, for instance, in the attempt to translate … that is, we are familiar with the strange, uncomfortable, and tortuous feeling we have so long as we do not have the right word. When we have found the right expression … when we are certain that we have it … then something has come to a “stand” [as the army in Aristotle’s analogy]. Once again we have a halt in the midst of the rush of the foreign language…. What I am describing is the mode of the whole human experience of the world…. There is always a world already interpreted, already organized in its basic relations, into which experience steps as something new, upsetting what has led our expectations and undergoing reorganization itself in the upheaval. Misunderstanding and strangeness are not the first factors, so that avoiding misunderstanding can be regarded as the specific task of hermeneutics. Just the reverse is the case. Only the support of familiar and common understanding makes possible the venture into the alien, the lifting up of something out of the alien, and thus the broadening and enriching of our own experience in the world. (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 15)

From the morass of the unfamiliar and strange, humans seem to acquire language or other forms of understanding—to the extent that we do—by means of what are or come to be known quantities, whether as a parent or caregiver, or based on other accumulated prior experience. Our efforts to cope with a “surging sea of stimuli” halt their flight, they come to a stand, once that sea finds its own place—and itself comes to stand—within our understanding of the world, which has quite possibly been broadened for the experience (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 14).

For other reflections by and on Gadamer, see also previous posts on his thought.