The concept of the hermeneutic circle is a difficult concept to grasp. In the history of philosophy, and particularly in contemporary philosophy, the term "hermeneutic circle" has been used to refer to several different things. Those in the field of literary criticism may understand the term to refer to a process of interpreting texts such as novels and plays. More philosophy-minded individuals, especially those who follow the developments of the continental branch of philosophy, may think of the hermeneutic circle as a phenomenological approach to understanding the world around us. Both of these understandings of the term are correct within their respective contexts, but, in order to come to a full understanding of the term in all its subtlety, it's necessary to understand how the term developed throughout the history of thought.
What is Hermeneutics?
The term "hermeneutics" has been in use since ancient Greek philosophy. Both Plato and Aristotle made occasional use of the word in referring to various types of understanding. It was only later, though, that hermeneutics came to be regarded as its own discipline or sub-discipline. In its most basic form, hermeneutics is the art and science of interpretation. From antiquity through approximately the late 18th century, this was the only meaning of the word. Several writers, including Thomas Aquinas and the Italian philosopher Giambattisto Vico, had theories of hermeneutics, meaning theories about how texts should be interpreted in order to best understand their meaning. Today, the term hermeneutics has other meanings in addition to this one, but the classical meaning forms the foundation of all recent developments in the field.
What is the Hermeneutic Circle?
The idea of a hermeneutic circle has to do with the process of interpreting a text. According to philosophers such as Benedict de Spinoza, interpreting a text, such as the Bible, requires the reader to take into account the parts of the text individually along with considering how they fit into the whole. For example, in order to properly interpret scripture, the student must consider the meaning of individual verses and ask how that meaning is informed by the structure of the whole. Only by keeping these things in mind can a truly objective interpretation be reached. The individual parts of the text also inform the understanding of the whole, so, the interpreter moves back and forth between the whole and the part. This repeated interpretive process is the original hermeneutic circle. In the realm of textual interpretation, the circle has also been understood as a process of interpreting whole texts (as the parts) with regard to their place in historical tradition (the whole).
Heidegger's Hermeneutic Circle
In the centuries following Spinoza's development of the hermeneutic circle idea, many other thinkers developed the idea and pushed the field of hermeneutics beyond the realm of textual interpretation. German philosopher Martin Heidegger is a central figure in this development; Heidegger proposed a process called philosophical hermeneutics, whereby human existence itself could be understood and interpreted using something like the hermeneutic circle. Instead of moving from the text to the context, philosophical hermeneutics moves from the individual to the world. An individual, according to Heidegger, can only be understood in the context of the world he or she inhabits. This is a simplification of a very important development in the history of philosophy, but regarding the term hermeneutic circle, it is sufficient to see how the philosophical hermeneutic circle of individual to world parallels the original text to context circle.
Today, most developments in the field of hermeneutics follow the path indicated by Heidegger's developments. However, other versions of the hermeneutic circle have been proposed. For example, Hans-Georg Gadamer, one of Heidegger's students and a major figure in the history of hermeneutics, understood the hermeneutic circle as a movement between the individual reader and a text, such that the part-to-whole interplay is formed by the interaction between the interpreter and the interpretive tradition. Still other uses are possible, but it is the part-to-whole facet of the hermeneutic circle that is most important to understanding what people mean when they use this term.