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German 115: Final
Professor McCumber

Prolegomena to a Hegelian Hermeneutics

It takes a great listener to hear what is said, a greater one to hear what was
not said but what comes to light in the speaking.1

The natural tendency of one approaching G. W. F. Hegels Phenomenology of

Spirit is to assume that it holds, or proposes, a position of metaphysical veracity.

That is to say, that the words within the book describe an independently existing

state of affairs, thus making Hegel a cosmic architect of faithful recreation. A slight

modification upon this same structure leads into another conventional

interpretation of Hegels Phenomenology, with more empirically grounded

consequences, wherein Hegel is thought to be propounding a historical system

applying to how world events transpire and develop over time. This view also

appraises Hegel as a thinker with eyes to the imminent world, rather than a

transcendent metaphysic, with the Phenomenology acting as a map. Lastly, one could

readily see the Phenomenology depicting what it seems to depict: Geistmind or

spirit. Situating Hegel in the lineage of his titanic predecessor Immanuel Kant, this

view of Hegels system as the working out of the historically formed categorical

structure of our own minds2 is perhaps most accessible should one be at a loss for

grasping what exactly Hegel is talking about in the Phenomenology.

1 Richard E. Palmer, Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey,

Heidegger, and Gadamer (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1969),

p. 234.
2 John McCumber; The Company of Words: Hegel, Language, and Systematic

Philosophy (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1993), p. 19.


All of these interpretations, however, maintain a correspondence between

what is statedthe language of the Phenomenologyand what is referred tothe

contentsuch that the language refers to a content beyond itself, be it a

metaphysical process, a historical principle, or a structure of mind. Aligning myself

with the reading of Hegel offered by John McCumber, I wish to instead view the

Phenomenology as a piece with an eye to the linguistic turn of philosophy,

conscious of itself as a work grounded and played out in language, and thus within

itself. In this sense, however, I wish to introduce the insights of a philosophical

movement having its roots in the Hegelian system, and (if the linguistic emphasis be

granted) takes up the Hegelian project in this linguistic spirit: hermeneutics.

Comprising the theory of interpretation, hermeneutics stands as a beacon of

illumination for deciphering and properly appreciating the abysmal depths present

within a text as anfractuous and beguiling as the Phenomenology. David E. Linge, in

his introduction to Hans-Georg Gadamers Philosophical Hermeneutics, writes,

Hegel sought to show that every new achievement of knowledge is a mediation or

refocusing of the past within a new and expanded context,3 and I aim to present

that notion in fuller detail albeit in narrative fashion.

I will take three scenesthe battle to the death (~188); the appointment of

the mediator (~226); and reconciliation through forgiveness (~669)to

illustrate three core senses in which the Greek root of hermeneutics, hermeneuein,

3 David E. Linge in Hans-Georg Gadamers Philosophical Hermeneutics (Berkeley:

University of California Press, 2004), pp. xxxix-xl.


can be understood4 and how the Phenomenology encounters these senses through

explicit tableaux such as the ones I highlight. Each section will develop beyond these

rudimentary senses, weaving together modern hermeneutical concerns considered

in conjunction with the Phenomenology itself. But first, some remarks on the nature

of hermeneutics.

Propaedeutical Remarks

Hermeneutics is the theory of interpretation, particularly as it relates to the

experience of understanding of what is given. While hermeneutics, broadly

conceived, can apply to verbal, written, and nonverbal communication alike, the

central emphasis is given to texts and understanding the meaning of texts. An

exercise in hermeneutical method is often exegetical, as this paper intends to be.

Some key elements of hermeneutic theory, whose centrality is shared with Hegel,

are concerns with historicism, perspectivity, the limits/horizon5 of understanding,

and recognition. Historicism relates specifically to historical situatedness, bringing

sociohistorical context to bear on the understanding of a text as well as recognizing

where that text stands in relation to its preceding literary influence as well as its

succeeding literary legacy. There is, then, an acknowledgement of relativity or

perspectivity within hermeneutic theory, that a given author occupies a single

standpoint relative to the entire web of relevant texts and contexts, past and

present. Moreover, the awareness of history entails an awareness of the

4 As demonstrated in Palmer, pp. 12-32. Ill be following the organization while

loosely following the content itself.

5 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), p.


permutation of meaning: that a standpoint can shift in relation to the ever-evolving

circumstances within which understanding takes place.

Beyond the relation of the text to its producing circumstances lies the central

mode by which understanding comes about, and that is dialogue. Dialogue takes

place between the reader and the text, as two standpoints interacting with different

limits of understanding present in and relative to each, called the horizon within

Gadamers hermeneutics. When I read something I am confronting a body of

expressions which possess strict denotative meanings (or definitions), contextual

meanings based upon the coherence and unity of the work as a whole (as well as

relating to the sociohistorical conditions in which it was produced), and finally

dialogic meanings which arise from how my understanding works through the

standpoint presented within the text.

This process aims at the refinement and exploration of dialogic meaning,

made possible by the lower strata of meanings, with a broadening or fusion of

horizons coming about as a result of an earnest encounter with the given text.

When we start with the conditions that pertain to all dialogue, writes Palmer,

when we turn away from rationalism, metaphysics, and morality and examine the

concrete, actual situation involved in understanding, then we have the starting point

for a viable hermeneutics that can serve as a core6 for more specialized varieties of

interpretation, such as literary criticism. This fusion of horizons through dialogue

mirrors the notion of truth as a result of self-developmenta critical

epistemological claim driving the Phenomenology. By its very nature, hermeneutic

6 Palmer, p. 85.

experience partakes of a dynamic dialecticality7 made possible by the fact that any

situation, and especially situations of understanding, contain the conditions that

make questioning possible. I shall provide a narrative which weaves these

hermeneutic themes with the material of the Phenomenology before concluding with

the hermeneutical import of the text itself.

To Say/Struggle

Remaining as faithful to triadic organization as Hegelian material warrants,

Ill treat of three scenes in the evolution of consciousness and Spirit in their relation

to three definitions of hermeneutics as provided by Greek antiquitythose being

to express/say; to explain; and to translate. This first section will deal with the

former most, concerning expression or speech. As McCumber avers in his linguistic

reading of Hegel, evidenced by furtive moments in the Phenomenology where Hegel

regards the medium of language as the sole arena of intersubjectivity and

presentation8, the grasp of words and their power to incite and inspire, manipulate

and elevate, lies at the heart of hermeneutic experience. In the first place must come

the assertion or proclamation: that I attest to this, I give form to this meaning found

latently within myself, and as such I place myself into this arena of language as a

standpoint from which this language is understood. Whatever the claim may bebe

7 Palmer, p. 233.
8 E.g. Language is self-consciousness existing for others, self-consciousness which as

such is immediately present, continuing on to be the middle term, mediating

between independent and acknowledged self-consciousnesses Hegels
Phenomenology of Spirit (PoS), trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1977), 652-3, p. 395-6. Qv. McCumbers The Company of Words for his extensive
treatment of Hegels linguistic themes.

it the superiority of chocolate ice cream to vanilla, why Vivaldis symphonies

demonstrate more technical virtuosity over Beethoven, or even a casual remark

concerning how Im feeling todaythere is a very real sense in which this claim is

vying for dominance with those of its type, if only for the fact that theres not enough

time9 to express every possible combination of words.

It is in the agon of Life, then, that the initial hermeneutic process comes to

primitive understanding, just as the two self-consciousnesses ignorant of their

common identity must butt heads in order to consume the other. [Self-

consciousness] must supersede this otherness of itself First, it must proceed to

supersede the other independent being in order thereby to become certain of

itself10 By the brute meaning of the words themselves we are given over to clash

between such brute, seemingly irresolvable elements. This is what understanding

is, declares one contestant, while the opponent declares, No, it is not this, but that

is what understanding truly is, and so a clash between forces produces only

turbulence and confusion. Amicable questioning is out of the questioninstead, it is

a question of who has the right to make their case. In the quest for dominant

understanding each standpoint stakes its own life, or tenability, engaging in this

struggle because they must raise their certainty of being for themselves to


What is required, however, is a middle term, or an arbiter of understanding

by which these extremes might come into mutual recognition. For matters of

9 The temporalism essential to both Hegel and hermeneutics will be taken up

toward the end of this paper.

10 PoS, 180, p. 111.
11 Ibid, 187, p. 114.

exegesis, one could place the text at this crux; for Hegel, portraying such matters in

abstraction, it is self-consciousness itself which splits into the extremes,12 and thus

the initial confrontation with the other is the mediation itself. Taking the text,

however, as the standard of understanding, correspondence to such an alien entity

decides a rubric for victorythe nearer one finds their standpoint in relation to the

reality of the text, the more superior one is in understanding.

Transposed to Hegels scene, semantic might makes right and thus the

overpowering contestant nearly obliterates the loser with reference to

representational content. This sort of standard, however, lacks substance and

becomes a mere matter of philology: if precise replication of a texts denotation, or

literal meaning, is all that it takes to triumph, what would interpretation be beyond

looking up terms in a dictionary? The keys to understanding are not manipulation

and control but participation and openness, not knowledge but experience, not

methodology but dialectic.13 We must turn, then, to an explicative stance, an

unpacking of the symbolic and figural meaning, for which the role of interpreter

becomes viable and valuable once again.

To Explain/Mediation

We, as a consciousness on a quest for certain understanding, approach a

given text as Unchangeablethat is, as an object of meaning whose meaning

eludes us as the interpreter and reader, antithetical to our familiar horizons. One

may grasp the literal content of a work yet still lack understanding for the fact that

12 Ibid, 182, p. 112.
13 Palmer, p. 215.

orchestration between these meanings is ambiguous or inaccessible. The tendency,

then, must be toward metaphorization: It is within a symbolic or analogical form

of thought, writes Paul Redding in Hegels Hermeneutics, that we are able to grasp

the unity of the whole.14 Thus, the reader must dissociate herself from the literal,

instead appointment a mediator for understanding, either in some associated-yet-

dissimilar concept or in a different standpoint altogether (an author of secondary

literature). The initially external relation to the incarnate Unchangeable [text] as an

alien reality has to be transformed into a relation in which it becomes absolutely

one with it.15 In other words, the meaning of the text we confront, while opaque

when taken as is, must find some point of contact with ones understanding even if

only by the explanation of someone other than oneself.

The problem which presents itself with such an approach must concern the

idea of relenting ones standpoint in favor of another. The interpreting

consciousness free[ing] itself from action and enjoyment in the experience of

understanding by taking the mediators advice on what is right.16 It is in this, when

taking the mediators standpoint as ones own and by simply assenting to whatever

explanation the mediator may give, that the interpreter begins practicing what it

does not understand,17 and regresses back to the stage of incomprehensibility and

vague complacency of literal understanding. This, however, is not desirable: instead,

14 Paul Redding, Hegels Hermeneutics (New York: Cornell University Press, 1996), p.

15 PoS, 213, p. 130.
16 Ibid, 228, pp. 136-7.
17 Ibid, 229, p. 137.

when confronting the standpoint of the mediator, one must recognize it for what it

is: a path to the understanding which had initially eluded oneself.

The explanation becomes impetus for pushing the limits of ones

understanding such that the meaning behind the obscurity of the initial textual

standpoint reveals itself, even if only as a fragment or a new limit, where instead of

laying hold of the essence, [the interpreter] only feels it18 The sacrifice of ones

standpoint, by the appointment of the mediator, is done tentatively, for [o]nly

through this actual sacrifice could it demonstrate [the] self-renunciation19

necessary for recognition of the meaning and understanding striven for. Entitlement

to limited understanding naturally gives way to an acknowledgement of these limits,

and through this one develops toward sincere understanding via


To Translate/Forgiveness

Passing from the brute expression or saying to the mediation of explanation,

understanding inevitably aims at the translation of the meaning of the given work

into the understanding of the person encountering that work, thus resituating the

text into living circumstances through participation in the hermeneutic experience.

In the scenes of forgiveness, which concludes the section on Morality, there is

directly manifested a recurrent Hegelian theme where the effort to realize an

18 Ibid, 217, p. 131.
19 Ibid, 229, p. 137.

intention [or a project of understanding] will lead a subject into a situation where it

attains a new perspective on that initial intention.20

By the mutual recognition of independent subjects as identical in kind, as

demonstrated in the forgiveness of the evil, acting consciousness by the beautiful

soul, a genuine communion of understandings is brought to bear on either

standpoint. This communion is analogous to the translation of meaning from the

text itself into the scope of understanding of the interpreter, developing the

interpreters horizon while accessing the meaning that formerly denied itself to the

reader21a fusion of horizons. Taken within the hermeneutic narrative Ive

provided, such a revaluation and shift in standpoints, brought about by the

expanded horizon of understanding which integrates textual relevancy, is the truth

that such a process seeks. Palmer succinctly captures this: the union of text and

interpreter overcomes the historical estrangement of the text, a union made

possible by a common ground in being (that is, in language and history).22

Anchoring into the scene of forgiveness, it is the expression of judgment on

behalf of the observing consciousness which opens the door for the subsequent

reconciliatory understanding. By this testimony of the others evilnessthis

interpretation of the act of the other consciousnessthe divide between these

20 Redding, p. 106, fn. 12.
21 This experience must be bilateral for the fact that understanding, and the growth

of understanding, resides precisely at the point of contact between the

hermeneuticist and the text. What is striven for is the reconciliation of one to the
other, such that each changes in the light of this encounter: the text as having been
examined for its greatest depth and relocation into developing contexts; the reader
as having renounced former certainty or ignorance in favor of newfound
22 Palmer, p. 244.

standpoints is made actual in language,23 returning at last to the affinities between

the linguistic Hegel and hermeneutics, reach[ing] deeply into the question of reality

and the nature of our participation in language.24 Were it not for the language

which mediates the inner perspective of infinite possibility, an escape from the level

of literal determination or particularity (and ever-consuming struggle) would be

impossible. We can now recognize, writes Linge, that in its life as dialogue

language is the medium in which understanding occurs,25 with language itself

constituting meaning, and thus any meaningful standpoint as well. A confrontation

of standpoints is then ultimately negotiable via language itselfthe limits of

language thus encompassing the total possible horizon of any understanding. A

hermeneutic Hegel is not so far off from Wittgenstein, then, when he stated that,

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.26 The hermeneutic

reconciliation, then, must be a working out of language beyond a sense of

representation and into the realm of self-aware curiosity and intersubjectivity.

Concluding Remarks on Reference and Time

The Phenomenology, construed as a metaphysical system, proposes a process

by which the inquiring mind might transcend the temporal confines of the

experienced world and reach out into the absolute knowledge of some idealized

Godhead. To see if this project is realized, we must turn to the grand finale of those

23 PoS, 653, p. 396.
24 Palmer, 65.
25 Linge, p. xl.
26 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in Major Works (New York:

HarperCollins, 2009), prop. 5.6, p. 63.


final pages of Absolute Knowing. Hegel explains that the self-supersession of the

object, which is revealed to be the externalization of self-consciousness that posits

the thinghood [of the object], results in consciousnesss communion with itself in

its otherness as such. Equally, and this point is crucial in tying in to a hermeneutic

reading, consciousness must have related itself to the object in accordance with the

totality of the latters determinations and have thus grasped it from the standpoint

of each of them27 [emphasis added]. Rather than bursting forth into some

transcendent realm, the Phenomenology collapses in on itself, tying each critical

term and phase of itself into a dizzying array of identity-relations. Finally, the

biggest punchline perpetrated on philosophical thought by a text which has

mystified millions of people since its publication: the very object that the

Phenomenology refers to is itself.

Hegel, when leading to his conclusion concerning the objects tri-level self-

mediation, recapitulates the development of the Phenomenology and thus sees no

gap between the pathway of consciousness in the Phenomenology and the self-

mediation of the object: they are one and the same thing.28 The Phenomenology,

then, in an act of prestidigitation to rival God itself, created a text existing in a

hermeneutical vacuum, with a unifying reference solely to itself and thus teaching

philosophy to speak German. Comparable to Finnegans Wake in both composition

and ambition, The Phenomenology of Spirit poses fascinating and fertile problems for

the hermeneutic perspective. For one, it is a work that recognizes itself as

27 PoS, 788, p. 479.
28 McCumber, Time and Philosophy (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press,

2011), p. 41.

essentially a process, not as a static image of meaning that can be readily deciphered

into some constituent bits of information (though it can be that too).

It is a work not of philosophy as once conceived, but of art (despite the

clunky prose), meant to be engaged with unreservedly, a perpetual challenge to

ones understanding by its very self-referentialitya book literally about nothing

other than itself and its own language. Despite, or perhaps because of this, its

application and influence has been phenomenal, recasting an entire tradition of

thought in its wake. Its hermeneutic scope, in the most thoroughly paradoxical and

amusing sense, is practically infinite, applying to nearly any phenomena, text, or

system of thought. It is as though, by the emptiness at its core, it has achieved the

infinite in its becoming a metatext. In this sense, as a piece of writing, it transcends

the boundary between philosophical treatise and experimental literature, situating

itself even closer to Gadamers hermeneutic outset in his magnum opus Truth and


The Phenomenology, on McCumbers account, is an exercise in fully

abandoning atemporal presuppositions and instead situating knowledge and

understanding firmly within time, playing itself out via its own organic self-

grounded movement.29 The value in a hermeneutic approach, then, must be one of

reconciling oneself to the fact of this texts holographythat is, by coming to a fuller

grasp of ones critical and interpretive presuppositions in relation to a text of this

caliber, the synthetic power of the understanding develops exponentially and

connections between the text and self occur spontaneously. To read the

29 PoS, 805, p. 491.

Phenomenology is to become part of a process that transcribes and hypostatizes

hermeneutic experience itself, as it was inscribed by Hegel and as it is received by

the reader at the very moment of their encountering it. Our own act here has been

simply to gather together the separate moments, each of which in principle exhibits

the life of Spirit in its entirety,30 reflecting the content of ceaseless determinations

and implacable temporality to such an extent that it almost seems as if this text had

pierced the impenetrable veil that divides time from eternity.

Ive sought to sketch a narrative which depicts, in the Phenomenology while

paralleled by hermeneutics, the development from conflict to alienation to

resolution. It should come as no surprise that Gadamer, the core architect of

philosophical hermeneutics, had deep affinities for Hegel, whose phenomenology of

understanding parallels Hegels phenomenology of Geist. In the fusion of

horizons which is the core of hermeneutical experience, some elements of ones own

horizon are negated and others affirmed; some elements in the horizon of the text

recede and others come forward31 in an act of demythologizing. Hegel ought be

heeded on this account: The self-knowing Spirit knows not only itself but also the

negative of itself, or its limit; to know ones limit is to know how to sacrifice oneself,

and this sacrifice is accession to the free contingent happening32 of time itself.

Beyond finding and holding fast to some immortal truth which explains

anything and everything, we must come to see ourselves as beings of language in

30 Ibid, 797, p. 485.
31 Palmer, p. 244.
32 PoS, 807, p. 492.

transition, as processes in the event of disclosure,33 whose cultures and beliefs can

slip away as easily as a desert consumes a village. As hermeneutical subjects we

must not bombard [a text] with questions but [rather] understand the question it

puts to the reader, to understand the question behind the text, the question that

called the text into being,34 ever-refined by our belonging to and participation in

the process of language itself. Our task may never be complete, in this regard, for the

goal of the task is the task itself, in carrying it out to the best of our abilities and as

true to our horizon of meaning as each moment enables. It takes a Hegelian heart to

find solace in this fact; it takes a hermeneutic eye to tie everything in sight back to

that core.

33 Palmer, p. 209.
34 Ibid, p. 250.