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Interpreting Environments

Interpreting Environments
Tradition, Deconstruction, Hermeneutics

In this pioneering book, Robert Mugerauer seeks to make deconstruction and hermeneutics accessible to people in the environmental disciplines, including architecture, planning, urban studies, environmental studies, and cultural geography.

January 1995
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232 pages | 6 x 9 1/4 | 45 b&w illus. |

In this pioneering book, Robert Mugerauer seeks to make deconstruction and hermeneutics accessible to people in the environmental disciplines, including architecture, planning, urban studies, environmental studies, and cultural geography.

Mugerauer demonstrates each methodology through a case study. The first study uses the traditional approach to recover the meaning of Jung's and Wittgenstein's houses by analyzing their historical, intentional contexts. The second case study utilizes deconstruction to explore Egyptian, French neoclassical, and postmodern attempts to use pyramids to constitute a sense of lasting presence. And the third case study employs hermeneutics to reveal how the American understanding of the natural landscape has evolved from religious to secular to ecological since the nineteenth century.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Traditional Approaches: Wittgenstein's and Jung's Lives, Work, and Houses
    • Facing Uncertain Meanings and Traditions
    • Wittgenstein's Restlessness
    • Jung's Quest for Wholeness
    • Alternatives for Contemporary Existence
  • 2. Deconstruction: Pyramid as Posture and Strategy
    • Deconstructing Pyramids
    • Egyptian Pyramids
    • French Neoclassic Pyramids
    • Postmodern Pyramids
  • 3. Hermeneutic Retrieval: American Nature as Paradise
    • America Religiously Understood
    • A Natural Paradise Already Given
    • Paradise Promised: Wilderness to Be Converted
    • Secular Echoes in Landscape Architecture and Environmental Attitudes
    • The Hidden and Disclosure
  • Postscript
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Robert Mugerauer teaches in the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, where he also is a faculty member in Philosophy, Geography, and American Studies.


Although we too often take for granted the built and natural environments in which we live, we do attend to them when they aggravate or please, and at times we become fascinated with them. When going about our business and enjoying our leisure, and especially when traveling, we encounter buildings and landscapes from other times and places and wonder, "How could they live like that?" or perhaps, "Why don't we do things that way?" In our civic lives we debate whether neighborhoods, public places, cities, and whole regions should change, and if so, how. Apparently, people disagree not only about how things should be but even about how they are (or were).

Some of us have found these issues so engaging that we have chosen careers in environmental disciplines and professions, but nearly everyone spends some time trying to figure out why environments are the way they are, how they might be otherwise, and what difference it would make if they were. Such questions are both inherently interesting and practically critical, because we are intrigued by the world's variety and because historical environments manifest our basic hopes and fears. Answering these questions requires us not only to articulate what we desire to achieve for ourselves and to leave for others but also to assess the cultural and physical barriers to these goals. Thus, the environment stimulates imagination and critical analysis as we ponder our own and others' daily routines, extraordinary experiences, and past and future ways of living—that is, alternative visions of the cosmos and orientations in the world.

Just beneath the surface of these issues are complex, contested theoretical questions about what sorts of meaning environments might have and practical questions about how we might discover and apply such meanings. Today these problems are especially pressing, even confusing, because we are in the midst of pluralistic, skeptical, and radical challenges to the assumptions and approaches traditionally used for environmental interpretation.

The scope of these challenges, then, provides the primary motive for this set of essays: as a philosopher who has migrated to teaching and research in architecture, planning, geography, and American studies, I am responding to colleagues and students from a variety of environmental disciplines who want to understand the fashionable—almost mandatory—Continental methodologies such as deconstruction and hermeneutics. Although keenly interested, many such individuals simultaneously are frustrated by these approaches' neglect of the physical environment and tired of trying to adapt the strategies and vocabulary of literary interpretation for use in discussing environmental issues. Researchers at all levels of accomplishment regularly ask, "Why and how would deconstruction be important to my work?"; "Hermeneutics seems so vague and difficult; how would I use it?"; or "How can I decide whether these approaches are preferable to traditional methodologies?" It is frustratingly hard for such individuals to master the theory and apply it to the environment without clear, sustained examples in their own areas of interest and expertise. This book is meant to remedy that situation by providing a kind of handbook of traditional, deconstructive, and hermeneutic interpretation.

My goal is to show how traditional, deconstructive, and hermeneutic approaches go about interpreting the environment, not to compare, evaluate, or judge the alternatives or to persuade readers of the merits and deficiencies of each. Thus, in each essay the position that has the floor speaks with its own voice and intention. There is no cumulative argument, no overall thesis to be proven. My own view is absent—as it is for many a teacher. Readers can make up their own minds about whether or how to proceed with these exceedingly dense approaches.

Some readers—those who are already familiar with the approaches or interested not in more theory but only in any differences that can be discerned in practicing interpretation—can skip most of this introduction. Perhaps a quick glance at the final section, which provides a guide to the book's organization, might be useful. The reader can then proceed to whatever chapter seems most interesting or relevant.

Other readers may prefer to have a kind of primer of the three contending approaches. Certainly, a sense of the historical situation, of the main areas of agreement and disagreement among the tradition, deconstruction, and hermeneutics, will make the import of the different interpretations clearer. Because in the three interpretive chapters I do not pause to describe or explain the theories being applied, readers wanting to understand the three approaches' main features, their beliefs, strategies, and points of contention, can read through the introduction and then move on either through the book or to whatever chapter seems to be the most appropriate.

The Historical Context

The inaccessibility of contemporary theory that environmental researchers and professionals experience is due in large part to the interpretative methodologies' diffusion patterns and overwhelmingly linguistic emphasis. In the 1970s philosophers and philosophically trained theorists began a major shift away from traditional approaches and formalism. This revolutionary work by Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and others soon spread to the closely related fields of literary theory and criticism and comparative literature because it privileged language and provided strategies for reading that offered an almost entirely new way of making sense out of texts—a desirable prospect to experienced scholars who wanted a fresh way to teach and to all who appreciated that these new approaches would let them produce new readings of canonical texts and would require a new cohort of academic specialists. The movement further spread to other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences concerned with "writing culture," such as history, sociology, and anthropology, and then to area studies and, less successfully, art history.

During the 1980s a second wave of work sought to build on or displace the first. Postmodernism and poststructuralism arrived as at least vaguely understood descriptors. Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Michel de Certeau, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva developed the historical, psychological, economic, social, political, and gender dimensions of processes and practices in the postmodern post-subject/object era. In response, Jürgen Habermas and Alasdair MacIntyre argued, respectively, on behalf of the modern and classical traditions.

An unexpected and energizing war of ideas was under way, but it did not spread across all academic disciplines and professional practices uniformly. Only after the linguistically based disciplines had substantially shifted did architecture, urban planning, environmental design, landscape studies, and cultural geography gradually begin to push beyond the dominant emphasis on language and textuality and pick up on the relatively obscure redefinitions of things, space, and the built environment contained in the new approaches. Even then, however, the newer methods of the 1970s and 1980s were not immediately used, because more familiar varieties of Marxism and phenomenology already were being used to explicate space and built environments. Naturally, in the hothouse that was nurturing theory, the already planted approaches blossomed quickly and were the first to bear fruit for environmental research.

The Marxist-inspired work included Walter Benjamin's analyses of urban life, cities, and streets that became easily available to English speakers with the publication of Reflections in 1978; his famous, fragmentary Arcades Project was never finally finished but was published as a "reconstruction" in 1989. Henri Lefebvre's Everyday Life in the Modern World was translated in 1971; that out-of-print work has just been reissued and his Production of Space made available in English. Fredric Jameson has especially influenced architects and planners since the late 1980s; David Harvey and Edward Soja both published major works in 1989 that develop poststructuralist interpretations of culturally constituted space; Denis Cosgrove and his colleagues produced several books at the end of the 1980s. Thus, although Marxist-connected approaches to space, buildings, and landscapes have been present all along, the major impact of these cultural critiques and analyses of postmodernism is just now broadly rippling through the environmental and spatial disciplines.

Strong advances also were made in the phenomenology of place and environment. Christian Norberg-Schulz was among the first to open a sphere for Heidegger's influence in architecture and landscape in the late 1970s and early 1980s Karsten Harries, a philosopher at Yale teaching and writing about architecture, also made an early, seminal impact and consolidated phenomenology's importance for architecture. In geography and behavioral-environmental research, Anne Buttimer, Edward Relph, and David Seamon have made valuable contributions and reached a wide audience for over a decade. Paradoxically perhaps, their very success in adapting phenomenology to the study of place, environment, and dwelling led researchers to remain with phenomenology and not go on to examine the more radical approaches of hermeneutics or deconstruction.

Today, even as the phenomenological and Marxist-based interpretations become accessible and the newer modes of thought spread, the difficulty of hermeneutics, deconstruction, and poststructuralist approaches remains a fundamental problem for environmental professionals. Heidegger's thought, for example, is notoriously opaque and nonlinear. Even many professional philosophers say he makes no sense. Heidegger's followers, such as Gadamer, are only a bit easier. Movements such as Derrida's deconstruction seem even more arbitrary or centripetal and disturbingly skeptical, if not cynical. And with the very latest and exotic work appearing as quickly as the publication industry can put it in print, it seems impossible to catch up, much less keep up.

For all this, at least the ideas are available: the primary works are being translated and published and reliable secondary sources are beginning to appear—some of the latter even written by environmental professionals, although it is often obvious that they have their theory at second hand.

To present thorough interpretations, I limit myself to providing a heuristic guide to the three major approaches—the tradition, deconstruction, and hermeneutics—because giving short examples of all the proliferating methodological varieties would only replicate the current, confusing situation. The simplification is further warranted because these three powerful approaches provide the fundamental alternatives that the proliferating exotics elaborate.

Even if the methodologies themselves are increasingly intelligible, however, it still is not clear how they apply to the built environment rather than to language, texts, and psychological-sociological practices. Although scholars are starting to work out the possibilities of these methodologies, especially in graduate-level university research and avant-garde journals such as Assemblage and Threshold, the available analysis of buildings and landscapes is fragmentary, scattered, and sometimes superficial or untrustworthy. All the activity has produced only a few sustained analyses that join theoretical mastery to professional familiarity with the built environment, especially with regard to non-avant-garde work. Remarkably, sustained examples applying the two most powerful recent approaches, hermeneutics and deconstruction, to the environment are not available.

When asked how theory would change environmental interpretation, criticism, and practice, practitioners of hermeneutics and deconstruction can point to only a handful of primary examples: Heidegger's overcited passages on the Greek temple in "The Origin of the Work of Art" and on the Black Forest farm buildings and the fourfold of earth, heavens, mortals, and divinities in "Building Dwelling Thinking" and Derrida's less well known comments on pyramids, his work with Peter Eisenman on a folly for Bernard Tschumi's Parc de la Villette in Paris, or his comments on unbuilt deconstructive architectural designs.

Deconstruction, although not hermeneutics, additionally repels environmental researchers with its view that texts and practices are finally infra-referential cultural artifacts without any ultimate extratextual reference to an assumed "external reality." Such a hermetic vision, even if it embraces the play of all historically significant signifiers, does not obviously apply to buildings and mountainsides, which appear to be a "primary external reality," secondarily re-presented by poems, diaries, paintings, and so on. Thus, insofar as hermeneutics and deconstruction both focus on "texts" and the latter argues something close to the position that all the world is "language-signifier," the environmental disciplines are not immediately engaged.

The Three Alternatives

There are historical and principled reasons for these three approaches having developed as they have and commanding the stage of today's debates about what texts and environments mean, what interpretive work is good, and who will succeed professionally. Both the history and the "logic" of the principled differences order the three approaches in particular ways, although I deliberately follow none of these in arranging the chapters, to avoid tacitly agreeing with any one of the "metathinkings."

The Tradition

Traditional Western interpretation of the arts and the built environment has remained vital because it focuses on two basic relationships that humanly produced works have to their natural and cultural contexts. As described in time-tested metaphors, what we make and interpret is both a "mirror" and a "lamp," because it reflects the reality from which it derives and creatively illuminates that reality.

Throughout the variations of twenty-five centuries of explicit aesthetic and critical theory, the basic foundation remains the same: what we make has meaning because of its extrinsic relations. Plato analyzed and described metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical relationships in terms of hierarchy and participation. He argued that what is humanly fashioned re-presents ideal forms; our ability to discern the differences between the timeless ideals and changing temporal and spatial appearances initiates a circle, or upward spiral, of understanding, enabling us to come closer to excellence.

Aristotle put the same idea in terms of principles of intelligibility, or causes. He held that we could understand what we make (techne and poesis) in terms of the efficient source or human agent responsible for it, its form, its materials, and its final goal or function. Both theories involved the framework that has been developed since: understanding a work depends on interpreting it in the light of its origin or creation, its forms, materials, and content, and its ethical and intellectual impulse back to social, natural, and perhaps sacred reality.

In the Enlightenment the concept of representation was transformed, with differing emphases, in the United Kingdom and on the Continent. David Hume and Edmund Burke shifted attention to an anthropological or psychological correlation between made objects and our private and social experiences. Hume spoke of meanings in terms of our sensory perceptions and our idiosyncratic and shared customs of association and judgment. Burke analyzed environmental responses to what we call the beautiful and sublime in terms of fundamental emotions such as fear, pleasure, and love.

Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, in analyzing the relation of consciousness to sensory data in generating coherent experiences, worked out the manner in which environmental objects have meaning by representing previously made cultural forms and types. Architecture, he argued, represents not naturally occurring forms but the humanly invented, which has no precedent in nature—doors, arches, temples, and so on. G. W. F. Hegel moved back to the metaphysical tradition in arguing that meaning is generated precisely by absolute Mind (ultimate reality) historically manifesting itself in and through cultural products. Architecture, broadly understood, manifests the phases of the unity of spiritual meaning and material forms in such a way that the epochal changes of what we build provide the means for us to become conscious of the historical unfolding and progress of the universe. On the basis of this correspondence, J. J. Winckelmann worked out a more detailed idea of artistic styles as reflecting historical change and thus being the basis for our current theories of art-historical periods.

Even without an elaboration of these issues, it is clear why such sophisticated interpretation depends on objective correctness in regard to the form and content, or "material-symbolic" dimensions, of the work in question. Only when "preinterpretive"—usually technical—scholarship guarantees that we are certain about what a thing is (a previously lost original, a derivative copy, the result of cultural diffusion across space, etc.) can we proceed to interpret the relation between the work and its original and historically developed context. Not surprisingly, traditional interpretation cooperates with disciplines such as archaeology, philology, historiography, intellectual history, material and technology studies, and historical restoration and preservation.

Once scholars know what they are analyzing, the fundamental interpretive move is to discern and work out in detail the ways in which the work mirrors the dimensions that produced it. The meaning that interpretation seeks lies in the connections between the past or present external conditions of existence and the work's internal features or characteristics. Of course, the work may be seen as the product of any or many of the forces that generate things in the world. Normally this is very complicated; not only do people produce works, but they do so in response to a variety of factors: external forces of which they may or may not be aware, personal needs and desires, the material and formal features of the work itself as it emerges (either manifesting or resisting the original impetus or suggesting new possibilities that were not expected), and their own criticism and that of others.

Hence, the built environment can be seen either as the fairly anonymous product of the cultural forces and practices in effect at the time or as the result of the deliberate and creative effort of a particular creator or even "genius" (or of a small group of collaborators). As psychiatry and psychology have shown us, the creator may shape the work not only according to self-conscious intentions but also in ways of which she or he is unaware (because of the influence of the personal or collective unconscious). Alternatively, all these dimensions may play a part, in dizzying interaction.

To follow the idea that artificial objects mirror their contexts, insofar as impersonal economic, social, linguistic or symbolic, historical, and technological dynamics or personal factors shape what we do, the meaning of a work lies in the ways in which it represents its origin. We will be able to understand it insofar as we can follow its generation from its source (which we understand independently and objectively) and explain what we find in the work in terms of that origin.

Moving in the opposite direction along this same line of representational relation, we can also use an artifact to look back into its origin. That is, we can use what has been made to inform ourselves about the lost or obscured world from which it came. Historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and cultural and area studies analysts can learn about their subject matter (some dimension of the personal or cultural realms) by seeing how it was or is reflected in the works. Here, the works become repositories of meaning, waiting for the right interpretation to unlock what they have to reveal about the times, places, and conditions of their births and their subsequent histories.

In either case, it is interpreters' task and opportunity to travel the road of representation, working out and explicitly demonstrating how a work and its containing reality are related. It is the mutual dynamic between the external forces and internal features that is important and that enables us to use each one to understand the other.

Naturally, to be successful it is crucial to avoid merely speculating or generalizing about what might be plausible relations. Rather, it is necessary to find and display the objective correlation between the work and its objective circumstances. The actual, historical, and causal relation is sought. The interpreter needs to put aside personal prejudices and assumptions, to restrain supposition and unfounded inference in favor of explicating and proving the relations that obtain. Something very akin to the scientific method applies here. There has to be a sensitivity to the details of the phenomenon itself and a hypothetical explanatory schema that can be proved, or at least disproved, to account adequately for the features of the work (or of the contextual reality, if the reading is proceeding in the other direction). Essentially, in a way that parallels what science does for natural phenomena, interpretation provides a detailed, empirical exercise in discovering and demonstrating (often indirect and complex) causal relationships between the humanly made work and its contexts and origins.

This is possible not only for what were self-conscious factors during the creation of the work but also for unconscious or structural features that escaped the makers' attention or understanding. Insofar as unconscious concerns and limitations shaped the work, the causal connections need to be and can be proven by psychological or structural analyses of the influence of psychic life, religious and cultural beliefs, economic and historical forces, typological and material conventions, and so on, of which the creators may not have been focally aware. Thus, whether the forces that the work reflects are conscious or unconscious, personal or anonymous, the meaning is found when the interpretation demonstrates the connection, showing in concrete detail the fact and manner of the representation.

The other dimension—the work as illuminating the world—involves not so much how the work tells us something about the reality that it necessarily mirrors as the ways in which the work is a source of original insights into reality. That is, in the classical and romantic traditions, the work is understood (respectively) as manifesting and creating new meaning. In a manner parallel to the way that a dramatic personal experience, friend or teacher, or discursive text can instruct us, the work shows us new dimensions of or possibilities in the world. We might learn a moral about human life or the nature of our existence. We might learn about what cannot be put into direct language or other symbolic form. For example, just as other people or our own experiences might help us to see and understand love or death, so too would the characteristics of the hearth and marriage bed or the cemetery and memorial do this.

Both intellectual and ethical interpretations of works explore the meaning of artifacts in terms of what we might learn from pondering or interpreting them ourselves. Thus, traditional interpretation is a more refined or systematic version of what it is to be hoped that we all do: examine the important works from the past and present to seek insight into ourselves, others, and the world about us. Works are deemed "classics" usually because they timelessly (or at least, for a long time and across cultures) shed light on the human condition and provide inspiration and consolation. Works are judged important when they provide deeper and more profound understanding than does most of what we hear, read, and see. Such artworks and environments are worth the interpretive effort because they pay us back by enlarging our minds and characters.

Methodologically, ethical or moral criticism interprets the insights and human vision available in built environments by making explicit what judgments or understandings may result from the work, by analyzing how the works provide this resource so that we may more fully and easily benefit from it, and by explicitly leading us to imagine and reflect on what "possible" worlds might unfold from the environment. Theorist and critic Yvor Winters argues that an artistic work "should offer a means of enriching one's awareness of human experience and of so rendering greater the possibility of intelligence in the course of future action; and it should offer likewise a means of inducing certain more or less constant habits of feeling, which should render greater the possibility of one's acting, in a future situation, in accordance with the findings of one's improved intelligence." In interpretation we are asked to explore the work's meaning that might modify our lives by reflecting on the assumed and implied modes of life and courses of human action and by judging the conditions, responses, and responsibilities that might result.

In the end, it is easy to see why the historical and biographical dimensions of meaning are so vital for the tradition. Because works are produced by one or more persons, it is necessary to make the connection between the works and their creators' successful or unsuccessful intentions, the features of the creators' individual or collective unconscious that are manifest without the creators' having been aware of them, and the autonomous historical or structural features (material, technological, economic, social, symbolic, political, etc.) that either supplement or overwhelm the creators' distinctive contributions. Similarly, insofar as the work illuminates life either for its makers or for its interpreters, its meaning lies in the connection between it and our experiences. Historical and biographical analysis is important in analyses along any of these dimensions. After all, the meaning of the work will lie not just in its internal formal configuration but in its relation to past and present human life.


Within the contemporary Continental tradition of hermeneutics—the theory and practice of interpretation—Martin Heidegger (whose shift beyond phenomenology to radical hermeneutics is only now becoming appreciated), Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, and others attempt to provide an account of how the human sciences operate. Hermeneutics aims not so much to develop a new procedure as to clarify how understanding takes place. It appears radical and has shaken traditional approaches mainly because it attempts to show the limitations and even groundlessness of what has been taken for granted. The project looks different from traditional scholarship because it focuses on what usually is taken as peripheral and critically brings to the foreground what usually is hidden or transformed in temporal divergences.

Hermeneutics points out the impossibility of scientific historiography's goal: to transcendentally and objectively pass over into another time to understand an earlier situation, text, or object in the same way that people of the time did. Such "objective knowledge would depend on a standpoint above history from which history itself can be looked upon," a position that finite humans cannot obtain.

Still, hermeneutics also involves a belief that shared understanding is possible, both within and across traditions. Interpretation is a matter neither of finding the "one right interpretation," as the tradition contends, nor of calling attention to the interpreter's language and wit, where "everything is possible," as deconstruction holds, but of finding the valid criteria for polysemy within the fluid variety of possibilities. Beginning with our unavoidably finite and bounded situation, Gadamer develops the ways in which we can and do achieve nonarbitrary understanding: remaining open to the meaning of another person, text, and so on, to "what the other really is saying."

According to hermeneutics, all understanding is interpretation, that is, contextual. Meaning always is produced in a specific time and culture, by finite humans. Because the context continually changes, no simple or fixed thing or meaning ever is there without interpretation, and we also have the obvious problem of our relation to other contexts. This temporal, cultural context of our lives and meanings is called the "horizon" of understanding, because it is "the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point."

To be human is constantly to attempt to understand, that is, to interpret things, to project expectations, and to discover whether and how those expectations are fulfilled. Because we always approach things and texts from within the horizons of what we are able to attend to, from within our time and place, with certain expectations about the existence and manner of their meanings, understanding naturally has presuppositions. We are prejudiced when we listen to another person talk or when we pick up a text; when reading a letter from home, for example, we might start by assuming that it will bring us news concerning something about which we care. We proceed from the preparation to hear and understand.

Heidegger made explicit the function of our expectations and assumptions by developing the idea of the forestructures of understanding in relation to what he called the "hermeneutical circle." According to this latter concept, understanding any part of our world depends on a prior connection with or preunderstanding of the whole, and any understanding of the whole can proceed only from an understanding of, or projection from, the parts. This circle is not vicious, because we are already in the midst of our life-worlds with certain operative prejudgments. These are either fulfilled or modified as we go on, leading us to learn about and deal with the world. Our anticipatory ideas guide us so that we are not blind; at the same time, by becoming conscious of and criticizing these forestructures we can check the tyranny of the hidden.

Normally, in the process of understanding, the hermeneutical circle expands concentrically. In interpreting phenomena it is crucial to open new meaning by uncovering still-efficacious meanings from the past that bear on the present in ways that have been concealed by naturally shifting intermediate horizons (that is, over time) or by partial and derivative meanings that have come to act as blinders, restricting and monopolizing our focus.

In an influential exercise that is itself an example of a hermeneutic rereading that proceeds by uncovering changed assumptions, Gadamer reinterprets (retrieves) the meaning of prejudice in the Western tradition and shows how historiography and other objective methodologies share, without acknowledgment or awareness, a prejudice against prejudice. He analyzes how the original meaning of prejudice, of which our current cultural understanding is a diminished derivative, is that of Heidegger's "forejudgment."

We see a transition in this concept with the dawn of the modern era and Descartes's writings. Prior to the Renaissance prejudgments were seen not as false but as the source and bearer of authority and dignity. One could live coherently and learn because one could assume that tradition provides access to truth and positive connection to reality. The modern critique of authority and tradition, however, took acceptance of preexistent authority as opposite to the newly desired certainty that was to be tested by radical doubt and based on no foundation except the self-conscious subject's clear and distinct ideas. The project for radically "objective," self-founding knowledge thus entailed that decisions or judgments previously considered legitimate because grounded in tradition's authority subsequently came to be seen as hasty or loose. Reason itself, as a seemingly ahistorical process, was established as its own and the only authority.

Subsequently, the romantics reversed the Enlightenment's prejudice: the origin, the original, became privileged, and the ancient was taken to have greater import than the present or future progress and perfection. The modern era's idea of primeval stupidity was replaced by the romantics' idea of primeval wisdom, and progress was rejected in favor of the view that civilization is a loss of meaning or regress of mind.

Gadamer powerfully shows how the same structure obtains in both cases while the placement of the elements is inverted in a kind of mirroring: in both cases a prejudgment is made for or against the power of tradition, of authority, based on the historical relation to the "original." For the Enlightenment, only what ahistorical reason shows to be possible or impossible, true or false, can be understood in history; for romanticism, reason is replaced by the whole of the past, so that the contemporary can be understood only in the light of its relation to the past, that is, in terms of a universal and radical historicism. The Enlightenment and romanticism are alike in breaking from the older assumption that meaning occurs within a freely taken on, living tradition where prejudgments provide continuity and the stable basis for validity. The Enlightenment and romanticism differ in their prejudice against prejudice by arguing—presuming a change of access to meaning—about whether we have come to see more or less in comparison with the original situation.

Gadamer's point is that we need to remove the prejudice against prejudice, since we are in a tradition whether we like it or not. The very idea—and tradition—of an objective, ahistorical knowledge "belongs, in fact, to historical reality itself," as does historicism. Gadamer argues that historical and cultural research can accept the prejudgment that tradition can operate with authority and dignity, avoiding the need to begin each investigation with radical doubt and stingy criteria for the evidence of the senses. In other words, we can distinguish legitimate prejudices from those to be overcome and thus approach built forms and cultures within their traditions and contexts. By acknowledging that we belong within history and always stand within some tradition, where authority is recognized and accepted in an act of reason and freedom, not in blind obedience, we do not frustrate understanding but open ourselves to it.

In the case of understanding the built worlds of other peoples and times, we begin by recognizing that their traditions are sources of meaning, even if those people are unaware of it. The meaning of what people make always goes beyond the makers' deliberate intentions, because the makers are acting in a manner that involves not only what they consciously intend to accomplish but also their taken-for-granted or unconscious cultural attitudes and responses to the world. People act and think in the context of their historically based insertion in the world, which constitutes the historical reality of our lives more than do our individual judgments. One is little concerned with the individuality of the author and focuses instead on the many dimensions of a life-world, such as shared assumptions, which necessarily remain unspoken and unthought for those within the specific horizon of time and place. What we do always has more meanings and implications than we intend or even can understand ourselves.

Because of this open polysemy, it is possible—even inevitable—that others can find meanings in texts and works not apparent at the time they were made and can learn about shared concerns across time and space in ways that never could have been anticipated. Hence, hermeneutics rejects the attempt made by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and others to resuscitate the privilege of the author's intention.

Because our horizon is finite and changing and because surplus meanings are available, temporal distance is not a separation or gulf to be bridged; instead, it supplies the ground of the process in which the present is rooted. Through time we are connected to the concerns and problems that earlier people had. We do not seek the exact knowledge of what others thought (to know it as well as or better than they themselves did), somehow occupying their context only and not our own. Nor do we stay merely within our cultural context, alien from any other. Rather, at times we manage to go beyond the limited historical context of either situation, arriving at a widened or comprehensive context where we share something of importance with the other culture and may come to a new understanding of the cultural forms in question, an understanding that may help us to deal with our contemporary problems.

Precisely because past conditions differ from those of the present, the consideration of those differences can be fruitful. In tracing out the connections we ought not try to combine just anything with preexistent, stable meanings; instead, differences between the past and present allow what was hitherto autonomous to be newly combined in us, so that we can have a new experience of meaning. Clearly, despite misconceptions that suggest this, hermeneutics is not at all nostalgic, for it seeks not past meanings but novel combinations of past and present that can occur only in us.

When our spheres of concern and those of others intersect, new possibilities of meaning are opened. Through the investigation of the others' accomplishments, our situation might allow us to see things in previous worlds that had been missed; through the broadening of our context, we might see more possibilities for our situation than we would have if we had remained in our original, narrower context. The other tradition and ours become simultaneous. Here we arrive at a fusion of horizons. Gadamer holds, then, that understanding is always the fusion of horizons, where the past and present contexts come together to make something new of living value.

Heidegger's major contribution to hermeneutics may lie in his insistence that the environment and things, texts and language, are not primarily epistemological phenomena, as the modern age would have it, but ontological. He argues that we preconceptually are immersed in a life-world, that texts, political acts, and built things are the catalysts for the disclosure of the world. Hence, words and things are not signs of a prior, independently existing reality, as the tradition holds, nor are they the endlessly self-circulating deferrals that deconstruction admits. Rather, interpretation operates at the scene of the disclosure of our worlds, so that hermeneutics is concerned with the recovery of meaning in the sense of being the occasion wherein new meaning is experienced.

A case in point is Gadamer's previously mentioned retrieval of previous notions of prejudice, which enables us to see that meaning is not something that we can produce as we will but rather a dimension of and event within the shared historical realms in which we and our interpretations belong. In fact, we belong in our life-world primarily through the processes of understanding. The human situation consists largely in acts of interpretation that allow us to belong within our life-world and to experience changes.

Since works of all sorts—bridges and texts and declarations of independence—are what bring a world to stand, setting it into work, the hermeneutic question is about the modes in which particular acts, events, and things are bound up in the appearance and concealment of historical worlds. For hermeneutics, world denotes not the collection of all entities but how we are disposed to and within them, that is, the historically disclosed mode of meaning and life. As we have seen, things do not have a fixed, preassigned meaning; rather, the variable meanings of all the dimensions (things, texts, historical worlds, humans) occur or are gathered simultaneously in the event of the life-world.

Given the continual, complex, and plural generation of openended meanings, hermeneutics aims to be open to the way the subject matter questions us (our assumptions and views) and attempts to come to understand what the world requires of us as an adequate, appropriate response for participation in its historical unfolding. Thus, as the immediate goal of interpretation—and here we see the hallmark of hermeneutic procedure—we seek not to "create" meaning but to "remove hindrances so the event of understanding can take place in its fullness and the work can speak to us with truth and power," that is, ontologically.



“This book will come in handy to learn about, develop, compare, and apply the different methods and philosophies. It is a pleasure to read, and an inspiration for the interpreter who too often has doubts about the powers of his or her trade! ...One would have a hard time finding anyone better prepared than Robert Mugerauer to address the topic of this book.”
Anne Vernez Moudon, University of Washington