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The Hermeneutic Circle: A Dooyeweerdian Engagement

The Hermeneutic Circle (HC) is a major idea in the interpretive sciences and interpretivist research and thinking. It is the principle that, when trying to understand a text,

"we must understand the whole in terms of the detail, and the detail in terms of the whole" [Gadamer, 1989, p.291].

For example, we understand the meaning of a word in relation to the sentence containing it, and the sentence by understanding its words. We understand sentence in relation to paragraph, paragraph in relation to section, and so on. The process of interpretation directed by the HC is circular in nature: from understanding parts of a text an understanding of the whole emerges, but our understanding of parts is already guided by whatever understanding of the whole we currently have - and so, ideally, our attention oscillates between parts and whole and gradually we build a better and better understanding.

Like any good principle, it sounds obvious, but prior to this, arguments raged whether there is 'one' interpretation in ancient texts or we impose our own interpretation on it. Though Gadamer is the name most associated with it, it was already known in ancient times, and had already been discussed by e.g. Schliermacher and Heidegger. Some, such as Heidegger, suggest that it applies not only to texts but to understanding the meaning of all of life. It has been criticised by some, but remains an important insight.

The aim of this page is to outline how Dooyeweerd might affirm, critique and enrich the Hermeneutic Circle. It is by no means complete, but wants to stimulate hermeneuticists to engage with Dooyeweerd, because of the possible enrichment he offers, and Dooyeweerdians to engage with Gadamer and other philosophical hermeneutics. The main reason why Dooyeweerd can engage with the HC is his understanding and exploration of meaning in its diversity and coherence.

Let us take a passage by Gadamer from page 291, where he summarises the hermeneutic circle. Phrase by phrase, we will show how Dooyeweerd might affirm Gadamer's insight, and how he might critique and enrich it.

Gadamer's phrase Dooyeweerd
"Let us consider how hermeneutics goes about its work. ..." Dooyeweerd sees human functioning as exhibiting diverse aspects. The Hermeneutic Circle is part of our functioning in the lingual aspect. Functioning in one aspect involves all the others, either anticipating them or foundationally.
"We recall the hermeneutical rule that we must understand the whole in terms of the detail, and the detail in terms of the whole." Dooyeweerd was particularly interested in wholes, and explored both whole-whole and part-whole relations in a sophisticated manner. Words, sentences, paragraphs, etc. are not parts and wholes but are wholes connected by an enkaptic relationship.
"... It is a circular relationship ... The anticipation of meaning in which the whole is envisaged becomes actual understanding when the parts that are determined by the whole themselves also determine this whole." No aspect is absolute in terms of its meaningfulness, but each refers beyond itself to others. So any functioning that goes on within an aspect is likely to be circular in nature. The circularity of hermeneutic interpretation is an expression of this non-absoluteness. Dooyeweerd's suite of aspects provides a precise understanding of how the lingual aspect anticipates the social and post-social aspects, and is founded on the formative, analytical and other aspects.
"... We learn that we must 'construe' a sentence before we attempt to understand the linguistic meaning of the individual parts of the sentence. But the process of construal is iteslf already governed by an expectation of meaning that follows from the context of what has gone before." Expectation of meaning is intuitive grasp of the kernel meanings of aspects; this pertains because all our living and functioning is enabled by the aspects, as ocean water enables fish to swim and live. Whence this expectation? Most, try to locate it in the entities that form a context of the entity we are trying to understand. In principle this leads to infinite regress. It also feels too much like a closed system [Shklar 1986]. While there are arguments to get round it, such as reference to context or lifeworld, they can become cumbersome. Dooyeweerd suggests that there are two sides to temporal reality, a law side and a fact, or entity, side. This offers two kinds of expectation: not only that of entities and processes that impinge on the entities we are considering, but also the intuitive grasp of aspectual meaning, which constitute the law side. This intuitive grasp of aspectual meaning can offer a starting point. They form no closed system, but point always beyond themselves to their Divine Origin.
"It is of course necessary for this expectation to be adjusted if the text calls for it." The actual expectation of the meaning of a text, though it rests on the law-side, intuitive grasp of aspects, also has a fact side, and it is this that is adjusted. The adjustable fact side comes from our continual functioning in the analytical and other aspects as we pay attention to things. Dooyeweerd's suite of aspects can be a practical tool to guide and make us aware of various possibilities of adjustment that we might have overlooked.
"... the text unifies its meaning around antoher expectation. ... Our task is to expand the unity of the understood meaning centrifugally. The harmony of all the details with the whole is the criterion of correct understanding. The failure to achieve this harmony means that understanding has failed." This shows that the notion of HC presupposes coherence of meaning. Dooyeweerd's aspects exhibit coherence of meaning. This was one of the fundamental tenets of his notion of aspects. So, use of his suite of aspects in interpreting things already contains and ensures, as far as is possible, coherence of meaning.
"... As the single word belongs in the total context of the sentence, so the single text belongs in the total context of a writer's work, and the latter in the whole of the literary genre or of literature. At the same time, however, the same text, as a manifestation of a creative moment, belongs to the whole of its author's inner life." See enrichment How can a part be part of two things? If instead of part-whole relation, we use Dooyeweerd's notion of enkapsis, the one thing can have relationships with many other wholes. Alternatively, it might be fruitful to conceive this as the text functioning in several aspects simultaneously.
"Full understanding can take place only within this objective and subjective whole." The problem above comes about from seeing the entities not only as part and whole, but also assuming a Cartesian subject-object relationship. Dooyeweerd's reinterpretation of the subject-object relationship avoids this problem: entities function as subject and/or object in different aspects.
"Dilthey speaks of 'structure' and of 'centring in a mid-point,' which permits one to understand the whole." Understanding of a whole requires understanding how it functions in all aspects. However, not all aspects play the same role. There is usually one 'qualifying' aspect, which expresses the main meaningfulness of the thing and guides its destiny. Not just qualifying aspect, but also founding, leading, etc.
"... we are moving in a dimension of meaning that is intelligible in itself and as such offers no reason for going back to the subjectivity of the author. The task of hermeneutics is to clarify this miracle of understanding, which is not a mysterious communion of souls, but sharing in a common meaning." To Dooyeweerd, both author and reader operate within the same meaning-framework; see the page on meaning. This is different from the meanings that texts 'convey'; it is more like meaningfulness as such. The aspects indicate ways in which things can be meaningful, and hence can be useful in analysing without going back solely to the subjectivity of the author.


Gadamer, H-G. (1989/1975) Truth and Method. Sheed and Ward Stagbooks.

Shklar, J.N. (2004/1986) Squaring the hermeneutic circle. Social Research, 71(3), 657-678.

This page is part of a collection of pages that links to various thinkers, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

Copyright (c) 2013 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

Written on the Amiga and Protext.

Created: 22 August 2013 Last updated: