Zimmermann, Jens. Hermeneutics: A Very Short Introduction Oxford University Press, 2015.

[An Installment of the “Read Me” Project.]

This is the last of the three “little” books I picked up at Carmichael’s on a day I really hadn’t even planned to go to a bookstore.[*]

As the title announces, this is a “very short” introduction to the large topic of philosophical hermeneutics and some of its uses in various disciplinary areas: humanities, theology, law, and science. Someone who’s been wondering what “hermeneutics” is all about, and who wants to get a quick, competent overview of the territory, will be reasonably well served, with the usual caveats: the more you know about something specific, the more you’ll take issue with broad generalizations. That could make you wonder if the broad generalizations about things you know less about are equally limited.

Cover of Hermeneutics A Very Short Introduction by Jens Zimmermann

Zimmermann makes a point of noting at the outset that he will solve the problem of introducing his huge topic in a small space by focusing on the problem of “relativism.” It’s a reasonable choice. People associate philosophical hermeneutics and “hermeneutical thinking” with the idea that it reduces “everything” to “just someone’s interpretation,” as if that dismissive “just” actually makes sense in that context. Some critics move on to the charge that hermeneutic thinkers “make it so there’s no such thing as truth” and everyone can just believe whatever they fancy and no one can object to it because after all, “it’s their interpretation.” I can say Attila the Hun was more of a saint than Mother Teresa if I want to.

This particular species of silliness seems to follow hermeneutic philosophers the way Japanese beetles follow hibiscus. So Zimmermann spends some time at the outset addressing this notion generally, and then slants his chapters on the disciplinary areas to address the [alleged] problem of relativism in those specific areas.

Someone with a serious concern about relativism may not feel deeply reassured by Zimmermann’s treatment. Merold Westphal, in Whose Community? Which Interpretation?, comes out explicitly on the side of “not all interpretations work equally well in light of a specific text.” Zimmermann, on the other hand, relies on an appeal to “universally shared human conditions that give rise to transcultural experiences, such as evil, sacrifice, or love, that allow for the translation of our particular cultural symbols” (18). That is, he relies on the universal human context to transcend human cultural particularity, which will secure a kind of “universal reason” that might ground, if not “objectivity” isolated from human subjects, then a robust human agreement across time, place, and culture.

I admit that I have more confidence in Westphal’s appeal to the rules of the text than I do to Zimmermann’s universality. Maybe this is because It seems to me that one of the universals that transcends time, place and culture is that people have readily treated some other people as non-persons, although the criteria for which people to treat that way have varied. When it comes to people, my bet is on the persistence of sin, and on our inclination not to call it that.

Then there’s Heidegger. I always notice whether salsa has a lot of cilantro. It’s always a possibility, though it isn’t a must. Similarly, Zimmermann’s treatment of hermeneutics has a powerful flavor of Heidegger. Some people like cilantro.

I found Zimmermann’s chapter on legal interpretation, which I knew nothing about before this, most interesting and illuminating. I had a more critical reaction to the chapter on theological interpretation, particularly the sections on Islam, which I thought would have benefited from a reading of David Brown’s New Introduction to Islam.

The book contains a particularly condensed, but helpful, appendix on controversies in the field of philosophical hermeneutics, for instance Gadamer’s long debate with Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel, which works as a signpost to further exploration of those areas.

Overall, then, this Very Short Introduction to Hermeneutics does its job: it will point the general reader in the right direction to find out more about the area, and provide a list of basic landmarks and major sights to include on the itinerary. It’s a travelogue, not the three-week docent-led travel seminar, let alone a year studying abroad. And for a travelogue, it’s well-done and in-depth and has a scholarly voice-over.


[*] We had agreed to go with our daughter to see the live version of Aladdin. [Please don’t judge. I’m delighted whenever she wants us to do something with her.] It was only playing at the Mid-City Mall, which despite its name, is not really a place with anything to do except go to the movies, and we got there with a lot too much time before the show started. This is how we found ourselves across the street, and my relationship with bookstores being what it is …

In addictions counseling, according to a handout I found in a classroom once, this would be an example of “seemingly irrelevant decisions.”

Admittedly, I did stand there in the bookstore for a minute or two thinking to myself something like “Do you really need this? Really??” But then, all the Very Short Introductions I’ve read so far have been very good, so I thought it would be sure to be a good book on hermeneutics. And I could have missed something in that course I took on the subject. And there was a whole chapter on legal interpretation. So maybe not “need,” but “could still use.”

If I had stopped to consider just how foolish “the hermeneutrix” would feel to admit that she’d bought Jens Zimmermann’s Very Short Introduction to Hermeneutics, then Practical, Reasonable Me might have been able to prevail, and I could have bought a couple of snarky refrigerator magnets for about the same price.

refrigerator magnet says Housework probably won't kill you ... but why risk it?
This one is from Cafe Press, which my presuppositions about copyright lead me to mention.

As it turned out, however, I did buy the introduction to hermeneutics, and read it, and then re-read it, and thought about it and about my reaction to it, and all of that seemed worthwhile, even with the public humiliation.


A tower of books with a almond- or vaginal-shaped opening
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