What is the meaning of hermeneutics?

The word ‘hermeneutical’ comes from the Greek word for ‘interpreter’ and means ‘pertaining to interpretation’.

If you’re like me and you keep hearing this word and also keep forgetting what it means, a fix for that to simply replace ‘hermeneutics’ for ‘interpretation’.

If you’re reading about literature and literacy, this works just fine a lot of the time.


The theory about interpretation of texts is called hermeneutics. The word alludes to the name of the Greek god Hermes who was the messenger between gods. Hermeneutics thus emphasizes that a message needs someone to carry it, someone to explicate, to elucidate, to interpret. A hermeneutic analysis involves pointing out and explaining how what we read or otherwise perceive embodies a meaning. The main premise of hermeneutics is that in extracting a meaning from a piece of art we alternate between the whole and the details.

For instance, when we look at a painting, we can start by perceiving it as a whole, noting the general composition, theme, color scheme, and so on. Provided that we are interested enough in learning more about the painting, we may then study the details, for instance each depicted object, figure, or shape; the foreground and the background; the particulars of hues and saturation; the individual brushstrokes (or other technique); and so on. However, if we stop at this stage, our perception of the word will be fragmentary. Therefore we must go back to studying the whole, this time with a better preconception, since we know more about the constituent parts of the whole.

In studying a literary text, we also usually begin with the whole: the storyline, the central characters, and their role in the story. When reading for pleasure, we often stop at that. Working with the text professionally, as critics or teachers, we will most probably go on to study the details: composition, characterisation, narrative perspective, style and underlying messages. We may go still further into particulars, for instance, and only examine metaphors, or only concentrate on direct speech, or only investigate how female characters are portrayed. Such a detailed study is, however, only fruitful if we afterward go back to the whole, and hopefully we will then have a better understanding of the text.

Aesthetic Approaches to Children’s Literature: An Introduction, by Maria Nikolajeva
hermeneutics is from Hermes


Why do children read the same book over and over? No, it’s not to torture parents and teachers! Here are some pedagogical and developmental reasons why. It’s to do with what’s known as ‘hermaneutic reading’.



There is great comfort in the predictable, especially before bed or when other things in life are changing.


At some point many readers must realise that there are far too many books in the world to continue reading the same ones over and over (although I do know middle-aged Tolkien enthusiasts who read Lord Of The Rings every single year). Children who ask for the same story over and over are often getting more out of it each time. This experience is especially valuable with adult input during some of the readings. Story book apps with auto-narration are especially useful in this process, because adults have a smaller tolerance for repetition than their children.

The Hermeneutic Circle



Knowledge is power. But what about people who don’t have certain knowledge?

Hermeneutical injustice is English philosopher Miranda Fricker’s term for the harm caused by being denied crucial information.

Hermeneutical injustice occurs when someone’s experiences are not well understood—by themselves or by others—because these experiences do not fit any concepts known to them (or known to others), due to the historic exclusion of some groups of people from activities, such as scholarship and journalism, that shape which concepts become well known.

from the Wikipedia article on Epistemic Injustice

Hermeneutical justice is a structural phenomenon. It is about marginalized groups lacking access to information essential to their understanding of themselves and their role in society—and these groups lack this information precisely because they are marginalized and their experiences rarely represented.

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen
  • If I’d known about perinatal depression I’d have gone easier on myself.
  • If I’d known my child was dyslexic I wouldn’t have got so frustrated with them (and myself) with the home readers
  • If I’d known to separate romantic and sexual attraction maybe my former relationship could have worked out
  • if I’d known I was autistic I could have asked for accommodations
  • if I’d known what sexual assault looks like I could’ve acknowledged my own trauma
  • if I’d known that my poverty was the endpoint of a system which ‘requires people to administer their own poverty‘ I wouldn’t have blamed myself for not working hard enough
  • (the list goes on and on)


For that I refer you to the following post: 9 Facts About Hermeneutics from the Oxford University Press blog.


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