American journalist Sydney Harris once said, “The two words information and communication are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.” There is a reason that it is called the “art of communication.” The key word here being art, and just as with paintings and stories, interpretation is a major importance to the function and effect that communication has on people. The same piece of information can be given to any number of persons, and it can, and will, be interpreted a million different ways. Hermeneutics, the art of interpretation, gives us a different way to look at the same information.
The word “hermeneutics” comes from the Greek God Hermes, best known for being the messenger of the Gods. Remember the 1997 Disney version of Hercules? Hermes was the cool blue guy with the wings on his head and the glasses. Basically he communicated messages from the Gods to the mortals and even acted as a mediator between Gods. Along with this Hermes is also known for being the inventor of language and speech, an interpreter, and a thief and trickster (according to the Wikipedia page you get when you Google “hermeneutics,” but Disney won’t tell you that). All of these features make Hermes the perfect representative for Hermeneutics.
Hermeneutics is well-known for being the art and science of interpreting the Bible, but it goes much deeper than that and is much more useful for interpreting other text as well. There are five basic types of hermeneutics:
- Natural: the spontaneous, everyday usually non-reflective interpreting we do when inter-subjective understanding breaks down
- Normative: the art of text interpretation as a discipline by a specialist caste
- Scientific: the foundation discipline of he human or historical sciences
- Philosophical: a general philosophy of existence
- Depth: hermeneutics of suspicion (thank you Dr. Kevin Williams)
The way a person interprets a piece of information is based entirely on his or her own thoughts, ideas, prejudices, and experiences. A speaker may say anything in the world, but two people can pull completely separate meanings from the same information purely based on how he or she interprets the information. We as humans are constantly taking in information that shapes how we see the world, and as we take in more and experience more we may interpret ideas differently than we had before, thus continuing the cycle.
Knowing that there are different ways of interpreting information can be a useful skill when trying to effectively communicate with others, and the more tools at a person’s disposal the better. Think about playing games like charades or Pictionary. When you take away the ability to speak, communicating simple ideas becomes that much more difficult. When you play these games you are relying on the idea that the other person’s horizon or frame of references is at least similar enough to your own so he or she can understand what you are trying to communicate. To reference Mr. Sydney Harris again, the information is there, but the communication hasn’t taken place. The art of interpretation goes hand in hand with the art of communication. Both of which are skills, and skills must be practiced.