Philosophies of Interpretation and Understanding

Key information

Start date
End date
Year of study
Year 2, Year 3 or Year 4
Module code
FHEQ Level
Department of Religions and Philosophies

Module overview

Philosophical hermeneutics address questions that arise regarding the nature of understanding and interpretation and also, more specifically, those practices of interpretation that pertain to the very nature of philosophical inquiry itself. The word hermeneutics comes from the name of the Greek messenger god Hermes and simply means interpretation. While we may be familiar with interpreting a foreign language or a work of art, hermeneutics as a philosophical problem reflects on the acts of interpretation that human consciousness carries out in its everyday interpretation of the world. In 19th and 20th century Europe, philosophical hermeneutics  exercised enormous influence on both analytic and continental philosophy as well as the fields such as anthropology, theology, literary studies, law, and political science. In this course we will seek an understanding of how the philosophical question of interpretation took shape in the european philosophical tradition and then we will ask about its limits in interpreting other cultures. Finally, we will explore how a variety of non-Western philosophical traditions approach the question of interpretation.

But why study European philosophy in a course on World Philosophies? The relevance of the European approach to philosophical hermeneutics is one important tool for thinking about a dialogue between cultures for two main reasons. First, it is something that non-western traditions have engaged with in relation to their own traditions. Strands of both contemporary African philosophy and Islamic philosophy, for example, incorporate terms and ideas from European thinkers such as Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur into their own hermeneutics. At the same time, several non-western cultures have highlighted that the presuppositions within the European tradition of philosophical hermeneutics do not reflect the main issues at stake within their own traditions. The second reason the European approach to philosophical hermeneutics is relevant when thinking about a cross cultural dialogue is that many of the attempts by western philosophers to think about a dialogue with other cultures emerges from this tradition. The concept of ‘otherness’ prominent in twentieth century continental philosophy, is in direct conversation with philosophical hermeneutics. Finally, the bedrock of much post-colonial theory and critics of euro-centricism in philosophy have a deep engagement with the heritage of European philosophical hermeneutics. Edward Said, for example, bases his characterisation of the Western notion of the ‘orient’ on the German philosopher Nietzsche’s concept of language which we will be studying in this course.  For all of these reasons, reflecting on interpretation as a philosophical problem generally is essential for understanding the west’s own attempt to interpret other cultures as well as those questions of interpretation that are at stake in non-Western cultures.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of the course, you should:

  • Have acquired a sound knowledge of core debates and key thinkers in philosophical hermeneutics.
  • Have acquired a familiarity with the relationship between understanding, interpretation, voice, speech, and knowledge.
  • Have understood the ways in which voice, interpretation, translation, and dialogue (or its refusal) are both ontological and political acts.
  • Be able to assess critically the limits of the philosophical hermeneutic tradition and theories of dialogue from a variety of critical (feminist, critical race and post- or decolonial) perspectives.
  • Be able to evaluate critically a variety of books, journals and other sources of information relevant to the topics studied on the course;
  • Have produced detailed written work on a number of approved topics relevant to the course;
  • Have developed core skills in evaluation, self-reflection, team work, and presentation.

Scope and syllabus

The first term will be focused on an examination of philosophical hermeneutics that have promoted inter-philosophical dialogue and which have theorised the nature of understanding and interpretation as objects of philosophical interest and practice. Among the philosophers we will investigate are Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, Ricoeur, and Vattimo but we will be doing so thematically (looking at how philosophical hermeneutics examines questions of understanding, authority, knowledge, subjectivity, truth, sense and meaning, dialogue etc.). We will focus particularly on the extent to which their insights regarding the possibility of understanding among and between different philosophical traditions are viable. Once this groundwork is laid, in the second term we begin the task of critique and reformulation, examining the extent to which the apparent openness to dialogue promoted by these thinkers is undermined by the exclusions and normative assumptions (for example, of the universal nature of understanding) that their philosophies of dialogue and understanding may enact and sustain. Thus, we will turn to examine feminist, critical-race, and both postcolonial and decolonial challenges to and critiques of hermeneutics, looking, for example, at the work of Kristeva, Butler, and Cavarero, bell hooks, Lorde, Spivak, Bhabha, Mignolo, Dussell and Ouijano. In this portion of the course we will highlight in particular questions concerning the political dimensions of voice, speech, and silence, and of translation and understanding, the role of the ‘master’s voice’ in determining the limits of speech and understanding, and what may be at stake in moments where the refusal of dialogue is a necessary and productive gesture of resistance to normative configurations that trap interlocutors in a colonialist practice of monolingualism that repeats and consolidates the chauvinism and Eurocentrism that plagues philosophy.

Method of assessment

60% of the total mark is allocated to 4 detailed outlines of assigned readings (15% each)
Creative portfolio 40% of the total mark is allocated to the production of a summative group portfolio intended to enable you to demonstrate skills in critical reflection, communication, and imaginative interpretation.


Elvis Imafidon


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules