Hermeneutical problematics in contemporary consciousness

Hermeneutics, as the wide-ranging problematics of interpretation, emerged with such a wealth of motives during the splendid epoch of the European spirit that was called Romanticism. During that cultural period, hermeneutics was the object of the common intent of the experts in the sciences of the spirit—the linguists like Wilhelm von Humboldt and the theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher; the historians of literature and philologists like F. Ast, August Wilhelm Schlegel and August Boeckh; jurists like Friedrich Karl von Savigny; historians of politics like Reinhold Niebuhr and after him Leopold von Ranke, and then again Johann Gustav Droysen. The venerable hermeneutics (in the sense of a theory of interpretation), in Germany, no longer is an ideal and an active patrimony in the ambience of the sciences of the spirit. Today, with some significant exceptions, it seems that the rich patrimony of hermeneutical thought has been forgotten in its many perspectives, and that the continuity with the great Romantic tradition has been broken, though it is difficult to specify up to what degree.

The Conference of 28 January 1959 by Prof. Helmut Coing at Düsseldorf within the “Arbeitsgemeinschaft fiir Forschung Nordrhein-Westfalen” discussed “The methods of the juridical interpretation and the theories of general hermeneutics” in a gathering of colleagues of which only one half was made of jurists. Coing was manifestly expressing to his compatriots his own regret that today there is a lack of consciousness for the hermeneutical problematics. It is a lamentable fact, considering that in recent times the hermeneutical problematics has been decisively promoted precisely by German thinkers such as Wilhelm Dilthey and Georg Simmel, whose contributions received the praises of the philosopher Robin George Collingwood, the sociologist Raymond Claude Ferdinand Aron, and the historian Henri-Irénée Marrou.

It appears entirely characteristic, on that occasion, the cautious attitude showed by the speaker (Prof. Coing) in using references to literature which was mostly vague and unable to offer to auditors a precise images.1

1 The Author is here limiting himself to a kind of vulgarization that begins with the juridical methods of interpretation (distinguishing among them the systematic and historical interpretation, the sociological-ethical). Then, he delineates, with references to Schleiermacher, the “canons” of the modern general theory of interpretation intended as the basic method of the sciences of the spirit—and here he presents the hermeneutic proceeding of the technical hermeneutical interpretation in accordance with Schleiermacher—as an implied “fourth canon” that should make possible the comprehension of “the surplus of meaning of a product of the human spirit” (a concept that derives from Humboldt, and not from Schleiermacher). He returns thus to jurisprudence trying at the same time to justify his position and to show what the above general points of view on hermeneutics can tell us about the problem of interpretation in the juridical field and what influence they, consciously or unconsciously, have done exercises on jurisprudence as science of the spirit to which is applied the interpretation. Facing the reality of the not perspicuous contribution by the side of Coing, contribution that had no reference to literature and did not enlighten the reader about the weight of the different individual impacts, we sensed the duty to clarify for the German reader our own action and intervention. First of all, our inaugural lecture of 15 May 1948 should have been cited; in it, we have traced the lines of a general hermeneutics as a common methodology of the sciences of the spirit, in their complex. The prolusion has been a design that was presenting the principal results of an attempt that started a year before (February 1947) with the intent of a general theory of the interpretation as problematics, epistemology, and method, which were asking for orientations and differentiated applications for the single sciences of the spirit. Among the authors and the sources of knowledge of the problematics we had mentioned, at that time, the greatest thinkers of the German Romanticism and some of their epigones familiar to us from long time before: Friederich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm von Humboldt, H. Steinthal, M. Lazarus, A. Boeckh, W. Dilthey, G. Simmel, Th. Litt, Joachim Wach, and N. Hartmann. In single conferences given in German, from 1950 to 1955, we have searched to illustrate particular aspects and points of view of the theory of interpretation that in our mind was prospectively forming itself: the integrative development of the law, as a part of the task of the interpretation of law; jurisprudence and legal history of law coming to face the problem of interpretation; problems of translation and of the reproductive interpretation; interpretation as general methodology of the sciences of the spirit.

In 1954, our prolusion was published as a part of the Festschrift fur E. Rabet in a redaction, in German, much amplified with reference to the pertinent literature, to the extent to be considered as a Hermeneutical Manifesto for the foundation of a general theory of interpretation.

In 1955, after eight years of assiduous reflection and meditation, the book Teoria generate della interpretazione was published. The conferences that preceded it and especially the Manifest recently printed should have had given to the German readers the possibility of access to the book and of reawakening their interest: but it was a failed expectation, because of the insufficient awareness of those scripts. In the same 1955, the “Institute for the Theory of Interpretation”—which for several years already had functioned as study center, with the goal of dealing with law hermeneutics (as well as of the general hermeneutics) and as the organ of connectivity between comparative law, legal history, intertemporal and international private law [especially with the aim of investigating the law systems of foreign countries] and the rapports between various juridical orders—Swas juridically recognized.

Further contributions came in 1957 with a lecture on the fundamental problems of the private international rights and with another lecture in 1958 on the modern dogmatics in the history of rights and culture that discussed whether the use of modern juridical dogmatics is justifiable when used in a historical-juridical interpretation.

It is not our intention now to justify the method of the interpretation before a panel of experts, who have doubts about it, but uniquely to delineate the idea of a general methodology of the sciences of the spirit and to offer in addition a contribution on the distinction between “interpretation” and “attribution of meaning” in order to protect recent contestations of the objectivity of results of the interpretative proceeding.

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