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Judith N. Shklar Squaring the Hermeneutic Circle PRO FESSIONAL TREND-W ATCHERS CANNOT HAVE FAILED TO NOTICE the appearance of a novel interpretive social science, and much must already have been written to introduce this literature to the public. There is bound to be more, but it is not my intention here to contrib­ ute to that enterprise. I do not propose to analyze or explain the emer­ gence or progress of this intellectual development, nor to predict its future course. This essay is concerned first with the implications of an image that invariably turns up in the writings of the new inter­ preters, “the hermeneutic circle.” It will then go on to ask what, if anything, this notion contributes to our sociological understanding, and specifically what place it might have in a comprehensive theory of the “sciences of man,” a phrase that most usually refers to anthro­ pology, history, sociology, and political science in their less formal and m athem atical aspects. I shall try to do this in the most simple and everyday language, because, in spite of appearances, the issues at stake do not call for, and have not evoked, the kind of precision that alone can justify a resort to a specialized vocabulary. At first sight, my qualifications for this undertaking must seem poor at best. I am not, after all, either a philosopher of science or a practicing social scien­ tist. I do, however, have a fair amount of experience in interpreting the classics of political theory, and hermeneutics, whatever else it may mean, is first and forem ost a way of reading scriptures. ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN SOCIAL RESEARCH VOL. 5 3 , NO. 3 (AUTUMN 1 9 8 6 ) social research Vol 71 : No 3 : Fall 200 4 655 INTERPRETATION AND EXPLANATION Hermes carried the messages of the gods, and hermeneutics is the art of reading them. The circle with a message, the hermeneutic circle, was a Neo-Platonic image designed to intimate the relation of an infi­ nite, eternal, and omnipresent God to his creation, and it makes its most significant appearance in the late Middle Ages, never to leave our imaginative literature thereafter. God is a sphere whose center is every­ where and whose circumference is nowhere. He is entirely in every part of this circle. Dante speaks of the poet’s soul moving toward God, who is the center and circumference of all. The human soul is like trembling water in a round vessel. In keeping with Neo-Platonic cosmology, God is an overflowing source of energy of both love and knowledge who recre­ ates himself in ever-diminishing reproductions. This is the great chain of being, which is formed by concentric circles in a descending order of microcosms, each a replica o f the macrocosm. It is thus that the human soul is a miniature of the divine center. This lovely vision has undergone a vast number of transforma­ tions, without ever quite losing its original character. Post-Cartesian psychology used the circle to represent the passions of the soul which from our center animates the body and maintains all the parts of the human organism in harmony. The poetry of the circle stretches all the way from the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century to Rilke. And the most psychological of novelists have resorted to it. Flaubert thought of memory, especially at its most treacherous and illusory, as the center of the emotional circle. Heniy James in turn spoke of our groping efforts to reach a shifting world of other people in its terms. These are but a few examples of the uses of the circle, and many more can be found in Georges Poulet’s excellent Les metamorphoses du cercle (1961). It does not, however, answer the question of what the circle is meant to do in the sciences of man today. It was transferred to this new intellectual territory by way o f Protestant theology, which was from the first under considerable pressure to find an interpretation of the Bible that was independent of tradition. Protestants therefore built a system 656 social research of biblical interpretation in which the circle has an obvious place. Eveiy part of the...


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