To understand philosophical hermeneutics today, it is useful to understand something of Plato’s concept of dialectical attainment of understanding: Plato’s Socrates holds that understanding comes through conversation with the wise. He therefore distrusts written texts (because they have become detached from their author), but prefers real engagement of refining question and answer between people. He doesn’t apply this dialectical model to the interpretation of texts, but this step is taken in philosophical hermeneutics from the time of Schleiermacher, All of the main players in philosophical hermeneutics are heavily indebted to Plato – whether Schleiermacher (who translated the works of Plato), Gadamer (who wrote a book on Plato’s Dialectic), or others.
But whereas the step of constructing a theoretical model of human understanding based on dialogue happened within this philosophical tradition, it is worth noting that it had already been practised in Christian devotion.
In Augustine’s Confessions we see a disciple’s provisional grasp of the Scriptures, expressed in deeply humble conversation with the God of the Scriptures. This image cannot help but remind of Plato’s vision of dialectic, but with the added dimension that the text’s divine author remains living and reachable – without being exhaustible or containable. The voice of the divine author is heard in the Scriptures, and the devoted hearer expects that his meditative reflection on the Scriptures will be heard and helped by God:
Long time have I burned to meditate in Thy law, and in it to confess to Thee my knowledge and ignorance, the beginning of Thine enlightening, and the remains of my darkness, until infirmity be swallowed up by strength. (Confessions, 11.1)
Of course, while Plato gives some critical definition to this sort of dialogical engagement, the practice itself has a strong heritage in the Hebrew Bible, where psalmists speak out their meditation on scriptural themes to the Lord. Jens Zimmermann comments:
premodern interpretation at its best remained faithful to the Hebraic concept of dialoguing with the Divine through the text. (Recovering Theological Hermeneutics, 29)