In the study of literary texts, scholars frequently adhere to a set of rules or a specific system on which to base their interpretation. Similarly, the interpretation of non-literary texts, such as art or philosophy, may also require adherence to such a method. The specific rules used to interpret and understand a text are known collectively as hermeneutics.
In ancient Greek mythology, the god Hermes served to interpret messages from the other gods. Like Hermes' name, the term hermeneutics comes from the Greek word for 'interpreter'. The concept of utilizing a system to interpret texts was first noted in early writings by Aristotle.
In contemporary times, the word hermeneutics is generally used to refer to interpretation of the Bible. Scriptural hermeneutics are used by religious scholars as a system by which to correctly understand the meanings of the Bible. By adhering to a specific set of guidelines, scholars seek to uncover the basic truths set forth in Scripture.
There are four major schools of thought when it comes to Biblical interpretation, and each uses its own set of hermeneutics in the process. For example, literal hermeneutics dictate that the Bible be interpreted literally, according to the most basic meanings of the words. Conversely, allegorical hermeneutics consider the text as having a separate and higher level of meaning. Scholars who use moral hermeneutics attempt to find ethical lessons within the Scripture. Lastly, mystical hermeneutics seek to relate events in the Bible to events in modern life.
While hermeneutics are usually discussed in reference to the Bible, other interpretative systems are also used in the undertanding of any number of other texts. In sociology, for instance, it would be very difficult to understand the meaning of a social event without using a system to interpret it. However, sociological hermeneutics dictate that the significance of a social event is to be interpreted by studying what that event means to the individuals involved. Therefore, by way of this system, sociologists have a specific method to help them understand the societies they study.
For example, Rosa Parks' 1955 civil rights protest is considered to be an important social event in American history. In and of itself, Parks' refusal to give up her seat on the bus has no inherent significance. However, by studying what this event meant to the people involved – Parks' perception of being forced to vacate her seat as humiliating, the bus driver's perception of Parks' refusal as hostile, and, most importantly, the ways in which the event changed or reinforced nearly every American citizen's opinions on segregation – sociologists are able to interpret the overall significance of the event.
Hermeneutics are essential in the interpretation of texts in nearly every field of complex study. The pursuit of knowledge depends largely on the use of a set system designed for attaining that knowledge. Therefore, scholars of law, philosophy, art, and literature all utilize specific hermeneutics to reach their interpretations of the world.