Whether we’re studying the life of a tree, the workings of the unconscious, the nature of space and time, or the meaning of a work of art, there’s some mystery in the circuitous path by which we come to understand the nature of things. We can glimpse the mystery even in the way we read a book; my recommendation that serious readers preview a book before reading it points the way.
Living beings, great works of art, and great books all have a unified character. They are wholes composed of parts, just as each of us is a unity comprising deeply organized parts. Thus, in order to grasp the nature of something, we study its parts in light of the whole, and the whole in light of its parts. For example, the pathologist traverses in her thinking from cells or parts of cells to tissues, organs, lymph systems, and back again to discover an animal’s illness. Good readers do much the same. Our minds move back and forth continuously, gathering the sequential parts into a whole and using our emerging sense of the whole to further organize the parts. This motion is so natural and necessary that we often do it without being aware of it.
This back-and-forth from whole to part and back to whole again describes what’s called the hermeneutic circle. (Regular readers will recall that hermeneutics means the art of interpretation. At the root of the word stands the Greek god Hermes, the talarian-clad messenger who travels amongst gods and mortals, delivering speeches.)
Interpretation has a circular character because the things we seek to understand have a unity like a circle, in which neither whole nor parts can be understood without reference to each other. As with a circle, there is no unique place to begin circling or, as I prefer, spiraling toward understanding, for you can’t fully know the whole until you grasp the parts, and you can’t know the parts until you’ve grasped the whole.
In the earlier post on reading, I mentioned that when you preview a book what you’re really doing is giving yourself a first view of the whole. Doing so empowers you, for now you can read through the parts with greater speed and comprehension (a word that means, fittingly enough, grasping together). Returning again to our pathologist at her microscope, we note that before she examines cells under a microscope, she gets the big picture from the notes accompanying the sample—what part of the body of what kind of animal the tissue is from, the presenting symptoms, and so forth. This view of the whole locates the tissue sample in a context. Whether you’re reading tissue samples or books, good previews give you that “first grasp”, which orient you and help you anticipate why parts fall where they do, how large and vital some are relative to others (is this the heart or just the appendix?), and so on.
Once you’ve gone through the parts, you adjust your view of the whole in light of what you’ve learned. The doctor seeing the patient suspected a cancer, but the pathologist’s detailed examination may find that the symptoms point to something else. Likewise, as a reader, sometimes my view after finishing a book can be different enough (or confused enough) from my initial view that I end up back among the weeds again, examining the parts more carefully in search of a deeper, more coherent unity.
Thus the hermeneutic circle’s spiral character can be compared to a conversation, a dialogue back and forth between whole and part, chapter and book, forest and tree, tissue and organism. With each motion back and forth, you move deeper into the essence of the thing. What contributes to the sense of mystery is that, as with conversations, there is no algorithm, no straightforward method by which one progresses along the way.
Finally, one may speculate—and many philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle and Hegel, have—that this dialogical character is at work in all of nature. In a way, we are all living acts of interpretation. We are individuals whose staying-alive depends on a continuing, staggeringly complex conversation among trillions of parts. To mention the dialectic among just a few of those parts, in a post on the ontology of proteins I discussed the news that scientists are discovering this grand dialogue between whole and part, form and matter, at work among proteins themselves.
Circling back to books again, one reason we keep turning the pages is because we long to complete the big picture in which each of the gathering parts falls, finally, into its rightful place. A bad book will lack this organic unity, making us suspect as we read that it’s not a whole at all, but just a steaming heap.