Building Chinese hermeneutics in modern context

By ZHANG QINGLI and WANG XUEQING / 05-30-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Related works of Shuo Wen Jie Zi  Photo: Yang Lanlan/CSST

The academic symposium “1800—Debates and Construction in the Philosophical System and The Collected Works of Schleiermacher” was recently held in Ji’nan, Shandong Province. Scholars at the event discussed topics such as the innovative construction of contemporary Chinese hermeneutics and interpretations of Schleiermacher’s hermeneutic theories.

Contemporary Chinese hermeneutics

Chinese hermeneutics has evolved within the context of Chinese-Western dialogue and historical changes, a process which has facilitated the transition of its traditions from classical to modern. Scholars strive to construct hermeneutics with Chinese characteristics while absorbing modern Western hermeneutics, aspiring to address universal philosophical issues. Fu Yongjun, a professor from the School of Philosophy and Social Development at Shandong University (SDU), believes that China’s classical annotation tradition has nurtured phonology, exegesis, and textology, among various annotation methods of Confucian classics studies and philology. The key to the creative construction of Chinese hermeneutics lies in transforming annotation methods, which primarily interpret the original meaning of texts at the philological level, into a hermeneutics that seeks to understand meaning at a philosophical level. This shift aims to construct a philosophical hermeneutics of understanding. 

According to Peng Qifu, a professor from the School of Law at Anhui Normal University (AHNU), “Chinese” and “contemporaneity” should be prominent features in the construction of Chinese hermeneutics. Specifically, it is necessary to assimilate the ontological philosophy of Western hermeneutics while understanding the Chinese hermeneutic tradition and the existential contemplations of China’s early scholars. 

Zhang Nengwei, a professor from the School of Philosophy at Anhui University, added that ancient Chinese philosophy tended to regard language as a method and means, maintaining attitudes like “the language fails to express the meaning” and “the meaning can only be sensed but not explained,” which presents a practice-oriented philosophical approach. Correspondingly, Chinese hermeneutics should also focus on practical life experiences, providing new perspectives for the modern development of traditional Chinese culture.

To achieve the modern transformation of Chinese hermeneutics, He Weiping, a professor from the School of Philosophy at Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST), highlighted the necessity of establishing a history of Chinese hermeneutics. Notably, contemporary Chinese hermeneutics should not merely be a continuation of Confucian classics studies, but should embody contemporary worldviews and linguistic perspectives.

Western hermeneutic thought

Western philosophical hermeneutics serves as a mirror image of contemporary Chinese hermeneutics. German philosopher Schleiermacher, regarded as the founder of modern hermeneutics, has consistently attracted attention among Chinese scholars. Shao Hua, an associate professor from the School of Philosophy at HUST, noted that Schleiermacher introduced the concept of universal hermeneutics while drawing on the research methods of psychology and historiography, rendering hermeneutics a significant methodology in the humanities and social sciences. Featuring creativity and openness, his work laid the foundation for later hermeneutists to understand historical principles.

The 19th century witnessed the most intense debate over systematic philosophy in the Western philosophical community and marked the dawn of philosophical hermeneutics. Hegel, Fichte, Schelling, Schleiermacher, and other renowned philosophers participated in the contention of this period. Niu Wen, a professor of philosophy at Nanjing Normal University, suggested that Schleiermacher’s work should be examined within this historical context, and should focus on the problem-oriented consciousness reflected in his debates with contemporaries, such as the similarities and differences between the early Romantic school and Hegel in terms of religious philosophy, ethical thought, and dialectics.

Beyond this, scholars also advocated for compiling the history of hermeneutic thought. Liang Lerui, an associate professor from the School of Philosophy and Social Development at SDU, noted this long-neglected ideological vein. Within German idealism traditions, the modern construction of philosophical hermeneutics has been gradually realized, beginning with Kant, through Herder, Humboldt, Schleiermacher, and extending to Cassirer and Gadamer. 

The hermeneutic methodologies developed by Dilthey and the ontological hermeneutics of Heidegger and Gadamer constitute two different threads, added Wang Zikuo, an associate professor from the School of Marxism at AHNU.

Schleiermacher and Gadamer’s definition of internal and external language represents a significant divergence in their hermeneutic philosophies, concluded Yang Dongdong, an associate professor from the Department of Philosophy at Shandong Normal University.