Tracing the History of the Hermeneutical Shift

My research is framed within the post/late modern conversation that is happening around the topic of hermeneutics and epistemology. This essay will trace a brief history of the hermeneutical shift. It will begin with Plato and Aristotle and take us to the beginning of the twentieth Century.

Plato and Aristotle

Western culture has been dominated by the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Both philosophers functioned under the same dominant cosmological assumption. They believed the universe was divided into two basic ontological substances. There was the real substance, on the one hand, which could be described as divine, spiritual, eternal, immortal, indivisible, immutable, perfect, etc. This real substance was the realm of the ideal forms. The other substance was the realm of the material. It was the shadowy projection of the ideal realm. This shadow land is where humans exist and can be described as material, mortal, finite, temporal, imperfect.


Plato looked up to the ideal realm and believed that it was possible to apprehend the ideal through pure thought. He sought to shed the mortal bonds of the material world and be united with the perfect. This would be the path of enlightenment for those who were willing to pursue it. The disciples of Plato, during the subsequent years, would be characterized by an inner journey of the mind toward enlightenment. This path of the inner journey would be Christianized by neo-Platonism and be a dominant theme throughout much of Christian mysticism.


lecture notes from Dr. Gary Simpson

Aristotle was one of Plato’s students, and he took a different approach from his teacher. He did not look up to the realm of the ideal, but looked down at the material world and believed that the realm of the ideal could be realized through the observation of the various particular components of the physical reality. He, thus, became the father of empirical research. The ideal, for Aristotle, was pure agency—thus perfection—and the goal to be achieved by all who would seek it. The shadow realm of the material world was the realm of patiency—or that upon which agency acts. Aristotle’s universe was hierarchical in nature in which those beings with more agency were higher on the scale than those with more patiency. Men were agency and women were patiency, thus men ruled women. The wealthy land owners were agency and the peasants and slaves were patiency, thus the aristocracy ruled the lower classes, for their own good (or so went the logic). Children and students were patiency-with-potential upon which fathers and teachers would assert the agency of training to produce increasing levels of agency within the students and eventually bring doxa—fame and glory—to the father and teacher. The ideological descendants of Aristotle would follow his empirical and upward-mobility model of epistemology throughout their various intellectual enterprises.

lecture notes from Dr. Gary Simpson
lecture notes from Dr. Gary Simpson

Medieval Epistemology

Medieval epistemology can be divided into three basic camps. First, the mystics followed a neo-Platonic path and sought unity with God through the inner journey. Leading proponents of this camp were Augustine and the Desert Fathers. Second, the nominalists sought to understand God through the observation of the particularities of the created order. Third, the scholastics—as exemplified in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica—sought to know God through the observation of the masterful creation of the universe as a whole, always seeking a grand, overarching, systematic formulation of God’s glory revealed in nature. All of these epistemologies functioned under the dualistic construct which imagined a God who reigned from above and beckoned humans to ascend from the shadowy depths of sin and decay to be united with God in glory and perfection.

Another aspect of Medieval epistemology, and one that runs throughout the subsequent conversation in the 19th and 20th centuries, is one of authority. Epistemology is the study of how we know, and how we know what truth is. Truth, for the Medieval mind, was based on the Authority of God. Authority was understood through the hierarchical structure proposed by Aristotle, and thus was mediated through the church and the magisterium.


The Reformation and the Rise of Rationalism

The Reformation and the Renaissance brought a challenge to the idea of authority, and thus to the seat of truth. European culture split into three basic streams of thought regarding the seat of authority and the basis of knowledge and truth. The first stream followed the Medieval tradition and maintained the authority of the Church. This resistance to modernity within the Roman Church would culminate in the mid-nineteenth century with the First Vatican Council’s proclamation of the infallibility of the Pope. The second stream was the Protestant stream that had severed itself from the Pope’s authority, but remained skeptical of the human ability to know the truth. The Protestants turned to the authority of Scripture for the basis of truth. This led to a battle over the correct interpretation of scripture and the eventual rise of Biblicism and bibliolatry in the late 19th and early 20th century. The third stream can be represented by the rationalism of Rene Descartes. Many great thinkers in Europe witnessed the carnage of religious wars and rejected both the authority of the Pope and the Scripture as a helpful source of truth for the common good. Descartes proposed a new form of dualism between the subject—the one observing nature—and the object—that which is being observed. Rationalism, through the empirical observation of nature, placed authority in the seat of the human being’s ability to use reason to figure out the mysteries of the universe.

This video illustrates the shift from Medieval to Modern Thought.

lecture notes from Dr. Gary Simpson

Cartesian dualism had a lasting effect on modern society. It divided society into the public and the private spheres. The private sphere was that place in which all patiency is placed—things like emotions, domestic duties, faith, religion, women, children, etc. The public sphere was dominated by rationalism and agency. The language of the public sphere was mathematics and Newtonian physics. The priests of the new modern age were the scientists, and the only thing admissible to the court of truth were those things which could be demonstrated by empirical data.

The Modern I-078

Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason

Not everyone was comfortable with the new reign of reason. Immanuel Kant proposed an alternate epistemology. He perpetuated a form of Cartesian dualism, maintaining that there is a subject that observes an object. However, he proposed that the object can never truly be known as itself. Kant divided the world into the realm of the noumena—that which is the real, but unknowable—and the phenomena—that which is experienced by the subject. Kant shifted knowledge from the object—as if the object could be known by the distant, disconnected observer—and placed it on the subject. The subject experiences the phenomena of the object, but not the object itself.

Kant’s motivation was to find a way to describe the knowledge of God in non-rational terms, because he knew that, ultimately, God could never be known rationally. His shift to the subject proved helpful in many ways, but created just as many problems as it solved. The shift to subjectivity spawned a flourishing of epistemologies throughout the 19th century that tried to discern truth and knowledge through the experience of the subject. This led to Romanticism, Existentialism, Marxism, and Nihilism, to name a few.

lecture notes from Dr. Gary Simpson

Schleiermacher and the Shift to the Subject

Schleiermacher was given the task to create a department of Theology at the University of Berlin in 1810 in the shadow of the mighty fortress of rationalism. How could he possibly “prove the existence of God” rationally? Most Protestant theology of the 18th century had led to Deism. The God of deism was the engineer who designed the universe like a machine. He created its governing laws and initiated its self-perpetuating movement. Schleiermacher saw the trajectory of this rationalist approach to theology and took his cues from Kant. He shifted the theological task away from the authority of Scripture and onto the subjective experience of faith in the life of the individual Christian. This was the birth of Modern Protestant Liberalism.

Hegel and the Turn to Time

Hegel, a contemporary of Schleiermacher, sought a way to connect the deistic God with the experience of humanity. Hegel made the turn to time. God, Hegel proposed, is the Absolute Spirit that is experienced in the process of the world unfolding through time. His Phenomenology of the Spirit began a movement in the 19th century that led to many various iterations of his God-as-Time proposal.

Romanticism, Kierkegaard, Marx, and Nietzsche

The 19th century was marked by four basic streams within the liberal and academic camps. First, Romanticism followed a type of neo-Platonic, inward approach to the sublime through the contemplation of nature. It sought a universalizing goodness in beauty. Second, later in the century, in a modified form of romanticism, Kierkegaard espoused existentialism. This purely subjectivist sense of being would become grounds for thinkers like Heidegger in the 20th century. A third stream was that of Karl Marx and communism. A romantic thinker in his own way, Marx took Hegel’s notion of God-in-time and removed the Judeo-Christian idea of God from it. For Marx, the agent in the universe was the proletariat who would struggle against the oppressive political forces and bring about the utopian world toward which the Absolute Spirit was moving. Finally, Nietzsche represents a stream which saw the movements of history and realized that they were not moving anywhere. The only universalizing truth was the aesthetic, which was subject to personal taste. Therefore, the only thing left was power. Those who had power made the rules. Only the superman would win in the end. This thinking led to nihilism.

The streams just mentioned flowed in the larger body of post-Kantian, modern liberal camps. They were, during the 19th century, counter-cultural streams, moving against the dominant movement of rationalism in the secular academy and dogmatic, rationalistic theological constructions in the conservative, Protestant schools. The Roman Catholic Church strove to maintain its Medieval Authority during this time and fought against the modernization of the Gospel.

A Visual Timeline of the Shift in Hermeneutics, based on <a href=
A Visual Timeline of the Shift in Hermeneutics, based on Grondin

Two paths in the Twentieth Century

How Society ChangesThe previous discussion demonstrates an important concept proposed by Thomas Kuhn1 regarding paradigm shifts. A paradigm shift happens with great turbulence, and in a seemingly abrupt manner. However, the reality is that it had been brewing for decades, maybe even centuries, on the fringes, gathering steam, while the dominant theory ruled the day.


The mid-twentieth century experienced a violent eruption of hermeneutical and cultural shifts that, to many casual observers, seemed to come out of nowhere. The truth is that the streams of thought described above were percolating on the fringes throughout the 19th century, influencing key intellectuals, being taught to key leaders, catalyzed by two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Holocaust, and Nuclear War. The Atomic explosion that ended World War II stands as an icon for the postmodern turn. It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back; the tipping point, that allowed space for subjectivistic epistemology to overturn the objectivistic, instrumental rationality that dominated modernity for two hundred years.

Beyond Foundationalism P194 (1)Before we move to the postmodern turn, it will be helpful to first look at two strains of thought in the first half of the twentieth century. Theology, theological conversations, and the culture of the church became polarized in this era between the Conservatives on the right and the Liberals on the left. One key to understanding the postmodern turn is to realize that both Conservatives and Liberals are actually operating under the same modern dogma2 that believes the universe is dualistic in nature—dividing the private from the public, fact from value, noumena from phenomena. Furthermore, both sides of the modern dichotomy are seeking a universal truth that can explain everything. They seek a solid foundation upon which to stand.3

The Modern I-144

Barth and the Turn to Revelation

Most conservatives held on to the authority of Scripture throughout the 19th century and, with the turn of the twentieth century, clung tighter to it as the world continued to change. This led to the formation of fundamentalism, bibliolatry, and a destructive exclusivism. Karl Barth, in light of the biblical scholarship of the 19th century, was not able to make the fundamentalist move, yet was increasingly uncomfortable with the reduction of God to the social Gospel that had happened in mainline denominations. Barth turned to the revelation of God through the Word of God in Jesus as his solution. He reintroduced the doctrine of the Trinity to the forefront of the theological conversation and reasserted God as an objective other, in contrast to the Hegelian absorption of God into history.

Heidegger, The Frankfurt School, Tillich and the Turn to Experience

The liberals, in contrast to Barth, continued the Hegelian and neo-Marxist move and grappled with God as the movement of history. Heidegger proposed dasein, the being of facticity in time, and the source for all knowledge, and thus knowledge of God. The Frankfurt school, led by Horkheimer, saw the movement of society as the source of truth. Paul Tillich spoke of the ground of being from which all being exists and of which no human reason can attain. In all these cases the human experience of life—time, society, nature—was seated as the authority and source of truth.4

Epistemological Considerations Bibliography

  1. see my commentary here []
  2. see A Secular Age by Charles Taylor []
  3. see my commentary on Beyond Foundationalism []
  4. see commentary on Critical Social Theory by Gary Simpson []