We know Edmund Husserl not only through his rigorous attempts to set forth the phenomenological method but also from his brilliant disciples from various countries: Stein and Heidegger, Levinas and Merleau-Ponty, Landgrebe, Ingarden, Patočka are only a few. The Russian/Ukranian philosopher Gustav Shpet, whose works have been discovered not long ago, appears among them as the introducer of Husserl’s phenomenology into Russian philosophy. Not unlike any other student of Husserl, however, he carries the phenomenological thinking further by elaborating its main themes and questions with a rather peculiar perspective. In this regard, Springer’s new volume of the series “Contributions to Phenomenology,” the new translation of Shpet’s Hermeneutics and Its Problems (Germenevtika i ee problemy, 1918), gives the reader a broader picture of his philosophy that inaugurates the problems of the hermeneutic tradition to phenomenological investigations. Unlike his previous work, Appearance and Sense (Javlenie i smysl, 1914), which was a commentary of Husserl’s Ideen I, Shpet turns his focus away from the development of the study of hermeneutics from its roots in Biblical interpretations toward his contemporaries, such as Bernheim, Lappo-Danilevskij, Spranger, Dilthey, and Simmel.
In so doing, Shpet aims to not only provide a historical presentation of the topics of hermeneutics but also to scrutinize the shortcomings of the theories so far suggested, so that he manages to explain why hermeneutical inquiries need a method at least as rigorous as Husserl’s. In contrast to the empirical and natural foundation of human experience, hermeneutics devotes its attention to comprehending the written words as historical signs that can be interpreted. Thus, with respect to understanding the sense and significance of the historical objects (namely texts), history for Shpet (let alone other candidates for hermeneutical inquiries such as philology and psychology) becomes a problem of logic with respect to the part-whole structure: that is, history as a model of knowledge for the individual with the integrity of the whole. The second half of the book includes essays from different dates, which on the other hand, appeals by and large to the task of reversing the question at hand back to phenomenology: given the historicality of consciousness, any kind of cognition is an interpreting cognition, indeed, that necessarily entails historical understanding. For this reason, Shpet pursues an overturning of Husserl’s phenomenology into a hermeneutic phenomenology wherein the written text is recognized not as a physical object, but as a historical object that calls for an interpretation of the reader. After the foundation of the theory of historical knowledge, which is nothing but the act of “understanding” in Shpet’s opinion, the task of hermeneutics as a rigorous science will finally be an achievement of the entire logic of semasiology, i.e., the hermeneutic logic of words as the expressions of interpreting cognition. Shpet’s hermeneutic phenomenology, as a result, contains not only a critical history of the questions of understanding and interpretation in the hermeneutic tradition but also notable elements predating the linguistic turn in the 20th-century philosophy.
As just mentioned, Hermeneutics and Its Problems is comprised of two parts: the translation of Shpet’s work itself and the five essays added to the main body of the text. His highly praised essay, “Consciousness and Its Owner” (1916); a meditation on Husserl’s project of phenomenology, “Wisdom or Reason?” (1917); another important essay, “Philosophy and History” (1916), “Skepticism and Dogmatism of Hume” (1911), and an encyclopedic entry written by Shpet depicting his own philosophical portrait. The editor and translator of the book, Thomas Nemeth is a well-known scholar of Russian philosophy, and of Shpet in particular, stretching back to his earlier translation of Shpet’s Appearance and Sense as well as other essays and entries. Nemeth’s editorial work is satisfying; not only does he meticulously handle the various editions and copies of Shpet’s book but also in the introductory remarks added to the main text and to each appendix, all succinctly written. These introductions are worth reading to grasp their context in terms of the frame of references and historical background.
The main body of the text, Hermeneutics and Its Problems, begins with a short preface that clearly points out the author’s task: if we succeed in critically assessing the significance of “the history of hermeneutics as a scientific discipline” (xxv), hermeneutics as the epistemology of history will pave the way for an authentic methodology for historical knowledge, which remained Shpet’s ultimate project in the following years. The first chapter, “Origin of the Idea and the Methods of Hermeneutics,” opens a discussion on the necessity of the emergence of hermeneutical inquiries in understanding the written texts. In order to grasp the allegories and moral senses in epic poems, such as Homer’s myths, fragments from the Sophists to dialogues from Plato and Aristotle, Ancient Greek thought made the first effort to address the question of the role of the word (slovo) in moralistic, allegorical and historical interpretations of written texts. The encounter of the West and the East in Hellenistic culture formed the next phase of the need for different methods and techniques particularly because of the translation of the Old and the New Testament into the Greek language. The task of hermeneutics, rendered as a theological discipline in this period, was to distinguish between different kinds of interpretations. Here Shpet examines how St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas, Dante, and more thoroughly Origen and Augustine make their distinctions in terms of the contrast between literal/grammatical/historical interpretation and allegorical/spiritual interpretation of Biblical texts.
Even more to the point, the early Christian theologian Origen identifies the problem of interpretation to the extent that there are not only ordinary and historical but also ambiguous and arbitrary senses of the Holy Scripture itself. Thus, hermeneutic techniques are required to address this variation in order to reach consistency in the text. Augustine, on the other hand, is the most important figure in the history of Biblical hermeneutics because of his theory concerning the role of signs in achieving the meaning and sense of the Holy Scripture. Shpet diligently analyzes the two works of Augustine, De doctrina Christiana and De magistro, in order to make manifest Augustine’s psychological theory of understanding: a sign (e.g., a word that signifies in this case) is “a thing that not only conveys its appearance to the senses, but also introduces something into thought along with itself.” (9) Thus, understanding the meaning of written texts is the process of transfer from the thought (i.e., the idea) of the author through signs (written by their writer, perceived by the reader) toward the thought of the reader. It is true that understanding what is written, for Augustine, is to grasp what is intended by the author (11), but once it is asked how the reader’s reception is even possible, Augustine foreseeably brings the theory of anamnesis into view: understanding takes place in the divinatory act of recollecting ideas. Shpet does not find Augustine’s theory satisfactory precisely because of its unclarity on the “originary act” of understanding (12). That there seems no criterion for verifying the accuracy of what is understood leaves the interpreter in the shadows of subjectivism.
A resolution of this arbitrariness in interpretation is achieved as the main concern of Flacius in the 16th century. Though he pursues practical (meaning, rhetorical) goals of the hermeneutical endeavor in reading Biblical texts, the chapter “Flacius and Biblical Hermeneutics in the Renaissance” argues that Flacius makes the first genuine attempt at a theoretical understanding of the “sense” of the text by revealing the part-whole structure. A theory of sense, in this regard, delineates the ways of discerning a harmonious sense between each particular element of the context, the undivided end, and the intention of the whole text (16, 19). Despite the fact that Flacius does not confine himself to Augustine’s unascertained methods of interpreting the Holy scripture, his theory of understanding the sense of the text in Shpet’s final assessment does not suffice in proving its principles as explicitly unbreakable: it gives us neither any clear analysis of the act of understanding (i.e., how we pass from the signs to what they signify) nor any reason why we have to penetrate into the subjective ideas and thoughts of the author (20).
The next chapter, “General Remarks on the Relation of the Sciences to Hermeneutics as a Transition to Ernesti,” has two objectives: explicating the place of hermeneutics within the rise of the natural sciences after the Renaissance and giving an account of modern philosophers dealing with the question of the nature of linguistic signs. As for the former, hermeneutics loses its priority in grammatical and allegorical interpretations of the written text, yet obtains a subsidiary role in deciphering the nature of words as communicative signs. Hence, in the 17th and 18th centuries, hermeneutics, as the logic of communication, inquires into the correspondence between the signs of the written text and the meaning intended and understood. Here we read a concise history of modern philosophy related to the topics of hermeneutics so much broader than what can be found in any other book of the history of hermeneutics. Shpet carries out a critical inquiry on, respectively, Locke’s theory of communication in human understanding, Berkeley’s conceptualism, Hume’s analysis of habit as an explanation of understanding, Reid’s theory of the social object, Leibniz’s idea of meanings as possibilities, Wolff’s rationalist philology, and Meier’s ontology of signs.
Of these figures, Wolff holds a special position in the history of hermeneutics since he is the first theorist breaking the divinatory explanation of understanding and relieving the interpreter of the burden of receiving the intention of the author. Understanding, therefore, is not any kind of reproduction of the “ideas” of the author, as seen in Augustine and Flacius; rather, it is “knowledge of truth itself.” (42) Since “truth” is now the main concern of hermeneutics, we can even argue that the interpreter can understand an author better than the author understands himself. But what is the supervisor of the execution of the task of interpreting? What controls and verifies the reader’s understanding of the sense of the text? As Wolff replies, it is purely and simply “reason” itself. Shpet criticizes this strict rationalism for the reason that the concept of truth is considered limited only to the achievement of “someone who [already] has in mind a certain system of truths.” (42) As he maintains, “this reader will be immediately disappointed upon learning that the entire problem amounts to a very narrow demand, namely, to connect the author’s individual words to precisely the same concepts that the reader connects to them.” (42)
In chapter four, “Ernesti and Ast: The Reorientation of Hermeneutics from Theology Toward Philology,” Shpet concentrates on the philological period of the development of hermeneutical thinking. The problem of ambiguity is restored by the 18th-century philologist Ernesti to be solved with the help of explaining the structure and historical discoveries of the author’s language. On this account, understanding the sense of the text is a scrupulous explication of the multiple circumstances of the author: time, geography, social and economic status, community, and the state, all set of conditions that shape the author’s language used in the text. Hence, in order to find an answer to the ambiguity of meaning, the task of the interpreter should be devoting themselves to the singularity of the author’s particular application of the meaning of a word. Every different use of a word is another application in a different context; ergo, the hermeneutical inquiry should divulge the particular usage of the author. Besides the fact that Ernesti carries the focus of hermeneutics backward to the problem of authorial intention, Shpet is also discontent with Ernesti’s failure of addressing the primary questions: “What is the act of understanding?” and “What is the role of the sign in that act?”
Ast, on the other hand, assigns a new task to philology as the empirical foundation of hermeneutics by following the premises of 18th century idealism and the Romantic dignification of words: “the philologist,” explains Shpet, “should not limit oneself to an investigation merely of the letter and form of language, but should also disclose the spirit that permeates them as their higher meaning.” (50) The method Ast offers is a classical one; the part-whole structure. From the particularity of the letter and the originality of the intention of the author, the interpreter must discover the unity of these parts with the spirit of the text’s sense. In other words, all the particular inquiries must lead to the whole idea of the interpreted work. Shpet’s analyses of Ast’s hermeneutics are quite accurate: because spirit only replaces “reason” in modern philosophy, understanding cannot be explained in terms of the eligibility of spirit. Thus, Ast explains the process of how we come to understand the meaning of a text by appealing to the idea of divination. No more clarification is given concerning the questions of how the reader apprehends the spirit of the text and from what criteria we have correct understanding. In Shpet’s words, that is to say that the very act of understanding remains a mystery in Ast’s hermeneutics (55-56).
The chapter on “Friedrich Schleiermacher” elaborates the biggest leap of hermeneutics. Schleiermacher is the most key figure in the hermeneutic tradition, not only because of extending the sphere of applicability of interpretation toward philosophical and literary texts but also because of his meticulous attempts to establish a methodological technique for all hermeneutical inquiries. Here is not the place to go into details of Schleiermacher’s distinction between explanation and interpretation and his famous division of interpretation into grammatical and psychological moments. These are only the obvious portions of his comprehensive method that has still been accepted and defended with revision, even after Gadamer’s harsh criticisms. What is worth mentioning for our present purposes is Shpet’s making manifest the shortcomings of Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics: To begin with, for Schleiermacher, as for many others before him, the difference between interpretation and understanding is unclear (62, 64). Where interpreting begins, where it ends, where it differs from understanding… These critical points are never issues for the German philosopher. As a recurrent theme in Shpet’s critical history of hermeneutics, the lack of ambiguity concerning the quiddity of understanding “as such” is what Schleiermacher’s method remains inadequate in its claim.
Shpet carries his search for clarity in method further by responding to the very grounding of hermeneutics: the language of the author and the original audience, on the one hand, and the part-whole structure between the sense of every word and the sense of the context, on the other (66-67). According to Shpet, however, Schleiermacher’s inquirer does not have a clear map to easily follow: studying the language of the author and its first readers seems to be a historical one, and yet it also needs grammatical and even psychological interpretation. Likewise, the connection between words and their context requires both grammatical and historical investigations employing the study of logic and philology. That is to say, grammatical and psychological moments of interpretation are utterly indistinguishable from each other (73). Where things get complicated, Shpet always shows a discomfort with any ambiguity in the method. Instead, since the rigorous method for hermeneutical sciences has to be pure and precise, what Schleiermacher’s method needs is further explication concerning the definitions and extents of the various kinds of interpretation. As Shpet writes, “By separating the grammatical from the psychological moment of interpretation and ascribing an independent role to each of them, he made a very important distinction. However, considering that a single understanding underlies both, i.e., a single type of lived experience, he deprived his division of much of its significance.” (72)
The chapter entitled “Hermeneutics After Schleiermacher” mostly focuses on Boeckh’s philological hermeneutics and his elaboration of different kinds of interpretation. Philology, however, is no longer simply an account of grammatical structure and historical developments of words. With Boeckh, philology bears a renewed assignment concerning all systems of knowledge: a knowledge of the known, which is simply, “understanding.” Thus, Boeckh, in Shpet’s opinion, holds the first genuine consideration of the act of understanding and the moments of comprehension together with the real question of philology: the role of the written word as a communicative sign. But Boeckh aims to expand the field of philology aided by the study of history: philological hermeneutics concentrates on the historical reconstruction of what is understood (81). Despite its impressive attempt at the act of understanding and comprehension, Boeckh’s theory, for Shpet, still seems to be unsatisfactory because of the unclarity of transitioning between philology and history, and even between philology and psychology. The method of philology becomes an indeterminate in hermeneutics’ penetration into the responsibilities of other provinces. The chapter ends with a circumstantial presentation of the kinds of interpretation mostly suggested by Schleiermacher and Boeckh (92-97).
“Hermeneutical Moments of Historical Methodology” is a chapter on how 19th-century historians took part in the methodological foundations of hermeneutical sciences. Shpet begins with Steinthal’s insightful conclusion that one interprets in order to understand the historical object. Understanding, therefore, is not an immediate occasion taken for granted; rather, it is the goal of the business of interpretation. Shpet also touches upon Steinthal’s division of interpretation into three processes: psychological/philological, factual/historical, and stylistic. The next historian, Droysen, is the key figure for hermeneutical development of the study of history as opposed to Rankean historical positivism. For Droysen not only lays the foundations of a logical methodology for understanding and interpretation of the historical objects, but also employs the part-whole structure to find out the dynamic structure between the individual and the community. That being so, as an expression of the community, the individual person is not only a psychological subject but also an objectively social phenomenon. Shpet’s favorite historian Bernheim separates the task of interpretation in terms of its object: an interpretation of historical remnants, in this regard, differs from that of tradition as well as the interpretation of one source by means of another. Since the scope of interpretation becomes much broader, provided that the study of history occupies the center of the investigation, the historian should now take into account the complementary facts and knowledge obtained by other fields, such as linguistics, anthropology, statistics, and so on. The chapter ends with Shpet’s contemporary, Lappo-Danilevskij and his theory of historical interpretation. The remarkable move of this Russian historian is the idea that the interpreter of historical materials first presupposes the existence of the “other I” whose psychic activity is similar to my own. The principles and techniques of the historical interpretation are based upon this psychic significance, which is predetermined between the interpreter and the author of the work. Shpet’s main criticism of these 19th-century theorists, let alone Steinthal’s highly critical perspective, is their negligence of a proper explanation of the act of understanding per se. According to Shpet, they mistakenly thought that one reads the historical text and then understanding comes by itself; the only task of the reader thereby is to interpret. Shpet also disapproved the aforementioned methodologies based on their faulty subjectivism. Since the historical text owes its being to the author, the only way to understanding its meaning contains two registers: the interpreter’s penetration into the personality of the author or the historical study of how the text was received by the original audience (114). For Shpet, this can only mean to limit the interpreter’s original act of understanding to the psychology of the individual “represented” in the text.
The order of chapter eight, “Dilthey’s Development of Hermeneutics,” is somewhat complicated. It begins with a section on the philosopher Prantl’s idea of understanding as an immediate apprehension. After discussing the middle years of Dilthey’s hermeneutics, Shpet focuses on Spranger’s psychology of the individual with the integrity of the whole and goes back to the later philosophy of Dilthey. The last figure he deals with is rather peculiar: Simmel and his idea that the object of history is the psychological and social conditions of the individual person. Despite the subtle arguments of other theorists that are slightly touched upon, Shpet truly does justice to Dilthey’s finalization of an elaborate hermeneutical method for human sciences. In addition to enlarging the hermeneutical pursuit concerning the question of understanding, Dilthey rephrases the goal of interpretation for the objective character of scientific inquiry. Unencumbered by psychologism, Dilthey’s methodological hermeneutics focuses on the hermeneutic circle formed in between the individual’s lived experience, the objectified expression of the historical subject, and the inquirer’s understanding the objective spirit (i.e., the commonality of the individual) through the processes of interpretation. Shpet concurs with Dilthey’s attempt to resolutely modify the hermeneutical inquiry from the subjective level to the objectivity of the social individual. However, Dilthey too cannot escape Shpet’s razor of purity in descriptions: “Dilthey fails to provide an answer to the question that once again arises before him, namely, what, properly speaking, is the essence of understanding as a sui generis source of knowledge in the human sciences.” (130) Since Shpet believes the question, what understanding is is blurred once again, Dilthey’s hermeneutics too cannot be the final destination of our search for an unshakeable foundation for hermeneutics.
After all historical accounts of the hermeneutic tradition, the final chapter entitled, “The Contemporary Situation,” epitomizes what Shpet’s project was in Hermeneutics and Its Problems. It begins with the conclusion that the theories dealing with historical knowledge have failed to provide a “clear” analysis of the originary act of understanding. Until Shpet, the act of understanding is taken for granted: when you read the historical text, understanding comes by itself; what the reader needs to do is now to interpret it. In Shpet’s opinion, conversely, the question concerning understanding underlies every possible hermeneutical inquiry (149). He rightly argues that we cannot solve hermeneutical problems without such clarification; namely, the problems of authorial intention, ambiguity, arbitrariness in interpretation, the part-whole structure, the kinds of interpretation, the role of the word as a communicative sign, and so on.
For this reason, in concert with Husserl’s project, Shpet reveals in these last pages what he suggests for hermeneutics actually turning out to be “a material-logical foundation for the historical sciences in the broadest sense.” (97) Shpet’s exhibition of hermeneutics as a rigorous science includes three tokens: first, new developments in contemporary psychology accommodate the ways in which the inquirer transfers the psychic content of what the text says by reading signs as communicative media. This latter issue leads us to the second leg of Shpet’s theory: semasiology, i.e., the study of the determination of the role of the sign in the act of understanding, which requires a logical methodology to prevail over the objective character of the task of interpretation. Shpet does not hesitate to refer to Husserl’s and Meinong’s efforts, nor does he confine his study only to a search for a phenomenological method. This is where the Russian philosopher makes his last step toward hermeneutic phenomenology: turning the question of method to the semasiological inquiry on the objective logic of truth. The written text, for Shpet, is a historical residue for the present reader to make sense out of signs by recognizing the unity of the particularity of the reader’s lived experience and the spirit of the to-be-understood text. Understanding, therefore, cannot be reduced to the reader’s penetration into the psychology of the author represented in the text. Far from these subjectivist and psychologistic attitudes of the contemporary era, hermeneutics now adopts a new task of disclosing the intentional structure between the noetic understanding of the reader and the noematic content of the text.
Shpet relates the intentional structure between understanding and spirit to the historical reality subjected to hermeneutical inquiry. For what is historical (the written text, in this case) is the concrete object by which the reader reaches an understanding of what is realized. “Only in such a sense,” he writes, “can we speak of reality itself as history, for history has to do only with what has been realized. The reason that comprehends is not an abstract reason, but a reason that has been realized in this history.” (150) To put it differently, even before Heidegger’s lecture “The Idea of Philosophy and the Problem of Worldview” (1919) where he introduced the requirement of hermeneutical intuition in Husserl’s phenomenological method (Heidegger, 2008, 83-90), Shpet had highlighted the historical character of phenomenological investigation, which requires a method of its own in order to reflect historical consciousness. Consciousness is historical, thereby it always appeals to an interpretation of the object of consciousness and that of itself.
All that is left to be answered by Shpet is our basic question of what understanding truly is. Hermeneutics and Its Problems gives us a history of hermeneutics at length, scrutinizes how it has developed and dealt with the question of understanding, makes manifest where all attempts have failed. And yet, Shpet’s work falls short of delivering a consistent description of “the act of understanding,” because, like Husserl’s many introductive works to the phenomenological method, Shpet’s project too seems to be suffering from incompleteness in the sense that he did not find a chance to write the third volume of his History as a Problem of Logic, whose main task would be “an examination of strictly logical and methodological problems in our investigation of the fundamental problems of understanding.” (147) However, I believe, Shpet’s momentous essay, “Consciousness and Its Owner,” published in 1916, compiled in the present volume, provides an indirect suggestion to answer the basic question concerning understanding. The essay examines the extent to what we call “the I” is transcendent in terms of its irreducibility in the phenomenological reduction. This is important for our concern because the essence of consciousness directly relates to the interpreting reader, who understands the sense of a written text: what kind of “I” carries out the act of understanding?
The opening statement of Shpet’s argument in the essay is the uniqueness of every single, concrete “I.” In its own empirical life surrounded by other objects, the I is “this haecceity” of which it is unable to be generalized (161-62). This, however, leaves us with a conundrum: if uniqueness pertains to the peculiarities of an individual I, we can maintain that “each” I is distinct from other Is, so that all Is “share” a nature of uniqueness. In other words, every singular I is replaceable with other Is as irreplaceable (202). From this conundrum, Shpet unearths a non-egological conception of consciousness as opposed to the subjectivist and psychologist understanding at the time: the I as the bearer of lived experiences is not a “general subject” centered among other objects; rather, it is a unity of consciousness with regard to the surroundings, the historical situation, and the social conditions in which the I itself exists. Therefore, Shpet disapproves of Husserl’s constitution of the pure I as a foundation of consciousness: no “general I” can embrace the entire consciousness that is specific to “singular I.” What is this plurality of the singular individual, then? Shpet says in response that the I is a particular so-and-so, which is conditioned with a social milieu (191, 196). The I cannot exist without its social relations; that being so, the significance of haecceity lies at the specific unity of the experiences lived by “the communal I.” As Shpet continues, consciousness is a communal consciousness, i.e., the primary “we” rather than the pure I. In this sense, the singular I is plural.
Getting back to the basic question, i.e., that of understanding, we can conclude that the historically situated interpreter is the one who reads and understands the sense of a written text within the circumstances that determine one’s unique relations with the community. These constituents of consciousness (i.e., historicality and sociality) describe how the reader (as the “social we”) intersubjectively carries out the act of understanding. As opposed to the psychologistic and subjectivist accounts of the task of interpretation, Gustav Shpet brilliantly suggests a non-egological theory of hermeneutic phenomenology that precedes Heidegger, Gadamer, Ricoeur, and Nancy’s attempts.
Heidegger, Martin. 2008. Towards the Definition of Philosophy, translated by Ted Sadler. London and New York: Continuum.
 In the second appendix, “Wisdom and Reason,” adopting the premises of Husserl’s project of “philosophy as a rigorous science,” Shpet examines the great disparity between philosophy as pure knowledge and the metaphysics of scientific philosophy. Shpet concludes the essay with another dichotomy, namely between the European sophia and the Eastern wisdom.