‘Hermeneutics: A Very Short Introduction’ (A Review)

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Oxford does it again! Once again the good folks over at the Oxford University Press release a well written, cogent, and exemplary ‘very short’ introduction to a topic which is vital to furthering the capture of knowledge. Jens Zimmerman’s introductory primer to the act of interpretation is not only a bonafide guide to the field as it is practiced in its various disciplines, but also a text which should be in any Humanities’ student library.

Told across seven chapters, Zimmerman’s book informs the reader on the nature of interpretation, also called ‘hermeneutics,’ hence the namesake’s title; these chapters explore the history and practice of interpretation as it pertains to the fields of philosophy, the humanities, law, religion, and the sciences, with a couple of chapters acting as a brief overview of what hermeneutics is and a brief history of its application.

Each chapter holds true to the name of the parent series: in a ‘very short introduction’ you will receive a very short chapter. Each chapter functions as a speed teacher whose only goal is to get you caught up the bare bones essentials. Generally, the outline is as follows: you are introduced to why interpretation in a certain field is relevant and needed, the major proponents of certain theories of interpretation as it relates to that field, and then you are introduced to some controversies or problems and the subsequent current research which attempts to articulate and overcome the problem.

Soon after you are sent off onto the next chapter to repeat the process all over again. It is a tried and true formula to educational guides and it works well in this volume. More so since Zimmerman manages to squeeze in a short appendix of major hermeneutic debates; inserted at the end of the primary chapters, the appendix expands upon the major ideas of the text without bogging down the initial reading. It is an ideal set-up and allows for learners to take the new information and re-read previous chapters with a newly deepened understanding of specific chapter controversies. If you wanted to go a level lower, you could even say that such a reading prompts the reader’s own inclusion in Hans-Georg Gadamer ‘hermeneutic circle.’ But perhaps this would be reading too deeply.

As a very short introduction, I still managed to learn ideas which I did not already know, despite having some familiarity with many of the concepts before I started my read through. Specifically, the chapters on philosophic hermeneutics, and hermeneutics in the legal and scientific fields, offered some food for thought and pushed what I already knew into new territories. Something which many introduction are only able to accomplish with an expanded number of pages.

The reason Zimmerman is able to accomplish so much with so little pages, however, is because they write in a clear and concise style. Academic writing is not always so easy to follow—anyone who has read Derrida can attest to this—but Zimmerman’s straight to business, no nonsense prose manages to cover a lot of ground in not a lot of time. So, new readers will trust that they will be softly led by the hand as they cover each new chapter and its unique approach to how we, as humans, interpret in order to understand and order our world.

In the end, I enjoyed Zimmerman’s introduction. It helped me. It expanded what I already knew and filled me in on what I did not know. It was not a hassle to read and it remains a sleek and elegant addition to my library of titles. So, even as their Heidiggerian approach may alienate some philosophically minded individuals, I was able to overlook such discretions and focus on the informative center, the educational nougat. Zimmerman’s miniature book manages to do what it promises—educate, inform, and do so without a headache. Any student searching for a means to help them understand ‘hermeneutics,’ the practice of interpretation, should look no further.

Jen Zimmerman

Hermeneutics: A Very Short Interpretation

159 pages. Published by Oxford U.P. $10.75 (Print), $6.15 (Kindle)[1]. 2015.

 

[1] Prices were taken from Amazon and were accurate at the time of writing.

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