Chapter VI


Intercultural Hermeneutics for a Global Age

Chibueze C. Udeani


In the global world of today a lot is happening not only around but also within the human consciousness. Globalization is not simply an economic phenomenon but also "a new stage in the evolution of humankind and hence of creation as a whole. As it constitutes a new way of being in terms of the whole and hence relationally, the issue becomes that of living with all the peoples and cultures of the world."1 (McLean, Hermeneutics for a Global Age, Washington D.C., The Council for Research in Value and Philosophy, 2003, p.2.) Like any other branch of human life, philosophy today is affected by the phenomenon of globalization. It finds itself today in a fully diverse context. The fundamental philosophical issue of the "one and many" of "unity and diversity" is more central than ever before.


Philosophy as an enterprise is conducted within a surrounding culture. Hence it is a fact that the activity of philosophy is always influenced by its own particular cultural tradition. To understand a philosophical tradition one has to understand the nature of such cultural influences: acknowledge the essential role of the cultural context of a particular philosophy without necessarily getting trapped in a cultural relativism.

If the foregoing is to be assumed, one must be confronted with such questions as: if philosophy is culturally dependent, what possibilities do philosophers from different cultures have to engage in a philosophical dialogue with each other? Are there limits to what can be achieved? What justification do philosophers have to attempt such projects like this one? – "The Communication Across Cultures: The Hermeneutics of Culture in a Global Age."

All (philosophers and philosophies) come from a culture and civilization which developed its distinctive character over vast temporal and geographical distances; they enter now a global forum of exchange of goods and information to which successful adaptation is a first prerequisite for survival. The deeper challenge… is to rediscover their identity within the new unity."2 (McLean in Gyekye K., Beyond Cultures: Perceiving a Common Humanity, Washington, D.C., 2003, p.1)

On a somewhat personal note, I find myself, in a way, being caught in such a paradoxical situation of philosophy and philosophers today, for I am simultaneously within and outside different philosophies. Belonging to different cultures and philosophical traditions is challenging. It makes the whole personally an existential and experiential issue. It makes it not only challengingly paradoxical but it also provides me with the opportunity of trying to see if there is the chance of contributing anything reasonable within this ongoing process in philosophy.

The philosophical endeavor of our day differs from the classical tradition of philosophy in that it is not a direct and unbroken continuation of it. Despite its connection with its historical origin, philosophy today is well aware of the historical distance between it and its classical models…. the emergence of historical consciousness over the last few centuries is a much more radical rupture. Since then, the continuity of the Western philosophical tradition has been effective only in a fragmentary way. We have lost that naïve innocence with which traditional concepts were made to serve one’s own thinking. 3 (H.G. Gadamer, Truth and Method, New York, 2003, p. xxiv)

The foregoing statement indicates that Western philosophy has always been confronted with new and changing situations and challenges to which it has been reacting in one way or the other and which have affected its own development.

But even at that, each of these times Western philosophy has always sought out ways of facing these developments and challenges of the different historical epochs. Hence Gadamer continues to maintain that "the conceptual world in which philosophizing develops has already captivated us. If thought is to be conscientious, it must become aware of these anterior influences. A new critical consciousness must now accompany all responsible philosophizing which takes the habits of thought and language built up in the individual in his communication with environment and places them before the forum of the historical tradition to which we all belong."4 (Ibid. p. xxv)

The on going discussion shows a possible way in which philosophy could be done today. It would imply, among others, an inquiry into the history, development and suitability of philosophical tools or concepts. It means also a substantive exposition and treatment of these tools. Hence the treatment of hermeneutics in philosophy in global age is urgently called for.


Indubitably Greek and Western in its entrance and usage in Western philosophy, the idea and practice of hermeneutics as an art of interpretation remain anthropologically constant. Hermeneutics grew up as an effort to describe more subtle and comprehensive patterns of comprehension, more specifically the "historical" and "humanistic" modes of understanding. As the study of interpretation and understanding of texts, it "involves two different and interacting focuses of attention: (1) the event of understanding a text, and (2) the more encompassing question of what understanding and interpretation as such are."5 (Palmer R.E., Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer, Evanston 1969, p.8)

Though hermeneutics is not a household word be it in philosophy or literary criticism, not to talk of common areas of human activities, most of the human daily actions could be termed hermeneutical. Most of these are efforts towards or processes of interpretation and understanding. One needs to consider the ubiquity of interpretation and the generality of the usage of the term interpretation. In fact, from the time we wake up in the morning until we sink into sleep, we are "interpreting". On waking we glance at the bedside clock and interpret its meaning: we recall what day it is, and in grasping the meaning of the day we are already primordially recalling ourselves the way we are placed in the world and our plans for the future; we rise and must interpret the words and gestures of those we meet on the daily round. Interpretation is, then, perhaps the most basic act of human thinking; indeed existing itself may be said to be a process of interpretation.6 (Ibid, p. 8f)

In our global world of today, if existence in itself could be understood as a "constant process of interpretation", the issue might then boil down to these questions: "how can hermeneutics contribute to our response to present cultural dilemmas; how must hermeneutics be transformed in order to do so in our newly global age?"7 (McLean p.2) According to K Mueller, the "concern for hermeneutic problems has become quite common in recent decades… Today the term hermeneutics denotes a concern that is shared by… diverse fields of knowledge…"8 (K. Mueller, ed, The Hermeneutic Reader: New York, 1985 p. ix).

This is an important development for what seemed at first a strictly continental affair, restricted only to small special fields of studies, namely, theology and philosophy, is now occupying an important place in the global and scientific world of today. Even at that, this philosophical tool – hermeneutics – must be examined on the basis of its capability of fulfilling the roles being assigned to it today. One of the reasons is because "even the term hermeneutics itself is frequently found to have contradictory or at least ambiguous connotations…. The problem is that hermeneutics is both a historical concept and the name for an ongoing concern in the human and social sciences, and for the historical aspect of hermeneutics a single definition will not do."9 (ibid. p. ix)

Also as a historical concept it means like such concepts, hermeneutics is in process. "The science of hermeneutics as an act of interpretation and understanding undergoes a fundamental change in today’s global context… and it experiences an unprecedented widening of its horizons…"10 (Mall, A.R., Intercultural Philosophy, Lanham, p. 15). As a human and hence historical concept hermeneutics is culture-bound. The hermeneutics as found and used in Western philosophy, and-- in short-- in its various forms as found in every other philosophy or philosophical tradition, "has its own culturally sedimented roots and cannot claim universal and unconditional (validity and) acceptance. Any dialogue – most important, of course, is the intercultural one – has to take this insight as its point of departure." (Ibid.) The foregoing applies equally to philosophy and any other philosophical endeavors, which make use of the tool of hermeneutics in today’s global world. The question remains, how is hermeneutics to be understood and applied so as to meet the challenges of the global age?


Briefly and ad hoc answered, one could suggest that hermeneutics, in order to meet up with these challenges, must be done interculturally, hence the idea of intercultural hermeneutics. Here it is not principally an issue of developing a totally new form of hermeneutics as one may try to understand the concept intercultural hermeneutics. "Intercultural" here is more an adverb than an adjective. It emphasizes more the "how" of doing hermeneutics. Maybe the German expression "hermeneutik interkulturell" (hermeneutics intercultural) brings it out clearer. The emphasis lies on how hermeneutics as the study of understanding of the works of human beings, which transcends the particular cultural circumstances within which these works are done. It is then as such fundamental to all the human endeavors and should be occupied with interpretation and understanding of these human works.

The term intercultural hermeneutics as it is applied here is neither a trendy expression nor a romantic idea in this global age. It is must not be taken as compensation by non-European and non-Western cultures born out of an inferiority complex. Intercultural hermeneutics is also not just a shift made while facing the de facto encounters of today’s world cultures. It is more than being just a construct, an abstraction, or a syncretic idea. The concept - intercultural hermeneutics - stands for the conviction and the insight that no culture is the one culture for the whole of humankind.12

The fear that we may thereby deconstruct the general applicability of terms such as philosophy, truth, culture, religion, (hermeneutics), and so on, is unfounded. The concept… does however deconstruct the monolithic, absolutistic and exclusivistic uses of these terms. Intercultural thinking thus stands for an emancipatory process from all centrisms, be they Euro-, Sino- or Afrocentrism. The spirit of interculturality approves of pluralism, diversity, and difference as values (in themselves) and does not take them as privations of unity and uniformity.13 (Mall, p.14f)

The foregoing recalls our attention to what philosophy ab ovo has always presupposed – the issue of one and many, and unity in diversity. The emphasis here might be seen in the standpoint that the unity must have to be viewed from the context of diversity. This is the point where intercultural hermeneutics is called for. It supports the idea of the universal cross- or intercultural applicability of the philosophical tool, hermeneutics, taking seriously the challenges of cultural relativism in the sense that it denies such monolithic convictions which claim to be in possession of an absolute cultural and historical "Archimedean standpoint" over and above the bounds of other cultural and historical contexts.14 (Ibid., p.15) Intercultural hermeneutics strives towards a genuine recognition of diverse hermeneutical traditions found in different cultures and philosophical traditions. Hence intercultural hermeneutics is in a position to fulfill these expectations of our global age.

Linking intercultural hermeneutics to the Greek foundation of the hermeneutics would imply that it involves the process of bringing cultures to understanding. This will be a kind of mediation and "message bringing" process from one culture to the other. This implies three dimensions. Firstly the culture in question has to express itself. This is a stage where it is left for the particular culture in its peculiarity to express itself as such. This is not an issue of instrumentalising the cultures, be it by its members or external agents to achieve whatever purpose except that of making culture be appropriately understood. But here an honest effort towards objective self expression of the particular culture is presupposed.

Subsequent to this is the phase of explanation. Here that which is brought to expression in the first phase is made intelligible to the culturally other or cultural outsider. It is an introduction into the intrinsic logic, values, judgments and conclusions etc, of the culture in question. This is followed by the phase of translation.

The expressed and explained culture could be translated into the cultural framework of outside its own. Hence giving room to what would be an understanding of the culture in question. Intercultural hermeneutics would then refer to a laying open of a culture or cultures, a laying out that implies "reasonable explanation" and translation from one cultural world into the other.15 (Palmers p.13) One notices that "the foundational ‘Hermes process’ is at work in all three cases, something foreign, strange, separated in time, space, or experience is (cloud be) made familiar, present, comprehensible; something requiring representation, explanation, or translation is somehow ‘brought to understanding’ – is ‘interpreted’16 (Ibid. p. 14).

Another important aspect of intercultural hermeneutics would then be the application of the logic of question and answer as an aspect of hermeneutics. Gadamer pointed out that "the hermeneutic phenomenon too implies the primacy of dialogue and the structure of question and answer. That a historical text is made the object of interpretation means that it puts a question to the interpreter"14 (Gadamer, p. 369f.) Intercultural hermeneutics would then imply doing hermeneutics interculturally, i.e., entering into dialogue with other cultures, philosophical traditions and objects, texts, and works of human beings in these cultures and allowing them to pose questions to the interpreter from their respective standpoints and hence making the interpreters to go in search of answers within and outside of that very particular culture.

The dialectic of question and answer involved in the structure of such hermeneutical experience is constant and pervades also the understanding of culture in our global age. Hence culture could then be seen as the product of the dialectics of the sum total of questions and answers with which a particular group of people, at a particular point in time and space have been, are and will be confronted with.

Due to the fact that in different places and at different times peoples are respectively confronted with different questions to which they respond differently, it implies that the resultant sum total of these questions and answers differ from place to place and also time to time. It is not an issue of absolute difference because there abound proven similarities in central questions of life and as well in the responses to these question in respective cultures. Consequently there is a declared need for a form of openness in which every culture as such in its essence would be perceived without prejudice. This is more so today in our global age where the entire human race is being culturally jolted in the process of globalisation.

From the foregoing, intercultural hermeneutics is then needed in the communication across cultures when it comes to the hermeneutics of cultures in a global age. It enables the a cultural outsider to a particular culture among others, develop this prejudice free openness in approaching other cultures and to state more exactly what kind of consciousness the hermeneutical consciousness in this age should be, i.e., intercultural hermeneutical consciousness.

An important point here is the fact that Palmers (as we saw above) talks of being "somehow brought to understanding". Here one is reminded of a salient aspect of intercultural hermeneutics. This being brought "somehow" to understanding makes us aware of what might be termed the boundaries of classical hermeneutics.

For Hunfeld, in our global age the strange cultures are no longer far away as they seemed to be in the past. The stranger has become normal as a part of almost every given culture in the world of today. There is a strong tendency among others, to approach this normalcy of the strange (Normalität des Fremden) with traditional patterns of understanding which is mostly euphoric about the strange and tackles it with the understanding routine (Verständnisroutine) that do not do justice to the strangeness of the strange so as to allow it be understood deforming it so as to absorb it into the already known and practiced without traditional frames of understanding at the expense of it central essence – strangeness. Hunfeld tries to bring attention to the boundaries of traditional understanding. He talks of skeptical hermeneutics which unlike classical hermeneutics is not so popular in philosophy.

Skeptical hermeneutic recognizes a delaying support (Verzogerungshilfe) in the ideal scenes of historical misunderstandings and misinterpretations and absorptions of the foreign or the strange, which creates distance to the accustomed and makes the established conceptuality appear and be experienced differently. This limitation of the horizon of understanding is the point of departure for the skeptical hermeneutic. Paradoxically this is also liberation from the ghetto of the pressure of traditional understanding of the foreign/strange (Fremeden-vestehenszwänge) (Hunfeld Hans, Fremdheit als Lernimpuls –Skeptische Hermeneutik – Normalität des Fremden – Fremdsprache Literatur, Bozen, P. 46). In a sense intercultural hermeneutics is a skeptical hermeneutics for it, among others, struggles towards creating awareness for the limitations of the classical hermeneutics when it comes to the hermeneutics of culture in global age. Furthermore its main thrust is laying a balanced base for the appropriate understanding of cultures both in their similarities as well as in their uniqueness.

Finally, intercultural hermeneutics is also an "analogous hermeneutics". It is "neither the hermeneutics of total identity, which reduces the other to an echo of itself and repeats its self-understanding in the name of understanding of the other, nor that of radical difference, which makes the understanding of the other impossible. It does not put any one culture in an absolute position of generality and reduce all of the others to some form of it. There is no universal hermeneutic subject over and above the sedimented cultural, historical subject; it is, rather, a reflexive-mediative attitude accompanying the different subjects…"15 (Mall, p.16). This is intercultural hermeneutics as hermeneutics done interculturally. That means hermeneutics as a philosophical tool that helps to overcome the limitations of the respective particular culture-bound hermeneutic traditions. It lifts us beyond the "boundaries of the fictions of commensurability and incommensurability" and places us on the terrain of interculturality, thus enabling us to engage in communication across cultures in a global age.

Theologie Interkulturell und Studium der Religionen

University Salzburg

Salzburg, Austria


Gadamer, H.G. Truth and Method. 2nd Edition. New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 2003.

Hunfeld H., Fremdheit als Lernimpuls –Skeptische Hermeneutik – Normalität des Fremden – Fremdsprache Literatur, Bozen: Alpha Beta Verlag; 2004.

Mall, A.R. Intercultural Philosophy. Lanham: Rowan and Littlefield Publishing Incorporation, 2000

McLean, F.G. Hermeneutics for a Global Age. Washington D.C. The Council for Research in Value and Philosophy, 2003.

McLean F.G., in Gyekye K. Beyond Cultures - Perceiving a Common Humanity. Washington D.C. The Council for Research in Value and Philosophy, 2003

Mueller, K. ed, The Hermeneutic Reader. New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1985.


Palmer, R.E. Hermeneutics – Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer. Evanston: Northwestern University Press 1969.

Last Revised 12-Feb-09 05:08 PM.