Recycling the meaning

The hermeneutic circle is one realization of the meaning cycle. It entails returning to parts of a text which have introduced you to its whole idea, but which now take on new meaning in the light of its wholeness. Once a text has become a turning sign, the integrity of that text guides your continued interpretation of it. You read it as a single symbol which embodies a single intent, however complex it may be. Then your focus on any part takes the whole text as its primary context.

This way of reading is especially fruitful when the text lacks a narrative order, for then your quest for the whole intent invites you to try various combinations and groupings of the parts, which will reveal meanings that would remain submerged in a narrative flow. This might explain the endless fascination of texts which appear to be collections of isolated aphorisms, like the fragments of ancient Greek philosophers, the Tao te ching or the Gospel of Thomas.

The hermeneutic circle is called a ‘circle’ only because it repeatedly brings you round to revisit and reinterpret the same text. But where it takes you between visits to that single text would not look like a circular path if you could diagram it; it would look like a strange attractor, or perhaps like someone wandering about in a network. And of course it would take many more than two dimensions to properly portray this itinerancy.

The circle also has a tendency to become a hermeneutic spiral, especially in a scriptural work such as the Báb’s commentary on the Qur’anic Sura of Joseph:

The work itself is the result of a re-ordering of the basic elements of the scripture of Islam that have been internalized and transformed by the apparently opposite processes of imitation and inspiration to become finally an original “act” of literature of a genre we would like to call gnostic apocalypse.… Taken as a whole, this commentary by the 25-year-old merchant from Shiraz represents a text within a text within a text which strives to interpret itself. It may be thought to offer an example of an attempt to transform what became known much later as the hermeneutic circle into what might be called a hermeneutic spiral.

Lawson 2012, 141

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