The hardest parts of science: the hermeneutic circle

April 18, 2008 – 3:29 pm

I was turned on to the idea of the hermeneutic circle by my dad, who was an English major in college. In literary criticism, the idea of the hermeneutic circle is that it’s difficult to understand the total meaning of a work without understanding the details within it and, likewise, it’s difficult to understand the significance of the details without first knowing the whole story. Think of the movie Memento.

Scientific writing is highly structured, usually some variation on introduction, methods, results, discussion for manuscripts; and introduction, questions, methods, significance for grant proposals. Perhaps the most common major criticism of scientific proposals and manuscripts is that the sections don’t tie together: introduction doesn’t match discussion, methods and/or results don’t match questions, discussion overreaches from results, etc. These types of problems can be thought of as a break in the hermeneutic circle. The details don’t add up to the whole and the whole doesn’t emerge from the details.

Beyond being aware of it and anticipating its occurrence (which is huge), what’s the best way to deal with this problem? It’s very challenging and I’m not sure I have a surefire way, but here are two ideas. The first is to just to get feedback from your colleagues. These mismatches between sections tend to work themselves out in successive drafts. This is a slow and time-consuming process, but it works. This is also one of those obvious pieces of advice that probably belongs in the 10 commandments of writing.

Here’s a more intriguing and possibly better solution if you can get it to work. If it does work, your colleagues can focus on other things besides these glaring hermeneutic circle breakages, potentially leading to a better overall final product. John Irving, the writer from New Hampshire who tends to write books about writers from New Hampshire is known for his supreme mastery of the hermeneutic circle. I’ve only read one of his books, A Prayer for Owen Meany, but I was impressed by how well the story is structured – how well all of the details add up to the spectacular plot. In fact it was the Darrouzet-Nardi family book club discussion on this book where my dad first edified me upon the subject of the hermeneutic circle. Listen how Irving describes his writing process in this interview with Don Swaim:

I know what happens before I begin a story. I begin with a sense of aftermath almost, a sense of epilogue even – a sense of not only what the end of the book is, but how the end of the book feels: Who were the victims of this story? And once I see what the end of it is, I piece the story backwards toward the beginning and this process is a process really of not writing. It’s a process of map-making or outlining or compiling grocery lists, really. And it can last as long as a year or 18 months.

Wow! Not writing. It’s more productive than you thought. Everyone’s writing style is different of course, so it may not work for all, but intense mental planning may be something that separates the great structural writers from the mediocre. A few weeks ago, I heard one of the professors in my department, Russ Monson, talking about his grant writing process. Russ is known for his clear-thinking, well-structured, and very successful grant proposals. By his own admission, he’s had a 75% funding success rate in the last few years, which is very good in a field where the acceptance rate hovers around 10%. He started his description off with a process that sounded uncannily similar to what Irving said. He said that his ideas go through a 6-8 week incubation period so that he can figure out what the best questions are and which are the most defensible. During that time, he mulls over his ideas whenever he has spare time (like his walk to school) and talks with colleagues. He can be kind of “obsessive about it.” So, that’s shorter than Irving’s yearlong process, but then again Russ is writing 15 pages and Irving is writing 600.

That’s all for now on the importance of the hermeneutic circle in scientific writing. Please chime in if you have a solution that works for you or ideas about the nature of this challenge. Or if you just think I’m a nerd for using the word hermeneutics. That brings me to a final note: Physicist and essayist Steven Weinberg shared this story in one of his essays: “A physicist friend of mine once said that in facing death, he drew some consolation from the reflection that he would never again have to look up the word “hermeneutics” in the dictionary.”

  1. One Response to “The hardest parts of science: the hermeneutic circle”

  2. John Irving is a brilliant writer! I’ve also enjoyed Son of A Circus (although it took me forever to pore through) and loved the Cider House Rules, Setting Free the Bears and the Hotel New Hampshire. I recommend the CH Rules if you have time!

    By David Knochel on May 15, 2008

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.