Conducting Hermeneutic Research

From Philosophy to Practice

by Nancy J. Moules (Author) Graham McCaffrey (Author) James C. Field (Author) Catherine M. Laing (Author)
©2015 Textbook XIV, 214 Pages
Series: Critical Qualitative Research, Volume 19


Conducting Hermeneutic Research: From Philosophy to Practice is the only textbook that teaches the reader ways to conduct research from a philosophical hermeneutic perspective. It is an invaluable resource for graduate students about to embark in hermeneutic research and for academics or other researchers who are novice to this research method or who wish to extend their knowledge. In 2009, the lead author of this proposed text was one of three co-founders of the Canadian Hermeneutic Institute. The institute was created as a means of bringing together scholars of hermeneutics and hermeneutic research across disciplines in creative dialogue and conversations of philosophy, research, and practice. An outcome of this was the launch of the Journal of Applied Hermeneutics, with Nancy J. Moules serving as Editor. The work of the institute and the journal make clear that people (both students and professors) seek practical guidance on how to conduct hermeneutic research. This book is a must read for this audience.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table Of Contents
  • Foreword: The Wisdom of Hermeneutics
  • Chapter 1. Coming to Hermeneutics
  • Chapter 2. A History of Hermeneutics
  • Chapter 3. Gadamer’s Philosophical Hermeneutics
  • Chapter 4. Being Methodical and Following Leads
  • Chapter 5. The Address of the Topic
  • Chapter 6. Conducting Interviews in Hermeneutic Research
  • Chapter 7. Interpretation as Analysis
  • Chapter 8. Interpretation as Writing
  • Chapter 9. The Rigor and Integrity of Hermeneutic Research
  • Chapter 10. “So What?” – Implications of Hermeneutic Research
  • Chapter 11. Conclusion – Firsts and Lasts
  • Afterword: Catching Hermeneutics in the Act
  • Index
  • Series Index

← viii | ix →


I am pleased and honored to offer a word in advance to Conducting Hermeneutic Research. This is a paradoxical invitation for me because in radical hermeneutics everything turns on saying “come” to the coming of what we cannot see coming, of the unforeseeable. So without trying to help the reader see too much in advance, without trying to anticipate everything, let me say that what I find so precious in Conducting Hermeneutic Research is that it catches hermeneutics in the act. It brings home in the most vivid way just what hermeneutics really is—in the concrete. Its authors are concretely engaged and hermeneutically enlightened practitioners who are describing the difficult and delicate conditions under which concrete hermeneutical work takes place. How are research and writing conducted in such a way as not to become absorbed in a data-driven and objectifying culture? How to show that more is given than data without having one’s work dismissed as random, subjectivistic, and impressionistic? How to show that hermeneutics practices a “rigor” that is not reducible to mathematical “exactness,” to invoke a distinction from Edmund Husserl (that is put to work in Chapter Nine)? The task these authors take on is to portray the special place of practice in hermeneutics, to depict the practical wisdom that hermeneutics requires, indeed the practical wisdom that hermeneutics is. ← ix | x →

As practitioners, the authors understand in their bones what the ancients meant when they said that only individuals exist, while universals are abstractions. In hermeneutics—I offer this as a working definition—it is not a matter of applying universals to cases but instead of applying cases to universals. The only reason that sounds strange is because of the inverted, topsy-turvy nature of the word case. “Case” comes from cadere, casum, to fall, as in a casualty, for which we buy insurance. The suggestion is that the individual represents a “fall” from the truth and reality of the universal, a decline into mere particularity. But this is to invert reality. For the individual is what is real. The individual is the first truth, the true being, while universals are abstractions, meaning they are siphoned off (abstract = ab + trahere) individuals. Universals make handy but relatively empty place-holders, thin, schematic signifiers constituting an efficient shorthand useful for exchanging information. Trading in universals is like passing along linguistic containers which require unpacking to see to what they really contain when we get down to cases. There it is again! We don’t get down to cases—we rise to them! We have everything we can do to rise to the occasion of the individual, to ascend to the thick, dense, rich, complexity of the individual situation, instead of lolling lazily amidst the thin transparencies of universals.

In that sense hermeneutics is better served to speak not of the individual case but of the singular situation, not of “cases” but of “singularities,” which are always marked by a certain alterity, idiomaticity, idiosyncrasy and conceptual impenetrability. Singularities are not a fall or a defect, but an excess, far too rich ever to be adequately explicated or translated into universals. Just try it for yourself: try to make a list of universals that explicate your feelings for someone you love with a love that surpasses understanding, or that describe an experience that transformed your life, or a work of art that leaves you lost for words. We come up short, but coming up short against singularities is not due to a defect in our language or experience; it is not something to be remedied by building up a still larger stock of universals to draw upon the next time we are confounded by experience. We come up short because of the wealth of the experience. The wisdom of hermeneutics is to have the good sense not to think that reality is a “case” of an abstraction, that the perceptual is a lesser species than the conceptual, that the real is a fall from the ideal, or that “practice” is an imperfect version of the theoretical. Universals are abstracts, extracts, one-sided take outs, a freeze frame, a still which, while serving a purpose, only imperfectly evokes the rush of movement. ← x | xi →

In short, in hermeneutics, we proceed from the assumption that the practice is the perfect and the theory is the imperfect. The authors of the present volume are practitioners, nurses and educators, who alert us to the delicate art of practice and to the practical wisdom demanded of the practitioner. They face a dilemma like Kierkegaard’s, who wrote books which claimed that becoming a Christian is nothing to be found in a book, and so tried to write a book as if he had not written a book. These authors are trying to describe a method that is not a method except in the deeper etymological sense of making one’s way along (meta) the path (odos) to truth. To take one of many examples I could choose here, let me say that there is no theory, no body of principles, no rulebook, no set of universal norms that would enable us to “conduct” the interview recorded for us in Chapter Six with parents who have lost a child to cancer. The situation is steeped in an impenetrable mystery, a question to which there is no answer—why do children die? But while there is no answer, there is a fitting response, a response cut to fit—where there are no mis-fits, just ways of being differently fitted (see the wonderful account of a camp conducted for children with cancer in Chapter Eight)—which is compassion. Compassion inscribes a zone of respect around the mystery, is sensitive to the abyss that stirs beneath the cool clinical words “pediatric oncology.” Compassion provides for the possibility of the impossible, undertaking to heal an unhealable wound by—in this case—attempting to share this experience with other parents. The interviewer eases into the delicacy of a situation of unimaginable pain with “questions” that do not interrogate or objectify but create a space in which an unbearable suffering, an unspeakable pain, may find words. The words exchanged are gentle, sometimes hardly articulate, words that do not propose or defend theses, words from the heart, from broken hearts. As opposed to the cruelty of introducing a “statistic” about the divorce rate of parents who undergo this nightmare, a shattering number which threatens to crush the spirits of these courageous parents. In this interview we see what the philosophers call the “hermeneutic situation” in the concrete, glowing white hot and jumping off the pages of the philosophy books.

These authors work on the front line of situations where the only rule is that each situation is different. Hermeneutics is not a theory about how to engage in practice. If hermeneutics is a theory at all, it is a theory—which means a “seeing” (theorein, as in a theater)—of what we can’t see coming, a foreseeing of the unforeseeability of what is coming in the singular situation. ← xi | xii → Hermeneutics is the theory that practice is not blind but already has its own kind of pre-theoretical seeing—rather the way that it is the fingers of the pianist that “know” where the keys are and how to touch them. It is a theory, if it is a theory, about the limits of theory, what Derrida would call a “quasi-transcendental” theory. Unlike a transcendental theory, which lays out the conditions under which something is possible, hermeneutics is a theory that the most important things are possible only under conditions that make them impossible, like the impossible demands of this interview. It deals with limit cases, situations in which we run up against the most impossible things, where we must go where it is impossible to go. Only when we experience this paralysis may we dare proceed. Its greatest difficulty is that it will get too used to such extremes and begin to take the exceptional as business as usual.

Proceeding with the appropriate fear and trembling, understanding that hermeneutics is not a theory that we apply but a practice, they offer us various principles that are not quite principles. “Principles” are constructions drawn from the past whose predictive power depends upon the future being like the past. Principles unfold on the basis of the past but they fold in the face of what they cannot see coming, of the unexpected. That is why we do not “apply principles to cases.” We have the wisdom to know that principles, principia, which are sustained by the pretense that they come first (in principio), actually come last. Principles come after the fact, after experience has already taken place, and they will be sent scurrying back to the drawing board by the coming of what they do not see coming, by the next unexpected turn of events, by the singularity of something unforeseen—otherwise known as life, where the only preparation is to prepare to be unprepared!

Hermeneutics is wisdom. However postmodern hermeneutics may be, it is also a classical pre-modern wisdom. It goes back to Aristotle who posted himself at the door of ethics and warned all who were about to pass through: if you have come here in search of certainty, look elsewhere. If you come here in search of insurance to keep yourself safe from the “casualties” of concrete ethical life, you’ve come to the wrong place. Try that place down the street with “mathematics” marked on the door. In mathematics the ideal is the perfect (the perfect triangle is found only in ideal mathematical space) and the real is imperfect (no real triangular thing is ever perfectly triangular). But in ethics, the ideal, say, the definition of courage, is but an imperfect general schema, a finger pointing at the moon, while rising to the demands of the courage called ← xii | xiii → for here and now, in this real and singular situation, is the perfect. Hermeneutics is what Aristotle called the practical wisdom (phronesis) which knows that only individuals exist, that individuals are not trimmed down versions of universals but the rich and concretely real, and that our commerce with the reality of singularities cannot be lit in advance by the luminosity of principles.

Hermeneutics is the art of judgment and judgment is the art of the concrete. The person of judgment, Aristotle’s phronimos, has cultivated the art of discernment, of seeing into the singularity of the situation, into the unexpected demands of the singular, seeing what the situation is calling for, hearing what calls to us in this situation. In exercising a discerning judgment of this sort, we respond to what calls upon us, and we do so in the only responsible way. Hermeneutics is the maximization of responsibility. It recognizes what is called for in the idiosyncratic situation—as opposed to the flight from responsibility, which simply follows the rules. What better way to excuse oneself from assuming responsibility than to say that we are only following the rules? “I wish I could do something for you. I sympathize with your situation. It’s nothing personal. But I don’t make the rules.” What is more irresponsible than that? How much injustice has resulted from that? In hermeneutics we are, beyond being responsible to rules, responsible for the rules to which we respond.

The universality of hermeneutics means that such discernment is called for in every branch of life—not only in ethics, but in art where the artist is constantly experimenting with the previously untried, and in science, which reaches its highest pitch in dealing with the scientific anomalies that throw the received theories into turmoil, and in the various vocations—which means “callings” of course—like the physician and the nurse, the teacher, the therapist, the social worker, the pastor, the judge and jurists. Hermeneutics is not a theory of knowledge but the art of life and death, and it ranges over the length and breadth and depth of life. Hermeneutics does not shy away from the difficulty of life but summons the courage to deal with life in all its ambiguity. Hermeneutics takes the risk of embracing the coming of what we cannot see coming.

To see what I mean, in the concrete, I urge you to keep reading.


XIV, 214
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (January)
research method conversation philosophical method
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. XIII, 214 pp.

Biographical notes

Nancy J. Moules (Author) Graham McCaffrey (Author) James C. Field (Author) Catherine M. Laing (Author)

Nancy J. Moules (RN, BN, MN, PhD) is a Professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Calgary. She also holds the Kids Cancer Care Nursing Research Chair in Child and Family Cancer Care. She is a member of the Order of the University of Calgary, a Killam Scholar, and she holds numerous teaching and research awards. She is also the Founder and Editor of the Journal of Applied Hermeneutics. Graham McCaffrey (RN, BA, BN, PhD) is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Calgary. A member of the Canadian Hermeneutic Institute since its inception, he has also been a Principal Investigator and a Co-Investigator on several hermeneutic research studies. James C. Field (BSc, Med, PhD) is an Associate Professor in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary. Dr. Field’s research interests are in areas of teacher education, interpretive forms of inquiry, reading assessment, and collaborative schoolbased research and curriculum studies. Catherine M. Laing (RN, BN, MN, PhD) is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Calgary. She has been a Principal Investigator and a Co-Investigator on several hermeneutic research projects and is nationally known for her expertise in pediatric oncology.


Title: Conducting Hermeneutic Research
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231 pages