Philosophical Hermeneutics in the Age of Pixels: Hans-Georg Gadamer, Peter Tiersma, and Dasein in the Age of the Internet


Philosophical Hermeneutics in the Age of Pixels


Frank S. Ravitch


I am honored to contribute to this volume exploring the scholarship of Peter Tiersma, whose work has been immensely helpful to many of us who write in the area of legal interpretation. I will focus specifically on the implications of Tiersma’s work on legal interpretation in the age of the Internet. Tiersma is one of the first scholars to address the impact that modern technology has on legal interpretation. He suggests some fascinating possibilities such as using wiki technology in drafting and interpreting legislation and inter-branch statutory editing. Here I will utilize his insights about legal interpretation and interpretive traditions in the age of the Internet to briefly explore the interrelationship among technology, dasein, and tradition in the understanding of law from the vantage of Philosophical Hermeneutics.

A (Very) Basic Introduction to Gadamerian Hermeneutics and the Law

Hermeneutics are an inescapable part of everyday life. We are always interpreting, whether we know it or not (Ravitch 2007: 9–10). Interpretation is especially challenging when one attempts to apply a text written in a different time and culture to situations arising today (Ravitch 2010: 2–6, 9–12, 81–82). There are many approaches to interpretation, many of them overlapping on salient points. Philosophical hermeneutics seems especially useful in legal interpretation because of the time lag and cultural shifts that sometimes occur between the passage of legislation or ratification of constitutions and the present.

The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer explained that there is no absolute method of interpretation (Gadamer 1999; Gadamer 1981: 98–107). Each interpreter brings his or her own preconceptions into the act of interpreting a text—and Gadamer meant “text” in a broad sense not limited to written texts (Gadamer 1999: 265–271). These preconceptions are influenced by the tradition, including social context, in which the interpreter exists. The interpreter’s tradition(s) provides her with a horizon that includes her interpretive predispositions. This horizon is the range of what the interpreter can see when engaging with a text. The concept of dasein, or being in the world, captures this dynamic (Gadamer 1999: 257, 264). We exist in the world around us and that world influences how we view things. Thus, our traditions and context are a part of our being. As Tiersma (2010) explains, the Internet has vastly expanded our access to the traditions to which we may be exposed.

Still, the text has its own horizon of meaning. That horizon is influenced by the context (or tradition) in which it was written, by those who influenced or interpreted it over time, by the words used, and by the context of the original author or authors (Gadamer 1999

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