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Hermeneutics“a term whose Greek looks, theological past, and Herr Professor pretentiousness ought not put us off because, under the homelier and less fussy name of interpretation, it is what many of us at least have been talking all the time.”

—Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge (1983, p. 224)

Hermeneutics is the theory and philosophy of understanding and interpretation. The term derives from Hermes, a son of Zeus, who interprets messages from the Greek gods. Hermes was not simply a messenger, however. He was also a trickster. It was not always easy to determine which role Hermes was playing.

As Hermes’s story suggests, understanding and interpretation can be fraught. In education, for example, students sometimes struggle to understand the meaning of texts. Teachers try to understand students’ questions and may ...

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