With rapid and disorienting changes in the landscape of generative AI, one of the only things clearly safe from the rise of the robots is complex human understanding. At best, generative AI can simulate this, but these simulations are superficial and often janky and low fidelity. Given this, it’s well worth examining the value of the increasingly neglected field of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is a very fancy word for a very simple concept. It is, in essence, the study of the transmission of meaning through language, thus the taking of its name from the Greek messenger god, Hermes. More than anything else, it’s a philosophy and framework dealing with the very human activities of expression and interpretation. In this article, we’re going to take a look at hermeneutics, its role across professions as distinct as medical science and military intelligence, and discuss how mastery of the discipline can be a net benefit to any law practice.
The precise transmission of meaning through language is obviously pivotal to the practice of law, with huge resources devoted to both determining the true meaning of every conceivable type of text, as well as to delivering painstakingly unambiguous messaging through generated documents and delivered speech. A good grounding in hermeneutics can be helpful to all these functions, but it can also be of use in other and more potentially surprising areas.
Doctors, especially those involved with critical and palliative care, have a long and storied relationship with hermeneutics. They attend seminars on hermeneutics to discuss how to speak with patients and their families about mortality, how to use hermeneutic frameworks to interpret patient reporting of pain and symptoms, and how they, in turn, can communicate vital health information. Just as importantly, the hermeneutic framework is used regularly to shape and inform research practices, right down to determining the research topics themselves.
Hermeneutics also pops up in disciplines like intelligence analysis, with some agencies using it as a framework to fuse and standardise a mosaic of irregular information sources into a single coherent picture, or to ensure the accurate interpretation of a messy grab bag of different forms and formats of information across a diverse range of backgrounds and cultures. One of the most egregious hermeneutic failures, which is the source of much soul-searching and reform down to the present day, was the catastrophic failure of Western intelligence services in the leadup to the 2003 Iraq War.
Intelligence at the time was plagued with multiple problems, not least of which were source qualification and baked-in systemic dysfunction, but arguably the key failure spread across the whole enterprise was hermeneutic. This essentially consisted of a failure to place Iraqi sources appropriately in their contemporary cultural context. With hindsight and a hermeneutic eye, it’s flagrantly obvious that the vast majority of intelligence regarding the WMD program was tainted beyond use by the dread hand of Saddam’s regime, its inbuilt secrecy and automatic and intense paranoia. Close hermeneutic study of firsthand testimony and documentary evidence reveals what the analysts at the time failed to see – that their sources weren’t actually saying anything, and that viewed in their own context, it was easy to understand why this was their only choice.
So what is it that makes hermeneutics so useful that doctors and spies (not to mention police investigators and legal professionals) make such heavy use of it? Essentially, it’s the way the philosophy of hermeneutics helps to mitigate some of the warping effects of forensic and scientific methods. This might seem a startling thing to say in this day and age. The popular conception of the scientific method and its cousin, forensic analysis, is that these are the shortest and best paths to truth. This belief is so widespread it qualifies as a doxa – a near-universally held piece of common knowledge.
But any method, scientific or otherwise, creates potential for serious error, and the medical fraternity has long known that the scientific method as applied in medical research can have catastrophic effects on the quality of information collected and conclusions reached, especially if it’s not adjusted for the very human factors of understanding and interpretation. And with the sheer range of AI tools available and in use across so many aspects of our world, this catastrophic effect is becoming extremely widespread as complex human understanding abandons the field to algorithms and chatbots.
Gadamer, one of the most important writers on hermeneutics, understood the interaction between a researcher and their subjects as a complex interplay. He described a multitude of factors interacting with each other to create unpredictable results. There’s prejudice, whether mild, harmful, unintentional, or even beneficial. There’s something he called ‘the inertia of past events’, which is a way of thinking about each individual as a being in complex motion, set on their current trajectory by everything that’s happened to them. There are gaps in culture, gulfs of ignorance, walls of knowledge, and disparities of culture, education, and personality.
In short, hermeneutics acknowledges and emphasises the fact there are no clean binaries in human interaction – even and especially between humans and texts. The researcher is as much a subject of any interaction as the actual subject, if not more so, and blindness to this complex interplay can lead to a total inability to understand the information gathered, with obvious negative effects on the conclusions reached. Interpretation, as I’m sure every lawyer knows all too well, is a messy and involved process, and can lead the interpreter down some very strange rabbit holes indeed.
In 2017, the enigmatic stone age monument known as Göbekli Tepe was subjected to study by a pair of engineers from The University of Edinburgh. Göbekli Tepe is a complex of standing pillars with carved designs on them, dating to about 10,500 years ago, and its discovery fundamentally altered our understanding of civilisation. What’s relevant here, however, is that the Edinburgh engineers set about trying to find out what the monument actually meant – a hermeneutic study if ever there was one. Unfortunately, they confined their research methods to data analytics, using mathematical models of the night sky and a seemingly random sampling of less than 5% of the monument which had been published at the time.
This study made global news, with its proud and definitive announcement that data analytics had ‘proven’ that the site was an ancient astronomical observatory. Amongst other problems with this theory (like the fact it likely had a roof) was the assumption that a carved relief of a scorpion on one of the pillars represented the constellation Scorpio. This is a classic hermeneutic mistake – there’s simply no reason to believe that stone age people had the same astrological system as we do. In fact, our first evidence for the one we currently use (or misuse, as the case may be) emerges 8,000 years after Göbekli Tepe was abandoned. This failure to even consider the context of the monument’s creators – to take sufficient care with the interpretation of its symbols – has led to years of sterile and unproductive debate, taking time and resources away from the actual study of the monument.
An understanding of hermeneutics, as well as the ability to apply hermeneutic frameworks, is vital to the pursuits of research, investigation, and also persuasion. The fact is that while our forensic and generative tools, digital and otherwise, are advancing with frightening rapidity, what they show no signs of replacing is our ability to understand. And without a considered and comprehensive framework for both gaining and creating understanding in other people, all our efforts to understand or persuade are left unacceptably exposed to random chance and robotic strangeness. In the very near future, if not right now, we can foresee a world in which hermeneutic capability will form one of the most potent points of difference in the marketplace, so it’s worth shoring up and cultivating resources and abilities in this area.
If you’d like to read more about hermeneutics, or any other aspect of strategic influence or information operations, look out for future articles here on Legal Practice Intelligence. You can also follow our Medium page, or if you’d like to discover more or ask me a question, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Lake: Chris has broad experience in large-scale influence and information warfare-related activities. He completed multiple overseas deployments as a Maritime Warfare Officer in the Royal Australian Navy and has worked intensively with information warfare personnel from across the ADF and its international partners. Chris has both designed and delivered training and education for major joint warfighting exercises, and to multiple units. He has published a variety of papers about influence, psychological warfare, and human network creation and analysis for Australian Defence Force publications. Chris has received a commendation from Joint Operations Command J7, as well as briefing the Chief of the Australian Army on the use of digital influence in international warfighting exercises.
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