With its roots stretching deep into biblical and literary interpretation, what does hermeneutics have to do with the question of seeing and with the experience of coming to see what is in a work of art? In response to this question, we will argue that hermeneutical aesthetics does not entail a ‘philosophy of art’ but a philosophical meditation upon what happens to us in our experience of art. Our argument will be presented in six stages. The first will propose that rather than dwelling on the ‘subjectivity’ of our experience of art, hermeneutical aesthetics seeks to illuminate what philosophical and existential determinants shape our perceptions of art. Rather tellingly, the German word for perceive is wahrnehmen, to take or receive as true. Hermeneutic aesthetics focuses on how our experiences of art occasion the appearance of certain truths. A major leitmotif of hermeneutic thought is that certain truths can only be experienced subjectively but that fact does not render them subjective. That what we come to see in art cannot be reduced to mere subjectivity depends upon historical and cultural ideas which transcend the subjective and yet achieve personal perceptual instanciations within aesthetic experience. We shall argue that both art and aesthetics reside in the generative tension between sight and in-sight. The second part is devoted to ‘Hermeneutics, Language and Visual Understanding’. Hermeneutics’ deep concern with language does not subordinate image to word but applies the sensitivities we acquire from linguistic exchange to reveal how our experience of art is no isolated monologue on personal pleasure but a complex dialogical achievement involving the fusion of the horizons surrounding artist, subject-matter and viewer. Part three engages the theme of ‘Perception, Meaning and Art’. For aesthetic experience to have a content which can lay claim to being (in part) objective, it must have an ideational content which transcends the subjective limitations of the circumstance and scope of individual perception.

Hermeneutics insists that in any reflection upon our experience of art, we must focus on the question of meaning. Part four approaches the question of ‘Art and Its Subject-Matters’. What does a work of art direct us to? Though it might be seen by the mind’s eye, what we come to see in a work is not necessarily an object which is visually present. Hermeneutic aesthetics emphasises that art works do not merely re-interpret and re-present subject-matters but extend and alter their being. It is in the notion of subject-matter that hermeneutic thought gains an insight into how an art work can transcend the temporal restriction of its historical origin and affect the contemporary world. Part five attends to the question of ‘Hermeneutics, Art and Eventuality’. One of the most important contributions which hermeneutics makes to aesthetics involves the argument that in the experience of art, seeing and understanding are not merely passive. To the contrary, the spectator is a condition of what is held within a work coming forth and, furthermore, that revelation can effectively change the subject-matter it discloses. This permits hermeneutic thought to draw a crucial distinction between an artistic representation (Vorstellung) and an artistic presentation (Darstellung), a distinction which, in turn, completely radicalises traditional conceptions of the relationship between art and reality. To initiate our case, then, let us consider what is held in the two words which mark out our terrain; namely, hermeneutics and seeing.