Viewing City from a Hermeneutic Perspective

Viewing City from a Hermeneutic Perspective

By A.N. Nourozi Talab


Human can interpret the universe through understanding. Human builds the world. Each city in this world is built by human and the variety and diversity of the cities indicate the historical life and the experience of human life on the earth which also showcase the social aspect of human life.

Through understanding and analyzing the signs of city and understanding the identities of these signs, we can get a credible understanding about city. Urban signs are indeed speaking for themselves and reveal the nature of the city. The shape and form of the city is made up of signified elements which can be discussed through hermeneutics.


Human’s powers of understanding enable him to interpret. Interpretation means the activation of human understanding. Some hermeneutic scientists such as Gadamer deem interpretation as understanding. Different and various understanding of a single entity brings about diverse interpretations. Here the issue of credibility arises. Which of these interpretations are credible and which of them are not? The criterion for distinguishing credible interpretation from unreliable ones. The criteria for these interpretations can be discussed from two points of views: a. the interpretation of the text b. method of interpretation or understanding which should necessarily be independent from the text and in this case we face two contexts which are not related to each other at all. Hermeneutics or the science of interpretation is viewed as the science of understanding and comprehending all human and natural phenomena. Human phenomenon or artistic and literary works which take form in the framework of writing, picture, motion or shapes or they are technological instruments that have been made to meet mundane desires and are an amalgamate of craftsmanship and art.

Urban planning has its roots deep in technology and art. Thus, the phrase art of urban planning refers to the utilizing technology to build a place for human life, where human spiritual and worldly needs are met. To discuss this issue from hermeneutic approach, we first need to define city.

Human social and individual life is integrated with city. Indeed, human life gives city a sense of credibility.

Indeed, time and place are like a container in which molds human life and human life in turn shapes the time and place. City is like a place shaped in horizons of human life which meets his spiritual and mundane needs.

City is a whole which systematically organizes its elements. In fact, it is the whole system, which organizes the elements. City is the manifestation of the spirit of the society in a conspicuous shape which gives form to life and human social life as a spiritual force, shapes the structure of the city. This formation is consisted of buildings and monuments which should meet human worldly and spiritual needs during a historical process.

City has a structured entity which is identified with its functional and semantic elements. This identity is the product of human life and existence. Designers first plan what they deem as desirable and on the basis of their holistic approach, arrange the elements of the system in manner that secures their goals. City is a multi-faceted entity which is like a well-cut diamond reflecting various facets. Practical interpretation is based on intelligence and delves into multi-faceted facts. City is a texture of interwoven elements rolling like waves. It is like a river which has different whirlpools. As the border between a whirlpool and the river cannot be distinguished, the three elements of space, time and place are so interwoven and integrated that it is almost impossible to separate them.

To interpret city, we first need to know the meaning of hermeneutics and then get familiar with the elements constituting a city.

Definition of Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics is the theory of text interpretation, especially the interpretation of biblical texts, wisdom literature, and philosophical texts. Hermeneutic as a singular noun refers to a single particular method or strand of interpretation.

Modern hermeneutics includes both verbal and nonverbal communication as well as semiotics, presuppositions, and pre-understandings.

Hermeneutic can also be defined as interpretation of works created by human. Michel Foucault in his book titled words and things defines Hermeneutic as a set of rules and techniques that enable us to understand signs. So it can be concluded that there is an authentic relationship between hermeneutics and semiology.

The interpretation of city requires three scientific approaches.

1. Hermeneutics or the science of interpretation

2. Linguistic (Spoken and Written) methods

3. Knowledge of technical language

Definition of Semiology

Any tangible and comprehensive phenomenon can be the subject of human understanding. Sign is the form of an object that is understood by a subject. Meaning is perceived via form. Signs are meaningful forms. Symbols are considered as a branch of signs. Sign come in various forms but have one thing in common, which is the language. The meaning of the signs can be perceived through knowing the linguistic function of the signs. Non-linguistic signs such as gestures, social behaviors, … are like linguistic systems as they contain meaningful signs.

Any phenomenon, no matter visual, imaginary, spoken or written, motional or phonetic, is like a language that signifies certain concepts. Sign, in the broadest sense of the word, is a referable object to the meaning or meanings or is the outcome of a meaning or meanings. City is a super context which is consisted of significant signed elements. Semiology can be deemed as the knowledge and the method of reviewing all phenomena related to human culture, civilization and understanding.

If we acknowledge that human should live the way he thinks, then the same theory will be true about city. In other words, space, time and place give existence to city. These elements indeed play a rudimental role in forming human understanding, taste, and habits and on the other hand, urban engineers as the designers of the city, change the appearance of the city or develop it according to time and place circumstances. Any sort of change, such as destruction, expansion, change, and reconstruction should be implemented through interaction and thoughtful planning. The product of such a well-thought practice forms the appearance of the city and plays a significant role in the formation of the social and intellectual character of its residents. City is a systematic and purposeful body which is governed by a general system and has been shaped by a power-oriented will. Urban interpretation or hermeneutics is based on knowing elements which constitute city and sheds light on the hologram facets of city. Any deficiency or insufficiency in the system of the city can be corrected by rectifying the mentality or mentalities which have formed the appearance of the city. This can only be achieved via urban hermeneutics. City, beside its physical features, contains mental concepts which constitute the collective, ethnic or national memory of its residents. Urban community includes both city and its residents. There is a kind of interaction between the body and the soul of the city. Body is the home of the soul. Soul builds the body on the basis of its desirable order and system.

City is like a “floating image.” It is a super-context which undergoes change. But any such change is controlled by a whole entity which can be labeled as the collective soul of the city. City is consisted of visual signs which have been formed in an effort to meet the worldly and spiritual needs of the residents. City is made up of variables which constantly vary and produce a noble context.

What can be named signs of city?

What are city signs?

Is garbage part of city outlook? How about cars, traffic, and rush hour? Is air pollution which is a result of traffic part of the city outlook? Can lack of natural scenes be deemed as one of urban factors? How about audio and visual pollution? Is collocation of old and modern texture of the city part of the major elements of city outlook?

City is a meaningful body and is not confined to simply providing functional services. The physique of each city is interwoven with the spiritual moods and manners of its society. It is like meaning which has gained a form and its forms signifies its message. It is impossible to separate the form of city from its meaning. Hermeneutics, through analyzing the form of the city and investigating the relationship among its elements and also demonstrating the function of the elements, reveal their semantic and conceptual aspects. Hermeneutics of city means revealing the contextual meaning or meanings which need to be interpreted. Hermeneutics is capable of discovering the collecting interpretation of the residents of the city through cognitive, scientific and statistical approaches and methods.

The outlook of city is indeed the manifestation of ideal human life and the rational and spiritual aspect of human life and the outlook of ideal city is indeed the subjective imagination of human. The king of such a city is a philosopher, a ruler who is interested in science and wisdom.


City is a body made of form and meaning

Forms are product of meanings.

Form and content or form and meaning cannot be studied and analyzed separately.

City is a hologram and multi-faceted phenomenon and is like a visual super-context which is consisted of a group of floating pictures. It is a whole picture of the aspects of human life. Hermeneutics and semiotics can be used as tools of understanding to criticize, review, analyze and perceive the meaning of city outlook. The object reality of city is not separate from its subjective reality at all. City is an objective-subject reality indeed. It is a texture that constantly undergoes movement, expansion, destruction and construction and this is the reality which shapes the outlook of city. The outlook which indicates the faces of human life.


1. A hologram was a projected three-dimensional representation of a person or object made through holography.

2. Holography is a technique which enables three-dimensional images to be made. It involves the use of a laser, interference, diffraction, light intensity recording…


Richard Palmer, Hermeneutics, translated by Mohammad Saeed Hanaee Kashani, Hermes Publications, 1998

Pier Giro, Semiotics, 2004, translated by Mohammad Nabavi, 2001

Webster English Dictionary

Michael Talbot, Holographic Universe, translated by Mehrjooee, Hermes Publications, 2008

Modern Hermeneutics, Translated by Babak Ahmadi, Mehran Mohajer, Mohammad Nabavi, Nashr-e-Markaz, 1998

Last modified on Saturday, 31 August 2013 20:46

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