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Hermeneutics is a German word of Greek origin translated as interpretation in English. In the modern period it was originally used to refer to biblical interpretation and later to the general approach to literary and legal studies. In the past fifty years it has described an alternative to positivist approaches to the study of society. Positivist social science subscribes to methodological monism—the idea that there is a single scientific method, modeled after the natural sciences, that is the means for accumulating objective knowledge about the social and political world. As science, it looks to exclude normative and moral claims or evaluations about the social world. While acknowledging the importance of a scientific understanding of some aspects of the social world, hermeneutics rejects the methodological privilege that positivism ascribes to the natural sciences. Hermeneuticists argue that a more fundamental understanding and explanation of social life may be found in the meaning that action has for social and political actors. The emphasis on meaning implies that social behavior be construed as a text or text-analogue to be interpreted, according to Paul Ricoeur in Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences (1981), rather than as an object of scientific and technological understanding. In this respect hermeneuticists hold that the study of social life is more closely related to explanation and understanding of literary texts than to the objective study of physical objects or biological processes. Moreover, proponents argue that hermeneutics shows that the explanation of social life has a necessary moral or normative dimension to it.
Two of the earliest proponents of hermeneutics were Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) and Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911). Schleiermacher argued that the understanding of literary texts, legal documents, religious practices, or works of art require that one start with the object of interpretation and work backward to ascertain the intention of the author. Dilthey, building on Schleiermacher’s work, argued that historical events as well as works of art are the meaningful embodiment of the subjective intention of social actors and authors. Both thinkers, according to Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900– 2000) in Truth and Method (1989), strove to develop an approach to interpretation that would uncover the objective meaning of the object of inquiry.
Schleiermacher and Dilthey formed the basis of what became known as the hermeneutics of recovery. The hermeneutics of recovery presupposes that the task of social inquiry is to capture the original intention or meaning that motivates and informs social action. This presupposes that there is an original, intended meaning that is determinate of social behavior and institutions. This version of hermeneutics often presupposes that empathy is a primary requirement for understanding social action and that explanations are to be couched in the subjective beliefs and intentions of actors.
A second approach, the hermeneutics of suspicion, is grounded in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), Karl Marx (1818–1883), and Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), according to Ricoeur. It takes what proponents argue is a more critical approach to interpretation than found in the hermeneutics of recovery. The hermeneutics of suspicion maintains that the subjective intentions or conventional understanding of social actors is misleading and a distortion of social reality. Whether it is the conventional accounts of morality (Nietzsche), the ideology of the capitalist political economy (Marx), or the self-misunderstandings of individuals concerning the genuine motivations for their behavior and particularly their neuroses (Freud), the conscious, subjective, and prevailing understandings of society and social relations remain at the level of mere appearances and function to obscure and distort the reality that the social investigator needs to uncover to reveal the true meaning behind the apparent world.
More recently, two thinkers who have had the greatest impact on hermeneutics have been Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951). Both Heidegger and Wittgenstein emphasize the priority of language for understanding human existence. For both, language is not just a tool that human beings possess. What is distinctive about human beings is that their experience of the world and their social relations are constituted by and expressed in language. Conversely, language gets its sense from the way of life (Wittgenstein) or the historical horizon (Heidegger) within which it evolves. Hence, there is a close connection between language and the social reality it helps to constitute and embody; the two are intertwined. The meaning of social action must be explained in terms of the linguistic tradition within which it is located, and the linguistic tradition in turn is explicated by reference to the meaningful behavior of social actors. This to-and-fro movement of interpretation is what is meant by the hermeneutic circle.
Heidegger and Wittgenstein have influenced a wide range of interpretive social scientists (Hiley, Bohman, and Schusterman eds. 1991). Perhaps the two most important are Hans-Georg Gadamer (1989; see also Malpas, Arnswald, and Kertscher eds. 2002) and Charles Taylor (b. 1931) (1985, 1995), both of whom go beyond the hermeneutics of recovery and of suspicion. Building on Heidegger’s accounts of language and historicity, Gadamer argues that because human behavior and human understanding are historically and linguistically situated, a person’s understanding of the world is always both enabled and constrained by the person’s linguistic-historical tradition. This means that the prejudices or prejudgments of that tradition are an inescapable and necessary part of people’s attempts to understand themselves as well as other historical traditions. This does not, however, mean that people are trapped in a prison of language. Rather, Gadamer argues that a dialogue with the other encourages openness to the experience of other historical traditions. The result is a fusion of horizons that transcends previous understandings.
Taylor makes a similar point concerning language. Drawing on both Heidegger and Wittgenstein, he argues that language and the social practices in which it is embedded form a social imaginary that serves to express an understanding of the possibilities for human beings and for social and political life. Because that understanding is often inchoate, tacit, and imperfectly articulated, the goal of the social theorist is to give an expression to that social imaginary. Taylor ties this reformulation of the self-understanding of social life to the possibility of deep forms of moral and political evaluation and reflection on the part of social and political actors (Taylor 1985a, 1985b, 1995). Moreover, building on the work of Gadamer, Taylor argues that Gadamer’s account of the fusion of horizons is pertinent not just for the understanding of other historical situations. It is also important in understanding other contemporary cultures and ways of life. The dialogical process that takes place in such efforts makes mutual understanding possible, though not guaranteed. Moreover, it makes greater reflective understanding of ourselves possible as well (Taylor in Malpas, Arnswald, and Kertscher 2002, 277–298)
The most recent significant development in hermeneutics is found in the work of Italian philosopher and social theorist Gianni Vattimo. In Beyond Interpretation: The Meaning of Hermeneutics for Philosophy (1997), Vattimo argues that taking the anti-essentialism of Nietzsche more seriously enables a more radical approach to hermeneutics and interpretation. He looks to challenge the distinction between the natural and the human sciences and to encourage a dialogue among science, art, religion, and ethics. Perhaps most important, along with Taylor he sees a more robust role for religion in the public sphere in what some hermeneuticists describe as a postsecular society.
Criticism of Hermeneutics
Despite what proponents see as the promise of interpretive approaches to the study of social life, a number of criticisms have been offered of hermeneutics. One criticism continues to be advanced by conventional social scientists. Focusing on earlier forms of hermeneutics, they claim that empathic understanding may be a useful tool in formulating better hypotheses, but it does not exhaust the range of behavior that is of interest to social science. Moreover, it is not a criterion of verification in the research process, according to those committed to scientifically defined social inquiry.
A second criticism originates with critical theory and the work of Jürgen Habermas. In his debate with Gadamer, Habermas argues that despite its importance for social inquiry, the hermeneutic emphasis on tradition, prejudices, and internal standards of rationality limits its critical leverage on prevailing ideologies that mask the social reality and specifically the exercise of power (Habermas 1987). Critical theorists maintain that this reflects an inherent, politically conservative bias.
A third criticism, from a perspective reminiscent of Michel Foucault (1926–1984), argues that hermeneutic/ interpretive theory is still committed to conventional conceptions of truth and the self that are constituted by dominant discursive practices of the self and politics. These, in turn, deploy categories and practices of identity and difference that privilege some forms of human beings and understanding and marginalize or disqualify others. Hermeneutics fails to acknowledge the extent to which it is implicated in prevailing notions of the self and politics. Needless to say, interpretive theorists have responded to each of these criticisms. To the first they point out that the emphasis on language and its relation to social practice requires explanation that goes beyond empathic understanding. It involves the investigator in what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1987) calls depth interpretation. To the second and third criticisms, thinkers such as Gadamer and Taylor acknowledge the limitations of hermeneutics. Consequently, each argues that no historical prejudgments can be allowed to go unchallenged and that one needs to be aware of the ways that prevailing practices of politics and the self influence the possibilities of social explanation. What is perhaps most important, however, is not so much the specific responses of hermeneutics to its critics as the hermeneutic claim that because of the self-interpreting nature of human beings, social science is best understood as a form of practical reason analogous to Aristotle’s fourth-century BCE discussion of practical wisdom in Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics. This, according to Gibbons (2006), commits hermeneuticists to a dialogue with social actors and competing perspectives as the most promising response to theoretical contestation and pluralism.
- 2000. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. and ed. Roger Crisp. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. (Orig. created fourth century BCE.)
- Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 1989. Truth and Method. 2nd ed. Rev. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York: Crossroad.
- Geertz, Clifford. 1987. From the Native’s Point of View: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding. In Interpreting Politics, ed. Michael T. Gibbons, pp. 133–147. New York: New York University Press.
- Gibbons, Michael T. 2006. Hermeneutics, Political Inquiry, and Practical Reason: An Evolving Challenge to Political Science. American Political Science Review: Centennial Edition 100 (4): 563–571.
- Habermas, Jürgen. 1987. The Hermeneutic Claim to In Interpreting Politics, ed. Michael T. Gibbons, pp. 175–202. New York: New York University Press.
- Hiley, David R., James F. Bohman, and Richard Shusterman, eds. 1991. The Interpretive Turn: Philosophy, Science, Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Malpas, Jeff, Ulrich Arnswald, and Jens Kertscher, eds. 2002. Gadamer’s Century: Essays in Honor of Hans-Georg Gadamer. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Ricoeur, Paul. 1981. Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action, and Interpretation, ed. and trans. John B. Thompson. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Taylor, Charles. 1985a. Human Agency and Language. Vol. 1 of Philosophical Papers. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Taylor, Charles. 1985b. Philosophy and the Human Sciences. Vol. 2 of Philosophical Papers. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Taylor, Charles. 1995. Philosophical Arguments. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Vattimo, Gianni. 1997. Beyond Interpretation: The Meaning of Hermeneutics for Philosophy. Trans. David Webb. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
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