Hermeneutics, not Erotetics

December 31, 2007

After writing the outline I presented in the last post, I was reading Sherrat’s Continental Philosophy of Social Science and had the following thought, which might focus the whole essay: what I like most about Risjord’s approach is that he is trying to provide a methodology that would allow social scientists and philosophers alike to make flexible use of the various sorts of research that we all perform on ourselves and each other — intentional, causal, and otherwise. It struck me near the end of the hermeneutics section of Sherrat’s book that, though this goes against some tenets of the hermeneutic tradition, I see no reason why hermeneutics could not provide just such a methodology. That is to say, in interpreting others’ behavior (and my own), I attempt to make sense of that behavior as a unified whole, synthesizing the various components by moving back and forth from part to whole. Traditionally this approach has confined itself to synthesizing those components that are meaningful to those being interpreted, but that need not be the case. And in practice, of course, contemporary human beings do actually perform just the sort of synthesis I’m talking about, though typically not systematically or even very carefully. That is, in trying to make sense of ourselves and each other, we mix together disparate sorts of analysis and anecdote. For instance, if someone is acting irritable we might explain her behavior by noting that she has been ill, that this is the time of year that her child died, or that the pressures on women in her profession are much greater than those on men, and furthermore that the same behavior from a man in her position would not even be considered an outburst. The “logic of everyday ethnography” can be extraordinarily heterogeneous.

The question is, Can hermeneutics do this work rigorously?


Outline of our “Naturalists, Normativists, and Supernaturalists”

December 31, 2007

I’m clearly in full-on “eating cheesy poofs” vacation mode today, so I’ll make my promised post on our article idea brief.

First, here’s an outline of our article that I came up with last week. It’s a bit telescoped, but I think that the key ideas can be discerned:

Review the terms of the debate (naturalists vs. normativists), indicate alternative Review how history does and does not feature in the articles in question           

  • Turner’s triumphalist archaeology           
  • Roth’s reduction to Winch and criticism on Davidson           
  • Henderson’s contemporary focus, use of examples (MLK)Risjord’s appropriation of  Davidson and other tools           
  • Rouse’s contemporary focus, drawing on literature           
  • Stueber’s contemporary focus, drawing on literature 

Allows us to introduce a different history (Droysen and Dilthey) in order to reframe the debate 

  • This is the explanation vs. understanding debate, the universal vs. local debate.
  • The great virtue of Risjord’s approach (whatever his Davidsonian sins) is his marrying of explanation and interpretation (shared in a way by early Roth).  

There are two tied issues here: one of scientific and philosophical methodology, the other of the corresponding complex of epistemology and ontology, best cast as a matter of anthropology.  

  • Two options: reductive (Turner’s epiphenomenalism or Dilthey’s and Winch’s “socialism”) and integrative. 
    • Risjord provides part of the methodology.
    • Roth’s and Henderson’s rejections of that methodology are rooted in their rejection of the anthropology (or so we claim).  
      • Consider some basic examples (trying to buy liquor in a dry county) and the everyday and formal ways we make sense of these examples (arguing, debating, myth-making, bullshitting), including presenting at philosophy conferences. These ways determine both what our ends are (something up for infinite re-consideration) and how we will pursue them. In the order of things, only then does causality “kick in” (though in practice of course this is seamless).  

There are good purposes for “strictly explanatory” and “strictly interpretive” approaches to human life, but philosophically there is no basis for holding either as ultimate. They must be married, and there are different ways to do so.  

[This is part of Risjord’s point: to say that X did Y because he believes Z is not just to give an explanation, it is also to engage in social magic. This means that this answer tells us as much about the group to which X must give justifications as it does about X’s causal makeup.]  

Challenging point: what should we make of belief Z? There are the following possibilities: “We” 

  • recognize and endorse Z (in our actions and/or explicitly)
  • recognize but do not endorse Z
  • do not recognize Z 

Especially in the third case, we will be inclined to appeal to other explanations of X’s behavior. Other explanations are always possible, however, and the need to synthesize and/or debate is always possible. Writing constitutions is difficult.

Much Ado about Monkey Poo

December 31, 2007

Somehow I got directed to smithsonianmag.com’s article on Yale Psychology professor Laurie Santos’s research testing whether monkey’s have a “theory of mind,” including an understanding of “false belief” (e.g. realizing that if person A puts grapes in box 1 and leaves the room, then returns after person B has moved the grapes to box 2, that person A will assume that the grapes are still in box 1 — apparently children under 4 have trouble with distinguishing what they believe to be true and what others with different information should believe to be true). It occurred to me that this might be a good example of the sort of finding about human cognition derived from scientific study that hermeneutic and intentionalist approaches to the human sciences ought to — somehow — synthesize with, or at least make sure that they are consistent with.

And then I ran into this little gem of a story, which made me forget all about my actual research interests:

“She [Santos] has somewhat more affection for the 11 capuchin monkeys in her lab at Yale, who are named after characters in James Bond movies (Goldfinger, Jaws, Holly Goodhead). Her work with them involves experiments on “social decision-making.” She equips them with tokens they can trade for food and studies the development of their rudimentary economy. Like human beings, they are loss-averse: if the going price is two grapes for a token, they prefer to trade with an experimenter who shows them one grape and then adds one, compared with one who shows three and takes one away. They are also sneaky. After swapping for an apple, she says, they will sometimes take a bite of it, then present the untouched side to the researcher and try to sell it back. And they have an entrepreneurial bent. At times they would offer their feces in exchange for a token, behavior that baffled the researchers until a student pointed out that every morning someone comes into the cage and scoops out the droppings—which may have given them the idea that people value them.”

And now a word from our sponsors…

December 31, 2007

Checking around to see if any wordpress blogs had similar tags, I found a couple of very nice sites that I’ve added to the blogroll here. One is Grundlegung, which has an interesting post on Brandom up right now that looks insightful, though a bit outside my specific interests in Brandom. Grundlegung led me further to Rough Theory, which looks great, and has a post I really need to read on Habermas and Brandom. And so do you:


UPDATE: Reading through the comments on the Rough Theory post above (which is a very nice overview of Habermas, Brandom, and their problematic intersection) led me to this citation for Analytic Philosophy and the Return of Hegelian Thought:


Some Signs of Things to Come

December 31, 2007

I’m back from vacation, and ready to write. I did send in our proposal for the Philosophy of Social Science Roundtable, requesting a receipt. I didn’t get one, so I’ll send the proposal on to the other two organizers. Whether accepted for that conference or not, though, I’m ready to write this sucker.

Continental Philosophy of Social Science continues to prove a thought-provoking book. I’ll blog some more on that soon. And I may have some responses to Brabsher and/or Mulbo and/or Obiwanky. [Listing these noms de blog this way reminds me of the line from Raising Arizona: “Hear that everybody? We’s using code names.”] Most of all, though, I want to sketch the main move I have in mind for the article at this point: suggesting a modified hermeneutic practice as the right method for integrating and synthesizing all of the varied approaches to studying human behavior that are coalescing here under the broad heading “social science,” including those approaches that focus narrowly on causal explanations of said behavior. That is to say, rather than opposing hermeneutics to the heirs of positivism, I would like to try to meld them together. I’ll explain what that might mean tomorrow.

And now, for no particular reason, two quotes from Mark Twain:

“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” [Clearly Twain was writing well before the age of modern advertising.]


“I thoroughly disapprove of duels. If a man should challenge me, I would take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and lead him to a quiet place and kill him.”

[On the exam you will be asked to say whether this latter quote is more similar to (a) or (b) below, justifying your answer with your own humor taxonomy:

(a) Mine is a most peaceable disposition. My wishes are: a humble cottage with a thatched roof, but a good bed, good food, the freshest milk and butter, flowers before my window, and a few fine trees before my door; and if God wants to make my happiness complete, he will grant me the joy of seeing some six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees. Before their death I shall, moved in my heart, forgive them all the wrong they did me in their lifetime. One must, it is true, forgive one’s enemies — but not before they have been hanged. — Heinrich Heine

(b) If you find that you have offended someone, walk a mile in their shoes. Then you will have a mile head start…and they won’t have any shoes. — Dutch proverb]

Mulbo Responds to Brabsher

December 14, 2007

I tend to think that Heidegger (early, anyway) may be closer to W and Gadamer on the flexibility of background practices than you suggest. This was a claim in my diss (that he’s closer to G). The basis of my argument turns on authenticity. Ted frequently pointed out that Heidegger is clear that an authentic Dasein’s world need not change. But I believe an interpretation that couples sections 61-63 with chapter 5 yields a position in which the tradition which we inherit can be modified by us. The specific direction such modification takes is, of course, not directly guided by the subject — it happens, as you say about W and G, in the absence of rules or princples. I think Heidegger’s account of fate, in other words, is one in which Dasein is a full participant. And only authentic Dasein, as Heidegger stresses, actually has a fate.

Brabsher on Meaning Finitism

December 14, 2007

As I interpret Heidegger, things stand in unambiguous relations to one another and goals.  Using Ted’s concept of the signifying chain, it seems that the chains indicate actions as the only thing it makes sense to do somewhere.  Or that there is a clear line between it making sense to do one thing rather than another.  The bedroom as a site of activity may indicate a multitude of actions but these chains aren’t intermingled and confused.  They are definite and already in place.  I think Wittgenstein, on the other hand, allows for the development of new meanings within such sites and for the fact of ambiguity and polysemic relations.  I think there is a clear comparison here between W and Gadamer.  In Truth and Method Gadamer comes awfully close to saying that meaning is use in the section on application.  But, the implication of this is that there is no rule or universal standing over language governing it.  It develops in the very process of being used.  This is “meaning finitism.”  So ultimately, my contention is that we have overlapping, but often different background understandings of the situations we share (of course we only share them insofar as our understandings overlap to some degree).  Again I see W and Gadamer as very close here.