The Hermeneutics of T-Shirts

January 3, 2008

I don’t have Continental Philosophy of Social Science with me, but Sherrat mentions a critic of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz who charged that Geertz’s method was not a true hermeneutics because he was “interpreting” practices, not texts, and only actual texts allow legitimate hermeneutic treatment. This is a crucial issue, of course. If only texts can be interpreted, then Being and Time and its intellectual descendents (Geertz among them) are wrong in claiming that everyday behavior is always already interpreted. Obviously where one stands on the relationship between praxis, texts, and interpretation will go a long way in determining how one takes the struggle between interpretation and explanation in the social sciences, which itself is one facet of the naturalists vs. normativists debate we’ve been discussing here. In particular, restricting hermeneutics to texts in a strict sense would disallow the much broader use of hermeneutics I would like to advocate as a synthesizer of interpretive and explanatory accounts of human life.

To give some substance to that suggested use, I’ll offer an example I encountered at the YMCA yesterday. A young woman had on a shirt that said, “Fondy ain’t afraid of no ghosts.” I can come up with some reasonable interpretations pretty fast, and so can you, I would assume. Who among us has forgotten how good bustin’ makes us feel? I suspect that even those not familiar with Fond du Lac, Wisconsin might guess that “Fondy” refers to a school. As for “ghosts,” I’m not sure of the reference. I would guess another local sports team, though I can’t think of one pertinent.

In any case, though, the question is whether this T-shirt is the proper object of intepretation. I would say it is. Does that commit me to the claim that it’s a text? Well, that leads to the question of what a text is. Two ideas: textuality is linked to explicitness (i.e. articulation in language) and to complex organization (with the book as a paradigm example).

For the record, I don’t think one can only (legitimately) interpret texts; I don’t think texts have to have complex organization (in order to merit being interpreted as texts); and I think that paradigm texts (the sort that, say, Gadamer seems to have primarily in mind) nevertheless merit rather different sorts of interpretation than other sorts of texts and non-texts (typically, practices).


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?