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?

Excerpts from Sherrat’s Continental Philosophy of Social Science

December 9, 2007

Yvonne Sherrat’s 2006 volume Continental Philosophy of Social Science: Hermeneutics, Genealogy, and Critical Theory from Greece to the Twenty-First Century has some passages the resonate interestingly with the naturalist-normativist debate. The core of her position is that the continental philosophies of social science are distinct from their analytic counterparts principally in having a humanitist orientation rather than a natural scientific one.

“…humanists hold that knowledge works through transmission. Understanding and knowledge are composed by the accumulation of voices handed down from the centuries. This contrasts with science’s ‘creative destruction’ approach where voices from the past are seen as holding false meanings, which need to be destroyed in order to allow new, objective knowledge to flourish…progress for humanists would be the accumluation of the knowledge from the past, not the transcendence or destruction of it. Science meanwhile holds the idea that the past contains undeveloped, primitive and indeed often false forms of knowledge” (p. 9).


“…humanism…holds a distinct notion of meaning from science. The human world is substantively meaningful for humanists and this includes the idea of ethical, aesthetic and even spiritual meanings…Society thus for humanists would be an intrinsically purpose-laden, ethically, aesthetically and spiritually valuable entity. This contrasts with a scientific notion of meaning, which is purely technical and pertains only to bare empirical facts. All other forms of human meaning are external, and maybe ‘tacked’ on as an ethical, aesthetic or indeed subjective addition” (p. 9)

This is a nice way of framing the issue, albeit one that might be too “supernaturalist” for at least some of the normativists (this seems very close to what Rouse himself says, at little less so to Risjord’s position, still less to Steuber’s). Let’s use this frame to look again at what’s at stake in the naturalist-normativist debate. The focuse for all participants seems to be on clarifying and grounding proper methodologies for the social sciences. It’s not clear to me that the naturalists consider it a criterion for this project that the resulting methods and implied ontologies be even consistent with other programs (scientific, philosophical, and “folk”) for understanding and explaining human behavior. I have in mind here, for instance, the broad sorts of conversations and disputes concerning right behavior (many of which occur in Western cultures under the headings “ethics” and “politics”) that seem to be part of the natural history of the human species across cultures, as well as the institutional practices of law-making, law enforcement, and trials that play such vital and prominent roles in most contemporary societies. In each sort of case not only do the people involved make normative claims, the clarification, justification, and rejection of such claims seems integral both to the specification of what sort of actions these people are engaged in and to the carrying out of those actions. But what can the naturalists say about such claims?

It seems to me that TRH simply don’t take such questions up. Perhaps they strike them as unscientific, and perhaps they are. It strikes me as essential to the task of philosophy, however, at least as I understand it, that such questions be addressed, if only to lead to a reductivist answer, i.e. that the discourses of ethics and the law are epiphenomenal to the flow of natural causality, a sort of illusion of social reason. TRH seem to feel that they’ve got RSR stuck on the horns of their dilemma, demanding that RSR clarify whether normativity is or is not causal — either way, the naturalists win. But TRH’s embrace of this dilemma seems to me to lead to absurdity.

So, perhaps the task here is simply to frame things so that this dilemma for the naturalists is made perfectly clear. I suspect that, forced to choose, they accept the epiphenomenalist charge, and like lies, this testimony will make baby Jesus cry. But forcing the issue this way seems to be the best way to advance the discussion. Otherwise, we’re just fighting on the naturalists’ chosen turf, and I question whether it’s the right turf.