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?