November 27, 2010

[Hermeneutics] Understanding the Understanding of Understandings

For too long the word "hermeneutics" has suggested (in my mind) something along the lines of the study of fictional hobbit communities. Needless to say, this is not really what the term means. Luckily, some of the readings that my colleagues and I looked at this week have enabled me to transcend (at least to a small degree) my former ignorance on this matter!

We were reading about the turn from the 'quantitative revolution' to the 'cultural turn' in the field of human geography (and economic geography in particular). The quantitative revolution came about in the 1950s and 1960s when numerous geographers began to adopt "both inferential statistical techniques and abstract models and theories" which led to "a new nomothetic geography conducted as spatial science" (Barnes, 2009). By contrast, the cultural turn arose in the 1980s, seeing an increasing focus on culture in many areas of human geography and an appreciation of more 'qualitative methods' (Barnett, 2009).

As Trevor Barnes (2001) has argued, the nature of theory and theorizing is substantially different between the two 'eras'. Theorizing during the quantitative era is best characterized by an 'epistemological' approach, wherein "the central task of theorizing is to develop abstract vocabularies that mirror - albeit approximately - an external and independent reality" (546). Put most simply, epistemological theories are abstract models that help us understand 'reality'. Now, as you might surmise, Barnes argues that the type of theorizing characteristic of the cultural turn is 'hermeneutic', which he defines as theorizing that "has an openness both to a wide range of theoretical sources and to the very definition of theory" (547).

Barnes (2001) has a number of statements which are very helpful in further defining hermeneutics:
  • "[Hermeneutics] recognizes that no vocabulary is perfect and that a vocabulary that provides for commensurability... does not exist" (550);
  • "Hermeneutics... always tries to negotiate a knife-edge between... the hope that there can be full agreement about a vocabulary and the suspicion that a better alternative is available" (551);
  • "Hermeneutics conceives theorizing as a creative and open-ended process of interpretation that is circular, reflexive, indeterminate, and perspectival" (551; Barnes references Bohman 1993, 116);
  • "Hermeneutics rejects fixed and final foundations" (551);
  • "Hermeneutics promotes experimentation and engagement with radically different vocabularies, pressing them as far as they will go..." (551);
  • "Hermeneutics cultivates critical self-awareness of social and historical location and recognizes its influence on knowledge..." (551);
  • "Hermeneutic theorizing shuns disembodied vision as a metaphorical bluebrint" (551);
  • "Hermeneutic tradition is not only about understanding the world; it also concerns itself with understanding understandings of the world, including that of the author herself or himself" (549)
In reading about hermeneutics I recalled how I had previously known about an association between hermeneutics and the Frankfurt School, but I didn't quite know what that association was... and so this recent exploration of hermeneutics has provided an opportunity to learn more about that connection.

As it turns out, hermeneutics has an incredible philosophical history dating back to the Ancient Greeks (etymologically the term comes from the Greek god Hermes, who was the "tutelary divinity of speech, writing and eloquence"). The tradition and evolution of the term (and debate surrounding it) has been carried-out by the likes of Plato, Kant, Hegel, Schleiermacher, von Humboldt, Heidegger, and yes - the Frankfurt School's Jürgen Habermas (Ramberg and Gjesdal, 2005).

And what was Habermas' contribution? Well, in short, he came up with a critique of Heidegger's 'ontological hermeneutics' and the latter's student - Hans Georg Gadamer's 'hermeneutic humanism'. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains, until Heidegger, hermeneutics was really about understanding linguistic communication. Yet "as far as Heidegger is concerned, hermeneutics is [actually about] ontology; it is about the most fundamental conditions of man's being in the world"(Ramberg and Gjesdal, 2005). Gadamer adds to Heidegger's hermeneutics by "exploring the consequences of [ontological hermeneutics] for our understanding of the human sciences," arguing that there are limitations to understanding human 'being' - human tradition and our selves - because we can never really master the texts of the past.

Habermas, however, argued that Gadamer did not fully considered his own political and ideological presuppositions:
In Habermas's view, Gadamer places too much emphasis on the authority of tradition, leaving no room for critical judgment and reflection. Reason is denied the power of a critical, distanced judgment. What is needed is therefore not just an analysis of the way in which we de facto are conditioned by history but a set of quasi-transcendental principles of validity in terms of which the claims of the tradition may be subjected to evaluation. Hermeneutics, Habermas argues, must be completed by a critical theory of society (Ramberg and Gjesdal, 2005).
In short, Habermas wants to use hermeneutics as a tool to understand where our understandings are coming from, in order to work towards social justice and emancipation. As Nickelson (2009) explains:
What Habermas aims to demonstrate through his own work, however, is that traditions can contain what he calls ‘systematically distorted communication’, a type of communication that falls short of an ideal of how communication should function and produces a response that is somehow tainted. This less-than-ideal type of communication can reinforce relations of domination. Accordingly, Habermas argues that systematically distorted communication precludes any necessary relationship between the prejudgments inherited from a tradition and knowledge, and that insofar as a tradition reproduces relations of domination the prejudgments upon which it depends are illegitimate.
If your head is not spinning yet, you're probably not normal or have some kind of predisposition towards political philosophy. Nevertheless, I think you'll agree that it is possible to see some strands of Habermas' critique in Barnes' contemporary understanding of hermeneutics as an understanding of understandings... Understand?

Barnes, Trevor. "Retheorizing Economic Geography: From the Quantitative Revolution to the 'Cultural Turn'," Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 91, No. 3, 2001, pp. 546-565.

Barnes, Trevor. "Quantitative Revolution" in Derek Gregory et al. [eds.], The Dictionary of Human Geography (Fifth Edition). West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Barnett, Clive. "Cultural Turn" in Derek Gregory et al. [eds.], The Dictionary of Human Geography (Fifth Edition). West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Bohman, J. New Philosophy of Social Science: Problems of indeterminacy. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993.

Nickelson, Dylan. "Habermas's Objections to the Politics of Gadamer's Hermeneutics," The Lydian Mode,

Ramberg, Bjørn and Kristin Gjesdal. "Hermeneutics," in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (November, 2005),

1 comment:

  1. phew
    my head is spinning, so i actually may be normal.