Expanding Hermeneutics

Don Ihde, Philosophy, SUNY Stony Brook

The late twentieth century seems marked by a deep intellectual discomfort about the ways in which Western thought generally has framed its ways of understanding the World. One symptom of this dis-ease revolves around the current philosophical debates which see either a dramatic end to, or a winding down from 'modernity.' Are we 'postmodern'? 'a-modern'? or, were we, as Bruno Latour claims, never modern to begin with? {1} In this contribution to the closing of the first "Hermeneutics and Science" meeting, I shall be using this context to re-interpret both hermeneutics and science.

Here the more focused and immediate context is one which finds the early and mid-twentieth century interpretations of science called into question. Nor is this unique meeting alone--only a few weeks prior to the Vesprey meeting I had attended a similar search for alternative philosophies of science within a more Anglo-Australasian-American context in Newcastle, Australia. Here, in Hungary, the context is one which more fully draws from Euro-American philosophies relating more closely to phenomenological-hermeneutic traditions. But in both cases what is clear, negatively, is that earlier accounts of science now seem unsatisfactory. Allow one final parallelism between the two conferences: the Australian conference focused itself upon the "foundations of non-formal reasoning" in science--the title still echos the earlier Anglo-American analytic traditions, whereas we focused upon a "hermeneutics of science." Yet, both conferences might also be seen as reactions against the now dying prominence of intepretations of science which prevailed in early and mid-twentieth century thinking, interpretations which revolved around several variations upon Positivism and Logical Empiricism.

Positivistic interpretations of science could be characterized as extreme late forms of Modern rationalistic interpretations which, in certain respects, saw the phenomenon of science as a kind of logical and propositional enterprise focused upon theory and its subsequent verifications--or falsifications--and clearly framed in terms of modernist epistemologies. It is this modernist framework which now falls into question in the dissatisfaction exemplified in both conferences.

I. Setting the Context

If the general dissatisfaction is situated within the broader doubts being raised against modernist epistemologies, in this Euro-American context the primary alternative is one which seeks to find the relevance of hermeneutics for the sciences. But, interestingly, within the context of this search, there has emerged a strong tension concerning how hermeneutics itself is to be understood.

Most simply it might be thought that what is needed is (a) to understand hermeneutics, and (b) to understand science, and then (c) to simply relate the two. But, in fact, the situation is much more complex in that neither term is clear, nor do they stand in isolation. Instead, hermeneutics needs to be understood, not only in relation to science, but in relation to the philosophies of science which, for philosophers, are often taken implicitly for science itself, or for how science is to be understood. Moreover, the parallel histories which relate to hermeneutics, science and philosophies of science have sometimes strange subterranean interconnections.

This complexity is revealed in precisely the tension which has erupted in the debates and discussions here. One way of phrasing this is to say that there are two strongly held, but opposing, views of hermeneutics and its relations to science. The one view, supported most strongly by Karl Otto Apel, but also seconded by Dagfinn Follesdal and others, holds that there can be a hermeneutics of science as a cultural and historical phenomenon, but there cannot be a hermeneutics of the objects or products of science. This view, I shall argue, remains bound to the concept of hermeneutics which I shall call 'modernist' and which maintains some degree of strong difference between the human or social sciences and the natural sciences.

The other view holds that there is emerging what I shall call in a very special sense, a 'postmodernist' hermeneutics which practices both a "hermeneutics of the thingly" and a hermeneutic philosophy of science which calls into question the older accepted strong distinctions between the human and natural sciences. This view argues for an 'expanded hermeneutics.' And although in the polemics of the debate Professor Apel has called this the view of "some Americans" (Crease, Eger and Ihde), it is obviously also held by some Europeans (Kampis and Ropolyi among them).

I shall argue, albeit indirectly, that one key variable within this debate relates to, not so much how a hermeneutics operates, as to the regard with which philosophy of science operates. In particular, one difference between the 'traditionalists' and the 'expansionists' relates to the vestigial effects of Positivistic or 'modernist' forms of the philosophy of science still held to be more or less correct with respect to interpreting science by the traditionalists, whereas the expansionists hold that this tradition of philosophy of science has now been surpassed. To open the exploration, I shall turn to two brief histories.

II. A Brief History of Hermeneutics

Paul Ricoeur, one of the primary twentieth century hermeneuts, claims that hermeneutics can be traced back to Aristotle's Peri hermeneias and that in this classical work hermeneutics is a general theory of human comprehension. {2} If that is the case, historically, then the argument which follows is an attempt to return an expanded hermeneutics to this general theory of understanding. However, Aristotle's 'hermeneutics' is one which preceeds the Modern division of knowledge into the cultural and the natural sciences. This means that we cannot simply either return to or recover the ancient sense without risking anachronistic error.

In post-classical Europe, after the disruptions which separated European thought from classical thought, pre-modern hermeneutics became a much narrower discipline. It was an exegetical, expository, interpretive process applied to written texts and in particular, to sacred texts. And although such a textually oriented hermeneutics was far from naive--it included theories of symbols, analogies, and significations--it remained bound to exegetical praxis and remained so until the rise of modernity.

Indeed, hermeneutic modernity could be said to have arrived somewhat late because it was primarily in the work of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century thinkers such as Friedrich Schleiermacher (l768-l834) and Wilhelm Dilthey (l833-l9ll) that hermeneutics becomes both philosophical and expands beyond exegesis.

Schleiermacher, a theologian, begins this second development by adapting hermeneutics as a distinctive humanistic and historical discipline which, in effect, becomes a philosophical anthropology and a distinctive 'psychology.' But it is Dilthey who gives hermeneutics its 'canonical' modernist direction. Hermeneutics is generalized as the "human science" which applies to the various disciplines which deal with Geisteswissenschaft, the sciences of "understanding." And, it is Dilthey who contrasts such sciences from the natural sciences, Naturwissenshaften, which are distinguished as sciences of "explanation." It is this distinction which becomes canonical and which remains operational within the still modernist hermeneutic traditionalists. Modern hermeneutics thus becomes a 'humanities' methodology, broader than exegesis, but not a truly 'general' method, and it remains distinct from the natural sciences.

The twentieth century, particularly the mid-twentieth century, sees philosophical hermeneutics enriched by yet another development: phenomenology. Here we arrive at the three European giants of the hermeneutic tradition: Martin Heidegger, Hans Georg Gadamer, and Paul Ricoeur. Enriched by Husserlian phenomenology, hermeneutics in these three thinkers becomes ontological. And, insofar as there can be a hermeneutic ontology there can be a methodological generalization which reaches beyond any merely historical or humanistic trajectory. Ontology precedes epistemology and this, itself, is already to overturn the claims of modernist epistemology.

There remain, however, epistemological implications of a hermeneutic ontology. Not only can one note the muting or virtual disappearance of a strong understanding/explanation distinction in the operative theory of these three hermeneuts, but the phenomenologically enriched epistemologies of late modern hermeneutics shows how, in principle, scientific knowledge as well as cultural knowledge must be derived from (human) ontology. In Husserl this was already argued for insofar as the constitution of any special science must refer back to the Lifeworld. In Heidegger this becomes the derivation of the objects of science (Zuhanden) from the praxical knowledge of pragmata or tools (Vorhanden). In effect this was to argue that scientific knowledge was derivative from practical knowledge. In Gadamer and Ricoeur, both somewhat more indirect in ontological claims than the former philosophers, it remains the blurring of the understanding/explanation distinction. I shall temporarily leave this brief history and now turn to a parallel brief history of science and the philosophy of science.

III. A Brief History of Science and Philosophy of Science

If one accepts as the standard view that science is itself a Modern phenomenon, for purposes here one need not look at any pre-modern stage of the development of science. Nor need one look at all the stages by which early modern science attained the particular later modern perspective with which I wish to confront the modern stage of hermeneutics. Indeed, one could even claim that there is something of an early modern to late modern 'lag' between the development of modern science and modern hermeneutics not dissimilar to what I am arguing is a lag between traditional and expansionist hermeneutics in the late twentieth century.

In this context, however, the relevant history is one which takes note of the late modern, established natural science perspective at the moment of the modernization (Schleiermacher/Dilthey) of hermeneutics. That perspective was distinctly pre-relativistic and distinctly early modern in form. In short, the 'science' which was being distinguished from the Geisteswissenshaften was the science of early modernity which held that (a) there could be a fully 'objective', contextless, ideal observer, perspectiveless knowledge. (b) This science took there to be an absolute space and absolute time as in the Newtonian conception, and (c) that such 'nature' could be arrived at through the variations upon 'geometric theory' which used inferences of the hypothetical-deductive type.

That such a perspective and method could not apply to the human sciences was obvious enough. And it was the implicit acceptance by modernist hermeneutics of this self-interpretation of science which entered into the human versus natural sciences distinctions which characterized early twentieth century hermeneutics. And, ironically, elements of this same self-interpretation of modern science also became canonized within the early twentieth century positivist developments in the philosophy of science as well.

What first was to change science, and with it its perspective, but which was not to be socialized until later, was the "paradigm shift" introduced first through Einstein's theory of relativity and then through quantum mechanical probabilistic theory. Both these developments displaced the perspectiveless perspective of earlier modern science and introduced a perspective which tied relativistic sciences precisely back into the necessity of accounting for an embodied human perspective. This should have been seen from the beginning to pose a challenge to the nature/culture, human/natural science, and understanding/explanation distinctions of early twentieth century hermeneutics--but this was not the case until later.

The need for re-introducing a hermeneutic ontology into science itself was already latent in the relativistic sciences which realized that the position of the observer must be taken into account in all measurements--measurements are relativistic in precisely the way phenomenological correlations of noema/noesis occur on a broader schema. Quantum explanations are even more radical in that in one sense one can say that in such explanations nothing becomes 'real' until it is looked at.

What I am suggesting here is that the 'science' which is correspondent to modernist hermeneutics is not the science which now obtains.

The same type of shift from modern to late modern or contemporary views occurs in the philosophies of science. Positivistic versions of the philosophy of science are primarily pre-Kuhnian. (I use this term in a somewhat generic sense since it was not Kuhn alone who changed philosophers' perspectives on science.) From the late l950's on the view that science was, in effect, a complex 'theory generating (through hypothetical-deductive and propositional processes) machine' began to fall into disrepute.

Kuhn's introduction of historical cases and recognition of radically disruptive shifts of "paradigms" in revolutions was to be adumbrated in later decades by the rise of a whole series of refractive intepretations of science. One new front was opened by the sociology of science in the seventies and eighties. This re-interpretation of science often included social scientists trained in phenomenologically oriented "social constructionist" theories (such as Andrew Pickering of CONSTRUCTING QUARKS) or the "strong program" traditions which saw that not only are scientific products historically, but socially "constituted." I shall not rehearse the full history of this set of arguments, some of which have been rather highly contested by more traditional modernist philosophers of science, but merely point out that the current generation of science interpreters seems no longer to deny that the products of science are socially constructed, rather they argue over whether these products are only social constructions implying at least that they are both/and rather than either/or. Such a stance, I would point out, is a distinctively postmodern stance. And it is a stance which holds to a multidimensioned analysis, also in keeping with contemporary multifactoral analysis.

As the final step in this brief history, I wish to turn at a group of contemporary philosophers of science, some of whom are specifically self-identified with a 'hermeneutics' of science approach, and who take an expansionist direction into the analysis of scientific products themselves. These include the thinkers which I have included in my INSTRUMENTAL REALISM book (Indiana, l99l) {3}, all of whom argue that much contemporary science produces not only socially constructed products, but what could be called 'technologically constructed' products. Later, and on a much broader scale, Bruno Latour has recognized this same trajectory in his notion of "hybrids" in WE HAVE NEVER BEEN MODERN (Harvard, l993).

Instrumental realists recognize that today's science technologically constructs products (of 'Nature'?) such as the newly constructed elements in the expanded table of elements which now includes entries which may or may not exist in nature (those of the heavy, nanosecond lives predicted as possible by atomic stability factors but the actual examples of which occur in laboratory productions.) Similarly, the creation of 'artificial' molecules (in polymers and plastics) which do not again, exist in nature. Or, in the latest biotechnological sciences, the applications of inter-species DNA manipulations which place human DNA into rats in a distinctly 'unnatural' construction. Latour, in specifically challenging the nature/culture distinction which characterizes so much of modern thought, argues further that even such a phenomenon as the ozone hole is precisely a "hybrid" which is simultaneously both cultural and natural. I am suggesting that hermeneutically a 'postmodern' hermeneutics can be a hermeneutics of the 'thingly' which does not presuppose the culture/nature modern distinction, and instead focuses upon the 'construction' of things.

IV. Expanded Hermeneutics: A 'Thingly' and 'Postmodern' Hermeneutics

We are now at the end of the twentieth century and I have been arguing that at this historical point much has changed, including at the least our perspectives upon modernity. And, while I admit to some discomfort with the term, 'postmodern,' especially since it often has come to stand for a lot of sillyness, I cannot now think of a better term to denote passing out of the distinction sets of late modernity.

In the context of a hermeneutics of science, I have been arguing that this expansion of hermeneutics is one which extends to the 'thingly', including the things of science and not merely to its history, its cultural context, or its sociology (all of which terms retain the modernist distinctions between social and natural sciences). Implicitly I am also suggesting that if there is to be a hermeneutics of (natural) science, it must be a hermeneutics which reverberates with the actual state of those sciences and not to what they have been at some earlier time.

In what I have termed the 'postmodernity' of this hermeneutics, I am mostly reacting to the vestigial uses of nature/culture distinctions and the progeny from such which becloud the possibility of an emergent 'thingly' hermeneutics. The mid- to late twentieth century applications of the social or human sciences to the practices of the natural sciences is a beginning. But this set of disciplines, too, is not yet fully hermeneutical. So, in conclusion I want to point to some interesting symptoms of what I take to be areas where a hermeneutics in a 'postmodern' mode might look:

  • A history of dominant metaphors which operate in so many of the sciences has long been of philosophic interest. And if the rise of mechanical metaphors in very early modernity was telling, it is of no small interest to see the late twentieth century turning to broadly linguistic or language metaphors. The scientific tribal languages of the genetic and biotechnological sciences, for example, are full of such metaphors. DNA is a 'code' which has 'communicative' aspects between gene strands. Genes 'express' themselves in various ways. At the full animal stage, one today even speaks of 'animal cultures' and increasingly of 'sociobiological' factors.
  • Reductionistic simplicity has often been replaced with 'systems' and 'complexity' factors which our new tools, particularly computers, make possible. Laplacean determinism is long dead with 'chaos' and 'fractals' contexted within very complex probablistic calculations their replacements. Here computers and computer modelling allows investigators to have a tool which can deal with complexity and multifactoral aspects of a phenomenon.
  • And in the contemporary philosophies of science, the inclusion, rather than reduction of, history: sociology: culture: amd gender factors all must be included. These factors may not be simply rhetorical, but be inbuilt perspectives which can only be expanded by a multiperspectival inclusiveness.

V. Epilogue

An expanded hermeneutics can and will play a role as a theory of meaning and interpretation, beyond the distinctions of modernity and towards the multifactoral and multistable analysis which is in keeping with 'postmodern' thinking. To undertake this role, however, hermeneutics must--like its sister disciplines are beginning to do--free itself of modernist epistemology. I suspect that will become the concrete task of our future meetings which delve into the interface of hermeneutics and science.


l. Bruno Latour, WE HAVE NEVER BEEN MODERN (Harvard University Press, l993)

2. Paul Ricoeur, THE CONFLICT OF INTERPRETATIONS (Northwestern University Press, l974), p. 4

3. Don Ihde, INSTRUMENTAL REALISM (Indiana University Press, l99l) Discusses Robert Ackermann, Robert Crease, Hubert Dreyfus, Peter Galison, Ian Hacking, Patrick Heelan, Don Ihde, and Bruno Latour.

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