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HUMAN S T U D I E S 4, 179-200 O981

Interpretive Sociology and
Paul Ricoeur
Olivet College
Olivet, Michigan
Consider that human behavior is meaningful. Consider also that this
meaningfulness presents certain difficulities for those who would engage in its
scientific study. Within the social sciences, a tradition of Blumer, Cicourel,
and a number of others stemming back beyond Weber has insisted on the
centrality of meaning in human interaction. At the same time, this tradition
has met with continual difficulities when it comes to calibrating the emphasis
on meaning with the aims of a rigorous science. Two sorts of difficulties in
particular deserve ment i on--t hose pertaining to historicity and those relating
to Verstehen.
"Hi st or i ci t y" is a short hand for the long-recognized pr obl em of
authentically extracting generalities from unique and transient events. Each
human interaction is a unique moment in history, so that generalizations
across a number of interactions distort them or fail to preserve the uniqueness
of each event. Blumer (1969) and others have linked up this emphasis on the
changing, processual aspect of human interaction with the thesis that social
interaction is fundamentally a process of interpreting meanings. The point for
Blumer then becomes to develop a methodology ("the methodology of
symbolic interactionism") that taps this process rat her than ignoring its
fundamental feature. This highlighting of uniqueness, interpretation, and
concomitant methodological difficulties has been given a further twist in
writings commonly associated with ethnomethodology. Wilson (1970) says
that within the interpretation process of social interaction different meanings
stand in a part / whol e interrelation such that generalization becomes even
more problematical. The extraction of meanings from their contexts becomes
both a phenomenon for study in its own right and a methodological problem
besetting all generalizations (see also Cicourd, 1974; Coulter, 1971).
A temporal dimension also contributes to and rounds out the overall
problem of historicity. Historical sociology in particular faces this problem: If
an event is to be understood by reference to the epoch in which it occurred,
how can the historian-bridge the temporal gap from one era to another (cf.
Rock, 1976)7
If social interaction is in some important sense conveyed through meaning,
then the social scientific understanding of it can be expected t o show
differences from that of atoms, quarks, and other subject matters of the
physical sciences. The tradition of Weber and others has referred t o this
understanding of meaningful social action as Verstehen and has grappled
with several problems in conjunction with it (see Natanson, 1963; Outhwaite,
1975; Truzzi, 1974, for initial reference). For present purposes, questions have
often arisen as to whether Verstehen involves a mystical union with the
private thoughts or feelings of those studied; whether it constitutes a
privileged mode of verification; whether it entails or precludes scientific rigor;
and what its relation is to deductive, lawlike explanation. Those discussing
Verstehen in a favorable light have tended t o hold that sociology should aim
primarily to understand social reality, in contradistinction to less favorable
commentators who argue that it should aim primarily t o explain the subject
matter through lawlike generalizations. Thus, there has been a long line of
pol emi c as to whet her social science requires a special interpretive
understanding (Verstehen) or not, whether it is overly subjective, and indeed
what its actual nature is.
So far I have presented t wo clusters of problems facing interpretive
sociology, those centering around the historical and contextual nature of
social action and those concerned with the interpretive understanding of the
actions themselves. With this paper I present a body of writings by Paul
Rieoeur that bear on the subject. I then critically evaluate this work as it
stands in its own right and as it addresses the foregoing problems.
An initial sense of the interest Paul Ricoeur may hold for interpretive
sociology can be glimpsed through a brief sketching of his thinking on major
schools of thought. A contributor to Husserlian phenomenology, he draws
the common distinction between an immediate, primoridal realm of lived
experience and the realm of objectified meaning characteristic of science. But
against Husserl, he finds that whereas science does presuppose a naivete
rooted in the natural attitude of everyday life, phenomenology promotes a
naivete of its own, one of transcendentalism. The transcendental subject tends
t o posi t itself within a circle of subjectivity. Moreover, Husserl i an
phenomenology has not remained faithful to the implications of universal
intentionality that consciousness has its meaning beyond itself, rather than
having meaning unt o itself (Rieoeur, 1975a). In other, words, Husselian
phenomenology descends into subjectivity and idealism.
Ricouer says that to remain useful, the Husserlian project must be
synthesized with a number of others, including hermeneutics. Hermeneutics,
or the study of interpretation and understanding (Gadamer, 1975a; vide
Palmer, 1967), by its nature bears an affinity with interpretive sociology
(Giddens, 1976) and figures especially prominently in Ricoeur's thought.
Ricoeur holds t hat by focusing on intersubjective underst andi ng,
hermeneutics can remedy phenomenology's centeredne~s on consciousness. It
also denies the raising of consciousness to the status of an ultimate foundation
(Ricoeur, 1975a). Furthermore, phenomenology needs what hermeneutics,
Freud's psychoanalysis, and Habermas' critical theory presuppose--the idea
that the Cogito or consciousness is not transparent to itself. This use of
hermeneutics is tempered in turn by several accommodations to the critical
theory of Habermas and Apel, accommodations that would mediate recent
debates between these two schools (Symposium, 1975).
Hermeneutics is portrayed such that an element of evaluation is built into
the structure of intersubjectivity and built into the praxis of the social
philosopher. In a nutshell, Ricoeur is working toward a hermeneutical
philosophy of science that incorporates Habermas" notions of the ideal speech
situation and emancipation.
Ricoeur has long sought to escape further from phenomenology's "primacy
of subjectivity" by way of structuralism, especially that of de Saussure and
Levi-Strauss. He conceives ofstructuralism as a science and not a philosophy,
in that it avoids historicity and the personal reference to interpreter and those
interpreted (Ricoeur, 1973a). Phenomenology must meet the challenge posed
by the progress of structural linguistics if it is to survive. It must show that
structuralist language systems are presupposed by and actualized in speech.
Merleau-Ponty, for example, comes too close to psychology by denying the
centrality that structuralist systems have in everyday language use (Ricoeur,
1967; 1968).
A synthesis of phenomenology and ordinary language philosophy further
directs phenomenology from idealism and toward a dialogue with social
science. Phenomenology's "essences" of lived experience are expressable and
therefore public structures (Ricoeur, 1975b; 1977a). The suggestion is that
these essential features of lived eXperience are identical with those features
referred to by conceptual analysis in analytical philosophy.
Finally, regarding' the relation of phenomenology and social science,
phenomenology is not an alternative method of investigation. Its task is to
give sociology a foundation, to ground and delimit the objectivity particularly
appropriate to it. Kant and several theses from Husserl's Cartesian
Meditations provide a foundation and a parallel for the sociology of social
action and social institutions set down by Marx Weber in the beginning of
Economy and Society (Ricoeur, 1977a).
In this manner Ricoeur's work ranges over a number of schools of
relevance to interpretive sociology. This sketch leaves the larger portion of
this oeuvre untouched, including materials on religion, the sociology of
knowledge, and political practice, as does the exposition that follows. My
interest lies in his work on the issues of historicity and Verstehen and the way
it actualizes the previously mentioned concerns. As wide-ranging as they are,
his writings continually tie back to a core body of ideas. In the present case,
the core body revolves around the notion of a "text paradigm."
In the next section I present the paradigm unto itself before developing a
critical evaluation in the final section of the paper. In these two sections I
propose that the work encompasses several valuable features, yet exhibits
weaknesses and lacunae that deserve consideration. Ricoeur presents an
original and intelligent model of meaning to address the problem of
historicity. He invokes Husserl, ordinary language philosophy, and Levi-
Straussian structuralism in order to remedy problems associated with
ethnomethodology and the philosophy of history. In brief, he says that there
are a number of important, related parallels between the interpretation of
texts and that of social action (as portrayed by Weber), parallels that facilitate
the objectification of social action, l I argue that this model of meaning
thematizes largely the wrong distinctions and invites reification.
Second, Ricoeur's model of interpretive understanding (Verstehen) stands
as a potentially major advance over most extant models--either those
presumed by positivism or those promoted by interpretive sociology. But I
suggest that the concept needs to be more fully elaborated in order to be
extended from the authentic reading of written texts to the study of Weberian
social action.
Third, the value of several points Ricoeur makes abour rigor, validation,
and the like is overridden by a misguided reliance on a structuralist model of
explanation. This reliance on a Levi-Straussian algebra and a structuralist
objectivism is particularly in need of revision, in that it pervades and unites
the entire text paradigm. Each of these difficulties bespeaks a problem of
applying the paradigm of text interpretation to sociology.
Finally, I argue that Ricoeur's attempt to address the difficult areas of
social science epistemology appears to make its gains contingent upon severe
limitations. It channels social science away from the understanding of face-to-
face interaction and away from the understanding of historical events as they
occurred. The following section now directs attention to the text paradigm
The key to the text paradigm lies in Ricoeur's dual conception of meaning.
In comparing Husserl and Wittgenstein on language, he proposes a theory of
meaning composed of two dimensions, In the first dimension--semiotic
tRicoeur follows a movement within hermeneutics in which the referent of text is radically
enlarged from an individually written text to any object interpretation. To him, history becomes
a "text."
di mens i on- - meani ng is a "t er m within a system of i nner dependences [1969,
p. 216]." Thi s di mensi on of meani ng in t erms of a system of signs abst ract ed
f r om lived experi ence is presupposed by t he second di mensi on- - semant i c
di mens i on- - t hat is, meani ng as use, language as a " f or m of life." A
Wi t t genst ei ni an di mensi on of language as use, as a multiplicity of language
games, is acknowl edged but made dependent on a structuralist di mensi on of
language as a system of signs.
Four tenets fill out this st ruct ural i st t r eat ment of language as a system of
signs: (1) A synchroni c, at empor al appr oach must precede any di achroni c,
historical one; (2) the paradi gmat i c case f or a st ruct ural i st appr oach is t hat of
a finite set of discrete entities amenabl e to quasi al gebrai c combi nat i ons (e.g.,
phonol ogy); (3) each ent i t y exists and has meani ng solely by its rel at i on to the
ot her units of its system; (4) language is a worl d of its own, a closed system;
each item refers onl y to ot her items within t he system (1976a, p. 5).
Nat ur al language (and meaning), as t reat ed by t he latter Wi t t genst ei n and
by soci ol ogy in general, is relegated in Ri coeur' s proj ect to one di mensi on, the
semant i c, and t hen made dependent on t he at emporal , st ruct ural dimension,
The event of spoken discourse and then, by ext ensi on, Weber i an social act i on
("act i on") designates instances of usage in ever yday social interaction.
" Meani ng" is now given a more technical sense, with a st ruct ural i st
connot at i on- - i t refers only to a closed, at empor al system like t hat of
phonol ogy. The di mensi on of use or activity is subor di nat ed i nt o an
abs t r act ed, a u t o n o mo u s meani ng- st r uct ur e. Exper i enced event s ar e
"surpassed i n" or "over come by" meani ng as at emporal structure; process is
subor di nat ed t o structure.
Wri t i ng figures heavily in this subor di nat i on of use into st ruct ural
meani ng, t he r e by cl ar i f yi ng t he l at t er concept . It cont r i but es several
i mpor t ant kinds of distance in t erms of which an event is subordi nat ed into
"meani ng. " The meani ng of written t ext stands at a distance f r om (1) the
limited audi ence t he aut hor mi ght have been writing to; (2) the meani ng of the
text to the aut hor; and (3) the epoch in which the aut hor wrote. Ri coeur
makes t he ar gument t hat t he meani ng of an act i on stands at a similar distance
f r om t hose to whom it was first directed, f r om the meani ng it had for the
agent, and f r om its original cont ext . That is, he makes a key anal ogy between
the way in which written meani ng and st ruct ural i st meani ng alike st and at a
distance f r om the experi enced speech event, t hereby obj ect i vat i ng it.
In a number of di fferent places Ri coeur develops the idea t hat an event of
spoken discourse or of social i nt eract i on is survived by its st ruct ural meaning.
The historicity of an event embodi es an "epi st emol ogi cal weakness [1976a, p.
9] in cont r ast t o t he scientific status t hat has been at t ai ned by language
structures. Event s vanish while systems remain. He makes t he argument in
t erms of several di fferent cont ext s, but the t ype of ar gument is largely the
same in each case. In each instance, what he is doi ng is poi nt i ng out senses in
184 McGU1RE
which di scour se( and act i on) yield a kind of st ruct ure that is less psychological
and more easily dehistoricized t han is the original experi ence itself. For
exampl e, he says t hat the meani ng a speaker intends when he or she verbalizes
a sentence is subjective in the sense that the meani ng itself requires reference
to the person of the speaker. Fort unat el y, t here exist the grammat i cal devices
of s e l f - r e f e r e nc e ( s uch as pe r s ona l p r o n o u n s ) , whi ch f ur ni s h a
"nonpsychol ogi cal , because purely semant i c" speaker' s meani ng in which " no
mental ent i t y need ~be hypothesized or hypostasized [1976a, p. 13]." The
meani ng of t he ut t erance can then in a sense be t reat ed as referring back to the
speaker but in a st ruct ural , impersonal way.
Li t erary codes and genres are given as a similar if mor e ambi t i ous exampl e.
Borrowi ng f r om Chomsky and others, Ri coeur says that phonol ogi cal ,
lexical, and syntactical codes provi de the speaker with a set of discrete unities
and combi nat or y rules with which he or she produces meaningful sentences.
Li t erary genres funct i on like this generative gr ammar in t hat they do not
merely classify but also "pr oduce" by furnishing a body of rules for produci ng
literary works (1973c, pp. 135-136). A literary genre carries a genetic funct i on
like Chomsky' s generative gr ammar in t hat it furnishes a basis for generat i ng
unique product s (events) out of rules const i t ut i ve of literary st ruct ure( 1976a,
p. 32; 1968). Ther e is a part i cul ar affinity between writing and linguistic codes;
each fixates or freezes speech into a manageabl e form (1977b). No claim is
made t hat they do the same for social i nt eract i on; a different set of concept s is
given this role, as is shown presently.
The probl em of vanishing historical events is handled in t andem with that
of the subjectiveness of an aut hor' s or agent' s intention. The event endures in
a kind of meani ng t hat is not merely structural, but logical. "An act of
discourse is not merely t ransi t ory . . . . It may be identified as the same so t hat
we may say it again or in ot her words [1976a, p. 9] . ' J us t as an historical event
in a sense event uat es in an at emporal meaning, the pri vat e meani ng of an
agent' s i nt ent i on feeds into a correspondi ng public meaning. That which is
uniquely eXperienced in one person' s st ream of consciousness cannot be
t ransferred as such to anot her person' s consciousness. But somet hi ng does
pass from one to anot her; not private experi ence but its cor r espondi ng public
meaning. Here Ri coeur appropri at es Husserl and Frege. Meani ng is not a
"psychi c cont ent " in someone' s mind but an "ideal obj ect , " which can be
identified and reidentified by different individuals at different times as being
one and the same (1976a, p. 90). Husserl established that every psychic act is
charact eri zed by i nt ent i onal i t y- - t he pr oper t y of intending a meani ng t hat is
capabl e of being i dent i f i ed- - so t hat al t hough psychic life cannot be reached,
one can "grasp what it intended, the objective and identical correl at e in which
psychic life t ranscended i t sel f"(Ri coeur, 1973b, p. 118). These noematic or, in
a sense, objective objects are irreducible to the psychic aspects of the acts from
which t hey come. A t ext has an "i nner connect i on" giving it the capaci t y t o be
under st ood by anot her person and fixed in writing. Meani ng in t erms of
Verstehen loses historicity and gains a t ranscendent al or logical aspect. Bot h
pri vat e and t empor al aspects are cancelled and t hen retained in an A ufhebung
of l anguage (1976a, p. 12).
To give cont ent t o this idealized di mensi on of meani ng and make it
appl i cabl e t o soci ol ogy' s subject ma t t e r - - a c t i on- - Ri c oe ur ext ends some of
t he wor k by Aust i n (1962) and Searle (1969, 1972) on speech acts. Cert ai n
ki nds of speech acts involve an "i l l ocut i onary f or ce, " which involves doi ng
things by speaki ng (e.g., saying "I do" at a wedding). Mor eover , speech acts
have been shown to embody const i t ut i ve rules t hat in a sense pr oduce actions.
Const i t ut i ve rules (as opposed t o norms) do not regulate but create or define
new forms of behavi or (see Giddens, 1976). "The rules of f oot ba l l . . , create
t he possibility of or define t hat activity. The activity of pl ayi ng foot bal l is
const i t ut ed in accor dance with these r ul es . . . [Searle, 1972, p. 138]." Meani ng
is t reat ed as a pr oduct i on and a fully social accompl i shment . The speaker' s
i nt ent i on i ncorporat es into itself the commi t ment to pr oduce in t he listener
t he means of i dent i fyi ng and recognizing the speaker' s intention. Meani ng is
social r at her t han private. Speech acts also i mpl y a close connect i on between
saying and doing, which woul d strengthen t he appl i cat i on of texts to the
domai n of social action. Social scientists are given a handl e (the rules) by
which aut hent i cal l y t o t ypi fy actions: the historicity of social i nt eract i on is
To f ur t her shore up the appl i cat i on t o social action, Ri coeur suggests t hat
an act i on has a cont ent (proposi t i onal cont ent ) t hat can be identified and
reidentified as t he same ( 1971 a, pp. 537-539). He asserts t hat "ver bs of act i on"
cont r i but e t o a st ruct ure of act i on, as do the compl ement s of these act i on
verbs. Thi s pr oposi t i onal cont ent gives social act i on a noematic st ruct ure t hat
may be fi xed and ext r act ed f r om t he process of i nt eract i on as an obj ect of
i nt erpret at i on. Accor di ng t o Ri coeur (1971a) the constitutive rules:
. . . al l ow t he cons t r uct i on of " i de a l model s " si mi l ar t o t he Ideal-types of Max Weber . For
exampl e, t o under st and what a pr omi se is, we have t o under st and what t he"es s ent i al
condi t i on" is accor di ng t o whi ch is gi ven act i on =counts as" a promi se. Searl e' s "' essential
condi t i on" is not far f r om what H usserl called Sinngehalt, whi ch covers bot h t he " ma t t e r "
( pr oposi t i onal cont ent ) and t he "qual i t y" ( t he i l l ocut i onary force) [p. 540]. 2
Thus speech and social act i on by ext ensi on become preserved in st ruct ure
and hence amenabl e to scientific study. Text s and writing part i cul arl y
exempl i fy this preservat i on, as can be seen by l ooki ng at the way the overal l
poi nt applies to t he distance between the meani ng on the one hand and the
2Ri coeur suggest s t hat t hese const i t ut i ve rules wi t h t hei r implicit "essent i al condi t i on" may
refer t o "essent i al st r uct ur es" of lived exper i ence whose feat ures are uncover ed by ordi nary
l anguage anal ysi s (1975b, p. 184; 1977a, pp. 147-148).
agent and original audience on the other. As not ed previously, there is a
distance between an agent' s i nt ent i on and the public meani ng of his or her
utterance. What a speaker means and what his or her discourse means are
almost, but not quite, the same thing. This distance is especially amplified by
writing. The meani ng of a t ext does not overlap so much with what the aut hor
means; the t ext takes on a meani ng of its own. Ri coeur proposes t hat the
meani ng of an i nt eract i onal event becomes similarly detached from its
agent(s). That is, a meani ng independent of t be actor' s intentions comes into
being. Ri coeur' s war r ant for this thesis is t hr ~f ol d: (1) actions have
uni nt ended effects; (2) the individual agency of a collective act i on is difficult
to attribute; and (3) the meani ng no longer overlaps with the agent' s i nt ent i on
in t he case of compl ex actions, as t hey do, he holds, with simple ones (1971a,
p. 540.
The objectivating distance between the meani ng of an event and its original
audi ence is likewise amplified by writing. Events of spoken discourse or of
act i on are addressed t o a limited audi encemt hose present at the moment . By
its nat ure, writing gives discourse a pot ent i al l y unl i mi t ed audience even when
it is i nt ended for a narrower one. Anal ogousl y, structuralist language systems
have no limitations of audience because t hey are not addressed t o an audience
at all (1971a, p. 536). By extension, the meanings of actions are open t o a
pot ent i al l y infinite audience. Act i ons are open t o fresh interpretations t hat
decide their meani ng in current praxis. Import ant l y, the i nt erpret at i on made
of those originally present has " no part i cul ar privilege [1971a, p. 545]."
To compl et e the ext ensi on of texts f r om speech to action, hi st ory itself is
none ot her t han the "wri t i ng" of human action. Actions leave traces t hat are
sedimented i nt o pat t erns (i.e., social institutions), the sum t ot al of which is
history as we know it. And a "meani ngf ul act i on" is one the i mport ance of
which goes beyond its relevance t o the original situation. "The meani ng of an
i mport ant event exceeds, overcomes, transcends, the social condi t i ons of its
product i on and may be reenacted in new social cont ext s [1971a, p. 543]."
Actions have nonsi t uat i onal referents similar to those of written texts. Hence,
social scientists can l ook t o writing and t o structuralist language systems for a
sense in which t ransi t ory events are appropri at el y dehistoricized.
So far I have presented several theses Ri coeur makes in order t o legitimate
his model of the relationship between an event and its st ruct ural meani ng. At
this poi nt he begins t o move t oward a concept i on of Verstehen and wi t h it, a
sense of rigor and met hodol ogy.
Perhaps the most pert i nent poi nt about writing is t hat , whereas face-to-face
speech points t owar d a si t uat ed reality common t o interactants, writing
"shat t ers" this reference. Reference t o the everyday, experienced world is
abolished and replaced by a more f undament al realm of references "whi ch
reaches the wor l d. . , at the level Husserl designated by the expression
Lebenswelt and Heidegger by ' being-in-the-world' [1973c, p. 140]."
The first i mpor t ant i mpl i cat i on is t hat this real m can be closer t o the
essence of social reality t han is the real m of everyday speech. Most briefly,
Ri coeur suggests t hat met aphor s and scientific models (as described by Mar y
Hesse) alike f unct i on as heuristic devices; t hey are the means by which we can
reconcei ve and redescribe reality. Scientific and poetic language bot h
t r a n s c e n d e v e r y d a y s pe e c h t o " a i m at a r eal i t y mor e r eal t h a n
appearances . . . . The eclipse of the objective, mani pul abl e world thus makes
way f or t he revel at i on of a new di mensi on of reality and t r ut h [1976a, pp. 67-
68]. " He is saying t hat t here is a realm of writing, met aphor, and symbol i sm
which is part i cul arl y suited f or furni shi ng mor e t r ut hf ul i nt erpret at i ons of t he
The second, related poi nt is t hat regardi ng t he act of i nt erpret at i on, writing
facilitates an escape away f r om emphasis on t he "pat het i c investigation of
submerged subjectivities" t oward an emphasi s on t he mor e objective worl d
referenced by t ext i nt erpret at i on. By devel opi ng t he not i on of a "wor l d"
opened up by writing, Ri coeur contests subjective or psychological versions
of Verstehen, replacing t hem with a cont i nent al model deri ved f r om
Hei degger and Gadamer .
The initial cont our s of this model have been hinted at already. Li t erat ure
and met aphor do not simply copy reality but redescribe it, i nt roduci ng a novel
el ement t hat reori ent s us in t he worl d, t hat opens up f or us new possibilities of
being in the world. The upshot is t hat when we i nt erpret a t ext we do not
merel y search f or t he aut hor ' s psychological i nt ent i ons. Rat her, t o i nt erpret is
to expl i cat e a possible worl d. For instance, we i nt erpret a t ext on t he" wor l d"
of anci ent Greece not t o desi gnat e t he si t uat i on f or t hose who experi enced it
but instead t o poi nt t owa r d nonsi t uat i onal references outliving t hem, which
are offered us as possible modes of being (1971a, p. 536). Wri t i ng has a
distinct reference, the worl d opened up by a text. In t urn, t he act of
i nt erpret i ng the t ext is not a mat t er of simply represent i ng it, but mor e one of
expl i cat i ng possible modes being unf ol ded by this worl d designated by the
t ext .
A less ps ychol ogi cal mor e f unda me nt a l not i on of i nt er pr et at i on is
required. Verstehen must be t reat ed less as a met hod, which psychologizes it
by f ocusi ng on accur acy in i nt erpret i ng the agent. Her e Verstehen t reat ed
epi st emol ogi cal l y is subordi nat ed t o a mor e ont ol ogi cal t reat ment .
The subj ect / obj ect relationship charact eri st i c of all acts of knowi ng
presupposes and takes place within a more f undament al tie t o reality. The
" mo o d " or t he "si t uat i on" precedes knowl edge by si t uat i ng us first (1973b, pp.
120-125). The first funct i on of underst andi ng is t o ori ent us within this
situation. Ther ef or e, underst andi ng is addressed not t o grasping a fact but t o
the appr ehensi on of a possibility and our ut most potentialities. The
met hodol ogi cal lesson is t hat t o under st and a t ext is not t o find an inert
meani ng cont ai ned therein, but rat her to unfol d the possibility of being t hat is
indicated:by the text. In writing (if not in the face-to-face situation), what we
understand first is not another person, but a project, an outline of a new
The immediate problem with this model of Verstehen is that of the critical
function: the ontological presuppositions "transcend in principle the idea of
rigor [1973b, p. 125]." The only clue for a return to epistemological concerns
is Heidegger's suggestion that in this circle of subject and object, we let
ourselves be guided by the things themselves rather than popular conceptions.
Here an element of critical distance is build into Verstehen. The ontological
structure of understanding always contains not only an element of
participation but also one of distance (1978c). To put Ricoeur's point in
fieldwork terms, the interpreter is neither a full participant nor a pure,
detached observer; elements from each pole are always involved. The relation
between the two is never merely given but rather a movement between them.
The possibility of a critical distance is always present in understanding.3
Authentic precomprehension requires a critical sorting between
precomprehension and prejudice (1971b; 1975a; 1977a). "Bias," "prejudice,"
and "ideology" often mislead in that understanding always involves a
The nature of this critical distance is important because the whole rigorous,
methodological aspect of the text paradigm lies rooted within it. Importantly,
rigor, validation, and objectivity are tied to the notion of a "genuine" or
authentic" understanding.
Authentic interpretation requires being open to the world of text. Even
though he builds the element of distance into the structure of every
understanding, Ricoeur appears to make crigical authentic understanding a
contingent possibility, but he does not discuss the ramifications that
inauthentic understanding woruld have for the paradigm. I first present his
idea of interpretation (authentic) and then the methodological element of
explanatory procedures implied within it.
Interpretation in the form of reading is an act of assimilation achieved
insofar as the reader's interpretation actualizes the meaning of the text for the
reader. This actualization is the fully existential act of appropriation (1976a,
p. 91). Genuine interpretation--to make one's own what was at first other or
foreign--ends in some form of appropriation (1974, p. 107). The object to be
appropriated is "the meaning of the text itself, conceived in a dynamic way as
the direction of thought opened up by the text [ 1976a, p. 92]." To interpret is
to follow the movement from what the text says to what it is about. What is
appropriated is the capacity of disclosing a world that the text refers to. The
genuine referential power of the text is then the disclosure of a possible way of
looking at things. The text is not closed in on itself but rather opens out in the
3In this way Ricoeur incorporates Habermas's emancipatory i nt er es t .
act of r eadi ng. I n this sense, we can under s t and an a u t h o r bet t er t ha n he
unde r s t ood hi msel f: t he wor k means mor e t han t he a u t h o r i nt ended.
Ri c oe ur ant i ci pat es t hese di ffi cul t i es. Fi rst , i nt er pr et at i on no l onger is a
circle bet ween t wo subj ect i vi t i es ( agent and i nt erpret er). No r has it a nyt hi ng
t o do wi t h e mpa t hy. Rat her , a ppr opr i a t i on t akes t he f or m o f Ga d a me r ' s
(1975a) " f us i on o f hor i zons. " Th e wor l d hor i zon of t he r eader is fused wi t h t he
wor l d hor i z on o f t he text. Th e r ef er ent o f t he t ext does not "l i e behi nd" it but
"i n f r ont of " it; t he me a ni ng is not s ome t hi ng hi dden, but s ome t hi ng
di scl osed. " Be yond my s i t uat i on as a r e a d e r . . . I of f er mysel f possi bl e modes
of bei ng in t he wor l d t hat t he t ext ope ns and di scl oses t o me[ 1978, p. 144].'"
Second, t he i nt er pr et at i on need not c o n f o r m t o t hat made by t he t ext ' s
or i gi nal addr essee: wr i t i ng has al r eady been s hown t o be open t o new
i nt er pr et at i ons by a pot ent i al l y uni versal audi ence.
Thi r d, i nt er pr et at i on is not limited by t he capaci t y of t he reader, such t hat it
woul d be a pr oj ect i on of t he subj ect i vi t y of t he r eader i nt o t he text. Ri coeur
insists t hat a ppr opr i a t i on, even t h o u g h it ends subj ect i vel y, in t he i nt er pr et er ,
is not cor r ect l y descr i bed as p r o j e c t i o n . Ther e is a sense in whi ch it is a
r e s p o n d i n g t o t he obj ect of t he t ext (1975a, pp. 94-95): emphas i s in t he
ori gi nal ).
The r eader " unde r s t a nds hi msel f before, in f r ont of " t he wor l d o f t he text,
l et t i ng its wor l d " enl ar ge t he hor i zon of my s el f - under s t andi ng [1974, p. 107]. "
M or eover :
Far from saying that a subject already mastering his own way of being in the world
projects the a priori of his self-understanding on the text and reads it into the text, I say
that interpretation is the process by which disclosure of new modes of being--or if you
prefer Wittgenstein to Heidegger, of new forms of life--gives to the subject a new capacity
for knowing himself... The reader.., is enlarged in his capacity of sell" projection by
receiving a new mode of being from the text itself [1976a, p. 94].
Aut he nt i c unde r s t a ndi ng cons t i t ut es at t he s ame t i me a genui ne new self-
under s t andi ng. The self is di s t anced f r om itself in t he process. "I e xc ha nge t he
me . ma s t e r of mysel f, f or t he s e l f di s c i pl e of t he t ext [1975a, p. 95; emphas i s in
or i gi nal ] . " Ap p r o p r i a t i o n is not ful l y a t aki ng hol d of t hi ngs but r at her
i mpl i es a mo me n t o f "di spossessi on of t he egoi st i c and narci ssi st i c ego. "
Ar gui ng at this poi nt agai nst Husser l i an p h e n o me n o l o g y , Ri c oe ur assumes
t hat t he sel f is not t r ans par ent t o itself but mus t l ook out wa r d t o t he wor l d
(i.e., t he t ext in its br oades t sense) in or der t o at t ai n genui ne self-
under s t andi ng. He devel ops this idea t hat i nt er pr et i ve unde r s t a ndi ng must
i nc or por a t e cri t i cal di s t ance and mi ni mi ze subj ect i vi t y by asser t i ng t hat
genui ne i nt er pr et at i ons ar e medi at ed by a necessar y st age o f " e x p l a n a t o r y
pr oc e dur e s . "
I n i nvoki ng t he l ong pol emi c bet ween unde r s t a ndi ng and expl anat i on,
Ri c oe ur r econcei ves not onl y unde r s t a ndi ng but expl anat i on as well. He
ar gues t hat Car l He mp e r s (1952) c ove r i ng law model o f e xpl a na t i on does not
appl y t o the practice of historians, and t hat expl anat i on must be seen instead
as a bond of logical cont i nui t y within a given historical narrative. The
underst andi ng of a historical event is given priority; expl anat i on is the general
lawlike structure t hat the hi st ori an often uses t o clarify his or her spont aneous
underst andi ng. Yet, as will be seen, expl anat i on is given a more particularistic
t reat ment , in order t o tie it more compat i bl y wi t h Verstehen and in order t o
help ext end the whol e t ext i nt erpret at i on model t o Weberi an social action.
The expl anat i on and underst andi ng of speech (and action) are in dialectical
i nt er pl ay, fi rst as a movement f r om under s t andi ng t o expl anat i on.
Under st andi ng is first a" guess, a j udgment of an individual totality. A
const rui ng is necessary for several reasons. There is a par t / whol e i nt erpl ay in
whi ch the parts are of varyi ng i mport ance t o the whole; j udgment of
i mpor t ance is a guess. And di f f er ent aspect s of t he whol e give its
reconst ruct i on a necessary perspectivist character. Also, procedures of
val i dat i on part ake of a "logic of subjective probabi l i t y" such t hat we can onl y
show an underst andi ng to be most probabl e rat her t han "t r ue" (1971a, p.
Here Ri coeur moves the phi l osophy of the social sciences away f r om
positivism, t oward hermeneutics and critical theory. This "val i dat i on" is a
ful l y argument at i ve discipline very similar t o bot h juridical procedures of
legal i nt erpret at i on and procedures of literary criticism (1971 a, pp. 550-553).
Verstehen escapes the danger of self-confirmation because the procedures
of val i dat i ng an i nt erpret at i on are paired wi t h procedures of i nval i dat i on
s i mi l ar t o Poppe r ' s (1958) cr i t er i a of f al s i f i abi l i t y. Va l i da t i on is
f undament al l y pol emi cal - - t he conflict of interpretations funct i ons in a way
to falsify by maki ng some i nt erpret at i ons more probable t han others. 4
Ri coeur hol ds t hat the essentials of this model of val i dat i on are applicable
t o t hat of social action. Not onl y are actions open t o several interpretations,
but there is a basis on which we can i mput e the meani ng of an act i on wi t hi n
cert ai n limits and argue on t hat basis. What can and must be const rued in
human act i on is t he mot i vat i onal basis of an action, which is a set of
"desi rabi l i t y-charact ers. " We can make sense of wants and beliefs "as a result
of t he a p p a r e n t good whi ch is t he c or r e l a t e o f t hei r de s i r a bi l i t y
char act er . . . On the basis of these desirability-characters and the apparent
good which corresponds to t hem, it is possible to argue about the meani ng of
an act i on [1971a, p. 551; emphasi s in original]. " The underst andi ng and
expl anat i on of act i on in terms of its mot i vat i onal basis gives an act i on a
limited field for conflicting i nt erpret at i ons of it. Furt hermore, what seems t o
legitimate this ext ensi on f r om guessing the meani ng of a t ext to guessing the
4Discussing emergent metaphor. Ricoeur says that the most probable interpretation is o n e
that accounts for the greatest number of facts, offers the best convergence of the structures
explicated in the text, and at the same time enlarges a w a y o f be i ng ( 1974, p p . 1 0 0 - 1 0 5 ) .
meani ng of an act i on is t hat "in argui ng about the meani ng of an act i on I put
my wants and beliefs at a distance and submi t t hem to a concret e dialectic of
conf r ont at i on with opposi t e points of view [1971a, p. 552]."
The dialectic of aut hent i c i nt erpret at i on also involves a movement f r om
expl anat i on t o underst andi ng. The di fferent structuralist schools of literary
criticism have shown t hat it is legitimate t o t reat a t ext in suspension, as a
worldless, aut horl ess system of signs in or der to explain it by means of its
st ruct ure of internal relations. The met hod of st ruct ural linguistics can be
validly ext ended to literary texts on the key assumpt i on that the larger unities
of language-as-text are organi zed in a way similar to t hat of the smaller unities
of linguistics (e.g., phonemes).
Tr eat ment s of fol kl ore narratives and analyses of myt h serve as models for
the ext ensi on of st ruct ural linguistics to wri t t en texts and to sociology in
general. Levi -St rauss (1963) abst ract s "myt hemes, " which are similar t o
phonemes and mor phemes and t reat ed accor di ng to the same rules. A
myt heme is "an opposi t i ve value at t ached to several individual sentences
f or mi ng. . , a ' bundl e of r el at i ons' " (1971b, p. 141). The combi nat i on or
ar r angement of these bundles is the myt h' s structure. In anal yzi ng fol kl ore
narratives, Pr opp, Barthes, and Grei mas ext ract unities of act i on which
cor r espond to formal i zed roles irrespective of psychol ogi cal subjects or traits.
The st ruct ural i st s ext r act "act i on kernels" f r om the narrat i ve sequence into a
logic of comb.inations, giving t he narrative its st ruct ural meaning, its
"symphoni c st r uct ur e" (1971 b, p. 143). This st ruct ural i st al gebra compri ses
the heart of "expl anat i on" f or Ri coeur, and he develops Levi-Strauss' s
analysis of the Oedi pus myt h as exempl ar y in this respect (1976a, pp. 83-84).
This expl anat i on, however, requires underst andi ng; the st ruct ural i sm of
Levi-Strauss requires hermeneut i cs. Expl ai ni ng t he inner suspended worl d of
the t ext pr es uppos es and t akes pl ace wi t hi n t he semant i c r eal m of
underst andi ng. Fur t her mor e, the el ement of meani ng in the existential r at her
t han st ruct ural i st sense is in no way neutralized when sentences of the
narrat i ve are placed in combi nat i ons of bundles. And st ruct ural analysis
would be a "sterile game, a divisive al gebr a" if t he system of opposi t i ons did
not medi at e "meani ngf ul " opposi t i ons or existential tensions al ong the order
o f " b i r t h and deat h, blindness and lucidity, sexual i t y and t rut h [1971a, p.
556]. " St r uc t ur a l anal ysi s mer el y suppr esses t hat whi ch it act ual l y
pr e s uppos e s - - t he her meneut i c mome nt of under s t andi ng meani ngf ul
behavi or.
In this manner , expl anat i on and underst andi ng are harmoni ousl y bound
t oget her r at her t han set in opposi t i on. Moreover, each refers to the same
sphere of subject mat t er (signs) rat her t han one to culture and one t o nat ure
(as has oft en been implied previously in the debate). The bi ndi ng t oget her is
t hen cement ed in the idea of aut hent i c i nt erpret at i on as a movement going
f r om underst andi ng as a guess t hr ough st ruct rual expl anat i on into the act ' of
appr opr i at i on discussed previously.
Thi s uni t y of expl anat i on and underst andi ng compl et es t he earlier thesis
t hat i nt erpret at i on is not a proj ect i on of the subjectivity of t he i nt erpret er i nt o
t he t ext . Sur f ace under s t andi ngs or guesses medi at ed by s t r uct ur al
expl anat i on become a kind of dept h-i nt erpret at i on or depth-semantics. We
i nt erpret not t he vivid experi ence of the agent but t he worl d opened up by the
t ext . Au t h e n t i c i n t e r p r e t a t i o n , neces s ar i l y me di a t e d by s t r u c t u r a l
expl anat i on, has not hi ng t o do with an "' immediate grasping of a foreign
ps yc hi c l i fe or wi t h an e mot i onal i d e n t i f i c a t i o n wi t h a me nt a l
i nt ent i on . . . . [ 1971 a, p. 561; emphasis in o r i gi nal ] . "The i nt erpret at i on is not
somet hi ng"f el t "; it is t he dynami c of disclosing a worl d. Thi s dept h semantics
is "less a subjective oper at i on t han an objective process; less an act on the t ext ,
t han an act o f t he t e x t . . , i nt erpret at i on is t he act of the text, before being an
act of exegesis; it is like an ar r ow bor ne by the t ext itself, indicating t he
di rect i on f or t he exegetical work [1971 b, pp. I48-149; emphasis in ori gi nal ]. "
In filling out this last point, Ri coeur appears t o be devel opi ng a concept i on
of t he historical met hod and its obj ect - - hi s t or y- - dr awn f r om Gadamer , one
t hat woul d amount t o significant revision of most current concept i ons of
historical sociology. Gadamer has argued t hat in historical i nt erpret at i on,
t empor al distance is not a chasm to be bri dged but rat her ~'a living
cont i nui t y, " a t radi t i on. The met aphor is not one of a gap but of an unbr oken
chain t hr ough which t he past is given t o the historian. In t he act of historical
i nt erpret at i on (e.g., of a document ) , t he personal opi ni ons of the sender are of
s econdar y i mpor t t o t he t hi ng itself, t he i mmanent meani ng bei ng
communi cat ed. The i nt erpret er ant i ci pat es t hat the t ext makes a claim
regardi ng t he things t o which it refers. The very meani ng and st ruct ure of
historical i nt erpret at i on are not some psychic state but t he "t hi ng" being
delivered by historical t radi t i on. That which is i nt erpret ed is the uni t y of the
i nt erpret er' s pr eunder st andi ng with the thing interpreted; historical reality is
const i t ut ed t hr ough t hei r relationship. Hence, the probl em of a t emporal gap
is illusory, and t he t rut h cont ent of that which is i nt erpret ed takes pri macy
over t he subjectivity of ei t her i nt erpret er or agent.
Ri coeur picks up on bot h of these points regardi ng t he act of historical
i nt erpret at i on, again giving t hem a st ruct ural i st cast (1971 b). The key point,
however, is t hat i nt erpret at i on exists as a kind of chain, in which the first
i nt erpret ers serve as a t radi t i on f or later ones. Each in a sense subordi nat es
hi m/ her sel f to the movement of the t ext itself, to the thing itself, which in its
own way guides the di al ogue between i nt erpret ers (1971b, p. 150; 1973b, p.
128). Thi s i nt erpret at i on at t ai ns an obj ect i ve status in that it makes use of
expl anat or y procedures and in t hat it is part of an intersubjective di al ogue
guided by the object itself.
How can this model of i nt erpret at i on be connect ed to sociology? First, the
st ruct ural model of expl anat i on may be ext ended beyond t ext ual entities t o
all social phenomena because the semiotic or symbol i c funct i on is the "very
f oundat i on" of social life; social reality is fundament al l y semiotic. The
structural model can be generalized insofar as social phenomena have the
typical relations of structuralist systems (1971a, p. 559). Expl anat i on t hen
reflects not the classical model of causat i on as a regular sequence of
antecedents and consequents having "no inner logical connect i on, " but a
structural model of correlative rather t han sequential relations (1971a, pp.
559-560; 1978b).
Second, the search for correlations between social phenomena "woul d lose
i mport ance and interest" if it would not yield somet hi ng like a dept h
semantics. Just as linguistic games are Wittgensteinian forms of life, "social
structures are also at t empt s to cope with existential perplexities, human
predicaments and deep-ro oted conflicts [ 1971 a, p. 560]." I n this sense social
structures refer to the existential di mensi on of Levi-Straussian myt hs and a
projected "wor l d. " Social science, t oo, proceeds from preliminary surface
i nt erpret at i on t hr ough st ruct ural analysis t o the dept h i nt erpret at i on t hat
gives the whole process a meaning.
Such is the t ext paradigm. It should be evident how Ri coeur offers it to
social science as a model for appropriately objectivating unique events and
for a nonsubjective Verstehen. We can also see how the text paradi gm can
pl ay a role i n connect i on with transcendental phenomenol ogy and recent
critical theory. The aut onomy of the text and the nat ure of text i nt erpret at i on
would preclude t ranscendent al phenomenol ogy' s primacy of subjectivity. At
the same time, the critical, emanci pat i ng aspect of Habermasi an critical
t heory is both implied in and premised upon the model of aut hent i c text
I t hi nk the work presents a large number of suggestive ideas for an
interpretive social science. Ri coeur has poi nt ed out and sought to develop a
number of i mport ant similarities between text interpretation and t hat of
social interaction. I do not enumerat e each of these but at t empt to point out
the i mpor t ant ones while suggesting four issues t hat the paradi gm needs to
address if it is to reach its goal of applicability to sociology.
1. I argue t hat the conception of meaning, which is central to the whole
work, is potentially helpful but requires qualification. Ricoeur merges sev.erial
kinds of meani ng together into a single pair, one of which eventuates in the
other. There are intended meanings and uni nt ended ones. Then there are the
meani ngs of complex actions, which are qualitatively distinct from those of
more simple ones. There are experienced meanings, and t hen there are the
i mport ant ones t hat are reenacted, such as those of great-works of culture.
Finally, there is the existential "meani ngful ness" exemplified by Levi°
Strauss' s myths. In order to say t hat actions give of f aut onomous meanings,
Ri coeur makes some dubi ous comment s. He implies t hat t he mea~aing of a
simple act i on, as opposed t o a compl ex one, is equi val ent or al most
equi val ent t o t he act or' s intention. He also implies t hat were it not f or the
existence of uni nt ended effects of an action, its meani ng would oft en, if not
always, be identical with the act or' s intention. He f ur t her implies t hat the
meani ng of an act i on woul d be more a mat t er of t he act or' s i nt ent i on, except
t hat the act or' s cont r i but i on is hard to sort out f r om t hat of the others.
Finally, he says t hat i mpor t ant actions are t hose t hat are reenact ed and,
hence, their meani ngs are i ndependent of the social condi t i ons of t hei r
pr oduct i on.
I submi t t hat these implications are misleading and t hat t he distinctions
largely obscure t he issue. Ri coeur thematizes t he difference between pri vat e
and p.ublic meanings, mixing di sparat e types of each, when he shoul d also
t hemat i ze t he di st i nct i on between an aut onomous, social meani ng of an event
and t hat of t he anal yst / observer. He conflates the meani ng for the social
scientist al t ernat el y with the subjective meani ng of t he act or and an
aut onomous social meaning. His cont i nual de-emphasis of t he agent' s
i nt ent i on as the object of st udy is sympt omat i c in this regard. The i mpl i cat i on
is t hat the social di mensi on of meani ng is nearly, if not fully, identical with the
interpreter' s, but t hat a deep chasm separates the i nt erpret er f r om the
i nt ent i ons of t he agent. In cont rast , 1 argue t hat a social or nonpr i vat e aspect
of t he act or' s i nt ent i ons can be studied, irrespective of t he compl exi t y of the
act i on, irrespective of t he degree t o which the act i on has uni nt ended
consequences, and irrespective of its existential meaningfulness. By the same
t oke n, i t needs t o be spelled out t hat in every instance of social act i on, t he
meani ng of t he event varies at least part i al l y with each obser ver / par t i ci pant
and t hen over time.
I t hi nk probl ems ensue when Ri coeur tries to give empirica! meanings
similar charact eri st i cs or t ypi fy t hem. The need f or ret hi nki ng t he di fferent
senses of meani ng and f or t hemat i zi ng the difference bet ween"t he meani ng"
of an event and t he meani ng f or the social scientist becomes crucial when we
consi der t he idea t hat an act i on can be identified accordi ng t o its const i t ut i ve
The aut onomous meani ng was given bot h em0irical and logical aspects. An
original empirical event leaves traces in history, which are sedi ment ed i nt o
pat t erns (i.e., social institutions). These empirical events also t ake on a
"l ogi ci t y, " becomi ng an ideal obj ect t hat can be identified and typified as t he
same by reference to the structure• constitutive rules of the given t ype of
I think t hat much depends on the use to which this idea is put or t he way it is
el aborat ed. The Austin and Searle model of speech acts appears to bea mor e
promi si ng t reat ment t han many current models. Yet the reference to Weber' s
ideal types occasions the sort of reification that has long accompanied such
attempts at typifying historical events.
One might use the structures or constitutive rules to identify actions
according to type, in a mechanical way. Ricoeur's treatments of personal
pronouns, linguistic codes, and literary genres suggest that he may b e heading
this way. Searle (1972) appears to have taken up such a strategy, and the
results are instructive for present concerns. Searle has continual difficulty
avoiding a tautology, and he acknowledges this, attributing the difficulty to
the nature of constitutive rules. He also finds it a normal occurrence that the
rules are not absolutely strict. As a consequence, he is forced to exclude all
sorts of borderline cases from analysis.
I think t hat these and related difficulties inhere in this overall strategy. A
setting down and mechanical usage of such structures will progress little
beyond a definitional exercise; the account given will stop short of any deep
understanding of the subject matter. Here the danger of conflating an
autonomous meaning with that of the interpreter is exacerbated. The
interpreter conflating the two will miss the important role of his or her own
interpretive work in making and using identifications (cf. Cicourel, 1964;
Heap, 1977). Just what counts as the rule or structure is itself problematic, so
that the rules themselves should be treated more as the situated
accomplishments of those studied and of the interpreter (insofar as the issue is
authentic typification of action) (cf. Turner, 1974; Weider, 1974). The more
valuable wor k will usually be that which goes far beyond typifying an action,
toward describing and/ or analyzing it more fully. If this point can be
developed from Ricoeur's treatment of emergent metaphor and of the
understanding of possible worlds, then it needs clarified by reference to
the constitutive rules per se.
2. I find much of value in the preceding model of Verstehen, but I find that
qualifications and further specifications are needed. It implies a more
sophisticated tr6atment of bias and ideology than is oRen promoted. More
important, the main thrust of treating Verstehen more ontologicaUy and less
as a special sociological method is, I think, a significant advance along the
right track. The Gadamer model of the "fusion of horizons" substantially
improves upon prominent Anglo-Saxon models such as those of Abel 0974)
and ~ to fill the breach left by much interpretive sociology. A
dev¢lopment of this concept could clarify our imagery of historical
interpretation affd participant observation, and indeed all sociological work
and its epistemological status.
However, Ricoeur slides by one of the main problems facing both this
model and previous ones. He does not fully address the issue el an interpreter
projecting him/herself into the text/subject matter, in that he addresses only
authentic.interpretation. In this connection he has clarified sociological
praxis, but he has not dealt sufficiently with inauthentic interpretations. It is
as t hough the problem is defined away t hrough a specification of what good
interpretive underst andi ng should be. This illuminates good interpretations
and their status as knowledge, but it relegates the issue at hand to poorer
interpretations and in t hat way leaves the problem largely unt ouched.
The poi nt is t o ext end text interpretation to t hat of social action, but
Ricoeur limits (rightly so) some of the main features of his Verstehen model to
the former. Int erpret at i on is de-psychologized in t hat it underst ands first
anot her project in the world rather t han a person, but this point is always
made in connect i on with the interpretation of writing alone. Thus, the thesis
would appl y t o the interpretation of questionnaire responses but not to the
observat i on of social interaction, for example. More needs to be said if this set
of ideas is to contribute substantially to sociology' s use of Verstehen.
3. Al t hough much of the methodological aspect of the paradi gm is
valuable, there are unnecessary and i nappropri at e elements. The parallel
dr awn bet ween scientific and l i t er ar y real ms i l l i mi nat es, as does t he
highlighting of the role of argument in "val i dat i on. " The tentative character
at t ri but ed to understanding is well noted, in light of its polemical history. I
propose, however, that the extension of the model to social action by way of
"desirability-characters" is unnecessarily limited. It should be noted t hat
Ri coeur has broached this general area of intentions, motives, and causes in
other ways (1978b), but the same criticism still applies. We can argue about
the best interpretation of an action on the basis of any and all intersubjective
evidence wi t hout l i mi t at i on t o desirability-characters or similar concepts.
The heart of the met hodol ogi cal element is the structuralist model of
expl anat i on, which coheres with the model of meaning. If the model were to
work, it would give sociology a needed dose of existential power, in t hat it
brings in the more fundament al aspects of social reality. The main issue,
however, is the fit of the application of the structuralist algebra of expl anat i on
( of " act i on kernesl") to social action as conceived by Weber. I submit t hat
social action does not fruitfully yield abstracted units anal ogous to myt hemes
and phonemes. Moreover, the structuralist expl anat i on al ong the order of
t hat of Oedipus constitutes a minimal advance over the Hempel covering law
model, if that. A number of more valuable models of expl anat i on are
The notions of action kernels, expl anat i on, and meaning are instances of a
particular kind of abst ract i on discussed by Zi mmer man (1974, p. 20) which
distinguish observable particulars of behavior from an abstract construction
which is t hought to lie behind and generate the features of observed behavior.
Whol e classes of dat a are suppressed, such t hat "i t is always appropri at e t o
ask whether or not the conception t hus advanced (and the ' puri fi cat i on' of
dat a t hat is its inevitable consequence) compromises the claims advanced for
a part i cul ar analysis" (Zi mmerman, 1974, p. 20). By this st andard, the escape
f r om historicity and subjectivity offered above are i nappropri at e. The
structuralist puri fi cat i ons are not incidental t o t he advances t hat woul d be
made- - t he purifications are severe ones and wi t hout t hem the advances
woul d be nil. Al t hough there is always a close tie between met hodol ogi cal
practices and t he resulting knowl edge pr oduct , this is an instance in which t he
pr oduct becomes largely an artifact of the procedures used.
Thus, social reality is indeed fundament al l y symbolic, if not semiotic, as
Ri coeur holds. It does not war r ant t he ext ensi on of st ruct ural expl anat i on to
social action. To radicalize t he poi nt Ri coeur makes against Levi-Strauss,
such st ruct ural analyses do suppress a "r eal m" t hat t hey pre-suppose, t hat of
i nt erpret at i on or hermeneutics. Thi s at t empt ed reconci l at i on and uni on of
t wo types of work has not pr oven fertile f or t he st udy of social act i on. The
long t r adi t i on of interpretive soci ol ogy and its affiliates has had difficulty
devel opi ng a sense of critical distance and met hodol ogi cal ri gor to mat ch its
subject mat t er, but there exist a number of mor e direct paths t owar d this goal.
Thi s s hor t c omi ng does not negat e all t he i ndi vi dual cont r i but i ons
presented, but it does deny the fitness of t hat which makes t he substantive and
epi st emol ogi cal facets of the t ext paradi gm coher e- - t he structuralist theme.
To t he ext ent this el ement is an i nappropri at e idealization, the r at her elegant
har mony between subject mat t er and met hodol ogy becomes nonrel evant .
Overall, the poi nt is t hat the tie to social act i on- - soci ol ogy' s subject
mat t er - - i s weak. Li ke the model of meani ng and t hat of Verstehen, the
st ruct ural i st model of expl anat i on falters when it is ext ended f r om ot her
domai ns t o t hat of act i on.
4. The final issue makes explicit a probl em al ready hinted at. Ri coeur' s
present at i on channels us away f r om t wo i mpor t ant and legitimate sorts of
phenomena. I t hi nk he is largely cor r ect in showi ng us limits within which we
can proceed in connecti~on with i nt erpret i ve underst andi ng and in connect i on
with history. Each of these areas can be t reat ed more positively t han they have
been in the past, al ong some of the lines sket ched previously. Wi t h the former,
we are admi t t edl y limited t o t he public side of t he experi ence of t hose we
study. However, events of social i nt eract i on are available t o study, in ways
not provi ded for above. As suggested regardi ng Verstehen, more needs t o be
said regardi ng the interpretive underst andi ng t hat obt ai ns when the social
scientist and t hose studied are closer t o a face-t o-face si t uat i on t han a reader-
t ext situation. Mor e generally, I submit t hat the t hought s, feelings, and
mot i vat i ons of act ors are legitimate phenomena f or study, across the board. It
is nei t her fitting nor necessary t o shy away f r om these areas a n d / o r restrict
t hei r range of appl i cat i on, as done previously. Such mat t ers do provi de
difficulties f or investigators, but t hey also yield intersubjective evidence.
Likewise, t he general model of historical i nt erpret at i on marks a real
i mpr ovement over convent i onal concept i ons. We can but come f r om within
our own pr eunder st andi ng; t he quest i ons we ask, t he categories we use, and
t he sense we gi ve t o t he da t a c ome out of our own hi st ori cal nexus. A full
r et ur n t o t he past is not avai l abl e. By t he s ame t oken, t her e is no chas m
be t we e n pa s t a n d pr e s e nt but r a t h e r a t r a d i t i o n be i ng c o n t i n u a l l y
r econst i t ut ed. An a c t i on is i ndeed cont i nual l y ope n t o new i nt er pr et at i ons ,
and in a sense, t he i nt er pr et at i on ma de by t hose or i gi nal l y pr esent c a r r i e s " no
par t i cul ar pr i vi l ege" (it can be t r eat ed as f aul t y or epi phenomenal ) .
Even so, our i nt erest in t he past is not sat i sfi ed by its abi l i t y t o ope n up
possi bl e di me ns i ons o f bei ng, a l t hough it does d o t hat . Th e pa r a di gm di rect s
us t o wa r d t he i nt er pr et at i on o f a possi bl e wor l d when we ar e of t en i nt er est ed
in a n hi st or i cal act ual i t y. Fo r cer t ai n pur pos es of s t udy, we ar e i nt erest ed in
wha t ha ppe ne d, or i n what peopl e t hought at t he time. We want t o cons t i t ut e
t he hi st or i cal past (cf. Gol dst ei n, 1976), a l t hough it is not avai l abl e in an
obj ect i ve sense. We have no "di r ect t ouc hs t one " o f t he past wi t h whi ch t o
j udge i nt er pr et at i ons , and hi st or i cal fact s t o o ar e si t uat ed accompl i s hment s .
We can and do, however , l egi t i mat el y a t t e mpt t o cons t i t ut e hi s t or y in ways
t ha t t he t ext pa r a di gm needs t o pr ovi de f or mo r e fully.
I n sum: Ri c oe ur gr appl es wi t h Verstehen and t he hi st or i ci t y of soci al act i on
in a hi ghl y or i gi nal and pr omi s i ng way. St eer i ng bet ween a n u mb e r of
a c a de mi c t r adi t i ons, he ni cel y avoi ds ma n y o f t hei r endemi c weaknesses a nd
br i ngs f or t h several ma j or i deas o f not e. As al ways, t he i deas di spl ay t hei r
gaps, weaknesses, and ar eas f or cl ar i f i cat i on and el abor at i on. For t una t e l y,
t her e is no need t o t r eat t he m as a fi ni shed pr oduc t in need of an epi t aph, f or
t hey pr ovi de val uabl e mat er i al s t o f ur t her t r anscend.
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