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Philosophy & Social Criticism

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Hermeneutics and Social Science


Hans-Georg Gadamer
Philosophy Social Criticism 1975 2: 307
DOI: 10.1177/019145377500200402

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HANS-GEORG GADAMER

HERMENEUTICS AND SOCIAL SCIENCE

The topic and special interests which bring us here for this meeting are
associated with the debates I have had in the past ten years with those in-
volved in the social sciences and the philosophy of science. I have been
asked to describe from my own point of view the role and relevance of her-
meneutics for the problem of society and social life. I shall begin with a
consideration of the conditions and the historical constellation under which
the social sciences in our epoch are organized and working. In our century,
particularly in the second half of our century, the social sciences have been
given a special challenge. When one compares the impact of both philoso-
phy (notably British Empiricism and German Idealism) and the social sciences
in the same epoch, one is forced to say that the influence of the former was
extremely weak. Of course, there was the development of theoretical eco-
nomics and the first steps toward a thematization of society as burgerliche
Gesellschaft. In general, however, this theoretical work did not have much
influence upon the practical organization of our society.
The basis of our social life in the nineteenth and the beginning of the
twentieth century had been sustained by the Christian tradition, its secu-
larization and the consequent secular formation of society. However, by
the middle of our century, the breakdown of these traditions - caused by
the two wars and the connected shift in the balance of power and the
political equilibrium - fostered a new desire and inner longing in our
society to find in science a substitute for lost orientations - a very dangerous
situation. While the serious scientist knows the restrictive conditions of his
thematization of social appearances and givens, the makers of public opin-
ion can distort the real work of scientists in view of the inner needs and
expectations of society exhibiting an increasing lack of orientation.

I. PHILOSOPHY AND SOCIAL S(IEN(E IN THE MODERN WORLD

Let us, therefore, reflect a moment on the origin of this situation and on
the heritage which informs the scientific approach to social life, particularly
with respect to the application of science to social life and politics. Certainly,
the decisive first step in the modern age was the separation of the sciences

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308

from philosophy. As a result, philosophy became a special discipline no longer


legitimated as the exhaustive realization of our scientific world-orientation.
Descartes, the first philosopher to reflect the new scientific procedure of
Galileo and others, formulated the principle of this new approach and me-
diated it with the older tradition of metaphysics. However, Descartes was
careful not to apply the methodical ideal of the new science to social and
political fields. His theory of provisional morality is well known: In times
of new planning and constructing, one has to retain and leave untouched
the older structures as long as the new structures are unfinished. To be
sure, the programmatic claims of the eighteenth century went beyond this
self restnction. Nevertheless, the actual life of mankind did not achieve the
utopia of the theorists in the long run. Even Kants practical philosophy
reaffirmed the moral content of the Christian tradition. Accordingly, Kants
Critiques went along with Descartes restraint by characterizing the new
critical and philosophical procedures of the natural sciences and opposing
to them a critique of practical reason and a foundation for morality on the
basis of reason as noumenal. The result was a separation of moral philosophy
from any empirical and anthropological foundations. The successors of
Kant attempted to transcend his critical orientation by trying - I think
for the last time in our European Western culture - to reintegrate the modern
sciences with all their achievements into the framework of a rational
philosophy that would include an a priori construction of the totality of
knowledge. The Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences - the syste-
matic title of Hegels work - suggests by the use of the plural (Sciences)
that philosophy should resume its task of providing the foundations for all
the sciences under its own leadership.
The dissolution of idealistic speculation followed closely upon this
exaggerated and radical ambition to provide the outlines and foundations
of the philosophy of nature (the natural sciences), as well as of the a
prioristic philosophy of history (the conceptual penetration of developments
within history as necessary). These two disciplines as Hegel conceived them
-
the philosophy of nature and the philosophy of history - failed to over-
come the challenge of the newly developing scientific and critical-historical

investigations of the nineteenth century. The claim is no longer made that


empirical investigations can be subordinated to the rational a prioristic
orientation of the philosophical tradition. In the eyes of the rigorous
followers of scientific methodology, philosophy must be restricted to the
justification of the sciences and be confined to epistemology. This attitude
was common in the later nineteenth century; even Neo-Kantianism saw its

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309

own foundations in the factum of the sciences. This attitude resulted in


philosophys exclusive concern for the elaboration of the a prioristic stmc-
tures and the conceptual framework of the empirical sciences. In our century,
it is well known that logic and methodology (the so-called philosophy of
science) no longer claim to continue the tradition of philosophy or to
mediate between it and the work of empirical investigation. In light of this
impasse, we must ask once more what the role of philosophy in this scien-
tific epoch is.
The absolutism of the idealistic tradition could not really fulfill the
expectation for a new foundation of the sciences in the framework of
philosophy. The last and most elaborate form of transcendental philos-
ophy, the phenomenology of Husserl, with its special intention of found-
ing and justifying every step in philosophy from the point of view of
transcendental self-consciousness, was an attempt (and I think a hopeless
one) to establish the relationship between theoretical construction and
its application to practical living. The authentic Husserl would have rejected
the contention (begun by Merleau-Ponty and carried on by many other
so-called phenomenologists who isolate that single dimension in the frame-
work of phenomenology connected with the very popular expression
life-world) that the life-world is a new foundation of phenomenology that
can be helpful for the social sciences. Husserl was much more radical in his
claim. Indeed, his own orientation toward transcendental phenomenology
with its foundation in the transcendental Ego provides the counterpart to
the modern criticism of the data of self-consciousness as the fundamentum
inconcussum of idealistic philosophy. The critique to which I refer started
with Neo-Hegelians like Marx and Schellingians like Kierkegaard and reached
its conceptual culmination with the radical criticism of Nietzsche.
A new concept of interpretation emerged with Nietzsches demand for
an orientation to the world which made the philosophical ideal of self-

consciousness unsatisfactory. Statements such as his well known, I do not


know moral appearances, I know only moral interpretations of appearances,
suggest that the critique of self-consciousness was initiated in the name of
interpretation. The innocent concept of interpretation that had been culti-
vated in the older tradition of the humanities and especially of philology
took on an absolutely new coloring from the claim that there is an unmasking
form of interpretation which goes beyond and behind the pretended self-
evidence of any content of self-consciousness. As a matter of fact, it was a
very degenerate form of idealism which naively believed that the contents
of our self-consciousness are absolutely valid in the sense of first data - a

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310

proposition with which a Descartes, a Kant or a Hegel would not really


agree. However, this new critique did not leave methodology and the
self-understanding of the historical and social sciences and even of philoso-
phy itself unscathed. The new dimensions opened up by this new sense of
interpretation were developed by Freud, by the critique of ideology and by
Heideggers critique of the naive concepts of subjectivity and objectivity.
These efforts all reflect the fact that our cultural self-understanding is
dominated by the one-sided concept of scientific procedure resulting in
unlimited technology. One may note that the ideal of the full mastery of
the tasks and problems of our civilization by science conceals an insoluble
contradiction between the role and function of the expert as the master of
a field of controllable, learnable and applicable scientific knowledge, on

the one hand, and the fact of his own membership in society, on the other.
This observation, however, is not a critique of science. Every scientist who
gives an account of the conditions of his own procedure knows the price
he pays in return for the certainty, controllability and solid advance of
his investigations. This price was paid with full consciousness by Galileo,
the first pioneer of this scientific approach. He was well aware that he gave
up the traditional task of knowing the substances and foundations of nature.
His mathematical project and its validation by experiment entailed the
limitation of the field of possible investigation in accordance with the
requirements of method. Consequently, the possibilities for truth in science
were determined by method.

ll. HERMENEUTICS, (LASSICAL PHILOSOPHY


AND MODERN SOCIL:TY

I entitled my own book Wahrheit und Methode I , not to challenge but only to
describe this problem. Those who think that this means that the problem
of method is not valid are mistaken. The importance of method consists in
the fact that by its own definition it investigates only by elaborating
questions which are accessible for mathematical abstraction and measurement
or its equivalents. If everyone would share this insight of any authentic

scientist, there would be no room for the widespread idolatry that presumes
that science alone should organize our life and culture. This situation, of
course, poses very complicated questions for our scientific and philosophical
efforts. We need to render an account of the conditions whereby possible
insights may be attained regarding truth in the social field. The recognition

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of the hermeneutical phenomenon by the social sciences on the one hand


and by philosophical reflection on the other are caught in a tension arising
from the hiatus I described a moment ago: the gap between membership
in society and the sovereignty of investigation. The social sciences realize
that the facts which they thematize are mediated to a large extent by
speech. Hence, the very basis of many investigatory works is ongoing
communication. (In this connection, I refer you to a very convincing article
by Charles Taylor in the Review of Metaphysics describing the inclusion of
the hermeneutical dimension in the foundations of social science 2.) But I
repeat that the ideal of a scientifically organized and controlled society is
not excluded by the recognition that there are hermeneutical dimensions -
processes of communication, of the exploration of opinions, of linguistic
impact - in our social investigations. This general recognition still does not
resolve the problem of the intrinsic partiality bound up with the idea of
methodical investigation as such. However, perhaps we can at least affirm
that this methodological insight acknowledges the fundamental solidarity
at the basis of any form of social life.
My own philosophical effort to give an account of the changed conditions
of philosophy took advantage of the realization of the dubious character of
the data of self-consciousness and insisted on the fact that any investigator is
a member of society, so that any understanding of and orientation to our

scientific and technical power needs to elucidate this reference to the in-
vestigators membership in society. My question was: Where can we find an
orientation, a philosophical justification, for a scientific and critical effort
which shares the modern ideal of method and yet which does not lose the
condition of solidarity with and justification of our practical living? In order
to work out an orientation which brings together both methodological access
to our world and the conditions of our social life, it was natural for me to
return to precedingphilosophical orientations and ultimately to the tradition
of the practical and political philosophy of Aristotle. The mechanics of
Galileo and its methodical implications were unfolded in the philosophy of
science by Carnap and Reichenbach and attained the most radical formu-
lation in the program of the movement for the unity of science. Nevertheless,
the onesidedness of this ideal of science is obvious to the extent that one
senses the richness and breadth of the humanities. To justify the procedure

proper to this broader field, we must re-enact Aristotles ideal of praktike


episteme; this ideal anticipated the crises in method of the modern humanities.
For Aristotle, praktike episteme does not share the pretense of the ideal
of science, i.e., of an approach to the world that eliminates uncontrollable

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and unobjectifiable factors. Aristotle developed an ideal of method which


corresponds to the special conditions of our practical knowledge. These
special conditions involve the understanding that members of society are
the only possible students of the rules and the constitutional elements of
social and political life. In the critical paragraphs of the Nicomachean Ethics,
Aristotle rejects tle ideal of a unified (or molar) method by insisting on the
special preconditions for theorizing on practical and political matters.
Aristotles description and formulation on the method of practical philosophy
acknowledges that morality and politics are not susceptible to a detached
theoretical interest, but presuppose education and maturity. He postulates
maturity because theorizing about practical and political obligation demands
a stabilized moral habituation or orientation which would prevent us from
forgetting the interconnection between generalities and the concrete and
binding situations of practical and political life.
In my owneyes, the great merit of Aristotle was that he anticipated the
impasse of scientific culture by his description of the structure of
our

practical reason as distinct from theoretical knowledge and technical skill.


By philosophical arguments he refuted the claim of the professional law-
makers whose function at that time corresponded to the role of the expert
in the modern scientific society. Of course, I do not mean to equate the
modern expert with the professional sophist. In his own field he is a faithful
and reliable investigator, and in general he is well aware of the particularity
of his methodical assumptions and realizes that the results of his investigation
have a limited relevance. Nevertheless, the problem of our society is that the
longing of the citizenry for orientation and normative patterns invests the
expert with an exaggerated authority. Modern society expects him to provide
a substitute for past moral and political orientations. Consequently, the

concept of praxis which was developed in the last two centuries is an awful
deformation of what practice really is. In all the debates of the last century
practice was understood as application of science to technical tasks. That is a
very inadequate notion. It degrades practical reason to technical control. In
fact, reason as guiding our practical behaviour is much more than technical
control. Praxis is not restricted to the special area of technical craftsmanship.
It is a universal form of human life which embraces, yet goes beyond, the
technical choice of the best means for a pre-given end. Aristotles concept of
prudence includes, as a matter of fact, the concrete determination of the end.
It is a misunderstanding to suppose that prudence is restricted to the
finding of the means. Prudence as practical deliberation upon and dis-
covery of concrete decision is both the finding of the means and the

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concretization of the ends. One must realize that insofar as science would
be able to orient our activities and our practical behaviour by recommending
the right means to a technical achievement - and in this sense ancient
craftmanship is homologous with what we call science - we would have
no problem concerning prudence at all. Then, the function of prudence
would consist only in coordinating the various techniques and in sub-
ordinating them to the highest interests of individual and social life. As
relevant as the application of science is in many fields of the social life, the
properly practical function of prudence is a very different one. It concerns
the making of responsible political and practical decisions about happiness,
health, peace, freedom and other stable factors of human-being-in-nature.
This reference to the model of practical insight and practical philosophy
does not mean to suggest that it would be easy or even possible to reintegrate
modern science into the field of practical wisdom. The analogy between the
ancient problematic and our present-day one, however, is quite valid since
skill, art and any form of controlled production had a certain autonomy
in the classical period as well. One of Platos key insights was that having the
power to produce something does not justify doing so. On the contrary, the
use of craftsmanship depends finally on the decisions of the consumer. This

relationship was formulated by Plato in the provocative statement that techne


does not include the insight into the good. Of course, that seems to be an
overly simple distinction. However, one should be fair. It was made by
classical political philosophy within a framework which understood the
ancient city to be representative of political organisation as such; and even
in the period of later antiquity the model of the ancient city was illusory
and had broken down. At any rate, it is obvious that we cannot limit our
own reflection to the classical period of ancient political philosophy. Of

course, we can learn from the genial Greek thinkers who penetrated their
own political problematic by philosophical reflection. Nevertheless, we must
be aware that our problematic is different.
In a scientific culture such as ours the fields of techne and art are much
more expanded. Thus the fields of mastering means to pre-given ends have

been rendered even more monological and controllable. The crucial change
is that practical wisdom can no longer be promoted by personal contact and
the mutual exchange of views among the citizens. Not only has craftsmanship
been replaced by industrial work; many forms of our daily life are technolo-
gically organized so that they no longer require personal decision. In modern
technological society public opinion itself has in a new and really decisive
way become the object of very complicated techniques - and this, I think,

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314

is the main problem facing our civilization. The real political activity of a
citizen has become more or less restricted to his participation in elections,
and exactly on this account the formation of public opinion has become
the central political task. In the old days it was the personal participation
of the citizens in the administrative work which controlled and neutralized
the impact of special interest groups and public affairs on the common
welfare. Today it is much more difficult to control and neutralize the
organisation of powerful economic interests. Even the opinions which form
the patterns of social life and constitute the normative conditions for
solidarity are today dominated to a great extent by the technical and econom-
ic organisations within our civilization. Immediate and natural interaction in
the ccurse of daily life is no longer the unique source and the dominant mode
for the elaboration of common convictions and normative ideas. That is
why the alienation of the common citizen trom public affairs is increasing
and why the reaction against this precarious disintegrative power, i.e., against
the establishment, is so strong. How can we learn to recover our natural
reason and our moral and political prudence? In other words, how can we

reintegrate the tremendous power of our technique within a well-balanced


order of the society and reconstitute a living solidarity?

III. HERMENEUTICS AND CRITICAL THEORY

It is the objection of a critical theory that by hermeneutical effort alone


we cannot restore authentic communication in a way that common sense (in
the deeper moral and political meaning of the term) would be able to re-estab-
lish the lost equilibrium of our technical civilization. This objection is the
focal point of our symposium: The suspicion that language as such is so
tremendously deformed that real communication is no longer going on. The
order of modern society is based upon a pattern of leading ideas promulgated
by tle interests of the ruling classes - ideas which the people can no longer
identify with in solidarity and through deep inner conviction. Critical theory
claims that the evolution of capitalism has culminated in the foundation by
science and technology of a closed system of social life, which suppresses any
spontaneity and precludes the identification of the person with public affairs.
This theory concludes that there is only one way to change and to reinstate
authentic communication, and that is by emancipatory reflection: a critical
process of self-illumination which is supposed to bring about a social dis-
course free from force.
I have raised objections against this basic notion of emancipatory reflec-

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tion. In my opinion there can be no communication and no reflection at all


without a prior basis of common agreement. In contrast, critical theory
suggests that there is no longer a common ground for people of different

political orientations, great is the degree of deformation of language


so

which alienates people. Therefore, agreement about such basic concepts as


humanism or democracy impossible. Critical theory asserts that these key
is
concepts of social life be restored only by a critical discourse that
can
unmasks the impact of interests - despotic, capitalistic, bureaucratic - on
the formation of common convictions. Such is the program of the critique
of ideology. However, is it a valid one?
My objection is that the critique of ideology overestimates the compe-
tence of reflection and reason. Inasmuch as it seeks to penetrate the masked
interests which infect public opinion, it implies its own freedom from any
ideology; and that means in turn that it enthrones its own norms and ideals
as self-evident and absolute. But insofar as speech and communication
are possible at all, agreement would seem to be possible as well. Nat-
urally that does not mean that agreement can be reached on the first
try. Communication always demands a continuing exchange of views and
statements. In any case, it presupposes that there are common convic-
tions one can discover and develop into a broader agreement. There-
fore, I cannot share the claims of critical theory that one can master the
impasse of our civilization by emancipatory reflection. One should, it is true,
be aware that there are always preconditions built into our social practice
and organisation that enable or hinder us in understanding one another. And
this is precisely the noble task of hermeneutics: to make expressly conscious
what separates us as well as what brings us together.
In this respect one should not, of course, neglect or overlook the power
of rhetoric. Rhetoric is not restricted to special institutions of our technical
civilization, to the political assembly or to its technical promulgation by the
mass media. Rather, it is an indispensable ferment of daily life and of the

forms of communication in general. Hence, the field of rhetoric is broader


than that of the sciences and technology. To be sure, scientific knowledge is
transmitted monologically. Yet, without the mediation of rhetoric between
science and all the complexities of our preconceptions, preferences and
common convictions, science could not be a determining factor of our social
and economic life. We cannot discuss the problems involved in the technical
character of modern rhetoric and its new functions arising from radio and
television. In any case, all the forms of rhetoric, the immediate as well as the
technically mediated, function as a moment in the monological scientific

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culture. Both rhetoric and the transmission of scientific knowledge are


monological in form; both need the counterbalance of hermeneutical
appropriation, which works in the form of dialogue. And precisely and
especially practical and political reason can only be realized and transmitted
dialogically. I think, then, that the chief task of philosophy is to justify
this way of reason and to defend practical and political reason against the
domination of technology based on science. That is the point of philosophical
hermeneutic. It corrects the peculiar falsehood of modern consciousness: the
idolatry of scientific method and of the anonymous authority of the sciences
and it vindicates again the noblest task of the citizen - decision-making
according to ones own responsibility - instead of conceding that task to the
expert. In this respect, hermeneutic philosophy is the heir of the older
tradition of practical philosophy.

NOTES

1
Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode. Gründzuge einer philosophische
Hermeneutik (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1960; 3rd ed., 1972). (English translation
forthcoming from Sheed & Ward, London.)
2
Charles Taylor, Interpretation and the Sciences of Man, The Review of Meta-
physics 25 (September, 1971), 3-51.

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