Philosophy & Social Criticism

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

The online version of this article can be found at:

Published by:

Additional services and information for Philosophy & Social Criticism can be found at:

Email Alerts:




>> Version of Record - Jan 1, 1975

What is This?

Downloaded from at Umea University Library on November 19, 2014

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. 2014 . In general. however. this theoretical work did not have much influence upon the practical organization of our society. particularly in the second half of our century. there was the development of theoretical eco- nomics and the first steps toward a thematization of society as burgerliche Gesellschaft. The basis of our social life in the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century had been sustained by the Christian tradition. the breakdown of these traditions . particularly with respect to the application of science to social life and politics. Certainly. one is forced to say that the influence of the former was extremely weak. However. When one compares the impact of both philoso- phy (notably British Empiricism and German Idealism) and the social sciences in the same epoch. the social sciences have been given a special challenge. the decisive first step in the modern age was the separation of the sciences Downloaded from psc. PHILOSOPHY AND SOCIAL S(’IEN(’E IN THE MODERN WORLD Let us. its secu- larization and the consequent secular formation of society. 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. 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.fostered a new desire and inner longing in our society to find in science a substitute for lost orientations .sagepub. Of course. While the serious scientist knows the restrictive conditions of his thematization of social appearances and givens. therefore. reflect a moment on the origin of this situation and on the heritage which informs the scientific approach to social life.caused by the two wars and the connected shift in the balance of power and the political equilibrium . by the middle of our century. 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 at Umea University Library on November 19. In our century. I.a very dangerous situation.

The Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences . These two disciplines as Hegel conceived them - the philosophy of nature and the philosophy of history . The result was a separation of moral philosophy from any empirical and anthropological foundations. the programmatic claims of the eighteenth century went beyond this self restnction.I think for the last time in our European Western culture . the first philosopher to reflect the new scientific procedure of Galileo and others. This attitude was common in the later nineteenth century. philosophy became a special discipline no longer legitimated as the exhaustive realization of our scientific world-orientation. Descartes was careful not to apply the methodical ideal of the new science to social and political fields. To be sure. 2014 . Even Kant’s practical philosophy reaffirmed the moral content of the Christian tradition. the actual life of mankind did not achieve the utopia of the theorists in the long run. As a result. philosophy must be restricted to the justification of the sciences and be confined to epistemology. However.308 from philosophy. formulated the principle of this new approach and me- diated it with the older tradition of metaphysics. even Neo-Kantianism saw its Downloaded from psc. In the eyes of the rigorous followers of scientific methodology. The successors of Kant attempted to transcend his critical orientation by trying . The claim is no longer made that empirical investigations can be subordinated to the rational a prioristic orientation of the philosophical tradition. one has to retain and leave untouched the older structures as long as the new structures are at Umea University Library on November 19. Accordingly. 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).sagepub. Descartes. as well as of the a prioristic philosophy of history (the conceptual penetration of developments within history as necessary).the syste- matic title of Hegel’s work .failed to over- come the challenge of the newly developing scientific and critical-historical investigations of the nineteenth 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. Nevertheless. His theory of provisional morality is well known: In times of new planning and constructing. Kant’s 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.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 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. 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. 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 . the phenomenology of Husserl. Husserl was much more radical in his claim. ’I do not know moral appearances. we must ask once more what the role of philosophy in this scien- tific epoch is. suggest that the critique of self-consciousness was initiated in the name of interpretation. Indeed. 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. In light of this impasse.a Downloaded from psc. This attitude resulted in philosophy’s exclusive concern for the elaboration of the a prioristic stmc- tures and the conceptual framework of the empirical sciences. 2014 . I know only moral interpretations of appearances’. 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.sagepub. 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. was an attempt (and I think a hopeless one) to establish the relationship between theoretical construction and its application to practical living. The absolutism of the idealistic tradition could not really fulfill the expectation for a new foundation of the sciences in the framework of philosophy. with its special intention of found- ing and justifying every step in philosophy from the point of view of transcendental self-consciousness. As a matter of fact. Statements such as his well known. The last and most elaborate form of transcendental philos- ophy. A new concept of interpretation emerged with Nietzsche’s demand for an orientation to the world which made the philosophical ideal of self- consciousness unsatisfactory. 309 own foundations in the factum of the at Umea University Library on November 19.

310 proposition with which a Descartes. If everyone would share this insight of any authentic scientist. not to challenge but only to describe this problem. on the other. The new dimensions opened up by this new sense of interpretation were developed by Freud. on the one hand.sagepub. The recognition Downloaded from psc. of course. His mathematical project and its validation by experiment entailed the limitation of the field of possible investigation in accordance with the requirements of method. ’ ll. He was well aware that he gave up the traditional task of knowing the substances and foundations of nature. a Kant or a Hegel would not really agree. 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. (’LASSIC’AL PHILOSOPHY AND MODERN SOC’IL:TY I entitled my own book Wahrheit und Methode I . 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. by the critique of ideology and by Heidegger’s critique of the naive concepts of subjectivity and objectivity. Those who think that this means that the problem of method is not valid are mistaken. This observation. However. the possibilities for truth in science were determined by method. This price was paid with full consciousness by Galileo. This situation. 2014 . learnable and applicable scientific knowledge. poses very complicated questions for our scientific and philosophical efforts. the first pioneer of this scientific approach. is not a critique of science. HERMENEUTICS. 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. this new critique did not leave methodology and the self-understanding of the historical and social sciences and even of philoso- phy itself unscathed. controllability and solid advance of his investigations. and the fact of his own membership in society. there would be no room for the widespread idolatry that presumes that science alone should organize our life and culture. however. at Umea University Library on November 19. Every scientist who gives an account of the conditions of his own procedure knows the price he pays in return for the certainty. We need to render an account of the conditions whereby possible insights may be attained regarding truth in the social field.

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. a philosophical justification. My question was: Where can we find an orientation. (In this connection.sagepub. 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. For Aristotle.e. at Umea University Library on November 19. of the exploration of opinions. i. of an approach to the world that eliminates uncontrollable Downloaded from psc. Hence. this ideal anticipated the crises in method of the modern humanities. 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. 311 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..) 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. However. praktike episteme does not share the pretense of the ideal of science. we must re-enact Aristotle’s ideal of praktike episteme. 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. so that any understanding of and orientation to our scientific and technical power needs to elucidate this reference to the in- vestigator’s membership in society. To justify the procedure proper to this broader field. This general recognition still does not resolve the problem of the intrinsic partiality bound up with the idea of methodical investigation as such. of linguistic impact .in our social investigations. perhaps we can at least affirm that this methodological insight acknowledges the fundamental solidarity at the basis of any form of 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 onesidedness of this ideal of science is obvious to the extent that one senses the richness and breadth of the ’humanities’. the very basis of many investigatory works is ongoing communication. The social sciences realize that the facts which they thematize are mediated to a large extent by speech. 2014 .

It is a universal form of human life which embraces. 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. Aristotle developed an ideal of method which corresponds to the special conditions of our practical knowledge. In the critical paragraphs of the Nicomachean Ethics. 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. reason as guiding our practical behaviour is much more than technical control.312 and unobjectifiable factors. In my owneyes. the concept of ’praxis’ which was developed in the last two centuries is an awful deformation of what practice really is. Modern society expects him to provide a substitute for past moral and political orientations. as a matter of fact. Nevertheless. It degrades practical reason to technical control. yet goes beyond. Praxis is not restricted to the special area of technical craftsmanship. but presuppose education and maturity. That is a very inadequate notion. Aristotle’s description and formulation on the method of practical philosophy acknowledges that morality and politics are not susceptible to a detached theoretical interest. the concrete determination of the end. In all the debates of the last century practice was understood as application of science to technical tasks. I do not mean to equate the modern expert with the professional sophist. the problem of our society is that the longing of the citizenry for orientation and normative patterns invests the expert with an exaggerated authority. 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 Downloaded from psc. the technical choice of the best means for a pre-given end. 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.sagepub. In fact. Of course. In his own field he is a faithful and reliable investigator. 2014 . 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. Consequently. Aristotle’s concept of prudence includes. 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. Aristotle rejects tle ideal of a unified (or molar) method by insisting on the special preconditions for theorizing on practical and political at Umea University Library on November 19.

com at Umea University Library on November 19.sagepub. I think. many forms of our daily life are technolo- gically organized so that they no longer require personal decision. However. however. 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. In a scientific culture such as ours the fields of techne and art are much more expanded. Of course. peace. the use of craftsmanship depends finally on the decisions of the consumer. we can learn from the genial Greek thinkers who penetrated their own political problematic by philosophical reflection. and even in the period of later antiquity the model of the ancient city was illusory and had broken down. health. Thus the fields of mastering means to pre-given ends have been rendered even more monological and controllable. 2014 . On the contrary. 313 concretization of the ends. Then. it is obvious that we cannot limit our own reflection to the classical period of ancient political philosophy. One of Plato’s key insights was that having the power to produce something does not justify doing so. This relationship was formulated by Plato in the provocative statement that techne does not include the insight into ’the good’. It concerns the making of responsible political and practical decisions about happiness. The analogy between the ancient problematic and our present-day one.and this. the properly ’practical’ function of prudence is a very different one. Of course. freedom and other stable factors of human-being-in-nature. art and any form of controlled production had a certain autonomy in the classical period as well. is quite valid since skill. 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 .we would have no problem concerning prudence at all. In modern technological society public opinion itself has in a new and really decisive way become the object of very complicated techniques . As relevant as the application of science is in many fields of the social life. we must be aware that our problematic is different. Not only has craftsmanship been replaced by industrial work. At any rate. Nevertheless. It was made by classical political philosophy within a framework which understood the ancient city to be representative of political organisation as such. Downloaded from psc.and in this sense ancient craftmanship is homologous with what we call science . that seems to be an overly simple distinction. The crucial change is that practical wisdom can no longer be promoted by personal contact and the mutual exchange of views among the citizens. 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. one should be fair.

e. 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. 2014 . I have raised objections against this basic notion of emancipatory reflec- Downloaded from psc. This theory concludes that there is only one way to change and to reinstate authentic communication. against the ’establishment’. 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. How can we learn to recover our natural reason and our moral and political prudence? In other words. 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.314 is the main problem facing our civilization. how can we reintegrate the tremendous power of our technique within a well-balanced order of the society and reconstitute a living solidarity? III. That is why the alienation of the common citizen trom public affairs is increasing and why the reaction against this precarious disintegrative power.. and exactly on this account the formation of public opinion has become the central political task.sagepub. 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. The real political activity of a citizen has become more or less restricted to his participation in elections. 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. i. which suppresses any spontaneity and precludes the identification of the person with public affairs. 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. The order of modern society is based upon a pattern of leading ideas promulgated by tle interests of the ruling classes . is so at Umea University Library on November 19. Today it is much more difficult to control and neutralize the organisation of powerful economic interests.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.

great is the degree of deformation of language so which alienates people. In my opinion there can be no communication and no reflection at all without a prior basis of common agreement. 2014 . scientific knowledge is transmitted monologically. agreement about such basic concepts as humanism or democracy impossible. it is at Umea University Library on November 19. 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 . In contrast. neglect or overlook the power of rhetoric. Communication always demands a continuing exchange of views and statements. function as a moment in the monological scientific Downloaded from psc. However. We cannot discuss the problems involved in the technical character of modern rhetoric and its new functions arising from radio and television. of course. Hence. There- fore. capitalistic. it is an indispensable ferment of daily life and of the forms of communication in general. But insofar as speech and communication are possible at all. Inasmuch as it seeks to penetrate the masked interests which infect public opinion. agreement would seem to be possible as well. And this is precisely the noble task of hermeneutics: to make expressly conscious what separates us as well as what brings us together. bureaucratic . science could not be a determining factor of our social and economic life. and that means in turn that it enthrones its own norms and ideals as self-evident and absolute. it presupposes that there are common convic- tions one can discover and develop into a broader agreement.sagepub. critical theory suggests that there is no longer a common ground for people of different political orientations. Rhetoric is not restricted to special institutions of our technical civilization. is it a valid one? My objection is that the critique of ideology overestimates the compe- tence of reflection and reason. In this respect one should not. Rather. Therefore. without the mediation of rhetoric between science and all the complexities of our preconceptions. Nat- urally that does not mean that agreement can be reached on the first try. the field of rhetoric is broader than that of the sciences and technology. Such is the program of the critique of ideology. it implies its own freedom from any ideology. To be sure. One should. preferences and common convictions. In any case. Yet. to the political assembly or to its technical promulgation by the mass media. be aware that there are always preconditions built into our social practice and organisation that enable or hinder us in understanding one another. I cannot share the claims of critical theory that one can master the impasse of our civilization by emancipatory reflection. the immediate as well as the technically mediated. all the forms of rhetoric.on the formation of common convictions. In any case. 315 tion.despotic.

In this respect. Wahrheit und Methode. ’Interpretation and the Sciences of Man’. 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.316 culture.B.instead of conceding that task to the expert. hermeneutic philosophy is the heir of the older tradition of practical philosophy. Gr&uuml. I think. The Review of Meta- physics 25 (September.sagepub. 3rd ed. Both rhetoric and the transmission of scientific knowledge are monological in at Umea University Library on November 19. 1960. (English translation forthcoming from Sheed & Ward. then. which works in the form of dialogue. London. That is the point of philosophical hermeneutic. 3-51. Downloaded from psc.ndzuge einer philosophische Hermeneutik (T&uuml. Mohr. 1972). 1971). And precisely and especially practical and political reason can only be realized and transmitted dialogically. both need the counterbalance of hermeneutical appropriation.C. 2014 .) 2 Charles Taylor. NOTES 1 Hans-Georg Gadamer..bingen: J. 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 one’s own responsibility .