Naturalistic Hermeneutics

Naturalistic Hermeneutics

by C. Mantzavinos

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There is no fundamental methodological difference between the natural sciences on the one hand and the social sciences and humanities on the other, argues Mantzavinos (economics and philosophy, Witten Herdecke U., Germany). He arrays critical and constructive arguments to back his claim. For the first, he presents a set of arguments against the accentuation of the… See more details below


There is no fundamental methodological difference between the natural sciences on the one hand and the social sciences and humanities on the other, argues Mantzavinos (economics and philosophy, Witten Herdecke U., Germany). He arrays critical and constructive arguments to back his claim. For the first, he presents a set of arguments against the accentuation of the problematic of meaning, both in a strong form assigning meaning to all facts in the world, and in a weak form assigning causality to nature and meaning to society. For the second, he proposes a way of dealing with the problematic of meaning based on methodological naturalism. The German version has yet to be published. Annotation ©2005 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR

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"Since the Second World War,German hermeneutic philosophy has achieved great influence, not only in Europe, but also in Anglo-Saxon countries. Mantzavinos has subject this tradition to an in-depth and sweeping critique, and, beyond that, developed a naturalistic hermeneutics, which is capable of adequately solving problems of meaning. This book is the most important new contribution to the analysis of these problems that I have read thus far. It is indispensable for any seminar on the problems of hermeneutics." Hans Albert, Heidelberg

"I took pleaure in Mantzavinos' approach to Dilthey, Heidegger and Gadamer: he contrasts what they promise with what they deliver. This paves the way for the constructive part of the book, where the hypothetico-deductive method is applied to explain action and interpret texts. A convincing case is thereby made for the book's main conclusion: that although there are many differences between the social sciences, the humanities and the natural sciences, they all share the use of a method that was first employed in the natural sciences. Hence the titl: Naturalistic Hermeneutics." Dagfinn Follesdal, Oslo and Stanford

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Naturalistic Hermeneutics
Cambridge University Press
0521848121 - Naturalistic Hermeneutics - by C. Mantzavinos




The Claim to Autonomy of the Human Sciences

A Critique of Wilhelm Dilthey's
Hermeneutic Conception


Contemporary discussions about philosophical hermeneutics are largely inspired by the conception of Wilhelm Dilthey, who is viewed as the founder of philosophical hermeneutics. Although more recent research2 has convincingly shown that general hermeneutics was systematically developed much earlier, as hermeneutica universalis - above all in the work of Georg Friedrich Meier (1718-7)3 - Dilthey's work remains the source of information and, in part, of legitimation for contemporary hermeneutic reflections.4

Dilthey's goal was to work out the philosophical foundations of the human sciences, and to do so historically and systematically. His plan was to write six books, which would be divided into two volumes. This remained a torso, because Dilthey published only the first volume, entitled Introduction to the Human Sciences (1883).5 This volume contains above all a historical account, which was to set the stage for the epistemological foundation planned for the other volume.6 Nevertheless, the first two books of the introduction also contain systematic thoughts; besides, already in Dilthey's lifetime, his systematic work, The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences (1910), was published, which according to the publisher, Groethuysen, was to be integrated into the second volume of the planned introduction to the human sciences (GS Ⅶ, Ⅸ). These two books, which were published by Dilthey himself, as well as his famous article "The Rise of Hermeneutics" (1900)7 and a few other smaller works, will serve as the foundation for my discussion of his hermeneutic conception.

Dilthey attempted to show that the human sciences comprise an independent whole alongside the natural sciences. Human sciences are understood as "all the disciplines that have socio-historical reality as their subject matter" (GS Ⅰ, 4/SW Ⅰ, 56). Dilthey diagnosed a dualism between the 'realm of nature' and the 'realm of history' and postulated the incommensurability of the mental order with the order of nature on the basis of the facts of the unity of consciousness and the spontaneity of will, which can only be found in the mental order. Correspondingly, it is impossible to extract mental facts from the mechanical order of nature. For Dilthey, the 'content' of the human sciences is "the socio-historical reality insofar as that reality has been preserved in human consciousness as historical information and has been made accessible to scientific study as information about society extending beyond its current state" (GS Ⅰ, 24/SW Ⅰ, 76).

If the irreducible 'mental facts' of the socio-historical reality are defined as the epistemological object of the human sciences, then the question of the possibility of analyzing them arises. What does access to mental facts look like? Dilthey suggests proceeding in two steps. In the first step, psychology should deliver an analysis of life units, that is, the psychophysical individuals, which are the elements of which society and history are made. On the basis of this analysis, the 'enduring formations,' which are the objects of social research, are then to be examined. Dilthey views both the 'cultural systems' and the different types of the 'external organization of society' as among the enduring formations. "The facts which constitute the cultural systems can be studied only by means of the facts recognized by psychological analysis. The concepts and propositions which form the basis of our knowledge of these systems are dependent on the concepts and propositions developed by psychology" (GS Ⅰ, 46/SW Ⅰ, 96). Something similar applies to second-order facts, which constitute the external organization of society, such as the family, the state, the church, associations, and so forth.

It should be emphasized that in his discussion of this two-step procedure for analyzing the 'lasting forms' of socio-historical reality, Dilthey appears to approach very closely a consistent methodological individualism. Methodological individualism is well known as the meta-theoretical postulate8 according to which all social phenomena must be explained through the situations, dispositions, and presuppositions of individuals9 - or, expressed differently, that the social reality is to be explained by the interplay between individual actions under different conditions.10 As we shall see later, Dilthey challenges, in principle, the possibility of explaining social phenomena and proposes another way of dealing with social formations, the soundness of which is still to be examined. Nevertheless, Dilthey repeatedly argues that in an analysis of the social formations or of the external organization of society, one should never lose track of the individual. He notes, for example: "The family is the womb of all human order, of all group-life. [...] Nevertheless, this unity - the world's most concentrated form of volitional unity binding individuals - is only relative. The individuals that are joined together in it are not completely absorbed in it; the individual is ultimately for and by himself " (GS Ⅰ, 74/SW Ⅰ, 123). This methodological individualism, however, is not to be confused with an ontological individualism - that is, with the thesis that in social reality only individuals exist - and Dilthey does not appear to hold this view. Thus he maintains: "[T]he sciences of the cultural systems and of the external organization of society are related to anthropology primarily through physical and psychophysical phenomena which I have designated as second-order facts. The analysis of these phenomena, which are produced by the interactions of individuals in society and are in no way fully reducible to anthropological facts, determines to a significant extent the theoretical rigor of the particular human sciences which they underlie" (GS Ⅰ, 11/SW Ⅰ, 163; emphasis added).

The psychological foundation of the human sciences, joined with methodological individualism, could lead the reader to expect Dilthey's conception to be a program that operates with nomological hypotheses. However, Dilthey intends to do something else. On the one hand, he does indeed mark himself off from the philosophy of history by emphasizing that the particular human sciences are capable of producing "real theories" because they are based on the analytic method and they are related to reality, that is, they have an empirical orientation. On the other hand, he doubts that laws are possible in the human sciences. To defend this, he introduces a distinction between explanative and descriptive psychology. If a social scientific program that wants to operate with nomological hypotheses is based on an explanatory, natural scientific psychology, then the alternative proposed by Dilthey - of descriptive psychology as the fundamental science - can never lead to nomological knowledge in the human sciences.11 But even if the goal is not to produce nomological hypotheses, the descriptive psychology will inextricably lead to a dead end.

This special type of psychology is not concerned with regularities in the order of psychic processes, but with regularities in the sense of a psychic structure. It is concerned with the pattern according to which psychic facts are regularly connected with one another by an inner, experienceable relation, and the regularity consists in the relation of parts to a whole (GS Ⅶ, 15/SW Ⅲ, 35f.). Dilthey's descriptive psychology is concerned with inner experience (Anz 1982, 67), which attempts to grasp psychic facts together with their structure. This apprehension of mental states "arises from the lived experience (Erlebnis) and remains linked to it. In the lived experience (Erlebnis), the processes of the entire mind work together. It is endowed with a nexus, while the senses only present a manifold of particular data. The individual operation is brought to lived experience (Erlebnis) by the totality of inner life, and the nexus through which it is related with the entire inner life belongs to immediate experience" (GS Ⅴ, 172/trans. D. A.).

Now, it is possible to raise numerous objections to this type of psychology, which employs the concept of lived experience (Erlebnis) as an inclusive term for all mental states. Above all, the common objection is that this must be more precisely specified.12 Besides, the fundamental question remains unanswered concerning "how we can have knowledge of the states of other people's minds" (Scholz 2001, 76). A descriptive psychology that concentrates on the first-person perspective cannot offer access to the experiences of other persons, regardless of what is meant by experience.13 Besides, as soon as a regularity of any kind can be identified - in this case the "regularity consisting in the relation of parts to a whole" - it is always possible to grasp it with a nomological hypothesis. A hypothesis is nomological by virtue of the form of the sentence in which it is formulated, not its content, so a regularity of the kind Dilthey is analyzing could easily be nomologically apprehended.

Perhaps because of the immanent difficulties of this conception, there is less and less discussion of the psychological foundation of the human sciences in his later works. In fact, it is fully plausible to maintain that Dilthey changed his view. Lived experience (Erlebnis) remains the foundational category, but the human sciences are no longer concerned with the methodological knowledge of psychic processes, "but with re-experiencing, with understanding them. In this sense hermeneutics would then be the real foundation of the human sciences" (Groethuysen, GS Ⅶ, Ⅶ/trans. D. A.). If the young Dilthey is characterized by the search for an Archimedean point for knowledge, which he believes he has found in the certainty of the lived experience, the mature Dilthey attempts to give a hermeneutical underpinning to the human sciences, which would definitively establish their autonomy.


In his well-known article "The Rise of Hermeneutics" (1900), where Dilthey deals with "the problem of the scientific knowledge of individuals and indeed the main forms of human existence in general," he asks: "Is such knowledge possible, and what means are at our disposal to attain it?" (GS Ⅴ, 317/SW Ⅳ, 235). Thus the question arises about the objectivity and the general validity of knowledge of the states of other minds. Distancing himself from his earlier opinions, Dilthey ascertains that inner experience is not enough to secure an objective view of other persons (GS Ⅴ, 318/SW Ⅳ, 235). He thus proposes a specific process for achieving such knowledge, namely, understanding. "[T]he existence of other people is given us at first only from the outside, in facts available to sense, that is, in gestures, sounds, and actions. Only through a process of re-creation of that which is available to the senses do we complete this inner experience. Everything - material, structure, the most individual traits of such a completion - must be carried over from our own sense of life. Thus the problem is: How can one quite individually structured consciousness bring an alien individuality of a completely different type to objective knowledge through such re-creation? What kind of process is this, in appearance so different from the other modes of conceptual knowledge? Understanding is what we call this process by which an inside is conferred on a complex of external sensory signs" (GS Ⅴ, 318/Ⅳ, 236).

It must immediately be emphasized that Dilthey characterizes understanding, ambivalently, as a 'process.' To a certain extent, this ambivalence is constitutive of the entire discussion on understanding, and, indeed, in Dilthey and many modern proponents of hermeneutics. On the one hand, with understanding a type of knowledge is meant, which is oriented toward certain signs and symbols. Understanding thus appears to be a subcategory or a subclass of knowing. On the other hand, understanding appears to be a method, and in fact the method proper for the human sciences, which among other things is supposed to legitimize the claim to the autonomy of those sciences. Now, it would be desirable for clarity in the discussion if this process - the understanding - were interpreted either as a type of knowledge or as a method. Unfortunately, Dilthey does not do this, although it must be immediately pointed out that his discussion of this process is less confusing and less mystical than that of Gadamer and Heidegger. Nonetheless, it remains ambivalent.

So, on the one hand, understanding is brought into connection with lived experience (Erlebnis) and expression: "Thus thought receives a definite function in relation to life. In its tranquil flow, life constantly produces all sorts of realities. Many of its remnants are deposited on the banks of our little ego" (GS Ⅶ, 6f./SW Ⅲ, 27). Lived experiences are thus formed and brought to expression. "The givens [...] are always manifestations of life. They appear in the world of the senses, but express something spiritual, which they make it possible for us to cognize" (GS Ⅶ, 205/SW Ⅲ, 226). These manifestations of life, which draw from the source of life, encompass everything mental: texts as well as individual human actions and all sorts of 'objectifications of life.' The process of understanding consists in mentally grasping these texts, these human actions, and these objectifications of life, that is, in knowing. Understanding appears to be nothing more than a specific type of knowledge, namely, the perception of specific objects, which is available in principle to every person, not only to the social scientist. Thus, in the discussion of the elementary forms of understanding, Dilthey sketches out an operation that can be characterized as a fully normal, if not banal, sociopsychological communicative process. "Understanding comes about, first of all, through the interests of practical life where persons rely on interchange and communication. They must make themselves understandable to each other. One person must know what the other wants. This is how the elementary forms of understanding originate" (GS Ⅶ, 207/SW Ⅲ, 228).

On the other hand, Dilthey repeatedly speaks of understanding as 'transposition' (hineinversetzen), 're-creating' (nachbilden), and 're-experiencing' (nacherleben) (GS Ⅶ, 213ff./SW Ⅲ, 234ff.) and interprets it as "the fundamental procedure for all further operations of the human sciences" (GS Ⅴ, 333/SW Ⅳ, 252). The impression thus arises that understanding ought to be a method, and, in fact, the specific method for the human sciences. What does this method look like in concreto, and what is its logical status? "The fundamental relationship on which the process of elementary understanding depends is that of an expression to what is expressed in it. Elementary understanding is not an inference from an effect to a cause. Nor must we conceive it more cautiously as a procedure that goes back from a given effect to some part of the nexus of life that made the effect possible" (GS Ⅶ, 207f./SW Ⅲ, 228f.). It is thus clear that understanding is proposed as an alternative to explanation. Unfortunately, one searches in vain for a concrete specification of the logical status of this method. Besides a few poetic phrases, such as "Understanding is a rediscovery of the I in the Thou" (GS Ⅶ, 191/SW Ⅲ, 213), it is only stated that understanding is not supposed to be a logical operation: "There is something irrational in all understanding, just as life itself is irrational; it cannot be represented in a logical formula" (GS Ⅶ, 218/SW Ⅲ, 239). The question arises then: What kind of method is it supposed to be exactly?

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