Mark Okrent, “Hermeneutics, transcendental philosophy and social science”, Inquiry (1984), pp. 23-49.

Summary: argues that neither transcendental or hermeneutic arguments (based on Heideggerian or Wittgensteinian premises) can be used successfully to show an impt or essential difference b/w natural and social science. It does this by examining arguments proposed by Winch and Dreyfus, showing how they are fallacious and misconstrue the import of the premises upon which they are based, and generalizing these objections to the transcendental and hermeneutic styles of argument in the field as such. (23) In contrast to these positions, he argues that there is a need to make distinctions between nature and spirit (i.e. that we can predict what will come out of someone’s mouth without knowing what they mean), the inability of fact to ground justification, the assertion that ‘meaning’ does not preclude human behaviour, and that no substantive factual, ontological, or methodological claims can be based on these distinctions.

  • the transcendental argument (e.g. Winch): based on the argument that one must distinguish two different types of questions in regard to man: on the one hand, it is possible to ask what specific qualities man has, or what particular predicates are true of human beings, or what indvl stimuli precede which indvl motions. On the other hand, one may ask not about particular characteristics of human beings, but rather about what it means to be a human being in general, or what web of concepts are used or must be used in describing and discussing human beings and their activities. This second type of question does not concern which specific things are true of human beings and their behaviour, it concerns what characteristics could be ascribed to persons, and what it would mean to ascribe a property to a person. The first group of questions is ontic, the second ontological – and the latter is prior to the former, but it is also pre-eminently philosophical rather than empirical. These issues are settled by a priori conceptual analysis rather than by empirical research.
    • As such, the methods or concepts of natural science are not applicable to the study of man. (23-24)
      • because there could be no knowledge w/o social rules or shared practices, human behaviour can only be known as following social rules or in terms of the shared practices of the person studied. That is, necessary conditions for the possibility of knowledge cannot be used as the premises for a deduction of a specific method which must be used to study human beings, a method which would be different from that used to study non-human objects. (33)
        • But to argue in this way is to confuse the conditions under which knowledge could be justified with ontologically or transcendentally necessary characteristics of objects known.
  • the hermeneutic argument (e.g. Dreyfus): based on a distinction b/w those investigations which use a method for the sake of developing an explanation and those discourses which interpret for the sake of developing an understanding. On this view, social science has as its aim the understanding of a variety of discourses which articulate a variety of worlds. Following early Heidegger, to understand something is to have that thing related in a particular way – the thing can be understood in that it stands in a context of purposes (i.e. a hammer is understood insofar as we see that it can be used to drive nails). Interpretation, for Heidegger, is the explication of such understanding, the explicit grasp of the object as a hammer. Language, on the other hand, is seen as the primary articulation of the general context of such purposes and possibilities, i.e. that which breaks up the totality of purposes into specifiable meanings and objects. As such, language provides the original interpretation of the world, where ‘world’ is understood as a related structure of purposes, uses, and possibilities, all oriented toward some possibility of human being, that for the sake of which everything in the world is as it is (as possibility for use). To understand the language of an other, then, is to situate the manner of organizing a world of purposes, projects, and possibilities, in short an understanding of an other, in the world of the investigator.
    • As such, the investigation is an investigation of the understanding and self-interpretation of the world of the other which is carried out for the sake of some purposes or possibility for being of the other, in the world of the investigator. (25)
      • For this position the social sciences are radically distinct from the sciences. Their ‘object’ (what is investigated) is understanding, not things, their aim is understanding, not explanation, and their method is hermeneutic, not empirical… Insofar as their objects are human beings and their activities, their aim must be hermeneutic understanding and not scientific explanation.
        • practical (viz. understandings within a community) rather than theoretical wholes allow for the possibility of understanding, and practical wholes are irreducible to theoretical wholes… The social sciences study human behaviour, not present-at-hand things, and as such the practical skills and understanding which grant the possibility of social scientific investigation are also characteristic of the object studied by that investigation, because the practice of social science itself is an example of human behaviour… Contrast this with natural science which is a practice for showing physical properties independently of their involvements in practical concerns (39, 41, 40.)

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