frontier expansion


Taylor describes how the science of interpretation grounding hermeneutical science under a three-part rubric:

There are, to remind ourselves, three characteristics that the object of a science of interpretation has: it must have sense or coherence; this must be distinguishable from its expression; and this sense must be for a subject.

The “hermeneutic cycle” begins when an interpreter is misunderstood. An attempt to gain clarity by explaining context begets the need to explain further context ad infinitum. In defining this hermeneutical science, it becomes easy to encounter recursive cycles of meaning-seeking that loop through these three characteristics to interpret a text.

Logical empiricists sought to break out of this cycle by establishing an ideal of verification that grounded a hermeneutic process in the acquisition of brute empirical data to build the foundations for interpretative processes. For logical empiricists, a theory not grounded in brute empirical data was unverifiable and therefore, invalid. Taylor then uses inconsistencies in the assumptions behind meanings and the embeddedness of these assumptions inside of the empiricism of Political Science to methodically chisel away at the logical empiricists’ claims about brute data and its contribution to verifiability.

Taylor asserts that:

We have to admit that inter-subjective social reality has to be partly defined in terms of meanings; that meanings as subjective are not just causal interaction with a social reality made up of brute data, but that as inter-subjective they are constitutive of this reality.

In other words, meaning, the building block of interpretation, can’t be the result of brute data observed within “objective reality” since meaning itself is bounded and constructed through the actions of people in a society. Though we are losing the ability to “predict” social science outcomes by letting go of the logical empiricists’ processes, by embedding our hermeneutic science with an awareness of this “inter-subjective social reality” we are more at liberty to interpret the world as we see it unfold. Though we lose the predictive ability of the natural sciences, we gain a historical context, which according to Taylor, is a better way to study the science of man.

Taylor concludes:

Thus, in the sciences of man in so far as they are hermeneutical there can be a valid response to ‘I don’t understand’ which takes the form, not only ‘develop your intuitions’, but more radically ‘change yourself’. This puts an end to any aspiration to a value-free or ‘ideology-free’ science of man. A study of the science of man is inseparable from an examination of the options between which men must choose.

In short, by releasing the yoke of brute empirical data, social scientists are better able to study and interpret their reality and possibly gain the insight to do so with other realities.


Tully asserts the importance of centrality of Wittgenstein for understanding critical public philosophy and spends considerable time debunking Habermas’ justificational/validational and Taylor’s interpretative/hermeneutic forms of critical reflection by highlighting their inherent conservatism despite their radical criticism. According to Tully, Habermas and Taylor are but two of many examples that take for granted the assumption “that the only free and rational way of thought and action is one governed by a canonical type of critical reflection.”

Tully’s debunking processes constitute the bulk of this article and the selected passages all come from the last section of the article since it is here that Tully synthesizes the Wittgenstein’s implications towards critical reflection. I particularly enjoy the ancient city metaphor used to describe language games:

Our language games of critical reflection, like our language as a whole, ‘can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses’. The contemporary and historical study of these practices of critical reflection in Western and non-Western societies might be called a ‘genealogy of the critical attitude’.

The implication of this ancient, ever changing language-landscape is that knowledge, interpretation, and critical thinking processes are inherently situated within this place and that regardless of the fancy structure we create to criticize and reflect upon an issue, we are doing so by building on an existing foundation of language games.

As such:

By disengaging from the debate and engaging in this practice of reflecting on two well-known language games of critical reflection, we have come to understand that no type of critical reflection can play the mythical role of founding patriarch of our political life presumed of it in the debate, because any practice of critical reflection is itself already founded in the popular sovereignty of our multiplicity of humdrum ways of acting with words. This conclusion, far from leading to uncritical acceptance of the status quo, enables us to realise that submission to one regime of critical reflection, as the alleged self-certifying guarantor of our freedom, would itself mark the end of our free and critical life.

In short, by committing to parsing language through a singular lens of critical reflection, we are walling ourselves inside the structure of its particular language game and preventing ourselves from enacting its very purpose, that of practicing “a free and critical life.” Tully suggests instead that we ground our critical reflections within Wittgenstein’s truly subversive philosophical critical practice that is inherently distrustful of language and forces us to constantly question the very structures language itself creates. Keeping this in mind is crucial to practicing an unbounded, truly critically insightful comparative social science. Therefore, Tully pithily concludes that:

However, since it is ‘our forms of language’ themselves which lead us into the sorts of misunderstandings we surveyed in this chapter, it always will be necessary to bring along Wittgenstein’s distinctive philosophical practice of critical reflection to test our use and abuse of these languages of critical reflection. For philosophy as Wittgenstein practiced is just this critical attitude – ‘a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language’.


Gadamer argues for clearer hermeneutics of historical thinking. He begins by asserting the problem embedded in within historical objectivism:

In our understanding, which we imagine is so innocent because its results seem so self-evident, the other presents itself so much in terms of our own selves that there is no longer a question of self and other. In relying on its critical method, historical objectivism conceals the fact that historical consciousness is itself situated in the web of historical effects.

The objective view of history subsumes the interpreter’s context at the expense of a stronger truth; by removing the subject from the interpretative process historical objectivism behaves like “statistics, which are such an excellent means of propaganda because they let the ‘facts’ speak and hence simulate an objectivity that in reality depends on the legitimacy of the questions asked.”

In approaching a hermeneutic of historical thinking, Gadamer suggests that it’s useful to know our “horizons” of knowledge and those of the historical texts we are interpreting to gain a more insightful meaning. By “horizons” Gadamer means that the “finite present” is bounded by limitations which frame all forms of knowledge. As such:

If we fail to transpose ourselves into the historical horizon from which the traditionary text speaks, we will misunderstand the significance of what it has to say to us… …when someone thinks historically, he comes to understand the meaning of what has been handed down without necessarily agreeing with it or seeing himself in it.

Understanding, interpretation, and application form the classical basis of hermeneutical thinking and Gadamer suggests that these three processes are inseparable and occur simultaneously in our contemporary understanding of the interpretative process. The applicability of interpretation being inherent to the hermeneutic process reinforces the importance of the agent in realizing the interpretation. Regarding its application to historical thinking, Gadamer states that:

Our thesis is that historical hermeneutics too has a task of application to perform, because it too serves applicable meaning, in that it explicitly and consciously bridges the temporal distance that separates the interpreter from the text and overcomes the alienation of meaning that the text has undergone.

In terms of social science, Gadamer’s thesis dovetails nicely into Taylor’s assertion of the science of man as an inherently historical process. By framing the importance of the agent of interpretation in resolving the “alienation of meaning” texts undergo, Gadamer encourages the exploration of the various subjectivities that intersect when one studies a text. The polysemic nature of this understanding thus supports Tully’s commitment to Wittgenstein’s critical attitude towards understanding and language.

On a purely observational note, the Gadamer text has the best explanation for “hermeneutics” since it grounds the term within its mythological roots by stating how “the interpreter of the divine will who can interpret the oracle’s language is the original model” of this very process. Something about the etymological webs of association this explanation suggests made the term click for me.

Lastly, and tangentially relevant this analysis is engaging further in the etymological language game and being slightly disappointed that “hermeneutic” and “mercurial” are two very similar words that mean very different things.

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