Squaring the hermeneutic circle

Squaring the hermeneutic circle

Judith N. Shklar

PROFESSIONAL TREND-WATCHERS CANNOT HAVE FAILED TO NOTICE the appearance of a novel interpretive social science, and much must already have been written to introduce this literature to the public. There is bound to be more, but it is not my intention here to contribute to that enterprise. I do not propose to analyze or explain the emergence or progress of this intellectual development, nor to predict its future course. This essay is concerned first with the implications of an image that invariably turns up in the writings of the new interpreters, “the hermeneutic circle.” It will then go on to ask what, if anything, this notion contributes to our sociological understanding, and specifically what place it might have in a comprehensive theory of the “sciences of man,” a phrase that most usually refers to anthropology, history, sociology, and political science in their less formal and mathematical aspects. I shall try to do this in the most simple and everyday language, because, in spite of appearances, the issues at stake do not call for, and have not evoked, the kind of precision that alone can justify a resort to a specialized vocabulary. At first sight, my qualifications for this undertaking must seem poor at best. I am not, after all, either a philosopher of science or a practicing social scientist. I do, however, have a fair amount of experience in interpreting the classics of political theory, and hermeneutics, whatever else it may mean, is first and foremost a way of reading scriptures.


Hermes carried the messages of the gods, and hermeneutics is the art of reading them. The circle with a message, the hermeneutic circle, was a Neo-Platonic image designed to intimate the relation of an infinite, eternal, and omnipresent God to his creation, and it makes its most significant appearance in the late Middle Ages, never to leave our imaginative literature thereafter. God is a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. He is entirely in every part of this circle. Dante speaks of the poet’s soul moving toward God, who is the center and circumference of all. The human soul is like trembling water in a round vessel. In keeping with Neo-Platonic cosmology, God is an overflowing source of energy of both love and knowledge who recreates himself in ever-diminishing reproductions. This is the great chain of being, which is formed by concentric circles in a descending order of microcosms, each a replica of the macrocosm. It is thus that the human soul is a miniature of the divine center.

This lovely vision has undergone a vast number of transformations, without ever quite losing its original character. Post-Cartesian psychology used the circle to represent the passions of the soul which from our center animates the body and maintains all the parts of the human organism in harmony. The poetry of the circle stretches all the way from the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century to Rilke. And the most psychological of novelists have resorted to it. Flaubert thought of memory, especially at its most treacherous and illusory, as the center of the emotional circle. Henry James in turn spoke of our groping efforts to reach a shifting world of other people in its terms. These are but a few examples of the uses of the circle, and many more can be found in Georges Poulet’s excellent Les metamorphoses du cerde (1961). It does not, however, answer the question of what the circle is meant to do in the sciences of man today. It was transferred to this new intellectual territory by way of Protestant theology, which was from the first under considerable pressure to find an interpretation of the Bible that was independent of tradition. Protestants therefore built a system of biblical interpretation in which the circle has an obvious place. Every part of the divine scripture is related to every other and to the whole, as in a circle, of which the author, God, may be found.

This is how the hermeneutic circle came to Germany and was eventually adapted by Schleiermacher in his theological writings. Human faith, rather than a traditional deity, stood at the center, and the project was to encompass every form of knowledge within a single whole in a system by reference to that center. Schleiermacher’s biographer, Dilthey, picked up the phrase from him and even wrote an essay on the history of hermeneutics. The current popularity of the hermeneutic circle may be traced to Dilthey, whose name is in fact routinely invoked by interpretive social scientists. This practice is also due to his claim that the methods of the natural sciences and those of literary and social studies were inherently different. There is, however, no evidence that his works are much read, and Gadamer (1979: 103-106) has shown very convincingly that Dilthey’s writings really have no direct bearing on contemporary hermeneutics.

That does, however, leave the meaning and function of the circle rather up in the air. One would expect a group of theorists who claim to have made the interpretation of symbols their main business to show some interest in their own imagery, but that is not the case. As far as an outsider can judge, the hermeneutic circle is meant to signify the activities of interpreters whether they offer an addition to or a replacement for other ways of understanding the history of mankind. Interpretation is said characteristically to be the study of wholes in terms of their constituent parts, which are already identified by their places within that whole. It is a movement back and forth. Why there must be a center to this operational field is not clear. Is there only an interpreter at the center of his spiderweb, or is there an organizing and illuminating principle apart from him there at the core to be discovered? Nor is the circumference of the whole defined. The hermeneutic circle makes sense only if there is a known closed whole, which can be understood in terms of its own parts and which has as its core God, who is its anchor and creator. Only the Bible really meets these conditions. It is the only possibly wholly self-sufficient text.

Given these obvious, indeed self-evident, confusions created by the image of the circle, why do interpretive social theorists cling to it, as if it were some sort of talisman? It is, at best, an identity badge worn to mark them off from “mainstream” social science, from an abhorrent “positivism,” and from those who wish to adapt the methods of the natural sciences to the study of social phenomena and who do not believe that scientific inquiry constitutes an ethical disaster. The interpretivist response to the proposition that explanations in the social and natural sciences are at least similar ranges from claims that this is impossible or, worse, misguided, to a more moderate suggestion that it is insufficient. The impossibility argument rests on the peculiar assumption that unique events in the past cannot be explained in the same way as recurrent ones, and that in any case we are psychologically incapable of understanding anything beyond our own tradition. The accusation of mischief points to the failure or inability of the social sciences to rise above “brute fact” (they are always “brute,” never “simple”) and to deal with the “big questions,” such as the malaise of “Western Man” and the predicaments of “Twentieth Century Man,” marked by identity crises, despair, and cultural disintegration. The readers of “mainstream” political science, moreover, are being dangerously misled, to the point where it becomes impossible for them to understand their world or to react properly to its disruptive tendencies. A hermeneutic social understanding would, one must assume, replace and improve upon these defective current practices of social science.

This is not, to be sure, the only case for interpretive thinking. Far more persuasively, there are variations on Weber’s theme of “understanding” and the belief that something more than explanations of social conduct are required for a full social science. We want to understand what the groups we are looking at make of their own activities, and to relate their views to our own and others’ ways of thinking about the same subjects. The question here is, What is this extra step like? Emotional empathy has to be dismissed as too rare and too unreliable, but is its replacement, the analogy of reading a text, an improvement? In what respects, if any, is finding out about the natives’ moral ideas by listening to their conversations and looking at their art or at their games and rituals like reading a book? The metaphor may save the circle, but at the cost of all verisimilitude. It is certainly not implausible to say that an anthropologist is writing the natives’ story by matching what he finds out about their perceptions of their lives, and about their beliefs, against what he already knows of their history and institutions, and about these phenomena in general. It is he, however, who is the author, and it is he who walks the path back and forth between the knowledge he brings to the natives and what he gains from listening to them and their signals, as well as from translating their figurative language into his own. The two are brought together by him and he can, if he wishes, think of his native labors as pacing back and forth, but it is on a straight line, not a circle. There is no center, and above all there is no mystery in what he is up to.

There are indeed tremendous obstacles in figuring out what alien signs are meant to indicate; we have enough trouble understanding what is said to us by familiar people. To call every type of communication “reading” can only add to our confusion. It is by recognizing differences, and sorting out what we are told, that we can make sense of it. To treat critical reading of texts and rendering alien attitudes intelligible as similar operations is not likely to help us. There is, also, no reason to believe that making limited knowledge intelligible is a new form of comprehension. Historians have always done that. It ought indeed to be remembered that they have always concerned themselves with the “natives'” views (Geertz, 1979: 225-241). (1) It has been a familiar though difficult art known to all readers of Jakob Burckhardt’s Renaissance in Italy. To be sure, such interpretations, whether more or less complete, are dependent on prior explanations, and are not prescribed as substitutes for it.

There are, as I said, those who would substitute interpretations for explanations. One way of doing this in historical studies is to simply assume that historians must be concerned with the recovery of a tradition (the “a” is important, there is only one), which is a legacy left to us by our forefathers (Gadamer, 1979). We can as scholars, if we develop the proper habits and affinities, though to be sure each one in a different way, relate our contemporary conceptions to that tradition and be altered by it in the process. The purpose of this movement would be to strive for truth, presumably, but how is it to be found at the center of a circle? The tradition must be the rim, the historians the parts, and by an act of free faith they must have the hope for an irradiating truth at the core.

This version of the hermeneutic circle is explicitly modeled on Aristotle’s Ethics, where we are especially warned not to expect more certainty than the subject can offer. The reader is expected to bring to philosophy the habits of ethical living in a society. Otherwise, he could neither understand nor profit from an account of the rational ends that customs ought to serve. The aim of ethics is the pursuit of science for the few, and a life of just and virtuous political activity, ruling and being ruled, for the rest of the male citizens. There is no effort to pin down exactly what a natural justice would be. Like the center of the circle it is to be sought and taught, as it is interpreted in varying circumstances. This means, among other things, that just as a citizen can live a happy life of virtue only in his own city, so the historian can have an affinity for only his own tradition.

The question is clearly what is meant by tradition here. Can Gadamer himself understand Aristotle? How is ethnography possible? How could Halevy get the English right? How can Bullock do Hitler? Is the tradition all that timeless and unsituated? If it is not a social tradition, what is it? If it is the tradition of an ongoing discipline, such as social history, then why is interpretation in a privileged position among all the other approaches to the study of society? And finally, why would anyone choose to enlist Aristotle in an argument against explanation in social science? What greater attention could anyone pay to effective causality, to the “why” of political formations, than the author of the Politics? Consider only the explanation for the brittleness of oligarchies, which certainly amounts to a law of political science (1305b-1306b). It may well be that those who appeal to Aristotle in defense of a hermeneutical social science may be profoundly unfair to him. The art of taking apart wholes, such as cities, and then putting them together again, involved for him the most careful causal explanations, especially of the two most important members and their moral psychology. There are ample accounts of why democrats and oligarchs act as they normally do in the Politics.


The notion of history as the interpretation of a tradition or an ethos has at least one advantage. It tells us what a hermeneutical social study would, more or less, look like. It would limit itself, of necessity, to reading a single body of books that it would choose as constituting a tradition. These would through interpretation be made available to readers here and now. To write the history of past men and events, even with an insistence that each one is utterly unique, would be difficult from this hermeneutic stance, because without a thorough understanding of why the forefathers did what they did, the past that they have left for us to “read” cannot be interpreted. Only texts remain “open,” always, of course, subject to our present needs and styles. Nevertheless, within its limits, one can see what is being proposed. That is more than can be said of Charles Taylor’s effort to provide a hermeneutic alternative to “mainstream” American political science (Taylor, 1979: 25-71), by which he seems to mean mostly the work of Robert Dahl.

Taylor’s objection to political science is that, as long as it tries to model itself on the natural sciences, it will not be able to address itself to such burning issues as the identity crises of contemporary North Americans and Europeans and the endemic divisions that haunt pluralistic societies and make them seedbeds of despair. The absence of fundamental agreement does not trouble the political scientists as it ought. It is not something that can be explained or analyzed by their methods of observation and reliance on mere “brute” facts. What they should attend to is “intersubjective” meanings. No example of how one might discover an “intersubjective” meaning of political practices and beliefs is offered, but one can be sure that facts brutish or otherwise would not come into play.

For the “intersubjective” consciousness that waits to be revealed is not a shared, recognized, or openly common set of meanings, It has to be brought to light by the interpretive social scientist. The assumption is that there is a “substrate” beneath the overt practices and beliefs of those whom a political interpreter might choose to study. It may be a common tradition, religion, or language, but it is more than they can in their present conscious sense of their mutual differences understand. The task of social interpretation is to dispel this imputation of diversity and to show beyond any possible doubt that there is an “intersubjective” meaning that actually does in truth inform the practices of a society, even though none of its agents or social scientists seem to be aware of it. Indeed, it is because its members are blind to the meaning of their own political conduct and allegiances that fact-finders also miss it. People have not internalized the reality of the substrate, because they are caught in an atomizing ideology and misled by a political science that thinks that they mean what they say and do.

If this is reminiscent of the Marxist distinction between objective and subjective truths, and the menace of a “false consciousness,” it ought to be remembered that Taylor does not use that vocabulary but the metaphors of the hermeneutic circle. He would have us move back and forth from the substrate to the particular meanings until the latter were seen as parts of a whole. At the center stands presumably the interpreter, in some way in touch with the whole from the first, and as such authoritative. This is not just a matter, for example, of relating the practices of voting in Massachusetts to the whole history of representative government and the ends it has historically meant to achieve. There is more to hermeneutics than that in Taylor’s version. We are summoned to uncover the “intersubjective” meaning that voting has for us here and now by some form of consciousness-raising. If in consequence of this undertaking I find myself in disagreement with other interpreters, the difference can be settled by finding out which one of us understands the other and which one does not. How this is to be discovered, much less how the other can be expected to accept such a judgment, is not exactly clear. That there may be no substrate of meaning and that intellectual differences may be at many levels irreconcilable is a possibility not considered, but it would render this hermeneutical project impossible if it were allowed to become evident.

It is not merely that Taylor is confused in proposing that the hermeneutic circle should replace causal explanation in the social sciences, but that he also thinks of interpretation as a way of uncovering submerged mentalities. Consciousness-raising, in short, is to replace the mere effort to make sense of what we can describe. Common sense, the law, and, more recently, “speech act” analysis have never doubted that interpretation has a necessary part in many explanations. What an agent does and says cannot be understood apart from the context within which her conduct occurs. One need only imagine the many meanings of “There’s a fire,” said under varying circumstances, to realize that the meaning of what is said or done must first be interpreted as part of a “whole,” of a scene, to make it possible to understand the intentions of those whose social acts we are observing and then explaining.

This is not, however, what Taylor has in mind at all when he claims that interpretation must replace causal explanation. He does not just want to tell a static story, or to devise tableaux. He means something far less simple or naturalistic. He means, in fact, to dredge up a possible, but not yet existing, state of communal consciousness. It will be recognized in the course of the interpretive labors of the author, for they are at the very center of his circle. That circle is the intersubjective substrate that he has invented and which it is said we should read like a text. It is there and we have to learn to decode its meanings, both for ourselves and for the various members of a society or civilization whose beliefs and practices we share, whether we know it or not. The hidden is to be made manifest, recovered as it were by the interpreter.

How good is the analogy between reading a poem and writing social history? According to Paul Ricoeur, the two are virtually identical, but there is perhaps less to his account than meets the eye (1979: 73-101). To begin with, one has to accept what he means by reading. For while he appears to offer an analysis of reading in general, he is, in fact, presenting a recipe for how we should read, and does so without any argument in favor of his preferred practice. We are simply told that, first of all, a text, any text, is fixed, unalterable, and just obdurately there. In this it is wholly unlike a conversation, which moves in a shared environment. Second, the intentions of the author must be disregarded. They can have no significant bearing on the meaning of the text. The text is also not addressed to any specific audience, but is open to a universal range of readers. Most important of all, a text points only to its own content. It is about something, to be sure, but we cannot determine its implications by looking outside the text itself to either the author or to the context in which it was originally composed, or to subsequent interpretations. These “nonostensive references” are all irrelevant. Instead, we are summoned to feel free to make our own personal world out of the possible worlds presented by the text.

I do not believe that many people would choose to read Paradise Lost in this way, and I know that this is not the way one goes about interpreting the great works of political philosophy. The intentions of the authors are not a matter of indifference to a Marxist, or a Straussian, or an analytical historian of ideas. All would, moreover, pay close attention to certain circumstances external to the composition of the book. Class conflict, or the need to hide certain ideas and to deal prudently with the elites of the time, or the author’s place in the republic of letters of his time, are all candidates for interpretive attention. Nothing is more important than the references to specific events and to other authors in the text, since all of the author’s references are privileged information and also what we know about him from his contemporaries. All references are seen in his as well as our terms. Finally, relating parts to each other, and then to some idea of the whole work, is not a matter of guessing, as Ricoeur claims it is. There are severe, shared rules of common sense and of evidence, and the views of previous interpreters are also to be taken into account. In the end it is, of course, what it may mean to us that provides the motive and purpose for scholarship, but that is obvious and would give us no satisfaction unless we had rational grounds for believing that our reading was at least a plausible version of the author’s intention. If we did not think him a greater man than his readers, we would not undertake the labors of interpretation in the first place. The idea of making every reader the true author of the text has a nice anarchic ring to it, but it does not correspond to the experiences of the common or the scholarly reader.

Let us assume, however, for the sake of argument, that Ricoeur’s version of reading a text is credible. In what ways does it correspond to research in the social sciences? It must be noted that, although he begins by claiming that the resemblance is complete, he seems to end by withdrawing that proposal. At first it seems, however, that the resemblance between the two is very close. Social acts, the subject matter of social science, are like the sentences of a text: first, because they too are fixed and unalterable. They are essentially like “illocutions,” that is, sentences that constitute actions in themselves, like promises or warnings. Once uttered, they are “there,” completed givens. Second, social actions are also entirely divorced from the intentions of the agents who have performed them, as texts are independent of their authors’ purposes. This is so because we cannot control or even foresee the effects of our actions or “the force” of our “illocutions.” Once done, they acquire an existence all their own. The relative unpredictability of ultimate outcomes is here identified with the notion of social action as unrelated to the aims of the agent. The only illustration offered for this proposition is the notion that cultural superstructures are eventually independent of their origins in the substructure of the processes of material production. But how a speculative theory of social change can be regarded as an example of a social action is less than clear. Even more astonishing is the third claim that social acts must be understood apart from their contexts and general historical circumstances, just like texts. This view is particularly odd since every analysis of “illocutionary” acts stresses the conventions and contexts that govern their meaning (Skinner, 1972: 136-157). For a historian, moreover, it is very difficult to imagine social actions that are seen as neither interactions among people nor as responses to past events and expectations of future ones. Isolated and changeless, they seem to be anything but human conduct. To justify his belief that social acts, like texts, are to be understood apart from any context, Ricoeur makes the bizarre assertion that really “important” social acts have a life apart from their time and place. Since no illustration is offered for this at all, one must assume that what is meant here is that “important” events are memorable and are invoked for a great variety of purposes long after they take place. Why that makes their original context insignificant and disposable for a historian is, to put it simply, incomprehensible. To complete the analogy, finally, we are told that social acts are also open to all interpreters. If that means that there is no difference between a trained historian or an anthropologist and any member of the public, the statement is just not true. Social science is the work of people with quite well-defined intellectual skills. They do not in this respect resemble the readers of novels. So much for the analogy between reading a text and recording social acts.

What are we to make of the claim that this way of looking at social action, divorced from circumstances and processes, will overcome the fissure between interpretation and explanation? When we read a text, we do encapsulate sentences in a linguistic whole, so it must follow that social science encloses actions in a social whole. What, one asks, is the social whole in that case? How do we get back and forth between parts and wholes? As Ricoeur sees it, the whole can only be guessed at, and there are no rules for making right or wrong guesses. Happily it is not as random as one might think. There are ways of verifying whether the parts that are supposed to constitute the whole actually fit into it. If too many fail to fit, then the guess must be inadequate and another one attempted. This procedure is said to be a copy of those legal verifications in which extenuating circumstances are used to determine the exact legal character of an action. The object of such procedures in law is to settle the legal definition most applicable to an act, and it is at every step governed by known public rules. The causes of the action are part of its legal status, and there is very little guesswork about the whole that is called a legal system.

What this analogy does achieve, however, is to save the preeminence of the hermeneutic circle. It still stands fast as the movement between social acts and social wholes. The parts are rigid, the whole indeterminate, and sooner or later one can readily impose one’s own vision of the whole, a world as it were, on them. It is at this point admitted that causal explanation can play no part at all in this circle. In the end Ricoeur allows that he is not even trying to deal with the problem that Weber presented and that he set out, in some manner, to solve. The one and only example of a social science that he suggests as corresponding to his demands is Levi-Strauss’s reading of myths. That will not do, however, as a model for the analogy of text and social science in general, since myths are texts to begin with. As a philosophy of social science, it must be said that this is either the hope that any act of the imagination involving wholes and parts can pass for social science, or a conventionalism so uncritical and mindless that it cannot perceive that societies are not simply out there as legal systems are when they are frozen to serve the purposes of a purely analytical jurisprudence. A social science without change and context is not imaginable, and Ricoeur’s picture of decoding social action is at best a photograph of a pure idea. No history could conceivably be written on this plan, and in this case the hermeneutic circle seems to achieve nothing, not even as a reminder or as a symbol.

There is very little reason to suppose that either Taylor or Ricoeur has any serious understanding of the best works of social science. Readers of the literature that celebrates the hermeneutic circle might therefore be surprised to learn that interpretation is also regarded as an integral part of social understanding by “mainstream” social theorists. It is, to be sure, treated as an addition to, not as a rival of explanation. Far from being self-celebrating, moreover, social theory can be deeply aware of the complexities and limits of social knowledge, and to a degree that facile analogies to decoding cannot even begin to grasp. Nor is most social theory reductionist as so many hermeneuticists believe. Their complaint is that it is somehow morally diminishing to interpret religious, political, or intellectual conduct in terms of psychological or economic-historical categories of understanding. There is actually nothing obviously demeaning about having a fundamental emotional and economic life, nor are production and personality inferior to politics and religion. If one is, however, inclined to think that reduction does occur in these cases, then why would one choose to think of one’s fellow citizens as inert texts, fixed and given, even if there were to be any similarity between reading and studying their social conduct? It does not seem to me that even Taylor’s intersubjective meanings are to be found by quite so free an act of interpretation, though it is clear that, no less than Ricoeur, he expects both the text and the reader-author to be altered by the turn around the hermeneutic circle. “Mainstream” social science, as he says, is not like that, but one is at a loss to know what Ricoeur imagines it to be.

To argue that interpretation is not circular, and that it does not replace explanation in the social sciences, does not mean that it has no intellectual standing. Obviously, we do want to understand the beliefs and practices of the social agents whom we study, and this is certainly constitutive of what “mainstream” social science tries to achieve. Can one imagine, for example, a study of the legal profession that ignored the ideologies of bench and bar and did not relate them to the various political conflicts of the time? A serious history of any period would simply be incomplete if it did not elucidate the self-understanding of the various individuals and groups with which it dealt. Such an interpretive “fitting” would of necessity enhance the descriptions and explanations that would precede or accompany it. To see how that is to be achieved, however, requires a sympathetic approach to standard social science and an appreciation of the enormous part that causal explanation plays in social understanding. To really integrate interpretation into the methodology of the social sciences, in short, demands a far more careful account of what social scientists actually have tried to do than their hermeneutic critics at present offer.


There are, in fact, far more adequate theories than theirs, and one cannot do much better than turn, for example, to W. G. Runciman’s splendid A Treatise on Social Theory, vol. 1, The Methodology of the Social Sciences (1983). I propose to examine it at some length, not only because of its intrinsic merits, but also because it shows how irrelevant the hermeneutic anxiety about “brute” factualism is. It is a lucid work, written in simple English and amply illustrated by apposite examples drawn from the works of historians, anthropologists, and sociologists. The reader is treated with respect, since conflicting theories are presented fairly and accurately, so that one can judge for oneself. The stated purpose of the work is to provide a methodology that will demonstrate that explanations in the social and natural sciences follow the same rules. This may, however, not be the most illuminating aspect of the book, which presents a fairly complete phenomenology of the sociological understanding. What is so impressive here is Runciman’s account of the three steps involved in coming to a full understanding of social phenomena. They are reportage, explanation, and description. These terms may be somewhat idiosyncratic. Reportage refers to what most people think of as description, and what Runciman calls description turns out to be what is usually meant by interpretation. Given the literature of hermeneutics, one can well understand why he would avoid that terminology, and in any case one knows what he is talking about. It is more interesting to note that his tripartite methodology bears a real resemblance to Hegel’s scheme in the Phenomenology.

In the section on consciousness in the Phenomenology, Hegel tells the story of mankind’s pursuit of certainty. It begins with the undeniable but mute certainty of sense experience, which has to alter because of the need to classify that speech imposes upon us. The mind is, therefore, driven on to description, to grasping the properties of the objects of observation. The limits of description are quickly reached because differentiation inherently demands answers to the question of why these differences arose and how they are constituted. To analyze natural phenomena and to explain change, the task of science, follows. Hegel called it understanding. It embraces both natural science and Kantian idealism with its recognition that causality is a category of the knowing mind. From there one must move on to the self-generated question, “Why are we what we are as knowing beings?” The answer to that takes us out of the pursuit of certainty into the quest for truth, which is the self-consciousness of a complete retrospective knowledge of the pattern of our entire cultural ascent (Shklar, 1976:14-30 and the literature cited there). This, of course, is a far more ambitious vision of philosophical knowledge than would be entertained by any theory of social science today. Runciman’s phenomenology has only three successive steps, but within its smaller and far more defined sphere it is a study of the same kind, an account of the stages of social understanding.

The first step in sociological understanding, Runciman’s reportage, may well be the most difficult. Strictly, it is to be an account of a chosen phenomenon without explaining or describing it. (I shall stick to Runciman’s vocabulary to avoid confusion.) A strike is suggested as an example. First, it is clear that one must already know a great deal about social history, the labor force, the organization of production and ownership, to know what a strike is at all. Then there is the excessive flexibility of our vocabulary. An honest reporter must be very mindful of the impact of his statements and their implications within the context that will determine their bearing. It is not only that interpretations and evaluations can be slipped in all too easily, our normal vocabulary has too many words that refer to too many different historical phenomena. On Runciman’s own showing, neither “ownership” nor “revolution” can, for instance, be used uncontroversially. That is so at least in part because they cover too much social territory. The second and far more intractable difficulty is that there are bound to be conflicting taxonomies. What class of events a strike belongs to may be settled, but not whether a given armed struggle was a civil war, a revolution, or an intraelite coup. Here ideology is bound to rule, and it is not surprising that arguments about taxonomy are not easily resolved. Indeed, theories of classification themselves, such as Foucault’s, are subjects of the most extreme disagreement. What, finally, counts as a relevant boundary for reporting a set of occurrences? When does a strike begin, when is it over? Until the next one? Or must an adequate report cover both historical developments and concurrent events (diachronic and synchronic reportage)? These are by no means all the difficulties of reportage that Runciman discusses, and I can think of more, but they suffice to give a sense of just how very inadequate even the best survey research often is. It does not have to be so in principle, but there is no denying that telling the story right is not the easiest thing. The mutual accusations of hidden evaluations and inaccuracy that rival observers may hurl at each other may be more readily disposed of than the absence of a stable standard for classification, definition, and the setting of boundaries. Since, moreover, both explanation and description depend upon the neutrality of reporting, as well as upon its completeness, it can he said that all the uncertainties of social sciences are built into it at this, the very first stage of our understanding. In this respect I may be slightly more pessimistic than Runciman, even though I have not gone beyond his own argument.

With the reporting done, the question “Why did they do it?” or “Why did the strike happen there and then?” presents itself at the very boundary of the story. How easy it is to avoid explanations in reporting is not clear. Intentions and motives do their duty here, the first being constitutive of the conduct that is being reported, while the second must provide a great part of the explanation. If, however, a neutral and accurate report has been completed, which is possible, then explaining is comparatively less difficult. It begins with “because” and then goes on to test that hypothesis by eliminating all the conceivable counterfactuals. This is the equivalent of testing by controlled experimentation. If the alternative causes have been shown to be based on inadequate evidence or to entail other consequences than the actual events, then the suggested explanation stands. This is as true of unique occurrences as it is of recurrent phenomena. The cause of Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon was her inability to produce an heir. There is no argument about the fact that he did divorce her. It is a report that is as neutral as Clemenceau’s celebrated remark about the historical fact that the Belgians did not invade Germany in 1914. One can, however, impute other motives to Henry to explain his conduct, but these would turn out to be untenable counterfactuals. When we come to a broad social phenomenon, not a once-only event like Henry’s divorce, the pattern of explanation is the same. Why is there a rising rate of divorce in the United States? That it is so is not in dispute, again. The number of causes to explain the change will be very great, but it will still be a matter of eliminating counterfactuals, until only sufficient and necessary causes remain.

The trouble here is ignorance. In both cases social explanation is insuperably dependent upon psychology. Unless we really know what the motives of social agents are, we cannot get it perfectly right. That does not mean that psychology is all one has to know. It is group, not individual conduct and change, that is at stake, but there is no answer to the question “Why?” without a scientifically adequate psychology. Nothing of that order is now available, as Runciman well knows. We do not even have an idea what such a psychology might look like. If we did, I daresay, he would be out there working on it and I also would not be writing this article. If reportage is flawed by partiality, explanation suffers from something worse: enormous ignorance. In principle, that is not unavoidable, but it would be unfair to readers to hold out a too-promising prospect.

Compared to this dispiriting state of affairs, the conflicts engendered by explanations seem trivial. They are either no greater than is to be expected among rival researchers engaged in a common enterprise, or they are expressions of moral dissent. The latter usually amounts to the charge that, because explanations do not urge a specific course of action upon the reader and avoid overt evaluation, they are wicked and insidiously misleading. They lull the reader into believing that whatever is explained must be thus and has to be passively accepted as the only possible state of society. By not being with a party of action one is covertly against it. There is no way of countering this conspiratorial and Manichaean view of sociology, and the accusation that this sort of “positivism” is a disease of our century will have to be endured by most social scientists. It is not particularly onerous, and one owes it to one’s readers to believe that they can take care of their convictions themselves.

It might be said that I have presented a theory of explanation that would suit historians but not the other social sciences. There is in fact nothing here that would preclude a functionalist explanation, as long as it did not bracket the origins of a given social state completely. If the latter is plausibly presented there is nothing irrational with a naturalistic teleology that explains the parts of a social system in terms of equilibrium and disequilibrium. It does, however, come as close as a genuine explanation can come to an interpretation or, as Runciman would call it, a description. This is for him as for Clifford Geertz the art of looking at matters “from the native’s point of view.” What do all those involved in a strike think that their conduct means? What is the worldview, ideology, or belief system that each participant in this whole conflict brings to the scene, and how does it fit into what the social scientist knows about it? The decay of the labor movement in Ruritania, its old and corrupt leadership, the incompetence of management, the decline of markets for its out-of-date industries, and much else is known to her, and must be in place for a description to take place at all.

For it is at this point that it is important to emphasize that social science goes well beyond the common sense of a given place and time. We simply know a great deal more about the economics of inflation than did the Spaniards of the sixteenth century. A sociologist similarly knows more about strikes than do those who are involved in them or most other citizens. His knowledge would, however, be very incomplete without an understanding of the perceptions of the agents and the belief systems that inform them. Again, the difficulties are immense. One cannot ask all the questions in one’s intellectual repertory. Selection and choices of emphasis are required, and it is easy to make errors of judgment in these. Runciman lists the major failures under two headings, misapprehension and mystification. The first comes from a refusal to listen carefully and is relatively easily eliminated. It is mystification that haunts us. We meet it as suppression, exaggeration, ethnocentricity, derogation, and hagiography. In all these cases an unstated evaluation poses as interpretation, and it is unfair to the subject no less than to the reader. It is the flaw of every hermeneutic circle because each one assumes some teleology or some external or hidden social purpose and slips it into the interpretive moment of understanding. There is no need for any circle here. The interpretation adds to and flows from the explanation.

If there is to be evaluation, it is discretionary. Runciman thinks that social scientists should declare whether the phenomena they have brought to full understanding are a “good thing” or not. This might, I suppose, lessen the temptation to slip in evaluations prematurely, but it is a chancy proposition. It is very likely to color at once every reader’s response to a study if too much is made of evaluation. If it really is unavoidable, one might as well get it over with as briefly, as honestly, and as early as possible, but I think we should quit when we have completed our interpretation. Interpretations are not unlike medical diagnoses; they suggest, but do not compel therapies. In the social sciences, however, the division of intellectual labor is quite different, and I think that evaluation implies social action. That is to be left to the instructed reader, better only in being less ignorant than before.


Even with the help of Runciman’s remarkable book, I have obviously not dealt with a great many other problems inherent in the sciences of man or even their efforts to interpret their findings. The picture is grim enough, but there is one difficulty that I must still discuss at least briefly, since it agitates both “mainstream” social scientists and their hermeneutic critics, though scarcely in the same way. That is the vexed question of the similarity between the natural and the social sciences. One way not to go about answering that question is to say that there is no difference and then attempt to prove it by comparing the alleged inadequacies of the social sciences to those in some of the natural ones. The outcome of this unfortunate ploy is something like this. The social sciences offer generalizations that are uncertain, but then so does embryology, They cannot conduct controlled experiments, but then neither can astronomy or geology. Are there no predictions? Meteorology cannot succeed there either. Mechanics, finally, comes up with limited generalizations, as do the social sciences. And if social science cannot create a technology, that is true of many other sciences as well, which are nevertheless all bona fide natural sciences (see, e.g., Nagel, 1961: 447-502). In short, the social sciences suffer from every weakness of all the natural sciences combined, when this score is added up. As a defense of their scientific validity, it is less than successful. Yet this is not a caricature. It is a very common form of argument in favor of identifying the natural and the social sciences. It does nothing to clarify the real character of sociological understanding, which may well be naturalistic but not share all the characteristics of the sciences of nature.

Since it does not really help social scientists to understand themselves, why bother with comparisons to the natural sciences? To be sure, the natural sciences enjoy more prestige, recruit the finest minds, generate cures and marvelous technologies, and ensure their own intellectual progress. This naturally is bound to give rise to a fair amount of envy, especially in a university setting. But that is not the real cause for concern on the part of social scientists. What bothers them is the certainty of scientific knowledge and the level of agreement among qualified researchers. This, far more than the difficulty of framing general laws or predicting future social events, has always seemed an unbridgeable difference. Even the recent recognition that the natural sciences are also subject to the vicissitudes of social historicity can give comfort only to the naive, because it does nothing to alter the intellectual gap between the two kinds of science here and now.

The question one might therefore ask is why is agreement so important? Why should it matter so much? Is disagreement such an intellectual weakness? Is it really a disaster that there are likely to be rival understandings of the same phenomena? It is not easy to imagine that reportage will reach unanimity in the social sciences. There is, to be sure, enough general acceptance of factual information to make a reliable body of historical writing possible. Norway did not invade Germany in 1940, we may recall with relief. Nevertheless, there will be plenty of differences in reportage, and since explanation is built on it there can be no reconciliation at that stage. It is, perhaps, the case that there is a common acceptance of what a good explanation should look like among all “mainstream” social scientists, but at the margins there are ideological doubts of some considerable depth. And these burst forth fully when we come to interpretation. That is why the hermeneutic circle seems so attractive, for it promises to achieve a community of understanding and a degree of agreement that other interpreters cannot possibly offer. An interpretation that seeks to uncover an intersubjective substrate or text of which the subjects of investigation are not aware is not only trying to get them to recognize their hidden unities of belief, it is first of all meant to reveal the necessary agreement among interpreters who are willing to enclose themselves within the hermeneutic circle and its ends. That, evidently, is not the aim of what Runciman calls describing, and it is a procedure that is not likely to yield agreement. Choosing the representative subjects for inquiry, and then interpreting their social, religious, and moral belief system, is too indeterminate to convince those who have made different choices. Who, moreover, cannot be accused of mystification by a hostile critic? Between an authoritative act of consciousness-raising and an interpretation that simply relates two areas of understanding, there can really be no compromise. The former aspires to change the readers until they cohere, which would be the cost of agreement in the sciences of man at present. Under these circumstances a rational social scientist might well learn to relax and to enjoy the rich diversity and uncertainty that mark his calling in general and interpretations especially.


(1.) This splendid reconstruction of the philosophical views of members of three different and very remote societies does honor to the author’s skills as an ethnographer but has no discernible theoretical relation, in spite of his avowals, to textual hermeneutics.


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Nagel, Ernest. The Structure of Science. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1961.

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Ricoeur, Paul. “The Model of the Text: Meaningful Action Considered as a Text.” Interpretive Social Science. Eds. Paul Rabinow and William M. Sullivan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

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