From Epistemology to Hermeneutics (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature)

Hermeneutics is what follows from the demise of epistemology; it is the ‘expression of hope’ that the space left by its demise will not be filled and that our culture ‘should become one in which the demand for constraint and confrontation is no longer felt’ (315). Whilst epistemology proceeds on the assumption that all contributions in any given discourse are commensurable, hermeneutics struggles against commensurability. By commensurable, Rorty means ‘able to be brought under a set of rules which will tell us how rational agreement can be reached on what would settle the issue on every point where statements seem to conflict’ (316), in other words, the construction of an ideal situation. Outstanding disagreements are characterised as “noncognitive”, temporarily unsolved but ultimately to be resolved by doing something further.
Thus, in epistemology, to be rational is to be able to find agreement with other human beings and ‘to construct an epistemology is to find the maximum amount of common ground with others. The assumption that such an epistemology can be constructed is the assumption that such common ground exists’ (316). As such, the suggestion that there is no common ground seems to threaten rationality itself, a license for ‘everyone to construct his own little whole – his own little paradigm, his own little practice, his own little language-game – and then crawl into it’ (317). And if there are as many wholes as there are individuals, how are we to adjudicate in the war of all against all? To this question, philosophy steps up in two different guises, namely as the ‘informed dilettante, the polypragmatic, Socratic intermediary between various discourses’ and ‘the cultural overseer who knows everyone’s common ground – the Platonic philospher-king who knows what everybody else is really doing whether they know it or not, because he knows about the ultimate context’ (317).
The holist line of argument attracts the charge of circularity because is maintains that we are never able to avoid the “hermeneutic circle”, that is, we are never able to understand the parts of a foreign culture, practice, theory or language unless we know something about the whole, but we cannot grasp how the whole works until we understand something of its parts (319). Knowledge acquisition comes through conversation with other people, revisability is at its core, rather than a fit between a statement and some non-linguistic piece of reality. Coherentism, trust between conversational partners, is key to ensuring that the conversation is able to continue for if there is no consensus between what constitutes a true statement from the outset then each person will continue to simply search for what fits with their own structure of beliefs.
Rather than viewing disagreements – incommensurability – as evidence of the “noncognitive”, we would do better to follow epistemological behaviourism and construe the distinction as merely that between “normal” and “abnormal” discourse. “Normal” discourse is conducted within ‘an agreed-upon set of conventions about what counts as a relevant contribution, what counts as answering a question, what counts as having a good argument for that answer or a good criticism of it’ (320), whilst “abnormal” discourse occurs “when someone joins in the discourse who is ignorant of these conventions or who sets them aside” (320). Thus, Rorty claims that the difference between epistemology and hermeneutics is one of ‘familiarity’ rather than a matter of difference between fact and value: ‘We will be epistemological where we understand perfectly well what is happening but want to codify it in order to extend, or strengthen, or teach, or “ground” it. We must be hermeneutical where we do not understand what is happening but are honest enough to admit it, rather than being blatantly “Whiggish” about it’ (321). We can get rid of the notion of “data and interpretation” by being behaviourist in epistemology rather than by being idealist for ‘hermeneutics does not need a new epistemological paradigm, any more than liberal political thought requires a new paradigm of sovereignty. Hermeneutics, rather, is what we get when we are no longer epistemological’ (325).
Rhetoric about the importance of the distinction between science and religion, science and politics, science and art, science as philosophy and so on, ‘has formed the culture of Europe’ over the past three hundred years (331). Slavish adherence to ‘shopworn mirror-metaphors’ (333) does us no good in keeping alive the value of for instance Galileo’s scientific discoveries; this picture is the cause of our viewing notions like “rationality” as floating free from their educational or institutional contexts. Instead, ‘we can just say that Galileo was creating the notion of “scientific values” as he went along…the question of whether he was “rational” in doing so is out of place’ (331).
There are two meanings of objective at play in this traditional image, the first characterising the view which would be agreed upon as a result of argument ‘undeflected by irrelevant considerations’ and the second as representing the way that things really are. Plato sees the question of objectivity as: “in what sense is Goodness out there waiting to be represented accurately as a result of rational argument on moral questions”. The idealists and pragmatists see the question of objectivity as: “In just what sense were there physical features of reality capable of being represented accurately only by differential equations, or tensors, before people thought of so representing them”. The problem that metaphysics, as the attempt to find out what one can be objective about, comes up against is one of showing the similarities or otherwise of topics as disparate as morality, mathematics, and language. Moreover, it is unclear what would even count as a satisfactory argument within metaphysics.
Under hermeneutics, ‘the application of such honorific’s as “objective” and “cognitive” is never anything more than an expression of the presence of, or the hope for, agreement among inquirers’ (335). It is not another way of knowing, as understanding rather than explanation, but a way of coping. It enables us to give the notion of “cognitive” to predictive science and to stop worrying about the “noncognitive”. Finally, it makes the fight over the notion of knowledge itself seem quite quaint to the Kantian tradition of philosophy as a theory of knowledge and the Platonic tradition which sees action not based on knowledge of the truth of propositions as “irrational” (356).

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