23 October 2011

A Little Riff on Hermeneutics

The Hermeneutic Circle
Hermeneutics is a process of interpretation. It is a translational, back-and-forth process between knower and known; between the self and the phenomena one is trying to understand. The more one knows of the external object (often a text of some sort), the more one can know of the self. The more one is able to fit the situated perspective of self – as the “I” who is interpreting the world in the here-and-now – into a contextualized historical perspective, the more one can envision the situated context of the writer of a text from the past. This iterative process is known as the hermeneutic circle, named for Hermes, the mythological messenger/interpreter of the gods.

The tradition of hermeneutic analysis extends far back into ancient philosophy. It is rooted in biblical philology. My focus here, however, is on modern hermeneutics through a non-theological lens. Thinkers one should consider in modern hermeneutics are, among others, Wilhelm Dilthey, the ontological turn of M. Heidegger, and the subsequent contributions of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jurgen Habermas, and Paul Ricoeur. To focus on these thinkers should not deny the influence of others in this tradition such as Spinoza, Weber, Marx, Husserl, Wittgenstein, Schleiermacher, Apel or others. To be sure, this blog post is a very limited sample. For more on these thinkers, one good source is the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Hans-Georg Gadamer
Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) challenged some of his predecessors’ basic concepts in the field. A basic challenge he made is to the thinking of Schleiermacher. Until Gadamer, to a large degree, Enlightenment-informed ideals held that an autonomous subject (read: scientist) could successfully remove him or her self from the entanglements of history or the subjective context of the present moment. This is the myth of objectivity, rooted in Cartesian (that is to say, from Descartes) philosophy. Humans can't be so objective, Gadamer maintained. To separate the individual from the context of the world is to deny the full scope of whom or what that individual is about.

In Philosophical Hermeneutics, Gadamer addressed the scope of hermeneutical reflection and the development of phenomenology, existential philosophy, and philosophical hermeneutics. He pushed away from the rationalist and positivist stance of the natural sciences to develop a humanist approach to science. This takes the observer into consideration as part of the whole, not as a separate entity removed from influence. Gadamer expands on the work of Heidegger along with other historical relationships between semantics, aesthetics, and the nature our use of language to establish the interplay of meaning and understanding in the hermeneutic circle.

Language, Gadamer suggests, is the fundamental mode of operation for our being-in-the-world. Though modern post-humanists would take issue with Gadamer’s elevation of language as the singular mode of operation/understanding among humans, it does play a fundamental role for most humans in the development of meaning and social relations. A person trying to understand a text is, Gadamer suggests:

prepared for it to tell him something. That is why a hermeneutically trained mind must be, from the start, sensitive to the text’s newness. But this kind of sensitivity involves neither ‘neutrality’ in the matter of the object nor the extinction of one’s self, but the conscious assimilation of one’s own fore-meaning and prejudices. The important thing is to be aware of one’s own bias, so that the text may present itself in all its newness and thus be able to assert its own truth against one’s own fore-meanings (1975, p. 238).

This passage aptly describes much of what qualitative textual analysis is about. To not simply bracket one’s own biases absolutely, which is ultimately impossible, but to aim for an interpretation with a high degree of critical reflexivity.
Jurgen Habermas

A critical approach to the field of hermeneutic interpretation, initiated by JurgenHabermas (1929 - ), took issue with claims made by both Dilthey and Gadamer (among others). One major critique Habermas had was that Gadamer too easily accepted authority and its traditions
. This is untenable, Habermas suggests, as language is itself dependent on social processes which are more than can be summarized by linguistic acuity alone. Invoking a critical stance, Habermas suggested that “language is also a medium of domination and social force. It serves to legitimate relations of organized power….language is also ideological” (Thompson, 1981, p. 82). 
As a dialectical social science, the critical hermeneutics of Habermas have attempted to balance the objectivity of historical processes with the motives of those forces acting within that process (Bleicher, 1980). In later works, Habermas would develop a version of the hermeneutic circle with his theory of communicative action.

If you've read this post to this point, congratulations! You're likely one of the few. It should go without saying that the above is but a very, very small slice of what hermeneutics or the philosophies of Gadamer or Habermas are about. A tasty morsel, perhaps, tempting your intellectual taste-buds, and leave you hungry for more. 


Bleicher, Josef. (1980). Contemporary Hermeneutics: Hermeneutics as method, philosophy and critique. Routledge & Kegen Paul, New York, NY.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. (1975). Hermeneutics and Social Science. Cultural Hermeneutics, 2(4).

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. (1976). Philosophical Hermeneutics. University of California Press, Ltd., London, England. 

Habermas, Jurgen. (1970). Zur Logik der Sozialwissenschaften (The Logic of the Social Sciences; originally, 1967) Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, Germany. 

Thompson, J.B. (1981). Critical Hermeneutics: A study in the thought of Paul Ricoeur and Jurgen Habermas. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY.

20 October 2011

Driftless Diggings

Foggy confluence of the Wisconsin & Mississippi Rivers
One region that has always been special to me surrounds the Upper Mississippi River through bits of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois. It's the Driftless Zone. Up, down and across its many coulees and ridge lines are many small towns, scenic views, and self-reliant folks. There are big city ex-pats, blue collar intellectuals, plenty of avid outdoor-enthusiasts, and plenty of rednecks to go around. It's a healthy dose of heartland America with little in the way of racial diversity but enough socially constructed differences to keep the Minnesotans and the Wisconsinites busy complaining about each other for decades. And let's not forget the FIBS Let's just not talk about the FIBS.

A blog I ran across through work today, Digging in the Driftless, highlights one family's efforts to carve out a little Driftlessness of their own. They work in the forest products sector and seem to have a nice creative vision. I look forward to checking in on their continued progress over time. Their love of 'place' is obvious and one I share.

Another blog that highlights the same area but from a culinary angle is Driftless Appetite. For anyone interested in the varied flavors wafting their way up and down the Great River Road (and points east and west), I recommend it.

As I come across other bloggers focused on this area I will highlight them as well. Feel free to make suggestions!

11 October 2011

A Call for "Sense of Place" Photography.

An artist out in California, Ilah Rose Cookston, recently put out a call for any photographs taken of ‘A Sense of Place.' This generic call exemplifies the conceptual looseness of this phrase, which I find alternately interesting and disconcerting. But I thought I would amplify the call by re-posting it here even though this is a new blog and, as far as I can tell, only about four people might read it.

The artist, who I do not know in any way (thanks Google Alerts!), is not interested in any particular quality of photograph. "Even blurry photographs are welcome," she writes.  The photographs might be used on her site.
If you send an image, include your name and a date for the photo.
Email to Ilah Rose Cookston:  ilahsart @ aol .com

08 October 2011

Where You're At Is Where You've Been

Place-identity was a brought up in the previous post and I'd like to expand on it here. As with identity in any context, it is a 'heterogeneous assemblage' of layers and flows. That is to say, the external 'one' that others see has multiple internal and subconscious influences and interactions going on. From cradle to grave, it is a process of change. In terms of the social-psychology of 'place,' it is often thought of, along with place-dependence, as a building block of place-attachment. The concept of place-identity represents the importance of physical surroundings in the ongoing construction of one's conscious (and unconscious) sense of self.

Research on place-identity suggests that our relationships with the environment are more complex than simply living in it. Proshansky, way back in 1978, suggested that place-identity adds an element of meaning and purpose to life by characterizing places as sources of personal identification and affiliation. 

It has also been suggested that all aspects of one's identity, more or less, have place-related associations
. One can think of 'place' as both social placement and in spatial geographic terms. As such, one’s social or personal identity grows through exposure to particular facets of a geographic area as well as the personal and social interactions occurring there.

The landscape of the external world, at least in part, is also reflected in the ever-changing neural landscape of the brain. French neuroscientist Catherine Malabou, in her 2008 book What Should We Do with Our Brain?, suggests that identity is dialectical in nature. This is to say, it has an element of 'plasticity' and is constantly 'becoming' through experience in the world and communication with others. 

I'm certainly no neuroscientist, but it makes sense to think of the formation and (re)formation of neural networks as informing the mind’s development through conceptions of self and sociocultural relations with the external world
. As a philosopher at the cutting edge of critical social theory, Malabou suggests the brain and, by extension, the mind, with its inherent and multiplicitous senses of self, are caught in tensions between constancy and creation. This affective sturm-und-drang at the edges of semantic availability are social construction in process. We are our synapses, Malabou suggests, and consciousness is nothing less than how the owner of “the movie-in-the-brain” emerges within the epic self-produced biopic of Life.

To look at it in another way; in our increasingly networked and 'virtual' society it may seem that we shrink into individualistic tele-cocoons with an influx of information increasingly sculpted to fit our preconceived beliefs and values. These cocoons might not be the solipsistic trappings of a leading role in the movie-in-the-brain, the droll romantic comedy of self, but the confluence of external yet highly personalized media networks.
Castells, in his 2009 book Communication Power, suggests just this. People, according to Castells, do not necessarily “withdraw into the isolation of virtual reality.” Instead, by using the modern wealth of communication networks, people selectively expand their sociability. Further, suggests Castells - a communications professor at UCLA, constructing a world in terms of projects and dispositions, people also modify that world according to the ongoing social, yet often highly mediated and sometimes virtual, construction of personal interests and values. In this way, identity development through such symbolic interaction occurs across many planes, in places both very real and hyper-mediated, from the immediate and embodied to the distanced and virtual by virtue of the Network Society.

Identity formation occurs between people as much as within the self and it is the result of contact with different people and places over time. Language then becomes the “force that binds people to places,” as Yi-Fu Tuan has written. Similar to Cantrill & Senecah’s development of the 'sense of self-in-place' construct;
Dixon & Durrheim suggest that it is through language that “everyday experiences of self-in-place form and mutate” and it is through language that “places themselves are imaginatively constituted” in ways that have repercussions for ‘who we are’ and/or ‘who we claim to be.’ Relocating place-identity from the “vault of the mind” and plunging it back into “the flux of human dialogue;” researchers Dixon & Durrheim suggest a discursive approach to studying place-identity. In this way, identity is something people create together through communication. In this sense it is a social construction rooted in connection with places and other beings associated with those places. Such identification can also become motivational when attempting to prod individuals toward environmentally protective behaviors in as much as when one identifies with a place, he or she is more likely to act in protective ways to help preserve that place.

05 October 2011

Home and the Art of Self Invention

Home has many connotations. Traditionally, of course, it is where the heart is. For some of us, it is also where the art is.  Increasingly, it is someplace between the real and the virtual, as tech writer Aleks Krotoski of The Guardian recently noted in her column Home: how the internet has changed our concept of what home is.

Her insights were brought about through a graduate course in Environmental Psychology. It is a broad field, as Krotoski suggests, and covers much in the way of how humans relate to nature. The research investigates ways in which our surroundings influence who we (think we) are and the places that we love. This is the conceptual territory of place-identity and place-attachment, respectively. These are affective things, that is to say, fluid and ever changing, these identities and attachments. They exist as moving targets, flows, and, in the main, exist in the psyche. As such they exemplify a degree of plasticity in our brains that is constantly folding over on itself and reestablishing a sense of self in place, as the communications scholar James Cantrill (at Northern Michigan U) might suggest.

For Krotoski, these notions became evident in a course that "sought to understand how spaces become places because of how they are laid out."  In this way, as a sub-field of what is also sometimes called ecopsychology, social science researchers spend a lot of time investigating, as Krotoski says, "how houses become homes because of the amount of ourselves we put into them."

We often define ourselves by what we see around us. We live in a certain neighborhood, a particular type of house, we decorate in a specific style (well, not all of us). But the labels that are used to define these surroundings often then are used to define the people who adopt them.  We use such labels to simplify the multiplicitous world: I'm a west-sider. He lives in an Arts & Craft bungalow. She uses a Victorian theme with a dash of Americana. This becomes how we label ourselves and our sense of self often dictates how we arrange the spaces and places around us. It is a pinwheel of sensation and evaluation, action and reaction.

As it is with our physical surroundings, so it has become for our online environments.

The web has inspired a postmodern understanding of what "home" is, suggests Krotoski. Though she writes of the UK, I believe this can be generalized to the US as well, among a growing demographic from Boomers through Millenials. This postmodern sensibility is "a de-physicalised, conceptual and psychological phenomenon that externalises its invisible meanings," Krotoski writes.  Well put.  We design homepages. We create online identities. These often reflect our corporeal selves but don't necessarily always match up. The virtual is a sculpted version of our true self, and maybe closer to the self we want to be. Maybe an indication of future intent.

We can be more or less of who we've been or who we want to be by just changing an image or telling a tall-tale online. It is a flux, a flow, of identity creation.  We are both hyper connected and more free than ever to self-evolve and perpetually recreate.The impacts of this are speculative and will be fascinating to watch evolve through the lens of social science research.