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Interpretivism and Rationality


Cultural relativism was originally tied to the methodological

approach of Franz Boas, one of the fathers of modern
anthropology. He emphasized that for the anthropologist to
arrive at a proper understanding of an object of study behaviours, mythologies, rituals, beliefs etc., - in any given
village or tribe1 , the object in question must be considered in
relation with its local and cultural context. Parts should be
examined carefully in their connection to the whole in which
they figure. This is perhaps not what we associate with cultural
relativism today. The word has become somewhat of a
slanderous term, now frequently applied to criticise social
scientists advocating nuanced accounts with a proposed
liberal agenda, as their means to legislate practices
otherwise thought appalling.2 The one is a methodological
approach to the study of cultures, the other a moral-ideological
approach to cultural and epistemological questions where it
may be thought that anything goes. That the normative
version has its origin in the methodological is apparent, but it
should be made equally apparent that the one cannot be
effectively deduced from the other. It is my present concern to
1 Be it hikers in Bergen, or Amerindians of the rainforest in Peru.

2 See Geertz Anti-Anti-Relativism for a polemic.

do just this. In that regard I will first present interpretivism as

an approach to the study of cultures which may be seen as a
development of Franz Boas. Here, I will primarily concern
myself with Clifford Geertz and Charles Taylor and explicate the
notions of thick description and hermeneutic circle respectively.
I will exemplify the approach as descriptive by recourse to a
discussion of rationality in Lukes (1967) and so called
translation manuals as discussed by Davidson, Quine and
developed by Henderson (1988). This should in turn make
render the question of relativism Finally I will distinguish
epistemological and moral relativism from the hermeneutic
holism characteristic of interpretivist approaches, and
regarding both the former cases propose that ideas antithetic
to them may developed from the latter, so that there is no
necessary commitment on behalf of the interpretivist as such to
either epistemological or moral relativist positions.


I will deal here with the framework of interpretation theory.

Little (1991), writes that this holds that a radical difference
exists between natural and social sciences with respect to their
objects of study: The natural sciences deals with objective
causal processes, while social sciences are concerned with
meaningful actions and practices. Whereby the former is
characterizable in terms of objective descriptions and
explanation, the latter require interpretation and
understanding. I will first explicate interpretivism in terms of
the notion of a hermeneutic circle, elucidating the concepts of

meaning and understanding, and thus informed, second,

reappreciate the distinction Little alludes to by a discussion of
intersubjective meanings and brute data. This will set the
stage for an appropriate discussion of rationality in the next
Interpretivism and the Hermeneutic Circle
Charles Taylor in Interpretation and the Sciences of Man
(1971) offers a systematic presentation the interpretivist
framework. He describes interpretation as the procedure of
clarifying an object of study. In this regard the object of study
will characteristically be a text or a text analogue 3, which
stands in need of clarification, meaning that it is somehow
unintelligible, contradictory, or obfuscated prior to the
interpretation, and what the interpretation consists in is trying
to uncover the underlying coherence (p.3). Considering this,
Taylor identifies three conditions a science that is to be
hermeneutic4 must meet. 1. The object, or field of object, of
study must be such that we can speak in terms of coherence,
or its absence. I take it that the term coherence here is to be
understood as delimiting sense and nonsense, so that
seemingly incoherent texts is something belonging to the yet to
be made sense of. This highlights a connection between
meaning and a set of relationships of some sort. Taylor employs
3 Any phenomena on which interpretation can be employed can be conceived as
a text. Text is henceforth to be understood in a wide sense.

4 Hermeneutic refers to the method or principle of interpretation.

the terms of coherence and sense interchangeably. Clarification

thus proceeds by uncovering the underlying coherence in a
text, explicating and rendering it intelligible through study. 2. A
distinction is made between the sense and its expression,
between the coherence made and its embodiment in a
particular field of carriers or signifiers. (p.3). This deals with
the possibility of clarification, for if the sense of a text could not
be extracted from the text itself, that is, re-presented in a
different set of signs, then it would be intrinsically bound to its
exact expression such that we couldnt in principle conceive of
making sense of it outside the text. Interpretation then would
be ruled out. There are problems here forcing Taylor to conceive
of this distinction as relative: Exact equivalence of meaning is
difficult, if not impossible to achieve, depending on the text, so
that we may not declare the re-expression of meaning identical.
He contends, however, that this doesnt imply that the
interpretive project of trying to clarify meanings cannot be
made sense of, and though I will not pursue this further, I
believe this has intuitive force5. 3. The notion of expression
refers us to that of a subject. In Clifford Geertz (1973) words,
interpretation consists in trying to rescue the said of the
discourse from its occasions and fix it in perusable terms
(p.11). This makes interpretation intimately wedded to the
subject(s) who make up the discourse, in that it attempts to
make explicit the meanings expressed (the said) by, or for, a
subject or subjects. Taylor identifies this point as involving
5 Take the instance of a poem for example. It seems trivial that I am able to talk
about the poem and its meaning apart from reciting it.

contentious difficulties pointing to a prevailing

epistemological prejudice which may blind us to the object of
our study (p.5). This point ties to the discussion of rationality
in the next section, and I will return to discuss what he means
in detail.
We have seen that a science of interpretation deals with an
object of study which is characterized by sense or coherence,
distinguishable from its expression, involving subjects.
Intimately related to this is the idea of the hermeneutical circle
which is central to the interpretivist project. Having
characterized the objects of interpretivist science, we may
continue and ask after the criteria for judgment, that is, what
characterizes a successful interpretation? In accordance with
the above it is an interpretation which adequately clarifies an
otherwise cloudy text, clearing the mist from the meaning, but
how to judge whether the interpretation is correct? Here,
understanding enters the centre of the scene:
what is strange, mystifying, puzzling, contradictory, is no
longer so, is accounted for. The interpretation appeals
throughout to our understanding of the language of
expression, which understanding allows us to see that this
expression is puzzling, that it is in contradiction to that other,
etc., and that these difficulties are cleared up when the
meaning is expressed in a new way. (Taylor 1971 p.5)
This appeal may seem unsatisfactory, what if someone doesnt
agree with our interpretation, doesnt see what we see, how
then to decide? The only option open to us seems to show

through further readings of other expressions why the

expression in question must be read according to our proposal,
yet our interlocutor must then agree to follow us further in
agreement with these other readings, and so on, and so on. We
attempt to ascertain our interpretation of a given text by
appeal to further readings, but ultimately then, there is nothing
we can do but to appeal to our common understanding of the
language involved. This is the hermeneutical circle at play.
Taylor puts it further in terms of part-whole relations:
We want to try to establish a reading of the whole of a text,
and appeal to readings of its partial expressions; and yet
because we are dealing with meaning, with making sense,
where expressions only make sense or not in relation to others,
the readings of partial expressions depend on those of others,
and ultimately of the whole. (Taylor 1971 p.6)
Take the meaning of the word regret as an example. It is a
word for a feeling, but it refers to an event, something
regrettable, and the disposition of regretting; a way to deal,
for instance by revelling in guilt with sunken shoulders, or to
the contrary, in the realization of a lesson learned spurring selfgrowth and a moving forward in both melancholy and
confidence. In order to identify the feeling of regret it must be
capable of both referring to the situation, as to the dispositions
in which we cope with it. But the situation in turn, can only be
grasped by relation to the feeling it provokes. Furthermore,
regret wouldnt be regret without being related to other
concepts of guilt, sadness, responsibility and self-affirmation,
without the relation to the whole of meanings in which it

figures. In order to fully understand the feeling of regret as we

do it seems we must be already within our circle of
interpretation, a circle of part-whole interconnections which at
the same time is that between word and event, word and
activity, word and word. Similarly, we can experience what it is
to be on the outside of the circle when we encounter another
civilization, with a way of life and a pattern of interactions and
activity different from ours. Here it is not a matter of
translation, of exchanging better concepts, but we have to get
somehow into their way of life, if, only in imagination. (ibid
Here, successful interpretation seems to hinge on getting the
interpreter somehow in to another way of life. To be taken up in
a previously strange or confusing flow of discourse and
gradually by participation coming to a better understanding of
it, so as to acquire an increasing acuity of vision of a reality
characterized in terms of meaning. For Clifford Geertz, an
interpretive anthropologist, this involves taking the actors point
of view, giving what he calls thick descriptions, which
contrary to thin descriptions situates an agent as a thinking
reflective organism operating intentionally in a cultural context
(1971).6 Geertz goes on taking great care to point out the
various difficulties and dangers associated with providing thick
6 Geertz paraphrases Gilbert Ryles discussion of a wink. On a thin description a wink would simply
the rapid contracting of the eyelids at a location L on a time T, perhaps accompanied by further
thin descriptions of the preceding and proceeding events. As such it would be indistinguishable
from a twitch of the eye. A thick description however brings it out that the winker is
communicating, and indeed communicating in a quite precise and special way: (1) deliberately, (2)
to someone in particular, (3) to impart a particular message, (4) according to a socially established
code, and (5) without cognizance of the rest of the company. (Geertz 1973 p.3)

descriptions, but he seems adamant that the study of culture

nevertheless must go through and by such interpretations.
With the idea hermeneutical circle being intrinsic to the
interpretivist project, it naturally becomes an object for
methodological critique. It becomes evident however that we
are not only dealing here with epistemological but also
ontological issues. Tied to the interpretivist project there are
holist assumptions. Meanings are the object of study, but
meanings are what they are by figuring in relations with other
meanings. Things come to have meaning first in a field of such
relations such that we cannot speak in principle of isolated
meaningful elements, and changes in a whole can imply
changes in a given meaningful element. As Taylor states,
meanings in this respect resembles words, whose meaning
depends, for instance, on the words with which they contrast
(p.11). One line of critique may go that we are always capable
of doubting any given interpretation, that there is an insecurity
always present with respect to it. With respect to the accuracy
of a scientific hypothesis this I think is true with respect to any
program of science, and may not do more to concern the
interpretivist then to encourage the care with which he
approaches his material and the openness of his mind to

alternative solutions7. Furthermore, empirical evidence is

available also for the interpretivist in that one can ask
questions, examine behaviour, and construe hypothesis.
Accordingly, Dagfinn Fllesdal has proposed that hermeneutics
is the hypothetico-deductive method applied to texts (again
understood widely) (see Fllesdal 1979). In spite of this, there is
another line of critique which is tied to the ontological
assumptions of interpretation theory, and not its
epistemological aims to account for these.
Intersubjective meanings, and brute data

Though implicit to the hermeneutic circle, there is one point yet

to be made explicit regarding meanings.

It is essential to a science of

interpretation that these are subjective but not individualistic. Meanings must be
shared, intersubjective and not private, belonging to a cultural whole, so there is
a practice of indoctrination to them. Taylor contends that man is a selfinterpreting animal, and what he interprets himself in accordance with are these
publicly shared meanings. These meanings are thus constitutive of his selfunderstanding (p.48). Our actions are embedded with a purpose sought and
explains by feelings and desires interpreted as something from within the whole
in which we belong. By interpretivist standards, not only then can we only
understand others by getting into their circle but we only understand ourselves
from within our own. Taylor stresses however that these meanings are not
One way to think about this is taking the concern with coherence as necessary
but not sufficient. As Little (1991) points out, coherence in itself is too weak: We
want reasons to believe that our interpretation is true, and there might of course
be conflicting coherent interpretations. This prompts further questioning,
assessing what material supports which interpretation, and what conflicts with it.
Geertz (1973) on the other hand makes of aware of a danger awaiting in the
opposite direction: Cultural systems must have a minimal degree of coherence,
else we would not call them systems; and, by observation, they normally have a
great deal more. But there is nothing so coherent as a paranoids delusion or a
swindlers story. (p.10). Here the problem is in the craft of construing a more
intricate system of order than is really the case.

publicly shared opinions, but rather the ground or basis on which we understand
each other so as to be capable of agreeing and disagreeing with each other,
holding different opinions, in the first place.
The other line of criticism takes the form of a demand for a level of certainty
which can only be attained by breaking beyond the hermeneutic circle. The
respective opposition is not only dissatisfied with the degree of difficulty involved
in a hermeneutical approach, but rejects the nature of the object of study. In
Taylors terms this line of thought stems from rationalist and empiricist strains of
thought harbouring an epistemological bias. They do not recognize a social
reality of interactively relational network of meanings constitutive and
constituted by practices, but enters the discussion with an idea of what reality is
and how it is to be characterized, taking the cue from the natural sciences
themselves. A social phenomenon should be studied in the same way as natural
phenomena. Taylor writes that for these theorists what is objectively real is
brute data identifiable (p.21). By brute data it is meant data whose validity
cannot be questioned by offering another interpretation, such as natural
description of events (i.e. the rapidly contracting eyelids in Geertzs thin
desctipions), biological correlates of behaviour, propositional attitudes (to which
I will return later), or information capable of being registered by instruments of
measurement. With respect to this picture Taylor writes:

Thus any description of reality in terms of meanings which is

open to interpretive question is only allowed into this scientific
discourse if it is placed, as it were, in quotes and attributed to
individuals as their opinion, belief, attitude. That this opinion,
belief, etc. is held is thought of as a brute datum, since it is
redefined as the respondent's giving a certain answer to the
questionnaire. (Taylor 1971 p.20)
Though there might be a question here whether Taylor offers a
positivistic caricature,

this critique, as Taylor frames it,

culminates in a flat-out rejection of the interpretivist

See Cahill 2014

assumptions, the ontological denial of shared intersubjective

meanings as possible, or even as plausible, things of study.
Geertz on his side puts this epistemological bias in terms of a
danger to either reduce or reify culture, distorting or missing
the mark in the process (p.5). Gertz contends that cultural
analysis is intrinsically incomplete. He mentions a number of
ways to escape this, pace the notion of brute data: Turning
culture into folklore and collecting it, turning it into traits and
counting it, turning it into institutions and classifying it, turning
it into structures and toying with it. (p.17) At last he mentions,
but they are escapes. To this list of escapes I may add one with
respect to the next section: Turning it into beliefs and
translating it; for with respect to questions of rationality I
believe Taylors concerns are warranted.
Lukes (1967) deals with a philosophical question arising out of: When I come across a set of
beliefs which appear prima facie irrational, what should be my attitude? And considers five
proposed answers. For the present concerns, it is the view Lukes attributes to Peter Winch
that is especially interesting as it is the most easily to be assimilated with the interpretative
approaches here outlined. Winch answers the question by stating that there is a case for
assuming in principle that seemingly irrational belief-systems in primitive societies are to be
interepreted as rational. To illustrate, Evans-Prichard attributes an inherent irrationality to
Azande belief in witchcraft:
To our minds it appears evident that if a man is proven a witch the whole of his clan are
ipso facto witches, since the Zande clan is a group of persons related biologically to one
another through the male line. Azande see the sense of this argument but they do not accept
its conclusions, and it would involve the whole notion of witchcraft in contradiction were
they to do so.
Winch responds:

The context from which the suggestion about the contradiction is made, the context of our
scientific culture, is not on the same level as the context in which the beliefs about witchcraft
operate. Zande notions of witchcraft do not constitute a theoretical system in terms of which
Azande try to gain a quasi-scientific understanding of the world.
The idea is that if we interpret the concept of Witch and its interrelations to the whole of
behaviours, rituals, and ordinary life of the Azande, it becomes more intelligible not
irrational. If we apply the interpretivist method we open the concept up and appreciate it in
terms of the role it plays in the Azande culture, such that the superficial irrationality of
Witches gives way to its being appreciated as immersed in a cultural order with its own
internal logic of sorts. As I see it (though I think I see it differently than Winch), it is not that
that the concept of witch then all of a sudden shows itself as rational, but that he model of
rationality we impose upon the culture to begin with fail to appreciate the shared meanings of
witches or witchcraft within the culture, by construing them at once as irrational.
Lukes intend to attack Winches solution to the problem. First he distinguishes between two
kinds of criteria for rationality, universal (i) and context dependent (ii).
Let us assume we are discussing the beliefs of a society S. One can then draw a distinction
between two sets of questions. One can ask, in the first place: (i) what for society S are the
criteria of rationality in general? And, second, one can ask: (ii) what are the appropriate
criteria to apply to a given class of beliefs within that society?
Lukes writes:
In so far as Winch seems to be saying that the answer to the first question is culturedependent, he must be wrong, or at least we could never know if he were right; indeed we
cannot even conceive what it could be for him to be right. In the first place, the existence of a
common reality is a necessary precondition of our understanding S's language. () What
must be the case is that S must have our distinction between truth and falsity if we are to
understand its language, for, if per impossibile it did not, we would be unable even to agree
about what counts as the successful identification of public (spatio-temporally locations).
I will go on to claim that there is an important gap between asserting that first-order logical
criteria of evaluating a set of propositional states such as belief constitutes universal criteria
for rationality to 1. that belief in the existence of an independent reality depends on accepting
such criteria, and 2. that the role played by a certain concept in a given culture could be best

formulated in terms of such propositional attitudes. If that is so, there is little sense to claim
that the interpretivist must hold a universal criterion of rationality (and then neither a context
dependent criteria), that is, go on in applying the notion of rational or irrational behaviour to
the culture they study. To illuminate this I will discuss the principle of charity and
translation manuals. These also directly impact the question of epistemological relativism.
The objection to anti relativism is not that it rejects an it is all how you look at it approach
to knowledge, but that they imagine this can only be defeated by placing morality beyond
culture and knowledge beyond both. (Geertz)
The failure lies in thinking that we need conditions such as rationality to secure our
epistemological or moral beliefs. If it was such that interpretivist had to reject universal
criteria for rationality in favour of contextual dependent versions, and if this was an antirealist adherence, then the road from interpretivism to normative relativism could be a short
one (but it is not the case).
Epistemological relativism and Interpretivism

One does not have to equate the lived world with natural reality to the extent that one
would relativize reality in terms of many different worlds. Nor does one have to
separate them so that the natural reality is out of plausible contact with the lived.
Science for instance seems to operate by decontextualizing, it purports to remove the

social context as best as it can in order to objectively describe.

We dont need truth to hinge on external points of view, there are ways of articulating
truth which lies open without having to address a universal objectivity whenever
speaking truthfully, an objectivity the external point is tailor made to capture. The
trick is to explicate the notion of truth as warranted from within. The first thing to be
said is that it is not at all certain that realism falls with the external standpoint, nor
reference for that matter. In speaking of the table I make reference to it, and whatever
psychological makeup with which it is dressed, however it becomes determined as the
table, there is nonetheless a reference to some-thing. (it is as if the indeterminacy lies
antecedent to the hyphen here, and the locus of reference in the latter).

Moral relativism

There are dangers of absolutist accounts, presupposing universal conceptions,

characterizing the other as morally depraved even before there is a cultural meeting.
Interpretivism give us the means to imagine the other point of view, thereby enabling
a moral encounter, not subjecting the other to a position whereby he or she is to be
fixed but rather setting up the discourse so that moral opinions can be shared with less

Emphasizing that actions must be understood in relation to the context within which it
figures, is an attempt at understanding the action in question, not legislating it. In fact
it is just as much improving the grounds for sensible critique of the action in question
as it is a defence of it. Interpretivism is an attempt at letting what is there be seen as it
is for those at a certain distance from it. Getting clear of a phenomena seems

preparatory for normative evaluation.

There is nothing in holistic considerations that blocks universal accounts on the face
of it. If I sense the room as hot due me coming in from the cold, and you sense the
room as cold due being ill, there remains the option to check the thermometer.
Similarily universal systems of moral thought is not prima facie excluded, just
because subjectivist considerations are in place.

Little, Daniel. Varieties of Social Explanation (Boulder: Westview Press, 1991)
Clifford Geertz, Thick Description (1971)
Dagfinn Fllesdal, Hermeneutics and the Hypothetico-Deductive Method