Tuesday, December 4, 2007

C. Mantzavinos: Naturalistic Hermeneutics

My review will be published in Practical Philosophy.
C. Mantzavinos
Naturalistic Hermeneutics
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. xv + 180
ISBN: 0521848121 (hb), £40, US$65

This book takes on one of the most popular theses of the modern philosophy of the social sciences, i.e., the claim that the human sciences must adopt a methodology fundamentally different from that of the natural sciences. More particularly, the human sciences should aim to interpret the meanings connected with human thought, speech, and action, while the natural sciences should devise causal explanations of phenomena in the physical world. Those causal explanations are themselves based upon empirically testable natural laws or invariances. Mantzavinos argues that there is nothing peculiar to the human sciences – or even to the interpretation of meanings – that should keep them from applying methodologies that are essentially similar to those of the natural sciences.

German philosophical hermeneutics is perhaps the most prestigious tradition demanding the methodological autonomy of the human sciences. In the first three chapters of his book, Mantzavinos offers a dismissive critique of the tradition’s three most celebrated representatives: Wilhelm Dilthey, Martin Heidegger, and Hans-Georg Gadamer. He seems to find these writers so repellent that he barely makes an effort to present a charitable and comprehensible reading of their work. As described by Mantzavinos, their doctrines appear either preposterous or trivial. The assumption of his opponents’ alleged incomprehensibility makes Mantzavinos’s own arguments against them difficult to follow. It would have been much more instructive if he had chosen to discuss works that criticize the use of law-based explanations in the human sciences by authors whose philosophical style he might find more generally attractive, such as Peter Winch, John Searle, and Charles Taylor.

In the second part of the book Mantzavinos marshals philosophical arguments and literature, as well as relevant material from the scientific literature, to present and defend his own ‘naturalistic’ position. Some readers will no doubt feel that he makes his job a bit too easy for himself. ‘Naturalistic’ methodology shades off into ‘hypothetico-deductive’ methodology, and anyone who is willing to test claims against some kind of reality (including the content of a particular text, instances of some person’s behaviour, etc.) may be said to employ the hypothetico-deductive method. Mantzavinos dismisses the fact that empathic understanding may play a special role in the human sciences as being of little philosophical consequence. After all, empathy does its work in the context of discovery, i.e., in the anarchic process of hypothesis construction that is everywhere ruled by luck and intuition. Good positivists such as Mantzavinos are perfectly willing to limit their methodological doctrines to the more orderly realm of the context of validation. The bright side of this is that Mantzavinos avoids falling into a trap of doctrinaire naturalism. For instance, he is perfectly willing to admit that, ‘Since the creative element is omnipresent in human praxis, it should be more difficult for us to discover regularities in human action than regularities in nature’ (pg. 112).

A fair bit of the later chapters is devoted to criticizing a methodological assumption that underlies much contemporary work in the social and behavioural sciences, i.e., the notion that humans should be viewed as being essentially rational creatures. Mantzavinos claims that such assumptions cannot give rise to genuine explanations of behaviour, but rather only to ‘rational reconstructions’. Similarly, while he admits that principles of charity (i.e., the assumption that an author or speaker usually makes sense) have proven useful to the work of interpretation, contra philosophers such as Donald Davidson, Mantzavinos believes that they are not crucial. However, it seems that he does not properly appreciate that without some kind of charitable assumption of rationality, it would be simply impossible to identify what someone is doing as being a particular action. (Unless we discount the possibility that someone could be so crazy that he might believe that any action might produce any result, how can we ever identify his behaviour as an instance of some purposeful act? We see him insert coins into a parking meter but for all we know, he might be trying to conduct a symphony orchestra.)

In a particularly weak moment, Mantzavinos addresses a classic criticism of naturalism in the social sciences: since human behaviour is radically informed by ever-changing historical circumstances, it is not consistently describable by the kind of unvarying concepts that allow for the formulation of law-like generalizations that can underlie causal explanations of the kind produced in the physical sciences. He tries to defuse the criticism with a facile demonstration of its own alleged self-contradiction: ‘What can the thesis of the radical historicity of standpoints mean other than that man and his actions possess a constant property, precisely this historicity?’ (Pg. 94). An invariant absence of invariance hardly bodes well for the construction of law-like generalizations!

While recent advances in cognitive neuroscience have done much to weaken the position of those who oppose any role for naturalism in the study of human thought and behaviour, the battle is yet to be completely decided. This book may help re-ignite the debate. Though brief – perhaps too brief – it is not an easy read and it assumes a fair acquaintance with the field. Perhaps it would be most profitably read by philosophers – and philosophical counsellors – who still support the categorical separation of the human sciences from the natural sciences.

Berel Dov Lerner

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