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Interpretation

The Hermeneutic And Interpretive Impulse In The Rise Of Social Studies

Karl Marx (1818–1883) did not address the problems defined by Dilthey, but his approach to the problem of historicism was in some ways continuous with historicist hermeneutics. Marx's theories also had a major impact on social scientific approaches to the study and interpretation of history. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), the nineteenth-century German idealist philosopher whose views Marx modified, saw history as the unfolding manifestation of the human spirit. According to Hegel, the human spirit will eventually reach a truly revolutionary stage in which it will be able to see through itself for the first time. This radical philosophical view of spirit developing a consciousness of itself was transformed by Marx into sociological language. Knowledge and consciousness can be socially constituted and grounded only in a distinct human subject. But such a reflexive and revolutionary consciousness will not develop in just any subject. The subject and the knowledge for this development has to be special—that is, specially located in history. For Marx, this historical process can be realized only through the embodied consciousness of a human subject whose social and historical location provides it with the privilege to achieve such awareness. This subject is the proletariat—the social class within modern capitalism that embodies the historical forces that will provide it with the capacity to see itself as an object produced by history (Marx and Engels). In this manner, Marx turned the problem of epistemology (the problem of knowledge) into a historicist sociology. All forms of knowledge are expressions of human activity and practice, and such knowledge can be grasped only as manifestations of the historical conditions in which they take their social form. In essence, culture, ideology, ethics, religion—the entire enterprise of knowledge making—is a reflection of the historical mode of human production, a process ultimately rooted in human labor. This history remains unseen, un-grasped, misunderstood, misrepresented by ideology. Thus estrangement or alienation—the inability to see the underlying reality—characterizes human history and can be overcome only by the historical rise of a human subject situated in ways that enable this kind of critical consciousness to take hold.

Much criticism has been leveled at how Marx privileged economic and material aspects at the expense of the cultural realm. Certainly, the problem of culture was not a central concern for Marx. Culture was relegated to the "superstructure" where ideas, values, ethics, and ideology circulated as fictitious echoes and reflections of the "real" activity of labor and the materialist dimensions of the class struggle. Yet Marx's views are crucial to the modern enterprise of interpretation, especially in the idea that subjects, actors, and texts cannot exist as autonomous entities or things in themselves, but are rather fundamentally immersed in social and historical contexts. In this manner, Marx's sociology, notwithstanding trenchant criticism, consistently challenged interpreters to understand that practices and texts are inseparable from social and historical conditions. The implications for interpretation were profoundly expanded. The most discrete activity was to be connected to the broader material, social, and historical formation. Whether it be a specific tool or element of technology, a cultural ritual, a poem, a scientific treatise, or a social institution under examination, the interpretive task is to understand the element in relation to a social totality (mode of production). Marx's seminal view—the historicist view of all things in the human world—remains a vibrant aspect of twenty-first century interpretation.

In contrast to Marx's theories, the sociology of Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) marked the rise of the cultural approach to the social sciences in which the study of symbolic production is central. For Durkheim, the underlying phenomenon to be interpreted is solidarity. Only through representations is human solidarity and society made visible and open to sociological interpretation. Thus, when cultural and religious solidarity is violated, the preeminent indicator of the collective response is repressive/penal law. Punishment expiates the sense of violation. In Durkheim's sociology the realm of cultural life is brought into view and interpreted through the study of symbolic and semiotic practices that express the underlying cultural cohesion but also govern and maintain it. This makes Durkheimian sociology a fundamentally interpretive enterprise. The social and cultural realm can be grasped only through symbolic production, because it is instantiated in and organized through it. Although Durkheim insisted on a social reality instantiated through routine cultural practices that sociology was to ascertain, his major contribution to modern cultural interpretation was his emphasis on the formal study of representations.

The hermeneutic insistence on identifying with the inner logic of a socially embedded subject also shares some traits with what the Scottish moralists David Hume (1711–1776) and Adam Smith (1723–1790) called human "sympathy" (A. Smith). It is in Max Weber (1864–1920), however, that historical hermeneutics finds a direct link to sociology. For Weber, the primary challenge for sociological interpretation is to decipher the modes of meaning and the forms of rationality characteristic of social activity. These forms of organized meaning ultimately have a cultural dimension, but for Weber the task was to grasp them as modes of rationality. The formulation and interpretation of modes of rationality provide the sociological keys to understanding the everyday practices of individuals engaged in organized activity. Drawing on the ideas of Dilthey and Heinrich Rickert (Hughes), Weber argued for a sociology that places interpretation at its core. According to Weber, "interpretive sociology considers the individual and his action as the basic unit, as its 'atom.'… The individual… is the upper limit and the sole carrier of meaningful conduct.… Such concepts as 'state,' 'association,' 'feudalism,' and the like, designate certain categories of human interaction. Hence it is the task of sociology to reduce these concepts to 'understandable' action, that is without exception, to the actions of participating individual men" (Gerth and Mills, p. 55).Weber synthesized both earlier hermeneutic currents as well as Marxian historicism. Yet he did not share Marx's faith in a notion of history that operates inexorably and fatefully to create a privileged subject (the proletariat) and instead placed the emphasis on the underlying rationality that makes every cultural formation a sociologically interpretable phenomenon.

With the work of Karl Mannheim (1893–1947), the problem of interpretation took a formidable turn toward the "sociology of knowledge." Mannheim shared the concerns of Dilthey, Marx, and Edmund Husserl, who insisted that the act of knowing and interpreting is always bound to social conditions. Thus, for Mannheim all knowledge was partial knowledge. Because of social context, a group can achieve a certain interest-based quality of understanding and generate in turn knowledge and truth claims based on views from its vantage point. These claims, however, can be understood (sociologically) only as elements in a pluralist arena of competing views, which are also relative to their location, social position, and point of view. The interpretation of a cultural expression thus hinges not only on the intrinsic meanings held by actors and subjects but also on a comprehension of the limits imposed by the location and conditions of the subject's social origins. Consistent with pluralist and relativist aspects of Franz Boas's anthropological writings, Mannheim's sociology of knowledge insisted that cultural views—statements, beliefs, values, literary productions, and so forth—always bear the stamp of their context.

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