Monday, January 3, 2011


In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Richard Rorty makes much of a dichotomy between epistemology -- the traditional study of how, and whether, we know what we think we know (though elsewhere he redefines it as “the attempt to render all discourses commensurable  by translating them into a preferred set of terms” (p. 349), and elsewhere again (p. 353) as “roughly, a description of our study of the familiar”) -- and hermeneutics -- which is the kind of crap they teach at Yale.   Characterizing those who have qualms about Kuhn, he writes (p. 344):

If the study of science’s search for truth about the physical universe  is viewed hermeneutically, it will be viewed as the activity of spirit -- the faculty which makes -- rather than as the application of the mirroring faculties, those which find what nature has already made.

This dichotomy, then, shares some territory with what I’ve been labeling Realism vs. Nominalism.    However, the professor assures us, none of this matters:

In the view I want to recommend, nothing deep turns on the choice between these two phrases -- between the imagery of making and of finding.

Spoken like a hermeneuticist.

Still and all, the line between our two dichotomies must run not quite parallel, since he then says (p. 345) that this is “still not to say that the atoms, wave packages, etc., discovered by the physical scientists  are creations of the human spirit”, and (though himself leaning to the hermeneutical side of the line) even comes out manfully with:

To say, with Sartre, that man makes himself, and that he differs thereby from atoms and inkwells, is quite compatible with repudiating any suggestion  that part of his self-creation consists in ‘constituting’ atoms and inkwells.

(Imagine our relief!)  even though (p. 354)

its enemies assumed that anyone who overtly practiced hermeneutics  must be ‘antinaturalist’, and must lack a proper sense of the brute exteriority of the physical universe.

(Odd phrase, that -- “overtly practiced” -- as though hermeneuticists were given over to certain ... quite private practices as well...)

Edifying etymological footnote:
Hermeneutics is said to be named for the Greek god Hermes, described in the Homeric hymns as “shifty, cunning, a robber, a thief at the gates”, and by Wikipedia as “a liar, a thief, and a trickster”.  He is also the eponym of hermaphrodite.  Hm.

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