Methodology and Truth: Analogies between Hermeneutics and Post-Positivist Philosophy of Science

By Parrini, Paolo | Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Methodology and Truth: Analogies between Hermeneutics and Post-Positivist Philosophy of Science


Parrini, Paolo, Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry


1) Introduction: hermeneutics and natural sciences

For a long time--perhaps starting from the famous meeting in Davos in 1929--hermeneutics and the philosophy of science which derived from Neo-positivism and focused especially on exact and natural sciences followed separate ways. The crisis of the Neo-empiricist conception, though, brought some changes. The recovery of Duhem's holism, the focusing on the 'implicit' and 'tacit' components present in the cognitive process, Quine's rejection of the dogmas of analiticity and reductionism, Sellars' criticism of the myth of the datum, the overcoming of the distinction between theoretical and observational language, all these elements together led to the emergence of theses in the field of the philosophy of natural science similar to those maintained in the field of hermeneutics by authors like Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jurgen Habermas and Paul Ricoeur, theses about the hermeneutic circle, pre-understanding, and "prejudices."

To tell the truth, the discussion has not led to clear and univocal results yet. Nevertheless, even though it is too early to advance a definite proposal, it seems possible to me to point out the inadequacy of traditional schematizations especially with respect to the epistemological problems of the objectivity and validity of knowledge. Thus, I do not intend to reconstruct the positions of the hermeneutic philosophers I will speak about; (2) rather, I will devote my attention only to their characterisation of hermeneutics in order to underline--in opposition to their intentions--the similarities with the procedure of natural sciences as this procedure is now described by Post-positivistic philosophy of science.

The problem is complex and involves many questions, if only because there is no one universally recognised definition of the natural sciences' methodology. Some philosophers refer to the rules of the hypotethical-deductive method, some others to the canons of the inductive method; some refer to the falsification principle and the notion of corroboration, some others to the inductive confirmation. This is not to mention the variety of positions which have been adopted within these two methodological currents. The very question of the unity of method has a long history in which numerous divergences emerged, not only methodological, but also epistemological ones. In order to avoid all these difficulties, I will concentrate on some specific aspects of the traditional way of characterising the method of natural sciences and I will take the following three theses as parameters and starting points of my discourse:

I. Natural science's methodology has universal scientific validity.

II. The fundamental characteristics of their methodology is their 'being free' from subjective and evalutative prejudices.

III. The systematic application of natural sciences' methodology as characterised in thesis (II) is the best guarantee for the obtainment of cognitive objectivity and the progressive approach to truth.

These theses can be considered as some sort of "common ground" between "scientistic" philosophers and "hermeneutic" philosophers. In fact, slightly simplifying things, we can say that they express the opinions on the nature of natural science's method held by many of those who are in favour of the universal applicability of this method, and thus also to human sciences, and those who are not.

In the following, I will not deal with the validity of thesis (I) and the methodological question in its general form. I will deal only with those aspects of thesis (I) that are connected to theses (II) and (III). These aspects involve the epistemological problem of cognitive objectivity, or, better, the relationship between subjective presuppositions and the objectivity of knowledge. I will focus my attention on the fact that most hermeneutic philosophers attribute qualities (II) and (III) to natural sciences, but not to human sciences and to hermeneutics in particular.

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