Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology

Hermeneutics of Reason: The Principle of Common Rationality as Premise of Understanding the Other(s)

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology

Hermeneutics of Reason: The Principle of Common Rationality as Premise of Understanding the Other(s)

Article excerpt


The central argument defended in this paper is made up of two interconnected statements: i) that a minimally defined rationality is an anthropological constant, being shared by all conceivable human cultures; and ii) that this "commonality of reason" constitutes the basis on which inter-cultural understanding is possible. In proving the first thesis (the universality of reason), the paper contrasts Western thought, epitomized in scientific reason, with non-Western thinking patterns, expressed by ethno-sciences, magic rituals, and other knowledge practices. The conclusion drawn from this comparison is that both modern scientific reason and non-literate peoples thought patterns are two "cognitive modes" sharing a strong structural similarity. Building on some loci classici of anthropological literature written by Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, and Lévi-Strauss (among others), the paper argues that although modern Western science and indigenous knowledge(s) share a common rational denominator, the two cognitive modes are nonetheless hierarchical, the former being epistemically superior to the latter thanks to its unique self-correcting methodology. The paper ends by arguing the case for the possibility of understanding the Other(s) by way of reason, a possibility grounded on the commonality of reason between cultures.


Rationality, ethno-science, inter-cultural hermeneutics, cognitive anthropology

Introduction: inter-cultural hermeneutics between taken-for-grantedness and incomprehensibility

Until the "hermeneutic turn" that bent the trajectory of modern anthropology towards a postmodern destination, the possibility of understanding the Other remained amidst the stock of taken for granted assumptions, as part of the standard "of course answers" given if such a question was to be explicitly raised at all2. The dogmatic faith of the Enlightenment philosophy in the capacity of reason to fully understand the natural and social world neutralized any dubitative impulses of questioning the belief in the accuracy of the Western understanding of the colonized Other(s). The crisis of representation in the human sciences, announced by G.E. Marcus and M.M.J. Fischer (1986), opened the breaches through which the hermeneutic question erupted and imposed itself on top of anthropology's agenda. In full tune with the emerging postmodern critique challenging the basic axioms of classical human sciences, the hermeneutic pendulum swung towards the pole of incomprehensibility. Enlightenment's unbounded confidence in the power of reason to comprehend the Other had been abandoned and replaced by the postmodern hyperbolic mistrust regarding the possibility of "inter-cultural hermeneutics" (Ariarajah, 2005; Marotta, 2009).

In addition to the hermeneutic turn, the advent of relativism - first in its cultural mode, followed shortly by its more aggressive epistemological incarnation - threw doubt on the validity of "the rationality principle" in sociology and anthropology alike. Installed by Max Weber as canonical methodological rule, the rationality principle stated that social scientists can understand and explain (Verstehen) social actions, social actors, and their motives of action, by way of reason. Founded upon this principle, Weberian Verstehen sociology asserts that "the behavior of a social actor is always comprehensible" (Boudon, 2005: 35). The principle of rationality, coupled with the assumption of the rationality of social agents, opened the doors for rationally comprehending the Others. But these rational doors leading to understanding were violently slammed by the cavalcade of "turns" breaking away with the Enlightenment's trust in reason.

Against the ideas overstating the cultural "incommensurability" between different symbolic universes and the futility of reason in creating hermeneutic bridges connecting these allegedly disjointed and self-contained cultural units, this paper defends the power of reason to pave the way towards understanding other cultures, however different in their cultural manifestations. …

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