Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Interpretation and Objectivity: A Gadamerian Reevaluation of Max Weber's Social Science

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Interpretation and Objectivity: A Gadamerian Reevaluation of Max Weber's Social Science

Article excerpt

Max Weber was for us an absolutely central person. Actually, it was through him in a way that we came to the conclusion that we would have to philosophize. We saw that, majestic as that figure was, Max Weber, it would not be possible to be like that. This inner-worldly asceticism of a value-free science which is then perfected by a certain kind of decisionism, we found it majestic, but impossible.

-Gadamer (1992, 140)

A prominent and long-standing narrative in the philosophy of social science focuses on the relationship between the social sciences and the natural sciences. This focus draws particular attention to the questions of the methods appropriate to these respective disciplines, the role of interpretation among these methods, and the relative aspirations to scientific objectivity embraced within the sciences of nature and of man (Dallmayr and McCarthy 1977a, 1977b; Flyvbjerg, Landman, and Schram 2012; Rabinow and Sullivan 1987; Schram and Caterino 2006). Viewed from this perspective, Max Weber's approach to social science-both in practice and in his writings on the philosophy of social science-is problematic. In this context, Weber is characterized by a stubborn insistence on being unidentifiable as either a doctrinaire naturalist or a thoroughgoing humanist. Instead, Weber appears as attempting to have it both ways, to the satisfaction of neither camp. In short, it is very tempting to view Weber as either an incomplete naturalist who was unable to commit fully to the natural scientific model, or as a halfhearted humanist who was too enchanted by the promise of scientific objectivity to fully reject the naturalist model.

I argue that this perspective does a great disservice to Weber and that, in light of late twentieth-century developments in the philosophy of science, a reevaluation of Weber and his approach to the role of interpretation in scientific inquiry is in order. Such a reevaluation promises to offer a unique way forward in the philosophy of social science that both responds to these philosophical developments, most notably the increased emphasis on the subjective elements of social inquiry, and resists their more relativistic implications. Although I argue that Weber's views on their own are not up to this challenge, when reinterpreted in light of the philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Max Weber's philosophy of social science appears poised to contribute to the resolution of a number of the more vexing challenges of the contemporary situation.

This essay begins by offering a reading of the conventional framing of the debate between naturalism and humanism that focuses on the positivist social science advocated by Auguste Comte in contrast to the hermeneutics of Wilhelm Dilthey. I then proceed to investigate the view of Max Weber's social science that emerges when seen within the context of this debate. That view is challenged, I suggest, by an "extraordinary reversal" in the philosophy of social science that undermines the conventional distinction between naturalism and humanism. In this new context, where the objectivity of both the natural and the human sciences is called into question, it pays to revisit Weber and to draw on Hans-Georg Gadamer in developing a view of social science that accepts the inherent subjectivity of those engaging in social scientific research while retaining a modified view of the objectivity of social science itself.

Family Feuds: Positivism and Dilthey's Hermeneutics

Weber's philosophy of social science is interesting in part because it draws on but refuses to resolve the most important debates raging in the philosophy of social science in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a result, contemporary thinkers have frequently taken up his work and evaluated its successes and deficiencies largely through the lens of these debates, the most significant of which has centered on the distinction between the natural sciences on one hand and the social or human sciences on the other, and on the status of interpretation among the methods used in these sciences. …

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