* * *

This article is part of the UnderstandingSociety research gateway. Please visit the site, where you will find other useful articles, blogs, and an international social network site on the philosophy of social science, Marxism, and globalization.

* * *

What is hermeneutic explanation?

Daniel Little

University of Michigan-Dearborn

February, 2008


There have been two very different approaches to social explanation since the nineteenth century, and they differ most fundamentally over a distinction between “explanation” and “understanding” or “cause” and “meaning” (von Wright 1971). This distinction divides over two ways of understanding a “why” question when it comes to social events. “Why did it happen?” may mean “What caused it to happen?”; or it may mean “Why did the agents act in such a way to bring it about?”.     The hermeneutic approach holds that the most basic fact of social life is the meaning of an action. Social life is constituted by social actions, and actions are meaningful to the actors and to the other social participants. Moreover, subsequent actions are oriented towards the meanings of prior actions; so understanding the later action requires that we have an interpretation of the meanings that various participants assign to their own actions and those of others. So the social sciences (or the human sciences) need to be hermeneutic: researchers need to devote their attention to the interpretation of the meanings of social actions.  (Central contributors to this tradition include (Dilthey 1989), (Weber 1949), (Ricoeur 1976), and (Gadamer 1977). See (Sherratt 2006) for a very good treatment of hermeneutic philosophy of social science.)

The tradition of interpretation and historical science rejected the idea of human affairs being governed by a set of “natural” laws; it sought instead to provide interpretive understanding of the actions and meanings created by historically and culturally situated actors. Wilhelm Windelband attempted to draw a clear distinction between the nomothetic goals of the natural sciences (generalizations, abstraction, and universal statements) and the ideographic goals of the human and historical sciences (particular instances, concrete individuals, detailed understanding of the particular).  Wilhelm Dilthey and his successors articulated a theory of an interpretive human science that was starkly opposed to positivism and the models of the natural sciences. Max Weber fell within historicist and hermeneutic tradition as well.  He defined sociology as the explanation of social action: interpretation of the meaningful actions of individuals as oriented to the actions of others.  The method of verstehen is intended to permit the researcher to arrive at hypotheses about the meanings of actions for the actor.  (Fritz Ringer provides an excellent account of the issues involved in this tradition in his treatment of Weber’s methodological thinking; (Ringer 1997).)

            This approach places interpretation of meaning at the center of social inquiry. And it drew much of its methodology and tools of inquiry from the hermeneutic tradition—the tradition of biblical and literary interpretation stemming from Dilthey, Rickert, and other German thinkers.  This tradition is adapted to the human sciences by using the metaphor of action as text. The interpreter (a biographer, for example) considers the many elements of the action, life, or complex of actions, and attempts to arrive at an interpretation that makes sense of the various parts.

            A central problem that authors in this tradition wrestle with is the “hermeneutic circle”—the fact that there is no neutral, external standpoint from which to objectively measure the meaning of a system of signs or actions. Instead, interpretation begins and ends with the given—the text or the action—and the only evidence available for assessing the interpretation is interior to the text itself. So it may appear that interpretations are self-confirming—an unhappy conclusion if we think that social explanations ought to have rational justification and empirical support.

            The interpretive approach got a large boost from the fertile field of interpretive anthropology in the 1960s and 1970s, especially through the work of such anthropologists as Clifford Geertz (Geertz 1971b, 1980, 1983) and Victor Turner (Turner 1974). Geertz refers to the task of anthropology as studying the social world as a web of significance, and he describes the content of anthropological knowledge as “thick description” (Geertz 1971c). He writes, “Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, construing social expression on their surface enigmatical” ((Geertz 1971c): 5).  James Clifford provides useful analysis of this approach to anthropology; (Clifford 1988).

            There are several valid insights incorporated in the verstehen approach. Most important is the insistence on the point that social action is meaningful and intentional, and that it is both desirable and feasible to arrive at interpretations of these meanings. Moreover, being able to arrive at such interpretations is often essential to historical and ethnographic explanation. Geertz's interpretation of the Balinese cock-fight (Geertz 1971a) and Darnton's interpretation of the great cat massacre (Darnton 1984) both illustrate this point: in neither case would we understand the behavior without a deep interpretation of the significances the participants attribute to their actions.  And interpreting these meanings takes disciplined, detailed hermeneutic and historical study.

            This said, it is incorrect to imagine that the verstehen approach is inconsistent with the causal approach.  Rather, the two approaches are compatible and complementary. It is a fact that human action is meaningful and intentional, and all social science must take account of this fact. But it is also true that actions aggregate to larger causes and they have effects on social outcomes. Meaningful, deliberate action is often the mechanism through which a given set of institutional arrangements (a property system, say) cause a social outcome (slow investment in new technologies, say). So meanings are themselves both causes and components of causal mechanisms (a point that Donald Davidson makes in the case of individual action; (Davidson 1963)).

            Finally, a social science that restricted itself to hermeneutic interpretation would be radically incomplete. It would exclude from the scope of social science research the whole range of causal relationships, structural influences on action, and the workings of unintended consequences in social processes.  Social scientists are better advised to be eclectic in their approach to problems, incorporating causal and hermeneutic analysis, quantitative and qualitative methods, and a range of explanatory theories and causal mechanisms.


Clifford, James. 1988. The predicament of culture : twentieth-century ethnography, literature, and art. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Darnton, Robert. 1984. The great cat massacre and other episodes in French cultural history. New York: Basic Books.

Davidson, Donald. 1963. Actions, Reasons, and Causes. Journal of Philosophy 60 (23):685-700.

Dilthey, Wilhelm. 1989. Introduction to the human sciences. Edited by R. A. Makkreel and F. Rodi. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Gadamer, Hans Georg. 1977. Philosophical hermeneutics. 1st paperback ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1971a. Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight: in Geertz 1971.

———. 1971b. The interpretation of cultures; selected essays. New York,: Basic Books.

———. 1971c. Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture. In The interpretation of cultures: selected essays. New York: Basic Books.

———. 1980. Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

———. 1983. Local knowledge : further essays in interpretive anthropology. New York: Basic Books.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1976. Interpretation theory : discourse and the surplus of meaning. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press.

Ringer, Fritz. 1997. Max Weber's Methodology: The Unification of the Cultural and Social Sciences. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sherratt, Yvonne. 2006. Continental philosophy of social science : hermeneutics, genealogy, critical theory. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Turner, Victor Witter. 1974. Dramas, fields, and metaphors; symbolic action in human society, Symbol, myth, and ritual. Ithaca [N.Y.]: Cornell University Press.

von Wright, G. H. 1971. Explanation and understanding, Contemporary philosophy. Ithaca, N.Y.,: Cornell University Press.

Weber, Max. 1949. The Methodology of the Social Sciences. New York: Free Press.