The late lamented Paul Ricoeur is one of those thinkers who most people planned to read, but never did. However, I was struck recently by the convergence between “Deborah and Fred’s”:/author/fred-and-deborah/ discussions with “Tim Burke”:http://weblogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/ and the discussions surrounded my recent post on “Storkist Logic”:/2005/09/05/storkist-logic-its-threat-and-how-anthropology-can-avoid-being-crushed-on-both-sides/, and I thought it might be useful to drag out Ricoeur’s old ideas of ‘the conflict of interpretations’ and the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’.
Like most great social thinkers, Ricoeur’s work tends to be smunched down into a cute phrase with a one sentence explanation which summarizes what was already in the air anyway (according to David Schneider doing the well is how one gets tenure!). There is nothing wrong with this — you can read and be inspired by Foucault or Deleuze without being a Deleuze scholars (although it does drive Sapir scholars crazy to see what happens to the phrase “preformation of thought by language”). In the case of Ricoeur, the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ is usually taken to simply be a label which means “Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche and what they tried to do.” In fact, Ricoeur’s discussion of the concept deals with a much more hoary issues: the opposition between understanding and explanation.
Ricoeur argues that there are two ways to deal with a texts which require interpretation (paradigmatically, he is concerned with the bible, but by extension was concerned with all symbolic extension). On the one hand, there is the hermeneutics of ‘faith’– the attempt to decipher the meaning of an expression to capture its message. In the case of religious text, to hear the truth enunciated in it and understand it. This is a hermeneutics which seeks the ‘recollection of the meaning of the text’. He contrasts this to a hermeneutics of ‘suspicion’ (the opposite of faith), in which interpretation is seen as an exercise of demystification. Here, the goal is to lay bare the deeper truth behind a text — to understand the conditions which produced it which can be found hidden in the text. Although Ricoeur calls this a struggle for “the mytho-poetic core of the imagination” the idea itself is much older. In Time and Narrative Ricoeur points out that good narratives must have “both a semblance and a resemblance to truth.” Or, as Aristotle put it in the rhetoric, it’s not enough that something be true, it’s got to appear to be true.
At the risk of simplification, I’d say that anthropologists have long been of the ‘suspicion’ school of interpretation. There are two reasons for this. First, in the British tradition functionalism (whether structural or Malinowskian) has had a tendency to see beliefs as a function or reflex of underlying social causes. Beliefs about witchcraft and sorcery, classically have been seen as a function of the level of anomie in society (although it is wrong to attribute this position to Evans-Pritchard, as some mistakenly do). Second, while the Boasians had a different approach, but they shared a common belief with their colleagues across the pond — namely, that the beliefs of their research subjects were mistaken. Thus you can argue all day about why people believe in witches, but one answer to the question is almost never proposed: because there are witches.
In other words, when you disagree with the factual contents of the validity claims raised by your informants it is easy to analyze (and demystify) the rhetorical force with which those claims are made and avoid discussing their actual validity. In fact typically anthropologists wussed out and said they would ‘bracket’ the validity of those claims, which is just a way of stating that they thought it would be impolite to diss their informants religious beliefs.
This explanation of beliefs with regards to the conditions which render them plausible rather than to their validity is still something that anthropologists do almost (in my case at least) reflexively. In fact, this ‘demystification’ technique slides right into anthropology’s longstanding disposition to criticize what Marshall Sahlins called the ‘native anthropology of western cosmology’ by revealing how culture bound ‘our’ society is. Thus, for instance, when anthropologist see yet another paper on the natural athletic aptitude of black people our first reaction is to sigh and write it off to a culture that we have demonstrated time and time again is obsessed biogenetic substance and identity.
But, as one commentor “notes”:http://webapp.utexas.edu/blogs/archives/bleiter/000356.html (drawing very astutely on Gettier), just because people think something is true for the wrong reason doesn’t mean it’s not true. And indeed, one of the things that drives many reasonable people (the more sanguine of those who, as I put it, seek to ‘speak truth to culture’) nuts about anthropologists is that they never seem to address the substantive issues that people they disagree with them raise. For instance — why aren’t black people better athletes than white people? Address my hypothesis and not (as Fred and Deborah put it) how I’m “rooted in history.” I take it this is the crux of Tim Burke’s argument about ‘crude functionalism’ when anthropologists make blanket statements about the reception of Guns, Germs, and Steel. Although I wonder if he wouldn’t mind functionalism if it was ‘refined’ (insert Ramu sugar joke here)?
It seems to me that the most pressing issues in anthropology arise in three areas where the idea of bracketing the valifity claims of informants is becoming less and less an option for anthropologists because informants are being transformed into colleagues (or at least equals). First, in situations where indigenous people begin demanding the right to question anthropological representations of them (this is a live issue in Hawai’i, although not as live as it once was). Second, in studies of science and technology where anthropologists have tried a number of strategies (many of them unsatisfying to me) explain the ‘appearence’ or ‘mediation’ of fact in a laboratory or elsewhere — a project which forces them to deal with validity claims that are very deeply rooted in ‘their culture’. Third, in the realm of Public Anthropology, where anthropologists stake a claim to authoritativeness in public discourse and become interlocutors with people in the physical and natural scientists (the issues here are similar to those in studies of science and technology). Different topics, but united by a single underlying problem in the epistemology of anthropology, I think.