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  • Observing Interpretation: A Sociological View of Hermeneutics
  • Elena Esposito (bio)

The topic of this paper is the relationship between hermeneutics and observation theory. This relationship, however, will not be considered through a comparison of theories—which does not fall within the interests or the purposes of the analysis I would like to develop. It is not a matter of discovering reciprocal confirmations and even less of establishing the superiority of one position against the other. Rather, I would like to show how small differences in the theoretical approach result in considerable differences in the attitude and criteria by which the relevant problems are individuated. And among other things the study should show what observation theory can offer to the issue of interpretation in general.

Observation theory—or, more properly, the theory of second-order observation 1 —arises from a combination of reflections derived from cybernetics, systems theory, neurophysiology, and biology, with “irritations” drawn from psychological therapy, non-classical logic, linguistics, and other fields as well. The starting point is the consideration [End Page 593] that each observer finds in his world, besides the “simple” reflectionless objects (stones, trees, etc.), 2 particular “objects” that themselves observe their world—and the world of each observer is different according to the distinctions guiding his observation. The first observer cannot deal adequately with these specific objects, if he starts from the premise of a univocal world, which would be the same for everyone at every moment. If he wants to observe the other observers as observers, he must take into account the fact that they themselves observe, and do it in their own way. Besides the “what” of the world, he must then observe the “how” of observations by others. One speaks, in such cases, of second-order observation. From here arises a whole series of problems, connected primarily with the fact that observers observe each other and know it. Observing the world of other observers, the first observer finds himself as he is observed by others. Observing others he is compelled to observe himself as well. And he is compelled to do it, because in dealing with the specific object “observer” he cannot avoid noticing that he himself is an observer among observers—and that his world, within which he distinguishes the worlds of other observers, is only one of many worlds. The whole question of self- reference, then, is connected with observation, and second-order cybernetics has the goal of elaborating a rigorous theory which starts exactly from this condition of circularity—seen not as an accident to be avoided, but rather as the starting point of every possible knowledge. Niklas Luhmann’s general theory of social systems broadens the concept of observation by applying it to the operations both of psychic systems (consciousnesses) and of social systems (first of all society). 3 Moreover, communication is a type of observation of an object (the issue it deals with), and can come about in a more or less complex way.

Hermeneutics in Gadamer’s sense 4 is meant as a general theory of interpretation: of all kinds of texts, but also of historical and social reality. Hermeneutics comes into play whenever one runs into the circularity due to the fact that the identity of a text comes into being only in the course of the interpretation. The parts of the text have a sense that depends on the sense of the whole (the total interpretation)—but [End Page 594] this whole can be understood only starting from the sense of the parts. If one refrains from dogmatic presuppositions—ultimately from the idea of a truth independent of the process of interpretation—the interpreter must be conceived as dealing with something external which, however, comes into being only in and through its appropriation. As a theory of observation, a theory of interpretation tries then to answer the question: how is it possible to grasp something external if one can know it only on the basis of one’s own categories—i.e., by making it internal? And how can something internal remain nevertheless external and build a challenge for the interpretation (or for the observation)? Today this kind of circularity is certainly no longer...

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pp. 593-619
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