Hermeneutics in The History of The Sciences

Though both historians of science, Timothy Lenoir and Robert J. Richards are scholars whose work differs sharply in content and style. Whereas Lenoir’s work tends toward an Enlightenment methodology of critical textual scholarship, Richards’s work displays a penchant for Romantic hermeneutics, though this distinction is admitttedly still a generalization of differences which are more nuanced. Recall, by way of analogy, that Romantic thinkers, though they saw themselves as moving definitively beyond Kant, nevertheless understood their profound debt to him and continued to use specific concepts and techniques of his within their own systems.

Hermeneutics, then, is a general field of study which, though broken up into various distinct and often conflicting interests and methods, is nevertheless founded on these basic premises:

1) Language, and not images or numbers, is the basis medium of human thought; indeed Language, and not physical time and space, is the basic medium of human existence. In a shift anticipated by Diderot, though formulated in far more radical terms, the ear now takes precedence over the eye.

2) A proper understanding of human knowledge and experience requires that we sensitively use critical reading skills to uncovering the basic differences which make each utterance entirely unique and therefore strange.

3) No cultured activity, science included, can exist without writing, and consequently a proper understanding of all knowledge and activity, scientific or otherwise, necessary requires interpretive acts.

Because of his investigation into the inevitability and consequences of the use of language, and most specifically writing, in any scientific research, Lenoir’s work makes a significant contribution to the hermeneutics of the sciences. So, is there no difference then between Lenoir and Richards? Clearly there is. We see in these two authors to very distinct methods of hermeneutic investigation, which lead to very different results.

Richards attempts as much as possible to bring to life the entire organic context in which artists and scientists worked, so that we can feel how their work is expressive of a total way of life. Here, his work might be seen to bear a certain similarity to the researches of the explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. Richards was to see writing as a fragmentary relic of an entire CULTURAL and HISTORICAL moment whose reconstruction is necessary for our complete understanding of any given text.

Lenoir’s work, on the other hand, restricts itself entirely the written primary texts, and tries to read exactly what they are saying, free of the various historical accretions, conceptual and imaginative, which they have gathered through years of use and abuse. Lenoir, in line with Wilhelm von Humboldt‘s fascination with the “incisive sharpness of the individual vocal sound,” wants to hear each word in a given text in terms of a purely isolated VOICE. He wants to hear each individual sound indicated by a mark on a page exactly as it would have struck the ear at the time it what written, which is precisely why he so often stick to the original German words such as Bildungstrieb and Lebenskraft rather than translating strange words into English and thereby losing their strangeness.

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