Events during the year 2017 proved that an old discipline hasn’t lost its relevance. Hermeneutics, the methodology and study of interpretation, becomes increasingly important to distinguish signals from noise, facts from opinions and perspectives, and verity from illusion or deception.
- At the beginning of this year, Kellyanne Conway coined the term ‘alternative facts’ to defend the attendance numbers at President Trump’s inauguration. Alternative facts are a step further than fake news, as it rejects the idea of objective state of affairs (objective metaphysics) and assumes a radical kind of perspectivism (ontological relativism).
- In 2017, widespread criticism against societal and juridical misconducts, like #OscarSoWhite, #MeToo, and #BlackLivesMatter, gained further momentum. And this year, they have led to actual political discussions and handling (e.g. more diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations). However, the analyses and outcomes of these debates lack consensus: some claim that gender-swapped roles is the solution to ‘Hollywood’ while Afro-American right activists claim that #MeToo is hypocrite because it gained attention only because white women revealed their sexual harassment. The debates are still ‘fluid’, and the fundamental problems and moral imperatives are still searching for a stable equilibrium (the iron is still hot, but not yet struck).
- Politics is becoming increasingly ‘spectacular’: although political discourse has always been about persuasion and framing, social media has increased this tendency, leading to an ‘ocular democracy’ in which image and impression have become more important than verity and truth-speaking.
- Data is exploding: we are creating as much data day compared to the whole period from the dawn of civilization to 2003. 90% of all data comes from the last two years.
Hermeneutics is etymologically derived from Hermes, an Olympian God who brought the word of Zeus to the mortals in Greek mythology. It means that every interpreter, those who apply hermeneutics to texts, verbal and non-verbal communication, translate the words of God or the divine Scripture to mankind on earth. Although it has lost this religious connotation, hermeneutics is still about discovering or disclosing what is hidden and meant in the message. Using this information, questions and problems can be analyzed and possibly solved or dealt with. However, in our times there is a strong perception that information that is reduced to its ‘data form’ in combination with computerized learning analytics, like artificial intelligence, can solve most of our issues. As such, it is believed that hermeneutics as a discipline has become redundant.
Social phenomena are susceptible to contagion: how one event can seize all attention and lead to a snowball effect across a wider range of topics and issues
But it is a misconception to perceive data as the answer to most of our debates. First of all, from data alone we cannot infer values: from state of affairs (things that ‘are’) we cannot jump towards moral imperatives (how things ‘ought’ to be). We cannot analyze what we ought to do with #MeToo or BlackLivesMatter from analyzing the facts and data alone. To fight these misconducts we need moral imperatives, something which the philosophical tradition of hermeneutics provides. And because of the inductive nature of reasoning based on data, we might overlook ‘Black Swans’: because you have observed 100 birds that are white, it doesn’t mean all birds are white. In this way, relying on data and opinions of others might prevent us from seeing the next revolution. Furthermore, data is still no information: abstract coded strings don’t actually inform us about something. Instead, data might actually mirror our pre-conscious conception of the world, hence we interpret data from our dominant world view. As such, these data are interpreted in a way that the world starts mirroring our world view, hence reinforce our beliefs. This is what German philosopher Martin Heidegger calls the ‘hermeneutical circle’. In this way we should be skeptical whether data and AI can provide sufficient answers to our most demanding problems, like climate change, poverty, social unrest and unhappiness and of course moral and existential problems (like ‘why are we here?’). Sociologist Max Weber further developed this idea, and stated that the method of ‘Verstehen’ should always be used for explaining social phenomena, compared to ‘Erklären’, which is the method of the natural sciences. For example, understanding political and social behavior is something different from explaining why it takes time X for object A to reach place B, because the latter is about intentional and meaningful behavior, whereas the latter is the movement of dead matter. The first needs perspective, empathy and a comparative-historical approach, while the latter requires same mathematical equations.
Social phenomena are susceptible to contagion: how one event can seize all attention and lead to a snowball effect across a wider range of topics and issues. 2017 has been a year in which many socio-political debates and discussion have erupted and gained momentum simultaneously. However, analyzing the fundamental problems and interpreting the meaning of these discussion remains on ongoing process in which hermeneutics can guide us. Because there is still no consensus on these fundamental questions, demand for trustworthy partners that understand and explain these issues for us will increase. Depending on the matter and problem, new teachers, media companies, experts, political leaders, business ideas, heroes, guru’s, will rise to provide new narratives, alternative perspectives and new guidelines.