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Returning to the Interpretive Turn: Charles Taylor and His Critics

  • Jason Blakely


In skirmishes over the interpretive turn, the work of Charles Taylor is frequently cited as representing the state of the art. Yet a systematic assessment of Taylor's interpretivism in light of the most salient criticisms made against it has not been conducted. This paper argues that Taylor's interpretivism withstands the strongest criticisms made of it so far, and therefore is an essential resource for revitalizing the interpretive turn. Although it is widely acknowledged in the secondary literature that Taylor's interpretivism rests on ontological claims about human agency, this paper presents a novel justification for this thesis as derived from a Heideggerian phenomenology of moods. It also presents two novel ways in which a defense of Taylor's interpretivism helps to bridge the gap between empirical social science research and normative political and ideological critique. In the latter discussion, it draws on Taylor's most recently published work.



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1 Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Truth and Method, 2nd ed., trans. Weinsheimer, Joel and Marshall, Donald G. (New York: Continuum, 2004); Collingwood, R. G., The Idea of History, ed. Knox, T. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1946); Winch, Peter, The Idea of a Social Science (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958); Schutz, Alfred, The Phenomenology of the Social World, trans. Walsh, George and Lehnert, Frederick (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1967). Also, for important collections on interpretive theory see Gibbons, Michael, Interpreting Politics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987); Rabinow, Paul and Sullivan, William M., eds., Interpretive Social Science: A Second Look (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).

2 See Bevir, Mark, “Editor's Introduction: Interpretive Political Science,” in Interpretive Political Science, ed. Bevir (London: Sage, 2010), 1:xxixlii.

3 For examples of such misplaced critiques of contemporary interpretive practice in political science from a more “quantitative” point of view, see King, Gary, Keohane, Robert, and Verba, Sidney, Designing Social Inquiry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 3839; and from a more “qualitative” one, see Box-Steffensmeier, Janet, Brady, Henry, and Collier, David, “Political Science Methodology,” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Methodology, ed. Box-Steffensmeier, Brady, and Collier (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 2930; Gerring, John, Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). King, Keohane, and Verba's book is particularly influential in political science today, where it is often chosen as the basic textbook for methodology courses training graduate students.

4 Bevir, “Editor's Introduction”; Gibbons, Michael, “Hermeneutics, Political Inquiry, and Practical Reason: An Evolving Challenge to Political Science,” American Political Science Review 100, no. 4 (2006): 563–71.

5 Geertz, Clifford, “Interview with Clifford Geertz,” by Gerring, John, Qualitative Methods 1, no. 2 (2003): 26; Gibbons, “Hermeneutics, Political Inquiry,” 563; Martin, Michael, “Taylor on Interpretation and the Sciences of Man,” in Readings in the Philosophy of Social Science, ed. Martin, Michael and McIntyre, Lee C. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), 259. Taylor's essays on interpretivism are also frequently reprinted in major collections on the philosophy of social science. See, for example, Bevir, ed., Interpretive Political Science, vol. 1; Rabinow and Sullivan, Interpretive Social Science; Dallmayr, Fred and McCarthy, Thomas, eds., Understanding and Social Inquiry (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1977).

6 Bernstein, Richard, The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978), 109–13.

7 Choi, Naomi, “Defending Anti-Naturalism After the Interpretive Turn: Charles Taylor and the Human Sciences,” History of Political Thought 30, no. 4 (2009): 693718.

8 Choi rightly notes that this can be seen in Taylor's early critique of behaviorism: Taylor, Charles, The Explanation of Behaviour (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964).

9 See Abbey, Ruth, “Introduction: Timely Meditations in an Untimely Mode — The Thought of Charles Taylor,” in Charles Taylor, ed. Abbey, Ruth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 3; Choi, “Defending Anti-Naturalism,” 709; Nicholas Smith, “Taylor and the Hermeneutic Tradition,” in Charles Taylor, ed. Abbey, 31.

10 For prominent political-scientist methodologists who share some of the objections to interpretivism presented in this section, see King, Keohane, and Verba, Designing Social Inquiry, 38–39; Box-Steffensmeier, Brady, and Collier, “Political Science Methodology,” 29–30; and Gerring, Social Science Methodology.

11 Martin, Michael, Verstehen: The Uses of Understanding in Social Science (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2000), 182; Kincaid, Harold, Philosophical Foundations of the Social Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 207; Pinkard, Terry, “Interpretation and Verification in the Human Sciences: A Note on Taylor,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 6, no. 2 (1976): 172.

12 Martin, Verstehen, 4–5.

13 Little, Daniel, Varieties of Social Explanation (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1991), 86; cf. 68, 233.

14 Pinkard, “Interpretation and Verification,” 172. See also Kincaid, Philosophical Foundations, 208.

15 Martin, Verstehen, 168.

16 Pinkard, “Interpretation and Verification,” 167; Bohman, James, New Philosophy of Social Science (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 112–14.

17 Martin, Verstehen, 168–75.

18 Kincaid, Philosophical Foundations, 209.

19 As Pinkard puts it: “If there are no ‘brute data’ in the natural sciences, why claim anything more for the sciences of man?” (“Interpretation and Verification,” 168–69).

20 Ironically, confusion concerning the basic source of Taylor's antinaturalism is even evidenced in fellow interpretivists. Notably, Clifford Geertz assumes that the basis of Taylor's antinaturalism is not ontological but rather strategic. See Geertz, “The Strange Estrangement: Taylor and the Natural Sciences,” in Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism, ed. Tully, James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 8395.

21 Abbey's discussion is particularly illuminating: Charles Taylor, 170–71.

22 Abbey, Charles Taylor, 58–62; Smith, “Taylor and the Hermeneutic Tradition.” This point is not entirely lost on Taylor's critics. Pinkard and Martin are particularly aware that Taylor's antinaturalism might in fact derive from the peculiar objects of study in the human sciences. But both also largely neglect this ontological line of argument, focusing their energies on specious candidates for Taylor's antinaturalism. And although Pinkard has the defense of writing before “Self-Interpreting Animals” was published, the concept does appear already in Taylor, Charles, “Interpretation and the Sciences of Man,” in Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 23. See Pinkard, “Interpretation and Verification,” 169, 172–73; Martin, Verstehen, 181.

23 Abbey, “Introduction,” 3; Choi, “Defending Anti-Naturalism,” 709; Smith, “Taylor and the Hermeneutic Tradition,” 31.

24 Taylor, Charles, “Self-Interpreting Animals,” in Human Agency and Language: Philosophical Papers 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 59.

25 Abbey, “Introduction,” 3; Smith, “Taylor and the Hermeneutic Tradition,” 31.

26 Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time, trans. Stambaugh, Joan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 134.

27 Ibid., 126–28.

28 Ibid., 134.

29 Ibid., 129–30.

30 Taylor, “Self-Interpreting Animals,” 76.

31 Ibid., 48. Taylor's use of “emotion” is far more expansive than the normal usage of the term, making it akin to Heidegger's expansive concept of a “mood.”

32 Ibid., 72.

33 Ibid., 49, 72.

34 Ibid., 48.

35 My discussion of strong evaluation is highly indebted to Abbey and Smith. See Abbey, Charles Taylor, 17–26; Smith, Nicholas, Charles Taylor: Meaning, Morals and Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 2002), 8997. Smith makes the distinction between evaluation (as conscious, rational activity) and strong values (as tacit, implicitly present distinctions of worth). I accept Smith's argument but for the sake of simplicity here follow Taylor in using “evaluation” to cover both.

36 Taylor, “Self-Interpreting Animals,” 60.

37 Ibid., 66; Charles Taylor, “The Concept of a Person,” in Human Agency and Language, 102–3.

38 Smith, Charles Taylor: Meaning, Morals and Modernity, 90, 9495.

39 Again, I should reiterate my debt to Abbey's and Smith's insights in this discussion: Abbey, Charles Taylor, 17–26; Smith, Charles Taylor: Meaning, Morals and Modernity, 89–97.

40 Taylor, Charles, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 27.

41 Taylor has argued that coherent strong evaluation is an inescapable feature of healthy human agency and undamaged personhood. See Sources of the Self, 33, 27.

42 Taylor, “Self-Interpreting Animals,” 63.

43 Ibid., 72.

44 Ibid.

45 Ibid., 63, 72.

46 Abbey, Charles Taylor, 153–54; Smith, Charles Taylor: Meaning, Morals and Modernity, 121–23, 90.

47 Taylor, “Self-Interpreting Animals,” 63–64.

48 Charles Taylor, “What Is Human Agency?,” in Human Agency and Language, 36–37.

49 Taylor, Sources of the Self, 34.

50 Taylor, “Self-Interpreting Animals,” 55.

51 I have thus arrived, by way of a Heideggerian phenomenology of moods, at Taylor's famous “double hermeneutic.” Compare with Abbey's insightful discussion: Charles Taylor, 58–62, 153–54.

52 Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 595.

53 Ibid.

54 Taylor, “Self-Interpreting Animals,” 75.

55 Taylor, “Understanding and Ethnocentricity,” 118.

56 Taylor, Charles, “Comparison, History, Truth,” in Philosophical Arguments (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 148–51.

57 Ibid., 149.

58 Abbey, Charles Taylor, 158–64; Smith, Charles Taylor: Meaning, Morals and Modernity, 129.

59 Martin, Verstehen, 182. See also Kincaid, Philosophical Foundations, 207; Pinkard, “Interpretation and Verification,” 172.

60 E.g., Peter Winch (Charles Taylor, “Understanding and Ethnocentricity,” in Philosophy and the Human Sciences, 117).

61 Taylor, “Understanding and Ethnocentricity,” 124, 118.

62 Ibid., 123.

63 Abbey, Charles Taylor, 154, 156; Smith, Charles Taylor: Meaning, Morals and Modernity, 123, 130–31. I draw on their respective discussions in what follows.

64 Taylor, “Comparison, History, Truth,” 153; Taylor, “The hermeneutics of conflict,” in Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and his Critics, ed. Tully, James (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 226.

65 Taylor, “The hermeneutics of conflict,” 220.

66 Taylor, “Comparison, History, Truth,” 153.

67 Taylor, introduction to Human Agency and Language, 5–6. See also Sources of the Self, 9–10.

68 Taylor has continued to elaborate on his historical and ideological critique of naturalism in his recent work A Secular Age, 559–93.

69 Pinkard, “Interpretation and Verification,” 170, 168–69.

70 Martin, Verstehen, 168, 174. See also Kincaid, Philosophical Foundations, 209. Even Bohman, who acknowledges Taylor's turn toward comparative forms of rational validation, nevertheless neglects the key text and his exegesis remains incomplete (Bohman, New Philosophy of Social Science, 132–33).

71 Charles Taylor, “Explanation and Practical Reason,” in Philosophical Arguments, 54. While they do not pick up on the influence of MacIntyre specifically, a similar point has been compellingly made by both Abbey and Smith, who argue that Taylor's view of an interpretive social science allows for objectivity on the basis of comparison and comprehensiveness between rival theories (Abbey, Charles Taylor, 156, 152–72; Smith, Charles Taylor: Meaning, Morals and Modernity, 125).

72 Taylor, “Explanation and Practical Reason,” 54.

73 Ibid., 54.

74 Taylor, A Secular Age, chaps. 12–14.

75 Taylor, “Explanation and Practical Reason,” 48.

76 Smith, Charles Taylor: Meaning, Morals and Modernity, 132–34, has a particularly rich discussion of this sort of objectivity.

77 Ibid., 127.

78 Taylor, “Explanation and Practical Reason,” 51, 53.

79 Charles Taylor, “Social Theory as Practice,” in Philosophy and the Human Sciences, 101.

80 Once again, in this claim I follow the leads of Abbey and Smith: Abbey, Charles Taylor, 155, 157; Smith, Charles Taylor: Meaning, Morals and Modernity, 126–28.

81 Taylor, “Social Theory as Practice,” 113.

82 For a popular example of this spread see Levitt, Steven D. and Dubner, Stephen J., Freakonomics (New York: HarperCollins, 2005).

83 Taylor, “Social Theory as Practice,” 109, 111.

84 Taylor, A Secular Age, 697.

85 Ibid., 699.

86 Taylor, Charles, “Democratic Exclusion (and Its Remedies?),” in Dilemmas and Connections (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), 140.

87 Charles Taylor, “Nationalism and Modernity,” in Dilemmas and Connections, 91.

88 Taylor, “Democratic Exclusion,” 140.

89 Ibid.

90 Ibid.


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