Hermeneutics and Genealogies of Nature I

Text of talk I have to Physics Engineering department at Istanbul Technical University (where I teach philosophy), on 8th May this year. As it was to an audience that is educated, but not knowledgeable about philosophy, I am hoping it will make a fairly accessible set of blog posts (I’m dividing the talk into roughly 800 word sections, the length of  a serious newspaper commentary column) on what kind of philosophy it is that is usually known as Continental European Philosophy, some of its prehistory, and on some of the things said about science and nature within that way of doing philosophy.


French and German philosophers, and sometimes philosophers of other nationalities, have often followed a way of doing philosophy which emphasises interpretation (hermeneutics) and history of concepts (genealogy) rather than the experimental sciences, maths and logic. However, they have also sometimes brought these approaches into discussions of nature and the ways in which nature is understood through formal and experimental sciences, sometimes drawing on interests in these areas as well as hermeneutics and genealogy. The talk will look at some examples of how these philosophers have approached nature and what they may have to offer to the understanding of foundations of the natural sciences.

The manner of philosophising mentioned above is usually referred to as Continental or European philosophy, or Continental European philosophy. There is an implicit contrast between Britain and the mainland of Europe in the phrase. Not all philosophers in this style are European, but the most notable are. Not all European philosophers are philosophers of this kind, probably a minority, though the majority of the most important and original European philosophers since the late eighteenth century have been of this type, certainly if we restrict this group to the most select category. Most are French or German (including Austria and German speakers in the old Habsburg empire), though at least one of the most notable is Danish, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), and maybe also one is Russian, though Mikhail Bakhtin is just (1895-1975) as much, maybe more, a literary critic than a philosopher.

This style of philosophy is usually taken back to the immediate successors to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in German philosophy in the last years of the eighteenth century with Kant himself usually taken as between this category and the categories opposed to it of Analytic or Empiricist philosophy. However, we can take the approach developed by J.G. Fichte (1762-1814), F.W.J. Schelling (1775-1854) and G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), then Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), back to earlier philosophers who wrote in a way which is between philosophy and literature, in terms of writing style or in terms of using approaches appropriate to literary studies concentrating on interpretation of texts (hermeneutics) and histories of words  as used in texts(philology or genealogy), rather than observation of nature.

Michel de Montaigne (France, 1533-1592) will do as the first example.



Book Three

Essay 13 ‘On Experience’

Just as no form and no event completely resembles another, neither does any completely differ. What an ingenious medley is Nature’s: if our faces were not alike we could not tell man from beast: if they were not unalike we could not tell man from man. All things are connected by some similarity; yet every example limps and any correspondence which we draw from experience is always feeble and imperfect; we can nevertheless find some or other by which to link our comparisons. And that is how laws serve us: they can be adapted to each one of our concerns by means of some twisted, forced or oblique interpretation.

In Montaigne, we can see that a concern with interpretation intersects with interests in nature and how the objects in nature can be categorised, so questions of scientific methods, if at the most general level where metaphysics of nature also enters, that is questions of what kinds of natural objects exist.

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