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Research in the Society of Organizations

Research in the Sociology of Organizations

Emerald Book Chapter: Hermeneutic philosophy and organizational theory

Frank J. Barrett, Edward H. Powley, Barnett Pearce

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To cite this document: Frank J. Barrett, Edward H. Powley, Barnett Pearce, (2011),"Hermeneutic philosophy and organizational

theory", Haridimos Tsoukas, Robert Chia, in (ed.) Philosophy and Organization Theory (Research in the Sociology of Organizations,

Volume 32), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 181 - 213

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Frank J. Barrett, Edward H. Powley and

Barnett Pearce


Our aim in this chapter is twofold: first, to review briefly the history of the

hermeneutic traditions; second, to examine its influence in organization

studies. We begin with a review of hermeneutic philosophy including

ancient Greek origins and Biblical hermeneutics. We then delve more

deeply into the work of 20th-century hermeneutic philosophy, particularly

Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur, to demonstrate how hermeneutics

became a field that is concerned not only with texts but also with verbal

and nonverbal forms of action and the preunderstanding that makes any

interpretation possible. Finally, we explore how hermeneutic philosophers

claim that interpretation is the mode by which we live and carry on with

one another. In the third section, we suggest that the field of

organizational studies has discovered the relevance of hermeneutic theory,

a rarely explicitly acknowledged debt. In particular, we outline the

influence of hermeneutic theory on several figural areas, including culture,

sensemaking, identity, situated learning, and organizational dialogue.

Philosophy and Organization Theory

Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Volume 32, 181–213

Copyright r 2011 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited

All rights of reproduction in any form reserved

ISSN: 0733-558X/doi:10.1108/S0733-558X(2011)0000032009


Keywords: hermeneutic philosophy; organization studies; interpretive

sociology; Heidegger; Gadamer; Ricoeur; organizational culture;

linguistic turn; identity.


Hermeneutic philosophy as a theory of interpretation of experience

emphasizes how we cope in the world and come to understand objects

and subjects. While its origins focus on the study of biblical texts and later

ancient and classical cultures, hermeneutics as a philosophy offers a way of

understanding the process of interpretation. Its influence today extends to

organization studies, where scholars studying culture, identity, sensemaking,

and learning draw on the philosophical tenets of hermeneutics to explain

human action, intentionality, and meaning in the context of organizations.

Our aim is to review briefly the history of the hermeneutic tradition and

examine its influence in organization studies. We begin with a review of

hermeneutic philosophy broadly, beginning with the ancient Greek origins.

We also review the emergence of Biblical hermeneutics, which is concerned

with the correct interpretation of sacred texts. Our main focus is the

emergence of philosophical hermeneutics, chiefly in the work of Heidegger,

Gadamer, and Ricoeur, to demonstrate how hermeneutics became a field

that is concerned not only with texts but also with verbal and nonverbal

forms of action and the preunderstanding that makes any interpretation

possible. Finally, we explore how hermeneutic philosophers claim that

interpretation is the mode by which we live and carry on with one another.

In the third section, we suggest that the field of organizational studies has

discovered the relevance of hermeneutic theory, a rarely explicitly acknowledged

debt. In particular, we outline the influence of hermeneutic theory on

several figural areas, including culture, sensemaking, identity, situated

learning, and organizational dialogue.


Greek Origins of Hermeneutics

In Greek mythology, Hermes was the Olympian god who was the primary

boundary crosser. The patron of travelers, orators, athletes, and thieves, he

was known as the one who brought messages from the gods to mortals and


as one not above a bit of trickery in the process. Crossing the boundaries

between the gods and mortals required interpreting messages as well as

conveying them. As mortals became interested in interpretation of what

other people said and did, often recorded in ‘‘texts,’’ they borrowed Hermes’

name for their work, calling it hermeneutics.

The Greeks in fact were quite concerned about the meaning of texts –

poems, dramas, Socrates’ dialogues. But there were two very different ideas

about hermaneutics in classical Greece; both were set out in Plato’s Protagoras.

In Plato’s hands, this was a dialogue between the esteemed and respected

sophist Protagoras and the iconoclastic Socrates (Plato’s teacher). Among

other issues was the interpretation of texts. Protagoras was a storyteller who

belonged to a long tradition of people who used what we would now call

‘‘narratives’’ and their ‘‘thick descriptions’’ as the way to develop character,

adjudicate disputes, and persuade people about public policy. In Plato’s hands,

Socrates was concerned with knowledge of unchanging realities. The two sides

of hermeneutics were the contemporary interpretation of the significance of

texts for present purposes (Protagoras’ view) and the reading through texts to

find out their true meaning (Socrates’ view).

Since Plato wrote this dialogue, Socrates won. When Plato banned poets

from his ideal Republic, he did so partially because he viewed them as

dangerous, creating expressions that fail to convey the truth. He warns that

poets are possessed by madness, tell wild stories, create false representations

of gods and heroes, and hence will corrupt the taste of the citizens. The idea

that hermeneutics was a way of finding out what the author ‘‘really meant’’

or of the truth embedded in the text dominated hermeneutics for most of the

subsequent centuries. In the past 400 years, however, the view associated

with Protagoras has come back into favor and has been enriched by many


Biblical Hermeneutics and Fredrich Schleiermacher

In Western history, hermeneutics became associated with the interpretation

of sacred texts. Biblical hermeneutics evolved out of a concern for the

correct methods for understanding the Bible. Through most of the Middle

Ages, true understanding of Biblical texts was relegated to a select few –

usually priests trained in theology who knew the lingua franca within the

Church hierarchy. During the Reformation, the question of correct

interpretation of sacred texts became a contested one. The Reformers felt

that Church dogma had obscured the meaning of scripture and spawned a

renewed interest in the meaning of scripture.

Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 183

In the 18th century, scholars discussed the importance of understanding

these sacred documents within their living contexts, a principle known as the

‘‘canon of totality.’’ A group of theologians began to return to classical

Greek and Hebrew to understand the original meaning of the text. Some

even began to question whether scripture has the same meaning in every

time and in all places – in other words, ‘‘meaning is not fixed.’’ Some began

to see the Bible as a collection that required not just dogmatic theological

but also historical interpretation. In the context of this century, we

encounter the first important philosopher of hermeneutics.

Fredrich Schleiermacher, an 18th-century German philosopher/theologian,

struggled to reconcile the Enlightenment tradition of knowledge as an

egalitarian endeavor with his Protestant theology. Assuming that the

meaning of scripture is not relegated to only the hierarchy of the Church,

how does one discern the intent of the authors of scripture? He was the first

to propose that what is needed is a general theory of hermeneutics, a theory

of interpretation and understanding of all texts, not only sacred texts,

opening the door to looking at challenge of interpreting all forms of human

communication. Interpretation, he said, is a legitimate way of knowing that

is distinct from positivistic knowledge.2 He was the first to explicitly

articulate the principle that understanding cannot be accomplished by

isolating parts. Understanding the meaning of a text depends upon larger

context. Interpretation is circular, a movement back and forth between parts

and whole:

There isyan opposition between the unity of the whole and the individual parts of the

work, so that the task could be set in a twofold manner, namely to understand the unity

of the whole by the individual parts and the value of the individual parts via the unity of

the whole. (Schleiermacher, 1998)

This is one of the first references to the hermeneutic circle. What

Schleiermacher has done is to call attention to the role of the reader. The

reader anticipates the unfolding whole as he or she encounters each word

and each sentence, and each word and sentence shapes the reader’s

anticipation of the unfolding whole.

He proposed a set of interpretive rules that are beyond the scope of this

chapter. But perhaps his biggest contribution, besides his influence on Dilthey,

was his sense of the goal of interpretation. For Schleiermacher, understanding

is a matter of inverting the process by which the text was written:

Just as every speech has a twofold relationship, both to the whole of the language and to

the collected thinking of the speaker, so also there exists in all understanding of the


speech two moments: understanding it as something drawn out of language and as a

‘‘fact’’ in the thinking of the speaker. (Schleiermacher, quoted in R. E. Palmer, 1969)

Understanding is a psychological, empathic accomplishment in which the

reader seeks to close the gap between his or her understanding and the

author’s beliefs and intentions to get inside the mind of the author.

Gadamer refers to Schleiermacher’s approach to hermeneutics: ‘‘to understand

the author better than he understood himself’’ (Gadamer, p. 192).

Schleiermacher’s notion that interpretation is an attempt to reconstruct the

original meaning of the author is a notion that Gadamer will challenge.

Wilhelm Dilthey and verstehen

Dilthey was a biographer of Schleiermacher, and is regarded as the first

modern philosopher of history. He articulated the epistemological foundation

for the social sciences as distinct from the natural sciences. In order to

fully grasp the importance of Dilthey’s contribution, it is important to

revisit the Enlightenment world in which he lived, a century that had given

birth to the natural sciences. The early fathers of sociology, Comte and Saint

Simon, searched for a positivist ‘‘science of society’’ and envisioned a social

science that emulated the natural sciences. Under the influence of the

Enlightenment revolution, the task of the new discipline would be to explain

the relationship between the various parts of society as it evolves in

progressive stages toward a new social order, the industrial society. They

extolled the linear and incremental nature of scientific progress that draws

upon past experiences and discoveries contributing toward building

predictive theories. The task of social science, as in the natural sciences,

would be to identify recurring, unmalleable, and systematic patterns, and

transhistorical and valid principles to explain permanence among flux.

Dilthey, however, claimed that the human sciences call for a unique

methodological approach, that human phenomena cannot be grasped by

using the logic of the natural sciences. Human action, he argued, is

subjective, guided by motivations and intentions of actors. The natural

scientist is interested in abstract laws; the social scientist is interested in the

meaning that human actors ascribe to their actions. The appropriate method

for understanding actors’ motivation is the experience of empathy, or

verstehen. Rather than seek objective detachment, one should aim to

reproduce the experience of the actors.

Thus, the prime data that the human sciences seek to grasp are not objects

or atoms or events, but meaning. Dilthey moves to abandon the Kantian

Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 185

notion of consciousness as sensation as if it were a matter of atoms

impacting the mind. Instead, he insists on the language of ‘‘erlebnis.’’3 In his

1960 classic Truth andMethod (discussed below), Gadamer makes a point of

emphasizing Dilthey’s use of the German word ‘‘erlebenis,’’ roughly

translated in English as ‘‘experience.’’ Originally the word designated ‘‘to

be still alive when something happens.’’ Gadamer points out that for

Dilthey, the word attempts to connote ‘‘the immediacy with which

something real is grasped,’’ something that makes a special impression of

lasting importance, such as encountering an exceptionally moving work of

art. Gadamer will challenge many of Dilthey’s precepts.

Martin Heidegger and the Understanding of Being

In order to understand the impact of Heidegger, it is important to appreciate

the context in which he studied, in particular the influence of his teacher,

Husserl, and the field of phenomenology. In his concern for disclosing

consciousness, Hilthey advances Dilthey’s concepts, particularly in his

emphasis on intentionality, but in a way that would be rejected by

Heidegger. While he would not be considered a philosopher of hermeneutics,

Husserl becomes an important figure in that several of his concepts,

including the role of language and meaning, are challenged by Heidegger

and Gadamer as they advance the philosophy of hermeneutics.

For Husserl, the meaning of an expression is dependent upon what the

speaker intends through the use of signs. Understanding is a mental process

of grasping the intentionality of the speaker conveyed in words. Signs are

representations of objects, and to understand one connects word-signs to

referents.4 A meaning intention is ‘‘an understanding, a peculiar actexperience

relating to the expression, which is presentyshines through the

expressionylends it meaning and thereby a relation to objects’’ (Husserl,

1900/1901, p. 302). Heidegger reacted against Husserl’s view of language as

signs that carry the speaker’s meaning and disclose consciousness. He reacted

against the notion of mental representations that carry meaning or intention.

In Heidegger’s view, Dilthey and Husserl were prisoners of the Cartesian

and Kantian separation of subject and object. In Heidegger’s view we have

not only inherited a misrepresentation of consciousness but also inherited a

misrepresentation of being itself from the early Greeks and the Enlightenment

philosophers. Whereas the Enlightenment view of knowledge

assumes separate and self-sufficient subjects and objects, for Heidegger

‘‘being’’ is holistic and integrated.


In Heidegger’s philosophy, when Dilthey, Schleiermacher, and Husserl

asked the question ‘‘how does the subject comes to know an object?’’ they

were missing the holistic context. Heidegger noted that in order for any

object to have salience for a subject, they are not separate entities but both

(subject and object) already belong to a world that allows the object to show

up as meaningful. There is already a preunderstanding of being that allows

objects to show up, the background world the basis upon which any object

is relevant or meaningful.

With this move, Heidegger makes a crucial ontological turn with

hermeneutics. Interpretation is not just meaning; it is grounded in a whole

set of background practices, a kind of preunderstanding that makes knowing

possible. We are beings-in-the-world, involved, absorbed, coping with an

entire referential totality of equipment and other beings. We are not

detached analytical monads. When one is absorbed in something, such as

when one is hammering a nail, reading a book, or listening to lecture, one is

‘‘being-in-the world’’ of referential totality and barely noticing background

practices. Only when there is a breakdown, when the hammer one is using

feels too heavy, or the chair one wants to sit in falls apart, does one see the

world as one of separate subject and object. When you describe an object,

such as a hammer as ‘‘too heavy,’’ you have taken the object out of its

holistic context within which one copes. The error that misled Descartes and

Kant and later Schleiermacher, Dilthey, and Husserl is to view knowledge

and understanding as contents inside the mind. Rather, understanding is

‘‘being in the world,’’ an openness to the world.

Hermeneutics is more than a methodology for understanding; it is the

fundamental human condition of being. To say that understanding is our

mode of being means that we inhabit the world in a prereflective way, a way

that allows anything to show up as meaning something, a background set of

practices that orient us in the world. To understand is to understand the

projection of one’s possibilities of being. We are always already projecting

ahead of ourselves in time, disclosing possible worlds.5

What does he mean by the notion of preunderstanding? Preunderstanding

is our holistic background skills that give us familiarity, various particular

coping skills that hang together in coherent, coordinated ways, intermeshed

with referential totality of equipment, roles, and norms; these holistic coping

skills are our understanding that enable us to get around in the world and

allow us to make sense of everything we encounter. The notion of ‘‘pre’’ in

preunderstanding can be discerned in the following quote: ‘‘Any interpretation

which is to contribute understanding, must already have understood

what is to be interpreted’’ (Heidegger, 1962, p. 194).

Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 187

Language, he claimed, is the house of being. We are ‘‘thrown’’ into a way

of talking and being that precedes us, so that our language speaks us rather

than we speak our language. This is an enigmatic claim. What might it mean?

It hits to the heart of Heidegger’s notion that ideas do not exist in the human

mind (or in the mind of some other Supreme Being) prior to being brought

into speech. Rather, ideas and concepts are language. Language is context

that expresses and determines who we are (Heidegger, 1971, p. 146).6

One implication of Heidegger’s insight is that the self is always already

participating in a context that guides the projection of meaning; knowing is

never an achievement of an isolated subject. One is already embedded within a

tradition of being.7 In fact, one only ‘‘has’’ an identity because of the relational

whole that gives meaning to one’s actions and the totality of surrounding

equipment. A mountain climber climbing a mountain is not detached and

analytical, not aware of a separation between self and world; he has an identity

only because of his holistic relation to the snow, rocks, ice picks, boots, etc. In

this way, Heidegger has taken a radical turn. He extends notion of

hermeneutic circle – not just relation between subject and text but also the

relationship between self-understanding and understanding of the world.

Hans Gadamer and the Fusion of Horizons

Many regard Heidegger’s student Hans Gadamer as the central hermeneutic

philosopher of the 20th century. His emphasis on hermeneutics within the

humanities became so central that Heidegger declared ‘‘hermeneutic

philosophy to Gadamer’s own cause’’ (Albert, 2002, p. 17). He looks at the

question of hermeneutics both as a set of principles or methodology for

interpreting meaning and as an ontology. His book Truth and Method is in

essence a history of hermeneutics. In this sense, the title of his book is ironic in

that he challenges the ‘‘method’’ of hermeneutics as a cognitive process of

empathy put forward by Dilthey and he offers as different way to consider

what we accept as truth.

Gadamer explores numerous meanings of the term ‘‘understanding.’’ He

draws on Heidegger and Aristotle in arguing that understanding is

essentially an application, a practical ‘‘know-how,’’ a capacity to do or

apply something. This is a departure from Dilthey’s notion to claim

methodological rigor; understanding (verstehen) is a cognitive process of

empathic re-enactment. For Gadamer, understanding is less a cognitive

achievement than a practical one. To understand something is to be able to

apply a skill, such as a cook engaged in cooking or an engineer designing a


tool. He draws upon Heidegger’s notion that understanding is always also a

self-understanding, a realization that it is I who am capable of cooking or

doing. This is the way in which understanding is my primary way of being in

the world, the mode of my participation in the world.

Gadamer adds another dimension to what it means to ‘‘understand.’’

Understanding is related to agreement. To understand a text is akin to

entering a dialogue between conversation partners seeking to achieve some

kind of common ground. This is not the same as grasping the author’s

intention. Understanding is always translation, a matter of putting things

into words, taking something foreign and articulating it in terms that are

familiar. Understanding, application, interpretation, and translation are

terms that are almost interchangeable for Gadamer.

Since interpretation is a translation, an attempt to take something foreign

and relate it to familiar words, it is impossible to get outside of prejudice. In

fact, this is perhaps the most radical of Gadamer’s points and as direct a

challenge to Enlightenment view of knowledge as we are likely to find:

prejudices are conditions for understanding. One can never get outside of

one’s words in order to grasp a text:

We are always already embedded within an historical tradition and cannot get outside of

it in order to get a ‘‘truer’’ picture of the text. There is no place to stand outside of

history and/or culture to get a better grasp of things. Even becoming aware of this

doesn’t help: ‘the standpoint beyond any standpointyis pure illusion.’ (p. 376)

There is no direct access to a world unmediated by language. We always

inherit interpretive biases in the form of language. Biases bring forth

meaning by anticipation, expectation, and projection. Understanding, then,

is a projection of the horizon of the reader that meets the horizon of the text.

Gadamer introduces an important phrase that many cite as one of his core

contributions to the field of hermeneutics: understanding is a fusion of

horizons. The dialogical encounter between reader and text expands or

contracts the reader’s world. Drawing directly upon Heidegger, prejudices

and biases are our openness to the world, they are the conditions that allow

us to experience anything.

Gadamer is interested in the possibility of openness when he suggests how

to approach the ‘‘other’’ as we enter dialogue with a text, a person, or an

event. He calls for the acknowledgment that one’s truth claim should be

taken seriously and that one should approach the ‘‘other’’ with a willingness

to accept the others’ differences, a willingness to allow our horizons to be

challenged. Gadamer inherits the term ‘‘horizon’’ from Husserl who used it

to refer to perspective or viewpoint, but appropriates it in non-Kantian

Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 189

ways. He writes: ‘‘The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything

that can be seen from a particular vantage point. Applying this to the

thinking mind, we speak of narrowness of horizon, of the possible expansion

of horizon, of the opening up of new horizons, and so forth’’ (Gadamer,

1960, p. 302). Understanding is a ‘‘fusion of horizons,’’ the meeting of

differences. ‘‘A horizon is not a rigid boundary but something that moves

with one and invites one to advance further’’ (Gadamer, 1960, p. 245). The

reader of the text extends or projects his or her horizon toward a text,

another person, or an event. The text, person, or event is no immaculate

object, but comes with its own horizon or historical context and projects its

horizon outward to the reader. I play out a possibility of my own being

when I interpret a text.

Gadamer’s privileging of language is an important contribution to the

field of hermeneutics: ‘‘Being that can be understood is language.’’ For him

language is not only a means of communication. Any understanding that

cannot be put into words is no understanding at all. Drawing upon

Heidegger’s notion, it is language that makes thought possible, a direct

contradiction to the Enlightenment view in Kant, Schleiermacher, Dilthey,

and Husserl that holds language as carrier of meaning.

Paul Ricoeur: Metaphor, Narrative, and Selfhood

Paul Ricoeur is another significant figure in the development of

hermeneutics (1967, 1981, 1984). His philosophy touches many disciplines,

including psychoanalysis, religion, ethics, literary criticism, and linguistics.

It is far beyond the scope of this chapter to summarize his work, but suffice

it to say that his theory of hermeneutics is woven throughout. In some ways,

his entire philosophy is a philosophy of reading. More so than Heidegger

and Gadamer, Ricoeur made an impact on literary studies, particularly in

his analysis of the structures of narrative and metaphor. The notion of the

‘‘text’’ as metaphor for speech and action becomes a central theme in his

work. We are always reading, or interpreting discourse in the form of

speech, action, or texts.We have inherited knowledge embedded in texts, the

meaning of which is concealed and must be revealed through the work of

hermeneutics. All facets of life in this sense are like portions of text to be

deciphered and interpreted.

A theme that concerned Ricoeur was the notion of selfhood. For Ricoeur,

each person is obligated to strive for self-understanding8 – we are beings


who inquire into ourselves, who seek to understand who we are. More

importantly, for our purposes here, self-understanding is a hermeneutic

achievement and occurs through ‘‘signs deposited in memory and

imagination by the great literary traditions’’ (Ricoeur, 1995, p. 16). The

Stanford Encyclopedia claims that this is the core theme of Ricoeur’s work

and that he has written a philosophical anthropology of the ‘‘capable

person,’’ one that acknowledges the vulnerabilities and capabilities that

humans display in their activities.

Ricoeur outlines two different genres of hermeneutics. One is an approach

toward texts with faith, openness, and willingness to grasp the sacred, hence

his influence in the field of theology. His analysis of metaphor and narrative

emphasizes the potential for novelty and new understanding. The other

approach is the ‘‘hermeneutics of suspicion,’’ the attempt to demystify, the

assumption that one must get behind the disguises of the text. Ricoeur called

Marx, Freud, and Nietzche ‘‘masters of suspicion’’ who approached human

consciousness as deceptive and attempted to uncover its falseness to arrive

at something more authentic.9

Identity and selfhood are not stable or pregiven constructs. We must

construct a coherent identity to become intelligible to ourselves. We rely on

stories and narrative emplotments to make discrete events intelligible and

connect disparate experiences. We are engaging in narrative construction

whenever we ‘‘bring together facts as heterogeneous as agents, goals, means,

interactions, circumstances, and unexpected results’’ (Ricoeur, 1984, pp. 42–

45). Through narrative we are able to discern a larger whole apart from each

distinct element.

One constructs different kinds of stories to account for a myriad of

disparate events. Stories give form and relate events to one another. They

allow us to attribute causality and intention to events. When we talk about

an action as a manifestation of intent, we are positing a plot but doing so


The paradox of emplotment is that it inverts the effect of contingency, in the sense of

that which could have happened differently or which might not have happened at all, by

incorporating it in some way into the effect of necessity or probability exerted by the

configuring act. The inversion of the effect of contingency into an effect of necessity is

produced at the very core of the event: as a mere occurrence, the latter is confined to

thwarting the expectations created by the prior course of events; it is quite simply the

unexpected, the surprising. It only becomes an integral part of the story when understood

after the fact, once it is transfigured by the so to speak retrograde necessity which

proceeds from the temporal totality carried to its term. (Ricoeur, 1992, p. 142)

Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 191

We reflect upon actual experiences and draw upon a tradition of narrative

from various cultural sources to create a sense of constancy and identity:

As for the narrative unity of a life, it must be seen as an unstable mixture of fabulation

and actual experience. It is precisely because of the elusive character of real life that we

need the help of fiction to organize life retrospectively, after the fact, prepared to take as

provisional and open to revision any figure of emplotment borrowed from fiction or

history. (Ricoeur, 1992, p. 162)

There is a sense of vulnerability and fragility in Ricoeur’s view of

selfhood. Narrative provides a cohesive fabric that links the disparate

moment to moment of our lives.

Finally, mention must be made of Ricoeur’s theory of metaphor.

Traditionally, linguistic philosophers viewed metaphor through the lens of

rhetoric, the notion that metaphor is the substitution of one word for

another. But for Ricoeur metaphor is powerful not because of its literal

meaning. Rather, metaphors have the potential to open up worlds of

meaning. When grappling with metaphor, the reader suspends familiar

understandings or literal interpretations of the sentence. Metaphors force

the reader or listener to take on an active role, connecting the words to

larger contexts. Ricoeur writes that metaphor ‘‘forces conceptual thought to

think more’’ (1977, p. 303). Not all metaphors have this potency. ‘‘Dead’’

metaphors, through repetition, have achieved the status of myth and no

longer open a horizon of possible meanings. ‘‘Live’’ metaphors insist that we

actively engage to allow a new idea to emerge for us. New, living metaphors

invite us to see something through something else and to notice new

dimensions, and thus keep human thought alive and exercise the

imagination. Ricoeur’s version of the hermeneutic circle challenges the

reader to be open to the emergence of new meaning: ‘‘We must understand

in order to believe, but we must believe in order to understand’’ (Ricoeur

quoted in Simms, 2003, p. 351).

In sum, the field of hermeneutics has had an influential role in the social

sciences and organization studies specifically. By challenging the normative

assumptions associated with positivism, hermeneutic theory raises questions

regarding the nature of knowledge within the field of social studies itself. In

the second part of this chapter, we revisit the logical positivist assumptions

that guide most organizational research efforts in order to appreciate some

of the challenges many have raised through a hermeneutic lens. We then

explore four areas that have been influenced by hermeneutic theory:

organizational culture, sensemaking, organizational identity, and dialogue

as an intervention into organizational learning.




We must begin by acknowledging that hermeneutic approaches to social

science remain a minority approach. In fact, most research in organizational

studies remains committed to a logical positivist view of knowledge,

consistent with the Enlightenment philosophers, one that emulates the

natural sciences (see Barrett, 2008). The predominant view that guides most

organization studies and research makes an attempt to show that the

author(s) have tried to eliminate the appearance of interpretive bias. The

assumption is that social science should be a value-free enterprise. This view

advocates building on prior knowledge to formulate hypotheses and the use

of quantitative methods to measure social and psychological processes

through experimental or quasi-experimental designs. Researchers often use

surveys and questionnaires that uncover aggregate differences between

classes of individuals, groups, and organizations. When researchers discuss

how they worded items on surveys, they do their best to demonstrate that

they have eliminated interpretive bias. In fact, they refer to these surveys

using impersonal value-free terms from the natural sciences – ‘‘instruments.’’

The assumption is that the researcher should remain uninvolved with the

subject under study so as not to cloud the findings or reaffirm one’s

normative expectations; the researchers should approach the problem as if

objective facts are waiting to be discovered. Like the model used in the

natural sciences, the researcher should ‘‘let the facts speak for themselves,’’

contributing toward the advancement and accumulation of knowledge

through incremental fact-oriented research.

This approach has given birth to functionalism, a view that social

structures are shaped by imperatives and that they adapt toward the

maintenance of social order.10 Structural functionalist researchers believe

that below the surface of appearances and individual particularities, there

are deeper structures, regularities that can be explained in terms of cause

and effect. What is deemed ‘‘knowledge’’ is based on objective explanations

that causally connect verifiable patterns that become translated into

transhistorical formulas codified in the acontextual language of mathematics

(and statistics). This empirical rigor will lead to the accumulation of

knowledge: the search for reliable patterns among the contingencies of

observable events has led scientists to mount a program of research that

seeks to provide the last word, to solve problems once and for all.

So where does this leave the influence of hermeneutics? In fact, many,

especially in recent years, have raised doubt about the possibility of a

Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 193

neutral, value-free inquiry. These voices are strongly influenced by the

interpretive turn and claim that it is impossible to document ‘‘objective

facts’’ without some a priori theoretical and value-laden lens, a view that

reflects Gadamer’s notion of knowledge as a projected horizon. These

theorists hold that what passes for truth is historically and contextually

contingent. ‘‘Facts’’ are negotiated achievements within communities of

agreement that reflect and reinforce interests and standpoints. What we take

to be ‘‘fact’’ is always already guided by some prior theoretical lens that

deems it worth noticing, a notion that Heidegger would endorse. When one

begins with the facts, one has already advocated an implicit theory that

coincides with common sense and the status quo within some community.

These communities have been called interpretive communities, discourse

communities, communities of practice, and communities of knowing.

Indeed, anthropological studies of scientists engaged in research and theory

construction have demonstrated that the activity of research is a negotiated

achievement, that the ‘‘facts’’ of science are social constructions (see

Latour & Woolgar, 1979; Knorr, 1981). These studies have shown that

establishing ‘‘facts’’ is often a competitive enterprise between scientists

within various interpretive communities and rather than unbiased detached

observers, scientists are often deeply invested in which facts emerge as

legitimate and which are overlooked.

Gouldner (1979) argued that theory is informed by domain assumptions,

background dispositions that favor particular beliefs and values. What

Gouldner has called ‘‘domain assumptions,’’ Heidegger might refer to as the

essence of hermeneutics – the background conditions that allow anything to

be deemed known or knowable. Gouldner claims that the researcher’s

personal experience and sentiment do in fact shape social research. Social

theorists’ interests and internalized prejudices often remain resistant to

evidence that would surface them. Whether a theory is accepted or rejected

is due partly to the tensions and sentiments it generates. For Gouldner all

social theory has both political and personal relevance, despite what the

formal methods books might say. When the theorist confronts the social

world, he or she is also inevitably confronting his or her own values and

preferences, a point that resonates with Gadamer’s philosophy.

In the 1930s a critical approach to social theory emerged in the Frankfurt

school, one that was influenced by the controversy that Heidegger had

begun in Germany. These scholars challenged the traditional view and

claimed that social scientists always operate with tacit theoretical biases. To

name one, Habermas (1972) proposed that the approach to knowledge

production can be linked to three different cognitive and ideological


interests that generate different forms of knowledge for different purposes.

First, empirical–analytical knowledge reflects a technical interest for the

purposes of enhancing prediction, control, efficiency, and effectiveness, an

approach that he would argue generated much of the organizational

literature on strategy and structural contingency. Second, the historical–

hermeneutic theories have a practical purpose of improving mutual

understanding, exploring how various actors make sense of their worlds

and how norms and schemas evolve to legitimize certain activities over

others. Finally, an emancipatory approach to knowledge creation seeks to

expose forms of domination and exploitation in the service of transforming

social institutions, creating better and more rational social worlds. One

could argue that the Frankfurt School took hermeneutics in a different

direction, fostering a school of critical theory, a theoretical orientation that

demonstrates how privileged positions of autonomy and power exclude or

marginalize subordinate actors. Critical theory is enjoying a growing interest

in organization studies (see, e.g., the work of Wilmott, Knights, Alvesson).

Ricoeur wrote about the importance of critical self-understanding in a

way that challenges one to be open to novel possibilities and the emergence

of new meaning. In this vein, Gergen’s work might be viewed as a challenge

for organizational researchers to self-reflect. He called for ‘‘generative

theory’’ (1982), knowledge that challenges established theoretical terms.

Rather than simply concerning ourselves with construct validity, perhaps

researchers need to reflect on the implications of theoretical terms and

concepts. Generative theory poses the following question: how are patterns

of action enabled and constrained by the theoretical terms we use? In this

vein, Gergen claims that theory creation and theory testing are hermeneutic

enterprises. Theory does more than reflect objective truth; it also serves to

facilitate or constrain modes of action. This is taking Heidegger’s

ontological claims and considering the implications. Gergen proposes that

theoretical terms reinforce or transform the preunderstanding that allows

the world to show up as it does. Theories not only reflect or predict the

world but also reinforce or challenge ways of being. Gergen goes so far as to

propose that knowledge can become an intervention into social practice;

perhaps bolder forms of theorizing can enable innovative repertoires of

action, challenging the status quo and advancing alternative social forms.

Generative theory claims that social science can be a powerful influence in

constituting people’s experience, clearly an appreciation of hermeneutic

philosophy. By creating linguistic categories, distinctions, and causal

attributions, scientists are publicly defining reality that guides people by

shaping the way they talk about life and how they report their own and

Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 195

others’ experiences, indeed, how people actually have experiences. It would

be difficult for a person in 19th-century Europe to describe himself or herself

as high in emotional intelligence. However, in modern organizations the

term has become a lens for self-reflection as well as behavioral assessment.

Foucault took this one step further: social scientists help to create what is

taken to be normal and legitimate. Further, a limited set of inferences for

actions flows from these a given set of theoretical terms. For this reason,

Foucault acknowledges the hermeneutic power of researchers by referring to

scientists as ‘‘authorities of delimitation.’’ In the same vein, Anthony

Giddens’ highlighted the double hermeneutic of social science, contending

that social scientists play a prominent role in shaping the discourse by which

people carry out their lives.

In sum, hermeneutic philosophy has had a growing influence on the

practice of social and organizational research, claiming that the researchers

are indeed biased and that researcher’s choices are interpretive moves. These

moves have consequences for how social science activity is conducted, what

topics are chosen, what methodology is adopted, and how we conceptualize

the consequences of such knowledge. In the next section we briefly touch

upon some of the substantive areas that have been influenced by hermeneutic




In the second section we briefly traced the evolution of the field of

hermeneutics. In the previous section we suggested that the traditional

canons that inform organizational research are being challenged from

several corners influenced by hermeneutics. Now we suggest some of the

areas in which hermeneutic philosophy has influenced organization studies.

We suggest that the interpretive perspective can be seen in the areas of

organizational culture, sensemaking and identity, and situated learning.

Hermeneutics and Studies of Organizational Culture

While structural functionalism remains a strong orientation since the birth

of the field of organization studies, interpretation and meaning have become

increasingly focal. Max Weber borrows from Dilthey’s notion of verstehen

as central to understanding human action in organizations. Several


researchers have picked up on this thread of interpretation. Silverman’s

1970 book was one of the first to make interpretation and meaning-making

central. Andrew Pettigrew (1979) called attention to organizational culture

in a seminal piece. He suggests that organizational culture comprises a

broad amalgam of motives, feelings, actions, belief systems, meanings, and

interpretations bound up in myth and ritual and is imbued early in an

organization’s life cycle. His view of how culture develops in organizations

follows a functional view, although his conception of culture is a meaning

system inculcated by founders and embedded in structures and routines.

From a hermeneutic lens then, cultural roots are an embodiment of

individual actors’ meaning-making and interpretive schemes – a foundation

of verteshen. Pettigrew believes that in understanding organizational actors’

motives and actions, scholars may detect cultural patterns.

Another key turning point was the special issue of Administrative Science

Quarterly in 1983 devoted to the study of organizational culture. The editors

half apologetically write that ‘‘culture as a root metaphor for organization

studies is a new idea, redirecting our attention away from some of the

commonly accepted ‘important things’ (such as structure or technology) and

toward the (until now) less-frequently examined elements raised to

importance by the new metaphor (such as shared understandings, norms,

or values).’’

In the past 20 years, culture has indeed become a legitimate topic in the

field of organization studies, and is grounded in many of the epistemological

assumptions of hermeneutics. Schein’s (1985) influential book Organizational

Culture and Leadership argued that organizational culture is

concerned with the shared values, norms, and assumptions of a group or

organization. Language and symbols increasingly become legitimate topics

for research as culture research addresses the taken-for-granted, shared,

tacit background ways of seeing. Since culture research includes a focus on

meaning and the process of meaning-making, researchers seek a close

relationship to the data. They become interested in looking for exceptions

rather than only focusing on verifying a priori hypotheses that focus on

structures. Qualitative research methods, including ethnography and interviews,

are legitimate source of data. Researchers including John van

Maanen, Peter Frost, Joanne Martin, Mary Jo Hatch, and Haridmos

Tsoukas made important contributions to the growing research on

interpretation, meaning, and culture in organizational settings.

Another important contributor was Turner (1990) who furthered an

appreciation of cultural processes, symbolism, and qualitative research

methods. He was key contributor to the Standing Conference on Organizational

Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 197

Symbolism (SCOS), an important European movement devoted to symbolic–

interpretive studies of organizational cultures. Researchers became interested

in myths, stories, discourse, rituals, values, and beliefs. Some of the important

edited collections are those by Pondy (1983), Frost (1985), Jones, Moore, and

Snyder (1988), Turner (1990), Gagliardi (1990), and Smircich (1983). Martin,

Frost, and others began to raise important debates regarding whether cultures

are unitary or differential with conflicting subcultures. Some began to explicitly

call attention to the role of the researcher as co-constructing rather than only

reflecting cultural themes, a move that mirrors Ricoeur’s emphasis on the role

of the reader in co-constructing the meaning of a text (Smircich, 1995; Van

Maanen, 1995a, 1995b). Trice and Beyer (1984) further developed the symbolic

theme in their studies of ceremony and ritual practice in organizations.

The debate set forth by Joanne Martin and others reawakened organizational

scholars to the study of culture. She called particular attention to

nuanced understandings of cultural roots using a metaphorical logic. She

argues that scholars studying culture from a functionalist, unitary perspective,

considering culture a variable in organizational research miss an alternative

approach, that is, culture from a symbolic standpoint, one that incorporates a

wide range of ‘‘thick descriptions’’ (Geertz, 1973). The metaphorical and

symbolic paradigm enables scholars to ‘‘look beneath the surface, to gain an

in-depth understanding of how people interpret meanings of these [cultural]

manifestations and how these interpretations form patterns of clarity,

inconsistency, and ambiguity’’ (Martin, 2002, p. 4). She and other scholars

following this broadened view of the scholarship of culture seek to understand

the role of human action in organizational life through a richly complex and

diverse set of symbols, artifacts, experiences, and emotions and their

respective interpretations.

Hermeneutics and Sensemaking

The literature on sensemaking is also informed by hermeneutic theory.

Sensemaking is concerned with how people construct meaning, constrain

action, and construct identity. Sensemaking researchers strive to articulate

the distinction between the routine of organizational life in which the

subject–object distinction is not salient and the sensemaking efforts that

occur after a breakdown. Sensemaking is explicit and ‘‘visible’’ under

conditions of surprise and unmet expectations, when events are perceived to

be different from what was expected, or when the meaning of events is so

unclear that actors do not know how to engage the world. These are the


moments that Heidegger describes when he outlines the shift from the

‘‘ready to hand’’ mode in which one is in a state of absorbed coping or

immersed in the flow of events to the ‘‘unready to hand mode’’ in which

action is disrupted and people must reflect or introspect to access reasons for

engaging. The scripts and rationales that people look for in attempting to reengage

the world are drawn from organizational and institutional settings,

past routines, plans, and procedures. This recalls Heidegger’s preunderstanding

of being and Ricoeur’s notion that we draw upon metaphors and

narratives in the culture to construct coherent understandings.

Weick and others posit that sensemaking within the ongoing stream of

activity, people begin to notice and bracket, they carve cues from an

undifferentiated flux. Imposing labels triggers a particular kind of diagnostic

treatment and will suggest modes of acting, managing, coordinating, etc.

Weick writes, ‘‘people make sense of things by seeing a world on which they

have already imposed what they believe.’’ ‘‘Imposing labels’’ is not unlike

Gadamer’s emphasis on the formative power of language and the projection

of horizons.11 What is important for our purposes is to highlight the way that

sensemaking research highlights meaning-making and interpretation as

ongoing activities involving noticing, bracketing, and labeling, meaningmaking

efforts to reduce uncertainty and transience and begin to create order

out of chaos that predisposes people to act in certain ways: ‘‘In the context of

everyday life, when people confront something unintelligible and ask ‘what’s

the story here?’ their question has the force of bringing an event into

existence’’ (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005, p. 410). Weick and others

echo Ricoeur’s sensitivity to stories as necessary cultural resources meaningmaking.

Sensemaking efforts are efforts to create a plausible story (Weick et

al., 2005). Stories become more plausible when they link with prior stories,

when events can be seen as exemplars of familiar principles and stories.

Organizational Identity

Identity construction is at the base of sensemaking activities and undergirds

the efforts to stabilize meaning. Following Weick, ‘‘people learn about their

identities by projecting them into an environment and observing the

consequences’’ (1995). In 1985, Albert and Whetten (1985) first adopted

the construct of ‘‘organizational identity’’ to connote those facets of an

organization that are central, distinctive, and continuous. They proposed

that identity is an interpretive construct and can only be understood through

interpretive methods. The proper method for understanding identity is an

Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 199

‘‘extended metaphor analysis.’’ They claimed that public identity is conveyed

‘‘through signs and symbols’’ such as logos, signs, slogans, etc. (p. 95). The

growing research in the field of organizational identity has emphasized how

identity is an important hermeneutic key through which organizational

members make sense of issues.

Dutton and Dukerich, for example, used the lens of identity to understand

several issues in the Port Authority. Identity impacts issue interpretations,

emotions, actions, and adaptation processes. Beliefs about identity shape the

meanings given to events and what solutions should be deemed legitimate.

They are very close to Heidegger’s hermeneutics, the background assumptions

that allow objects to show up as meaningful, the basis upon which

events, people, and things make legitimate sense. In Heidegger’s scheme, this

background assumption becomes foreground and explicit when there is a

breakdown of some kind. Indeed, the employees of the Port Authority began

to talk about identity issues when their sense of identity was disconfirmed

and when they were embarrassed and angry by the negative press because of

the way they dealt with the homeless population. When they were

ontologically threatened, they began to wonder ‘‘who are we?’’

Weick also picks up on this theme in his analysis of Mann Gulch.

Smokejumpers’ tools, narrative, symbols, and actions represent their identity

and act as handles in a Heideggerian sense that enable coping and managing

in challenging circumstances. Sparrowe (2005) draws on this notion as well.

He argues that identity is constructed through self-constancy and understandings

of experience in the world that is interpreted as trust and reliability

in a person (being ‘‘relied on’’ or ‘‘counted on’’) and conceptions of character

or individually possessed and enduring qualities:

Ricoeur does not deal explicitly with authenticity. However, the relationship between

character and self consistency offer interesting possibilities for linking authenticity to the

narrative selfy. Character is a response to the question, asked by the subject about

himself or herself: ‘what am I?’ But self consistency is a response to the question asked by

others, ‘where are you?’ [Ricoeur, 1992, p. 165] Authenticity cannot be meaningful if the

self is empty of character, but it cannot be real if it ignores the dynamics of lived

experience. It is the narrative self that unites character and self consistency. (p. 430)

Identity involves a dynamic relationship between ‘‘what we are’’ and

‘‘where we stand’’ in relation to lived experience. Weick’s analysis of Mann

Gulch highlights both the tragic misidentification of character and the effect

on the smokejumpers’ lived experience, which led to their unfortunate fate.

Their tools, with which they most closely identified, impeded their ability to

deal effectively with the dynamic situation they faced.


Hermeneutics and Narrative Approaches to Organizational Studies

If identity construction is a narrative process, involving narrator and taking

account of audience in forming and editing components of one’s story, what is

the role of leadership? Ricoeur’s narrative theory offers some fruitful

implications. For Ricoeur, self-understanding is a moral imperative. The self

is a narrative project in which one weaves a story of coherence to unite

disparate experiences. Sparrowe explicitly uses Ricoeur’s hermeneutic

philosophy that leaders’ authentic self-awareness is made possible by attending

to the narrative construction of self that includes the voices of others. He

draws on Ricoeur’s narrative project, moreover, to suggest that leaders narrate

their self-concept, which potentially influences identity construction and that

followers mimic identity of their leaders (Luthans & Avolio, 2003).

Ricoeur’s influence in this domain is ‘‘texts,’’ and the ‘‘emphasis is on the

discursive or linguistic nature of experience’’ (Sparrowe, 2005, p. 424).

Ricoeur’s concern is about lived experience and living texts unfolding

through time and space, through the action and emotions of actors enacting

their stories. The practice of emplotment is the means by which ‘‘we try to

inhabit worlds foreign to us’’ (Ricoeur, 1988, p. 249) and thus negotiate the

path between experience and narrative. To negotiate such a path means one

must possess self-understanding and self-awareness to link past to present

and present to future in narrative sense, to make sense of unexpected events,

and heterogeneity of agents, goals, interactions, and the like.

Ricoeur’s influence in leadership development, namely the role of narrative

as a means to self-awareness and self-understanding, is the foundation for

emotional and social intelligence. According to Sparrowe, the root of authentic

leadership is the ‘‘authentic self.’’ Management consultants use a narrative

approach in a coaching context to create emplotment as a way to foster selfawareness

through reflection. In leadership development practice, one asks

leaders to articulate personal narratives concerning the success or obstacles in

work relationships, that is, the examination of autobiographical texts, and

what might be done to learn from personal constructions. Responses are in the

form of stories and critical incidents that help individuals identify effective

leadership moments and experiential markers they use as ‘‘handles’’ to enable

their personal effectiveness – these touchstones are anchors for future

effectiveness. Such a process of aided self-inquiry requires deep reflection,

self-analysis, authenticity, and the examination of discursive turns.

Ricoeur’s influence in organizational studies is also active in the domain

of managerial communication. Czarniawska-Joerges and Joerges (1988)

offer several examples of linguistic turns in organizations. For them,

Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 201

language in organizational life reflects a rich and nuanced understanding of

meaningful organizational constructions, cultural contexts for organizing,

and symbols and meaning systems. Talk in organizations, they contend,

enjoins intentional and communicative acts with managerial action, that is,

use of language and narrative represents one organizing force for routine,

quotidian work. They cite the example of ‘‘labels’’ in organizational talk,

which serve to organize objects and work. Linguistically, labels classify and

organize how people perceive and understand packets of organizational

life, and yet organizationally they ‘‘carry their own implications for action’’,

that is, labels consolidate information and due to their meaning suggest

appropriate diagnoses and action, thus becoming prime movers for enacting

organizational realities.

In all of these examples, the role of values shapes the narratives and

identities of leaders. In managerial communication, linguistic markers shape

the means by which people think about and enact organizational

responsibilities, and leaders often set those markers. Leaders possessing

self-understanding and who master emotional self-control influence followers.

The self-narratives they construct have power to inspire others to action

because they are grounded in leaders’ set of ethical concerns, value sets, and

moral orientations, which, according to Luthans and Avolio (2003), followers

are more likely to adopt.

Hermeneutics and Situated Learning

Heidegger and Gadamer view knowledge and understanding as practical

application. The notion that understanding is practical activity has

influenced the literature in the area of situated learning. Theorists of

situated learning and ‘‘practice’’ draw upon hermeneutic philosophy to

make this point. Several organizational researchers have been influenced by

Bourdieu (1977, 1984, 1990), Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992), and Giddens

(1979, 1984). Bourdieu’s concept of habitus sees social actors as embodying

tacit, preconscious expectations (‘‘intentionless intentions’’). Giddens’

structuration theory looks at the background structures and interpretive

schemes, and the shared fundamental assumptions that organize the way

actors construe meaning, choose actions, understand events and experiences,

and serve as templates that allow individuals to process incoming

information efficiently, to notice, select, remember, learn, and extrapolate

whole gestalts from partial data. The background of mutual understanding

and the basic orientation in Gidden’s theory is informed by Heidegger’s


preunderstanding of being. In structuration theory, they are the basis upon

which individuals organize beliefs, values, preferences, and meanings into

structures of knowledge.

When preconscious expectations transform to situated learning and action,

organization members, as agentic, social actors, engage with physical world in

counterintuitive ways. They come at the world with fresh eyes and

innovativeness. Background assumptions shape the world, but when called

into question, when preconscious becomes explicit, new opportunities to

engage emerge. Situated learning informs the relationship between action and

the context of performance, so, for instance, in organizations, situated

learning is about contextualized behavior Take, for example, facing a life or

death moment in an organization (Powley, 2009). Actors’ situated actions

occur in context of a perpetrator, victims, emotions evoking fear and hope

simultaneously, and counterintuition. The inhabited world of the crisis

moment takes on new meaning and new significance such that physical objects

possess a qualityWeick, borrowing Heidegger, describes as thrownness, or the

capacity for ‘‘bricolage, making-do,y[or] staying in motion to cover new

options’’ (Weick, 2004, p. 76). Weick emphasizes the improvisatory nature of

dealing with constant change and notes that exposure to thrownness feels very

much like dealing with the unexpected in a liminal space. He further states

that ‘‘thrownness puts a premium on recovery, resilience, and normalizing,

without calling attention to the fact that these moods are at a premium’’ (p.

76). In a sense, the crisis moment exacerbates ‘‘thrownness.’’

Weick’s (2004) conceptualization of ‘‘thrownness’’ in managing represents

one application of liminality in management practice. Liminality as an

organizational phenomenon is at the heart of situated learning and action. It

calls on individuals to consider and question their habituated relationships

in favor of new actionable possibilities. For example, in organizational

change interventions, the change process represents ritual space where

liminality is a core feature: in an out-of-normal-operations context,

organization members experience thrownness as they negotiate nonroutine

relationship interactions, discover new knowledge about others and work,

and bond together to create new enabling opportunities for the organization.

Many times in such large system change programs, the intervention

space represents an intentionally constructed liminal experience, so

organization members step outside formal roles to engage with others

throughout the organizational system and work toward a change objective

(Powley, 2004; Powley, Fry, Barrett, & Bright, 2004).

Moreover, situated learning is a reaction against cognitive and behavioral

views of learning. While cognitive learning theories emphasize the inner

Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 203

state of the individual, situated learning holds that learning is not simply a

matter of transmission of acontextual knowledge from one person to

another. Rather, learning occurs within a particular social and physical

context and often involves activity (over passive reception). Seeking to

eschew the image of internal cogitation that precedes action, Suchman

(1987) states that ‘‘we generally do not anticipate alternative courses of

action, or their consequences, until some course of action is already under

way.’’ Several example illustrate our point: Seifert and Hutchins (1992) take

a situated learning perspective in their study of decision making on a Navy

ship; Lave studied people using mathematical knowledge within practical

settings; Orr (1996) studied the learning practices of Xerox’s service

technician representatives.

Essential to organizational learning is access to legitimate peripheral

participation (Lave & Wenger, 1990), understanding how to function as an

insider. This recognizes that learning is much more than receiving abstract,

acontextual, disembodied knowledge. It is a matter of learning how to speak

the language of the community of practitioners. Brown and Duguid (1991)

refer to organizations as communities of practices, groups of people who

learn by practice and participation. Their studies of how newcomers learn

how to do tasks that insiders do recalls Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s view

of the person as embedded within a horizon of meaning and the view of

understanding as practical know-how.


One insight from Gadamer’s Truth and Method that has been influential is

the belief that prejudice is part of all experience, we live within a tradition

that shapes us, and the Enlightenment ideal of perfect knowledge is

unattainable. Operating under the illusion that one is without prejudice is to

be dominated by prejudice. This idea has been influential in a number of

areas, but one that has particularly benefited is the area of dialogue and

deliberation. From such a perspective, individuals potentially overcome the

temptation to treat the other as an object and the temptation to rise above

the other (see Rasmussen, 2002). The moral tone of the hermeneutic

experience is to seek openness, and openness to the immediate hermeneutic

experience and to approach the other as a ‘‘Thou’’ (Buber, 1958) are

perhaps two ways to address the role of dialogue.


Gadamer’s notion of openness has influenced discussions of public

discourse (for a critique of applications of Gadamer to public deliberation,

see Rasmussen, 2002). In the field of organizational development and

organizational learning, the notion of dialogue has its roots in Gadamer and

possibility of the intersubjective. For example, we look to contributions

from Senge, Issacs, and Argyris. Their work focuses on the role of dialogue,

the practice of engagement and openness, and considering the other as

subject rather than object. Dialogue, conversation, discussion, and

communication are not, in their view, functional apparatus or semantical,

objective constructions sui generis. Instead, these communicative acts in the

organizational setting are a part of routines, practices, and emergent

organizing occurring in the flow of work; they represent social modes for

interaction, engagement, learning, or developing others. Through them

social actors create relationships, make connections, and encounter others

as social beings (Gergen, Gergen, & Barrett, 2004). Perhaps the most

prominent influence of the hermeneutic tradition in this domain is the place

of verbal and nonverbal forms of action and preunderstanding that makes

interpretation possible. With interpretation as a focal point of dialogue and

deliberation, forms of dialogue shape meaning systems and action and

thereby influence social actors’ action with and toward others. Practically

speaking, dialogue becomes an actionable strategy by which organizational

actors may influence, engage, enable, empower, or whatever suits them.

Another contributor to this field was Chris Argyris (1974) who saw

dialogue as a basis for professional competence and practice. At the heart of

his work are conversational dynamics based on underlying assumptions one

has about self and others, and the systems and structures in which they

operate. In the spirit of Gadamer’s call to approach a text with openness, for

Argyris, understanding underlying assumptions within conversational

dynamics, through mechanisms of self-understanding and reflection, opens

one’s possibilities for action and engagement. For him dialogue is about

collaboration and action in ways that foster not only personal growth but

also organizational learning.

In the field of organizational change and team learning, Peter Senge

(1990) and his colleagues at MIT have emphasized the role of dialogue.

Dialogue in this view is an essential practice for becoming a ‘‘learning

organization.’’ Their approach to organizational learning resonates with

Gadamer’s notion that expansion of horizons creates new possibilities for

being. This group differentiates dialogue and monologue or dialogue and

discussion. The purpose of discussion is to persuade or to sell something, to

Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 205

reach closure on meaning, and to justify and defend assumptions. Dialogue

is open inquiry. The purpose of dialogue is to inquire with the intention of

learning and being changed, to pay attention to the unfolding of meaning,

and to uncover and examine assumptions. For Senge, Argyris, and their

colleagues, dialogue and deliberation become mechanisms to produce

deliberate, coordinated action and predictable results in terms of both

individual behavior and organizational performance.

More specifically, principles of dialogue guide the process of inquiry

involved in learning organizations. In both academic study and practical

contexts, individuals are encouraged to suspend judgment, show respect for

differences of thought and being, and regard each other as colleagues.

Theorists Senge and Argyris, for example, emphasize reflection and inquiry

skills that are the foundation of dialogue. In practice, they contend that for

individuals to truly learn from self and others, they must balance inquiry

and advocacy, and refrain from defensive behavior – all reflective openness.

Similarly, Gergen speaks of transformative dialogue. This is what one

might refer to as an appreciative hermeneutic, that is, an active, engaged

relational orientation, mutual self-disclosure, and openness to surprise that

could demand painful self-examination – a hermeneutic of appreciation

rather than suspicion and a critical stance so often typical of academic



We have reviewed the history of hermeneutics from the ancient Greeks to

late 20th century, highlighting the way in which philosophers have

considered the nature of understanding and interpretation. We reviewed

the formative contributions of Schleimecher and Dilthey and focused on the

20th-century philosophers Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur and how

the nature of learning and understanding has shaped our interpretation of

the world. From ancient to modern philosophers, we highlight the shift in

hermeneutics from textual, methodological concerns to the study of

interpretation. Our approach lends legitimacy to the knowledge of and

approaches to interpretation as a field of study, separate from positivist

views of science.

We have also traced the influence of these philosophers in organization

studies. In the last section we suggested that interpretive perspective has


found its way into the organizational studies in areas such as organizational

culture and symbolism, sensemaking and identity, organizational narratives,

studies of situated learning, and dialogue. Dilthey’s notion of verstehen

underlies the interpretive approach to cultural analysis. The study of culture

examines organizational actors’ meaning systems and interpretations of their

context, values, norms, and assumptions over technology and structure,

much like an archeologist resurfaces artifacts that represent prior ways of

seeing and being which now are embedded in current practice. Moreover,

culture studies have gained acceptance, particularly since being grounded in

hermeneutics and its focuses on language, symbols, norms, values, and


We traced the influence of hermeneutics in Karl Weick’s work on

sensemaking. As in the hermeneutic tradition, sensemaking researchers rely

on interpretative means to articulate distinctions between the routine of

organizational life in which the subject–object distinction is not salient.

Sensemaking involves a number of hermeneutic practices to interpret action

and activity in organizations, such as noticing or bracketing.

We took note of Heidegger and Ricoeur’s influence on identity, narrative

studies, and leadership. Constructing selves results in examining taken-forgranted

experiences. Organizational life often unfolds in a reified fashion

with little thought for origins or assumptions, except when self-analysis and

reflection enable an individual to see beyond the situation. Such analysis

could demand significant attention depending on the circumstances that call

for self-understanding. Moments of crisis represent one opportunity. The

examination of narratives as living texts, however, can be a powerful

mechanism for anchoring the self or awakening the self to new possibilities,

and leadership development was a corresponding domain of practice.

The influence of hermeneutics is also prominent in the field of

organizational learning and dialogue. In these areas of study, individual

action and agency are critical. Social actors make sense of their experience,

transform it, and enact their lives and worlds based on their understandings.

Their preunderstanding shapes the transformation and enactment, and, not

until called into question through some outside force, they remain tacit.

In the context of dialogue, hermeneutics influences interpretive means to

construct language and communicative acts. These acts shape meaning

systems and are stylized for a given context and the relationships in which

they are used. As we have shown, the role of dialogue does not operate

solely at the individual level, but also represents opportunities to form

meaning at an organizational level.

Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 207

The influence of hermeneutics in organization studies is rich and continues

to be an important, yet less recognized research domain. Our aim has been to

draw attention to the historical underpinnings of hermeneutics and its

influence in organizational theory. As other philosophical traditions

addressed in this volume, hermeneutics offers nuanced understanding of the

worlds scholars create and inhabit, which we see as beneficial to future

opportunities for organization studies.


1. At least one interpretation of this is that they had a conflict between an ‘‘oral’’

and a ‘‘literate’’ interpretation of texts. Plato’s dialogue Protagoras is a good

example: Protagoras saw ‘‘texts’’ as providing narratives and the basis for thick

descriptions that provide guidance; Socrates saw ‘‘texts’’ as imperfect (‘‘rhetoric’’)

and wanted to substitute ‘‘knowledge’’ of what the good, the beautiful, and

the true ‘‘is’’ (emphasis on the grammar of the verb ‘‘to be’’). See Levine (1998,

chap. 3).

2. By expanding hermeneutics to consider not only textual understanding but also

all modes of understanding, he would introduce the theme that will be developed in

the 20th century by Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur.

3. Later Husserl will take this concept and interpret it in Cartesian terms through

the lens of intentionality; Heidegger and Gadamer will go in quite a different

direction. What is important to note for our purposes here is that the concept of

‘‘erlebnis’’ becomes an epistemological concept.

4. Later philosophers, notably Richard Rorty, will refer to this as the ‘‘mirror

theory’’ of language, the notion that the function of words is to mirror or reflect the


5. Gadamer will make this Heideggerian notion of ‘‘historicity of being’’ a central

part of his theory of prejudice as essential for understanding, a point we will explore


6. This is a theme that Charles Taylor will take up in his essay Interpretation and

the Sciences of Man.

7. In addition, as Gadamer will contend, the ‘‘other’’ that one seeks to know is

part of a larger tradition as well. Gadamer will call this liken understanding to the

fusion of horizons, a point we will explore below.

8. Self-understanding is accomplished through interpretation: ‘‘there is no selfunderstanding

that is not mediated by signs, symbols, and texts; in the final analysis

self-understanding coincides with the interpretation given to these mediating terms’’

(Ricoeur, 1991, p. 15).

9. Ricoeur wrote an extensive study of Freud and dubbed psychoanalysis as a

hermeneutic practice, a discipline that interprets human consciousness as the

expression of desires.

10. Talcott Parsons built on these concepts and furthered a functionalist view that

saw society in terms of self-maintaining, homeostatic systems with specific


mechanisms that support the internal stability of society; while he acknowledged that

humans are capable of voluntary action that might change those structures,

structures tend to persist nevertheless. Parsons’ influence on the field of organizational

studies was and remains strong, most notably in the school of structural

contingency theory.

11. The sensemaking framework, however, is not entirely consistent with the

hermeneutic philosophers we have reviewed here: Weick and others continue to hold

out for an objective, ‘‘real’’ world apart from interpretation; also the phenomenological

view of the self found in Husserl and his student Schutz; a Cartesian subject–

object dualism that Heidegger and his students sought to overturn.


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Frank J. Barrett, PhD, is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard Business

School where he also works in the Program on Negotiations. He is a

professor of Management in the Graduate School of Business and Public

Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 211

Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, and is Area Chair

of the Management group since 2004. He is also on the faculty of Human

and Organizational Development at the Fielding Graduate University.

Frank has written on metaphor, masculinity, improvisation, organizational

change, and organizational development in the Journal of Applied Behavioral

Science, Human Relations, Organization Science, and Organizational

Dynamics as well as numerous book chapters. He wrote Generative Metaphor

Intervention: A New Approach to Intergroup Conflict (with David Cooperrider)

that won the award for best paper from the Organizational

Development and Change Division of the Academy of Management in

1988. He won the best paper award again in 2003 for Planning on

Spontaneity: Lessons from Jazz for a Democratic Theory of Change, a paper

he co-authored with Mary Jo Hatch. He is also a jazz pianist.

Edward H. Powley, PhD, assistant professor of management at the Naval

Postgraduate School, teaches organizational behavior and studies organizational

healing, positive change, trust, and organizational crises. He has

consulted and conducted research with Prudential Retirement, U.S.

Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Navy, Roadway Express, and the

Society for Organizational Learning. He worked previously for the World

Bank and the Corporate Executive Board. He received his doctorate from

Case Western Reserve University and master’s from The George Washington


Barnett Pearce (PhD, Ohio University, 1969) is a professor emeritus in the

School of Human & Organizational Development at Fielding Graduate

University. He has served on the faculties of the University of North Dakota,

University of Kentucky, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Loyola

University Chicago, in the position of department chair at the latter two

institutions. Improving the quality of communication has been his driving

professional commitment, first taking the form of developing a conceptual

understanding of communication, known as ‘‘the Coordinated Management

of Meaning’’ (CMM), and, more recently, integrating scholarship with the

practice of designing and facilitating communication, particularly in public

meetings about community issues. He is a member of the core faculty at

Fielding of the Dialogue, Deliberation & Public Engagement graduate

certificate program, and a founder of the Transforming Communication

Project. As a practitioner, he has worked on six continents through the

nonprofit Public Dialogue Consortium and the for-profit Pearce Associates.


He has published nine books, including Moral Conflict: When Social Worlds

Collide (with Stephen Littlejohn), Interpersonal Communication: Making

Social Worlds, and Communication and the Human Condition. His most recent

publications include the book Making Social Worlds: A Communication

Perspective and the article Toward a New Repertoire of Communication Skills

for Leaders and Managers published in The Quality Management Forum.

Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 213

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