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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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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