Methods of the Humanities
Though a core method for the natural sciences, most experimentation is prohibited for social sciences, for moral reasons (we are not allowed to manipulate people). This prohibition seems not to go against experimentation in the Humanities, since, here, the subject matter is the “products of human agency” (and not human agency directly, as is the subject matter for the social sciences), and the experimentation would not concern human beings directly. Yet, this argument fails to acknowledge the afterlife of these “products of human agency”. Thus, there, arguably, still is a prohibition against experimentation in the Humanities. It must be derived from another characteristic of our subject matter’s relation to Humanities’ research results: reflexivity.
Next to these moral issues, there is the one epistemological limit that the initial conditions necessary for an experimentation to be repeatable can never be controlled in social science and humanities research. Even if one were to rebuilt a certain situation, its prior instance will already have made its mark, and will be remembered. Try to find the lawlike regularities in, say, the second world war: could we make a situation resembling in everything the situation that led to WWII, and see how it would develop. As sai, apart from moral objections, this is epistemologically impossible.
Again, in the Social Sciences, the reflexivity of the subject matter can be a problem, in a direct sense. If some social scientific research predicts a particular behaviour in a person, or group of persons, this person, or group of persons can decide to act differently, and to thus falsify the prediction. In the natural sciences the end of research is the establishment of law-like relations which allow us to predict an outcome with no exception. (All things drop at the same sped, according to the law of gravity). Due to reflexivity, though, there is no such such as an exception-less prediction in the social sciences. In the Humanities this reflexivity is less straightforward. Since Humanities studies the products of human agency, in a sense, the agency has already taken place and cannot be influenced by the outcome of the research. The big question, then, is: Is the past, indeed, merely a thing of the past? When not, then, one could say, Humanities is confronted with an extended kind of reflexivity. In one sense, e.g. the holocaust is a thing of the past, yet, because its history stretches its tentacles to ages ago, into developments in our thoughts and religions, and these stretch into the future, the results of Humanities research arguably reflect on their subject matter.
The result of this reflexivity for methodology: a Humanities research project never only aims at finding the truth of matters, but always also takes into account the effects of the results of the project, however difficult it is to establish these.
Basically, since Humanities is about the products of human agency, what a researcher would be looking for is information: either in remnants of human agency or in sources about human agency. Once remnants or sources are found (and the search for them is a method in itself) they must be interpreted. Before interpretation though, some of their properties must be established: are the sources true, authentic, and secondly, are they truthful (in a morally relevant sense: who wrote the sources, can they be trusted)?
Whether a source is true is of course a tough question to answer. To establish that, two methods are available: 1. do they cohere with the accepted theories? 2. Do they correspond to reality? The second question is difficult, because in that sense the reality scrutinised is gone. That seems to leave only the first approach: do the sources confirm our theories? The tricky thing, here, is, that coherence in itself does not guarantee the ultimate truth of something, because our theories may be due to an overwhelming mistake on our behalf (we may collectively believe something which in fact is not the case): thus coherence with flawed theories would not prove a source’s truth, but only … coherence with accepted (flawed) theories.
When the reliability of the sources is established satisfactorily, the labour of interpretation can start. How to interpret texts? Hermeneutics thinks that this is not a straightforward and easy method. Instead of trying to find what the author meant with his writings, a text’s meaning may depend on cultural assumptions that are not explicitly stated in the text, and the intentions—which are not available in the first place—may have been different from what the text came to mean. Also, a “hermeneutical circle” makes interpretation a risky operation: a reader works from his own background thinking, assuming certain things (of which they may not be consciously aware) about how people think, about the period under consideration, or lastly, about his own background—and although either of these may be flawed, they are necessary to provide a framework for the interpretation. Prejudices have their own particular value: they cannot be done away with, so it may be best to explicitly state them (Gadamer).
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