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Charles Taylor, Strong Hermeneutics and the Politics of Difference

Charles Taylor,
Strong Hermeneutics
and the Politics of Difference
Nick Smith
In The Ethics of Authenticity, Charles Taylor sketches a
defence of three highly ambitious claims. 1 The first and
most general one is that ideals and the practices which are
meant to conform to them are answerable to reason. An
ideal is made answerable to reason when, under some
description, it is shown to merit allegiance. A practice meets
the demands of reason when it satisfies the conditions of
fulfilment of such an ideal. Taylor’s second claim concerns
one particular ideal- authenticity. It states that authenticity
as properly articulated does indeed merit allegiance, but
that many of the practices which are recommended in its
name fail to fulfil the conditions of realisation of the
properly articulated ideal. The third claim is that subjecting
authenticity and other ideals to rational reflection can help
bring about change. Specifically, it is proposed that the
potential of practices to conform to their properly articulated
ideal can be actualised partly as a result of rational
deliberation. Arguments in support of these claims find
their way into another book, Multiculturalism and ‘The
Politics of Recognition’, in which Taylor makes a
philosophically sophisticated appeal for the political
recognition of ‘difference’ within modern multi cultural
societies. 2 Both texts are fuelled by the same fundamental
conviction: that any serious philosophical diagnosis of the
times needs certain conceptual resources which the prevailing
terms of philosophical discourse tend to occlude.

Broadly speaking, there are three degrees of scepticism
to the view that ideals are answerable to reason. According
to the first, practical reason is extended beyond its legitimate
scope when applied to ideals. ‘First degree’ sceptics doubt
if ideals can be subject to reason on account of their
unsuitability for universalisation: different people can hold
incompatible ideals with equally good reason. What are so
answerable, according to this position, are the norms which
regulate social interaction, irrespective of particular ideals
which individuals or groups uphold. Such norms can be
‘right’ or ‘just’ but not’ good’ , so they need to be distinguished
from the ideals which inform those conceptions of the good.

Since the distinction between ‘the right’ and ‘the good’

enables the cognitive status of moral obligation to be
preserved, this kind of scepticism about the accountability
of ideals to reason goes by the name of ‘deontology’.3

Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

‘Second degree’ scepticism goes further than deontology,
in asserting that ‘rational’ justifications never do more than
endorse established patterns of prejudice and authority in
any given tradition. In other words, second degree sceptics
carry first degree scepticism about the universalisability of
the good into the domain of ‘morality’. These sceptics are
particularly suspicious of the idea that practice is accountable
to reason. On the one hand, they hold that reason just is, as
a matter of historical fact, what tradition substantiates; on
the other, they reject the relationship between tradition and
reason presupposed in the idea that concrete practice is
accountable to theoretical abstraction.

‘Third degree’ sceptics agree with second degree
scepticism about the answerability of actual practices to a
rational’ ought’ , but they do so not for the sake of preserving
actually existing practices from the abstractions and alleged
distortions of reason. On the contrary, they maintain that the
institutions and culture of modernity are already so
disfigured. The injuries inflicted by the principle of reason,
these sceptics believe, include the cultural exclusion and
political marginalisation of groups whose symbolic
representation is associated with desire, affectivity, the
body, excess, play – in short, groups whose cultural identities
are associated with the ‘irrational’. Consequently, third
degree sceptics seek to circumvent or subvert the very
‘reason’ through which, they believe, power and domination
is exercised. The goal of these ‘postmodern’ strategies is to
make space in political thought for what is allegedly nonassimilable to reason: diversity, heterogeneity and difference.

For postmodern, third degree sceptics, reason is, and ought
to be, the slave of difference. 4
However, postmodems are not the only ones to object to
Taylor’s favoured rationalism on historical grounds. Taylor’ s
second claim – that authenticity, the ideal of being true to
one’s own individual identity in one’s own unique way, has
validity as an ideal- is primarily opposed by conservatives
who lament what they see as the recent demise of traditional
‘basic values’. According to them, the supposed ‘ideal’ of
authenticity is responsible for the emergence of the ‘me
generation’; it finds its apotheosis in the contemporary
‘cult’ of individual self-fulfilment. They regard the quest
for authenticity as self-seeking with a fake moral license,


shallow and contemptible in comparison with the heroic
ideal of classical civilisation.

Postmodern critics, however, attack the ideal of
authenticity not as a symptom of cultural decline, but on the
grounds that it is a con or a subterfuge for domination. It is
a con, they allege, because it is in principle impossible to
attain: the so-called ‘authentic’ self can never be more than
an effect ofthe play of signifiers in which the self is ‘always
already’ situated. The self is here regarded as inescapably
encoded in a phenomenologically opaque structure of signs.

Characteristically, however, the postmodernist critic of the
ideal of authenticity extends this line of thought to the
conclusion that the idea of an authentic self is a delusion
enmeshed within the sinister purposes of mastery and
exclusion. The main target here is the notion of a unitary,
centred, fixed or stable identity, to which it might be thought
desirable to be true. From a perspective of this kind,
authenticity might appear as a pernicious ‘power-effect’ of
practices of confessional discipline, as an expression of the
subtly violent impulse towards centring and closure, or as
an alibi for the suppression of the inner heterogeneity of

These radically opposed objections to the claim that
authenticity has validity as an ideal, like the three degrees of
scepticism about the claim that ideals are accountable to
reason, imply competing recommendations as to how to
conduct a philosophical critique of the present. A crucial
part of either package is a conception of how critical
reflection relates to practice. The objections to Taylor’s
third claim – that rational deliberation over ideals counts for
something – again come from divergent political orientations.

From the New Right, a rhetoric of the end of ideology is
premised upon and serves to entrench the belief that ideals
have become permanently privatised and politically obsolete.

Meanwhile radicals from the New Left often maintain that
the domination of technology and instrumental reason is so
pervasive that the language of criticism must relinquish
rational form. Total critique is understood here as the
default position for the critic of the totally instrumentalised,
technologised, or phallogicised society. Under such
conditions rational deliberation makes no real difference.

Strong, Weak, and Deep Hermeneutics
In advancing his claims about authenticity, Taylor draws
upon and refines the in sights of philosophical hermeneutics. 5
But Taylor’s philosophical commitments are sometimes
diametrically at odds with those which are commonly
associated with the term ‘hermeneutic’. Indeed, ideas taken
from hermeneutics underlie some of the most deeply rooted
objections to Taylor. Some qualification is required then, if
the term ‘hermeneutics’ is to remain useful for designating
Taylor’s position and its relationship to its most significant
rivals. In accordance with this requirement, I propose a
distinction between ‘weak’, ‘strong’, and ‘deep’


What I am calling ‘weak hermeneutics’ is a non-realist
philosophy which urges complete withdrawal from
ontological commitment. This defining characteristic of

ontological weakness issues from a variety of
epistemological, ethico-political and metaphilosophical
considerations. The epistemological case for weak
hermeneutics typically runs as follows: all knowledge is
interpretation; interpretations are always value-laden; values
are ultimately non-cognitive; therefore truth-claims are
ultimately expressions of a non-cognitive faculty or event. 6
Weak hermeneutics is thus associated with ‘perspecti vism’

– the doctrine, espoused most influentially by Nietzsche,
that knowledge is either relative to the point of view of the
knower, or reducible to the pre-discursive forces and
mechanisms that constitute that point of view. Accordingly,
weak hermeneutics questions the distinction between
‘genuine knowledge’ and ‘mere interpretation’. The lack of
certainty, consensus, and finality implied by the term
‘interpretation’, are taken as ineliminable characteristics of
all knowledge. Given this weak epistemological base, a
weak ontological superstructure looks unavoidable: if all
we can know depends on our perspective, must we not
accept that reality itself depends on our interpretations?

Weak hermeneutics avows humility in the face of this
question, partly on account of the absence of historically
invariant criteria of truth. But there is a more important
reason. To call something ‘real’, weak hermeneutics
maintains, is not just to express one’s own particular
perspective, it is also to make an honorific gesture about it.

Thus while the gesture may be cognitively empty, it
nevertheless serves a function: to privilege the claimant’s
own perspective and to exclude others. 7 At this point,
epistemological considerations blur into ethico-political
ones. For the non-realist conclusion is embraced as part of
a broader affirmation of the nihilist transvaluation of ‘the
higher’ . The idea that truth, for instance, should be regarded
as the highest aim of intellectual conduct – and thus as an
expression of what is higher in life – is questioned on
account of its subordinative function. If, as weak
hermeneutics has it, the quest for truth subordinates
difference, its transvaluation is demanded precisely in the
name of such differences. And if truth is rejected as the
proper goal of intellectual conduct, it is also rejected as the
goal of a properly conducted philosophical criticism.

So a kindred spirit of humility informs the
metaphilosophical basis of ontological weakness. Weak
hermeneutics is highly critical of the founding assumptions
of the Western philosophical tradition, on account of its
alleged rationalistic arrogance and intolerance of’ otherness’ .

Weak hermeneutic philosophy redefines its task and its
relationship to culture in order to avoid the tradition’s
discredited foundationalism. To borrow Rorty’ s formulation,
‘weak’ hermeneutic thought consists in ‘philosophical
reflection which does not attempt a radical criticism of
contemporary culture, does not attempt to refound or
remotivate it, but simply assembles reminders and suggests
some interesting possibilities’ .8
In contrast to its weak cousin, strong hermeneutics is
realist in orientation. It takes its point of departure not from
the epistemological fragility of foundational truth-claims,
but from the conditions of possibility of actual interpretative
Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

practices. These conditions include the historical
embeddedness and linguistic mediation of the interpreting
subject upon which weak hermeneutics insists, but language
is recognised as able to disclose independently subsisting
realities. Reality is what is disclosed by the better of
competing interpretations, and the property which
interpretations compete over is truth. This moves the
epistemological emphasis fromJoundations to transitions:

disclosure, unlike correspondence, can only ever occur in
relationship to a concealer and something concealed, hence
truth becomes intelligible in terms of a movement from one
interpretation to another.

While the liberation of ontology from the fetters of
foundationalist epistemology is of great consequence for
the philosophy of nature, it is most radical in its implications
for the status of the human sciences. 9 This is because the
language which features in the best accounts of human
affairs is typically charged with significance; a vocabulary
of significance is required as a condition of interpretative
competence in this domain. But we have just seen that,
according to strong hermeneutics, the competent, articulate
interpreter honours the ontological commitments entailed
by the best available account over and above any more
general epistemological or metaphysical considerations. 10
Since in practical matters the best accounts are articulated
in concepts invested with significance, and the investment
of significance imparts evaluative force, the ontology
incumbent upon the interpreter in this domain will also be
evaluatively laden – it will be, that is to say, a moral
ontology. Conversely, if truth is understood as a matter of
disclosure between contrasting interpretations, and the
favoured interpretation is articulated in a vocabulary of
evaluative significance, then truth will also be describable
in evaluatively significant terms. For strong hermeneutics,
such moral realism is unavoidable.

Supported by such considerations, strong hermeneutics
proposes an alternative philosophical agenda to weak
hermeneutics, and adopts a quite different orientation by
way of metaphilosophical critique. The agenda for strong
hermeneutics is set by the concerns of a ‘philosophical
anthropology’.l1 These gravitate around the most suitable
means for comprehending the nature of beings whose own
being is a matter of self-interpretation. Strong hermeneutics
seeks to clarify and draw out the implications of the insight
that human beings are inescapably beings for whom things
matter. It inquires into the sources of significance which
shape the identity of such beings, the conditions under
which such sources are opened up or closed off, and most
concretely, it explores the structural conditions of satisfaction
of presumably core human needs. And it is the modern
philosophical tradition’s perceived refusal to address such
questions – indeed, its record of preventing the very
articulation of them – that provokes strong hermeneutics’

metaphilosophical critique. 12 Strong hermeneutics sets itself
at a distance from the modem philosophical tradition on
account of the distorted depiction of self-interpreting animals
it finds there. Butit also seeks to account for this inarticulacy
over discriminations of significance and worth – what
Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

Taylor calls ‘strong evaluation’ – precisely in terms of the
tacitly accepted evaluations which motivate that tradition.

In direct contrast to weak hermeneutics, the task of strong
hermeneutics is precisely to remotivate the culture of
modernity by recovering contact with those goods which,
partl y as a result of philosophical obfuscation, have become
lost to it. The object of strong hermeneutics, to use Taylor’ s
formulation, is one of ‘retrieval … to uncover buried goods
by way of rearticulation – and thereby to make these sources
again empower’ . 13
It is in their common insistence on the priority and
inescapability of the question of being, on the ontological
irreducibility of background horizons of significance, and
on the truth-disclosive, self-transformative function of the
fusion of such horizons, that Heidegger, Gadamer and
Taylor share allegiance to strong hermeneutics. As is well
known, the idea of a ‘depth hermeneutics’ was championed
by Habermas in response to the hermeneutics of Gadamer’ s
Truth and Method. 14 According to Habermas, Gadamer’s
hermeneutics was beset by two fundamental weaknesses:

linguistic idealism and a failure to render intelligible the
possibility and resolution of ‘systematically distorted
communication’. In fact, the thrust of both Habermas’ s
charges is directed against idealism. In so far as hermeneutics
lays claim to universality, it is easy to see why the spectre
of idealism should loom. Proposed as the means by which
the basic structures of social reality are disclosed,
hermeneutic reflection risks abstracting linguistically
constituted traditions from the systems of organised force
which provide their material context. The most extreme
manifestation of this idealist tendency is the assimilation of
the mechanisms of power to a linguistic hermeneutic horizon.

But idealist assumptions may also be operative in Gadamer’ s
refusal to pre-empt corruption of the medium ofhermeneutic
reflection by structures of coercion. For so long as reflection
is bound by the traditions and pre-judgements of the lived
hermeneutic situation, as Habermas stressed, it remains
hostage to the structures of domination and relations of
power which are legitimated through these traditions. For
Habermas, Gadamer’ s hermeneutics is idealist to the extent
that it does nothing to accommodate this possibility, even if
it is innocent of the more excessive idealism of conflating
horizons of self-understanding with the social totality.

While the problems of idealism associated with traditionbound understanding are quite straightforwardl y identifiable,
finding a way of transcending the given horizon of selfinterpretation is not so easy. Habermas proposes one such
way in his depth hermeneutical reading of Freud. 15 According
to this reading, the theory and practice of psychoanalysis are
joined in the ‘scenic understanding’ whereby the patient
emancipates herself from the misery-inducing effects of
systematically distorted communication. The scenic
understanding aimed at in the dialogue between analyst and
patient, Habermas claimed, is a hermeneutic act in that it
retrieves the meaning of an initially incomprehensible text:

the symptoms of the patient. It does this by appeal to
theoretical assumptions about psycho-sexual development.

An ‘original’ traumatic scene in the early stages of the

patient’s linguistically mediated self-formative process is
reconstructed around the axis of the general developmental
theory. A correct understanding of the patient’s behaviour
is thus conditioned by a knowledge of the source of the
systematic discrepancy between latent and manifest mental
content. The crucial point for Habermas was that such
knowledge is discontinuous with the language of everyday
horizons of understanding. For in the former case,
explanation and understanding are joined in a theoretical,
methodologically non-naive vocabulary. For Habermas,
psychoanalytical self-reflection acquires its explanatory
power in virtue of combining hermeneutical interpretation
of apparently incomprehensible behaviour with empirical
scientific insight into the causal origin of that

As several critics have observed, this condition is
extremely demanding if not incoherent. 16 Not least onerous
is the requirement that a symbol of need-interpretation
‘split-off’ from consciousness in early infancy can be
determined, with practical efficacy, through
autobiographical reflection. Worse, the verification
procedures for such an identification verge on incoherence
once it is accepted that the criteria of ‘success’ are internal
to the vocabulary of reflection. 17 But, however difficult,
something like the condition specified by Habermas must
be met, if hermeneutic idealism is to be avoided.

Interpretations, at least of this kind, have a ‘material’ or
’empirical’ base. And this is one ofthree poles which set the
parameters for Habermas’ s notion of deep hermeneutics.

First, by insisting upon the interpretation-dependence of the
human subject, it shows the unsuitability of the human
being as an object of the ‘technical’ cognitive interest.

Second, it must do this without collapsing into the doctrine
that there are only interpretations – that is, it keeps its
distance from weak hermeneutics. It achieves this by opening
up a space for the immanent critique of systematically
distorted self-interpretations, by way of the supposition of
a cognitive interest in ’emancipation’ from sources of
misery operating ‘behind the back’ ofhermeneutic reflection.

There are thus key differences between Habermas’ s
deep hermeneutics and the strong hermeneutics of Gadamer.

Deep hermeneutics seeks to overcome what Habermas
perceived as the deficiency of given horizons of selfinterpretation for both explanatory and critical purposes. In
the former case, supra-linguistic causes of disturbance in
self-formative processes remain hidden. In the latter,
criticism is vulnerable to the ideological effect of such
disturbance. On account of these differences, a deep
hermeneutics of ‘suspicion’ can be contrasted to a strong
hermeneutics of ‘retrieval’. 18 Most notably, Habermas’ s
suspicion is provoked by the lack of distance between critic
and tradition required for the kind of hermeneutics of
retrieval urged by Gadamer. This means, for Habermas, that
Gadamer’ s hermeneutics has a non-contingent conservative
philosophical orientation. But is the same true of Taylor’ s
version of strong hermeneutics?

If strong, weak, and deep hermeneutics are as distinct in
their philosophical commitments as I have suggested, one

might wonder what their common ‘hermeneutic’ theme is.

The answer is opposition to ‘scientism’. The scientism to
which weak hermeneutics reacts is the urge to commensurate,
to reduce rationality to rule, to reach closure as the end of
inquiry. The scientism attacked by strong hermeneutics is
an anthropology of disengagement, according to which
human reality is finessed of substantive moral content.

Deep hermeneutics reacts to the scientism of ‘technocracy’ :

the ideologically entrenched view that the only rational
cognitive interest is in prediction and control. All three
forms are vehemently critical of foundationalism and the
possibility of humanly unmediated understanding. And
each proffers a powerful indictment of the paradigm of the
subject-centred philosophy associated with the DescartesKant canon. Yet each is very different. The mere negation
of scientism, foundationalism, or instrumental reason,fails
to demarcate a distinctive philosophical position. Let us see
how differences between these various sources of negation
manifest themselves in the dispute over Taylor’s claims
about authenticity.

Subjectivity: Desire or Aspiration?

I have designated Taylor’ s philosophical programme ‘strong
hermeneutics’ in order to distinguish his position from the
weak conception of hermeneutics – but the term also serves
as a reminder of the central place the notion of ‘strong
evaluation’ has in Taylor’s thought. Since the meaning of
‘ideal’, in Taylor’s usage, is bound up with this notion of
strong evaluation, more needs to be said about it in
consideration of the claim that authenticity has validity as
an ideal, and that ideals are accountable to reasori. 19
In many circumstances, objects are evaluated and choices
are made on the basis of what one happens to desire. In a
cafe, about to choose breakfast, I weigh up the bacon roll
and the muesli, and evaluate in accord with my matter of
fact preference. At stake in a weak evaluation is the
satisfaction of actual desire; satisfaction of contingent
preference (or its likelihood) is the measure of evaluation.

In other circumstances, however, the process of evaluation
is not exhausted by this kind of measuring. As opposed to
a weak evaluation, strong evaluation employs qualitative
distinctions concerning the worth of alternative desires, and
indeed of alternative courses of action and ways of living.

The measure of evaluation in such cases is not mere
preference, but an independent standard of worth, against
which the value of de facto desire satisfaction may be
questioned. In the cafe, for instance, you may really fancy
the bacon roll, but you may not choose it because you
acknowledge a standard which holds independent of your
fancies – a conception of the proper relation between
humans and animals which forbids eating the meat. In this
case, the process of evaluation involves the adoption of a
stance, to which your brute desires and appetites are

One evaluates strongly, then, in so far as one evaluates
by appeal to a standard which is not contingent upon one’s
actual desires. But there is a further decisive element to
Taylor’s view that strong evaluations have the kind of
Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

intelligibility that is suitable to aspirations rather than
desires. This is the conceptual linkage between the stand
which one adopts as a strong evaluator and one’s ‘identity’.

The person who craves for the bacon roll but also
acknow ledges the force of the strong evaluation, for instance,
refuses the meat because she would think of herself as a
worse kind of person for choosing it. The strong evaluation
tells us something about what matters to the person, quite
independent of actual appetites.

Itis this sense of ‘identity’ and ‘self’ which is conceptually strong evaluations. ‘We are selves’, Taylor writes,
‘only in that certain issues matter for us’. 20 An identity in
this sense, it should be stressed, refers neither to a uniquely
individuating set of physical or mental properties, nor to
that looser set of habitual behavioural traits we call
‘character’.21 Rather it refers to the background distinctions
of worth which enable a person to respond to presumably
unavoidable kinds of question; such as what makes a life
fulfilling rather than empty, what courses of action are right
and what wrong, what species of motivation merit admiration
and what contempt. Conversely, Tay lor’ s concept of identity
refers to what is absent for the person who, in the throws of
an identity crisis, finds himself completely without
orientation before such questions. Such a person lacks the
kind of thing which, for instance, our vegetarian possesses:

a space in a background moral horizon contoured by strong
evaluations, an identity shaped by an ideal.

We should now be in a position to formulate more
precisely the stakes of the controversy over Taylor’s claim
that authenticity is one such ideal. Recall that the first of the
two opposing positions to Taylor’s claim maintained that
the modern ‘culture of authenticity’, in justifying
individualistic modes of self-fulfilment, testifies to the

Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

victory of egoism, hedonism and self-indulgence, with the
corresponding defeat of virtue, ‘the higher’, and genuine
moral life. It represents, in other words, the elimination of
horizons of strong evaluation. But as Taylor insists, this
view ignores the crucial point that individuals feel called to
a life which is defined for themselves; that is, they are pulled
by a conception of a worthwhile human life which takes its
hold independently of what, merely as a matter of fact, they
happen to desire. The background idea is that a life spent in
conformity to other people’s conception of a fully human
life is in a deep sense a wasted life. Put differently, a
qualitative contrast can be drawn between the life of selfdiscovery through self-creation and the life of conformity to
convention, in the sense that the former is a more desirable
life, one that is more worth living. For this reason, it is a
mistake to deny the validity of authenticity as an ideal by
reducing it to an amoral egoism. 22
But while authenticity cannot be reduced to self-interest,
it can degenerate into it. To show how, according to Taylor,
is to demonstrate one sense in which ideals are accountable
to reason. But before moving onto that general claim, let us
return to the second objection noted earlier to the claim that
authenticity has validity as an ideal. This took issue with the
presumed innocence of the centring of the self – of a self to
be true to – which the ideal of authenticity encourages. The
objection can now be expressed as the view that strong
evaluations require a double-decoding; first, as the
epiphenomenon of a symbolic structure which imposes
hierarchical, binary contrasts; and second, as a control on
the chaotic heterogeneity and spontaneity of bodily desire
which threatens to disrupt such distinctions and the
‘metaphysical comfort’ they provide.

Taylor does not give an explicit response to the first
decoding, but one can be reconstructed from the general
position of strong hermeneutics. 23 It focuses on the
relationship between symbolic structure and event.

According to the criticism, the strong evaluatoris inescapably
caught up in an always-already determining structure of
signs. But from the point of view of strong hermeneutics,
any living language (broadly conceived) requires a more or
less fixed background structure and simultaneously particular
events of ongoing creative application and renewal. That is,
any linguistic structure relies, in its capacity as a repository
of meaning, on individual acts of linguistic creation on the
part of particular subjects, just as the individual subject
relies, in his or her capacity to purvey meaning through
particular linguistic acts, on the background structure. The
intelligibility of both moments is interdependent; it is the
same intelligibility. This is another way of putting the
famous ‘hermeneutic circle’ of the whole and part. To
prioritise either, or to regard either as independent of the
other, is to lose the intelligibility of both. But this is just the
move which is made in the subsumption of the subject
aspiring to authentic self-expression under structural
symbolic determinants.

What about the second ‘decoding’? The response of
strong hermeneutics here is to point to the affirmation
which is implicit in the anti-strong evaluation posture.


Desire, in the sense in which it is claimed to be disruptive of
the strongly evaluated contrasts, is not something which is
a simple given. Rather, it finds expression in the body as
interpreted in a certain way. And only under some
interpretations rather than others does it carry the disruptive,
subversive significance the ‘decoding’ attaches to it. That is
to say, the decoding has force only on the presupposition of
a prior hermeneutic act. What is doing the decoding is a
characterization of desire. But this is just what strong
evaluations do; they articulate desirability-characterizations
amongst which are qualitative contrasts of the content of
experience. It is therefore incoherent to assume the possibility
of a neutral ‘decoding’ of them in the manner proposed.

Taylor’s claim is not only that the decoding of strong
evaluations and their qualitative contrasts presupposes
allegiance to a strong evaluation. It is that there is an
irrational, in the sense of inarticulate, allegiance to
authenticity at work here. For Taylor, the putative collapse
of qualitative distinctions (good/bad and the like) occurs as
a result of the implosive, self-undermining logic of the
subjectivist interpretation of the ideal of authenticity.

According to this interpretation certain aspects of the ideal
– self-choice, difference, and non-conformity – are valued
exclusively and as such, without consideration of the
background conditions of their possibility and worth which
make for rational interpretations. Strong hermeneutics must
therefore make perspicuous the conditions under which a
properly articulated ideal of authenticity may become a
political reality.

The Aporias of Difference Politics
To accept the validity of the ideal of authenticity is to
acknowledge that for each individual human being, there is
a potential way of being human which is unique to them. To
aspire towards authenticity is to be in pursuit of this way.

Commitment to this ideal informs the aspirations of modem
emancipatory movements of all complexions. A particularly
influential interpretation of its political significance,
however, has been the liberal conception of a private sphere
within which individuals can pursue self-creation free of
external interference from the state. According to this
interpretation, commitment to the ideal entails a certain
neutrality on the part of the state with regard to the manifold
conceptions of the good life to issue from individual projects
of self-creation. The character of the just state can then be
discerned in terms of its impartiality towards these different
conceptions of what constitutes the most worthwhile, fully
human life. Here we are reminded of ‘first degree scepticism’:

where there is radical difference at the level of substantive
conceptions of the good, private freedom and public reason
are reconcilable only at the formal level of impartial willformation.

While criticism of this model of liberal politics is nothing
new, there has recently emerged a novel accentuation of its
failure to conceptualize adequately the phenomenon of
difference. 24 Anew ‘politics of difference , is being demanded
on the following counts. The first arises from recent changes
in the patterns of political conflict and controversy. The

self-descriptions of many engaged in political struggle, it
seems, no longer feature universal-type categories of the
old-style bourgeois and workers’ emancipatory movements.

As the classical conceptions of the universal citizen and the
universal class acquire an increasingly rarefied,
motivationally weak character, the focus of political
controversy shifts from what makes people the same to
what makes them different. But since it is the demands of
politically marginalized groups, rather than individuals,
which are at issue here, the individualist construction of
liberal political theory seems an inappropriate basis for
comprehending the issue. 25 Secondly, the standard liberal
model is regarded as difference-blind in its presumption of
the possibility and desirability of impartiality. Not only is
the goal of impartiality inconsistent with ineliminable
culturally embodied differences, this objection goes, but it
serves the ideological function of disadvantaging differences
associated with partiality and the particular. But it is the
third count which gives the distinct accent to recent calls for
a politics of difference. This is that the liberal model is
burdened with the legacy of a philosophical tradition which,
in its deep structure, is hostile to difference. As a result, a
critique of reason has been deemed an appropriate point of
departure for a new and radical difference politics. This
position corresponds to what I earlier designated ‘third
degree’ scepticism. It is understandable, therefore, that
those attracted to it should turn to philosophical resources
akin to weak hermeneutics for the purpose of theorising a
radical politics of difference.

The appeal of weak hermeneutics in this respect seems
obvious. Its withdrawal of ontological commitment, its
humility before and affirmation of difference, its antiuniversalist posture, seem at first sight to protect it from
philosophically rationalised arrogance and ethnocentrism.

Its radical scepticism towards the claims of reason seems
the perfect antidote to the ‘violent hierarchies’ imposed by
the demand for the legitimation of difference as such. But
from the point of view of strong hermeneutics, it is a
poisoned chalice.

Taylor’s argument can be reconstructed around the
claim that the categories of weak hermeneutics self-destruct
as soon as they are applied to the issue of recognition. 26 If
this claim is correct, the implications for difference politics
articulated through the resources of weak hermeneutics are
devastating, since the whole point of that politics is to
address the harm inflicted by the failure to recognise
difference. So a useful way of posing the philosophical
issue at stake here is to ask: under what conditions is the
failure of recognition possible? The first condition is that
the difference must be significant. As Taylor reminds us,
there is an infinite number of differences between individuals
and groups (size, shape, fashion preference, number of hairs
on the head), and an infinite number of wholly uninteresting
and trivial ones. It is clearly not differences of this kind
which generate the conditions of the failure of recognition
in the required sense. The applicability of the distinction
between significant and trivial difference is therefore a
condition of the possibility of failed recognition. But this
Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994


distinction, in accordance with the logic of strong evaluation,
cannot be conjured at will; horizons of significance require
some independence from the subject. But this independence
is just what is denied by weak hermeneutics; it reduces
interpretation (and therewith strong evaluation) to subjective
desire or will to power. In denying a condition of the
intelligibility of significance, weak hermeneutics cannot
make sense of significant difference. And if it cannot make
sense of significant difference, nor can it make sense of the
failure to recognise difference.

But if it cannot do this, then it loses its point as a
philosophical orientation for a politics of difference. Taylor
offers another argument in support of this conclusion. The
collapse of the distinction between valid and invalid
judgements of cultural value makes the support and defence
of those with different cultural values a simple matter of
taking sides. But this in turn undermines the significance of
that particular difference. Again, this makes the weak
hermeneutic view inconsistent with the conditions of failure
to recognise the worth of particular cultural identities. But
Taylor’s criticism is not just directed at logical blunders. To
collapse the distinction between cultural values which
deserve recognition and those which do not is to be guilty
of a homogenisation as grotesque as any perpetrated by
Enlightenment philosophers of neutrality. Even worse, as
Taylor notes, the delivery of a favourable judgement on
demand, rather than signalling respect and recognition,
betrays a certain condescension, not least because it is to
presume that the bestower of such favours is already in
possession of the means to interpret and understand, whatever
the content of the difference. This last point is typical of the
pattern of reasoning Taylor deploys against the varieties of
ethnocentrism. 27 In several different contexts, Taylor exposes
ethnocentrism at work in the presumption that the interpreter
knows in advance what the outcome of the interpretation is
going to be. One can only make this presumption under the
anticipation that there is nothing really to learn from the
encounter with the other; it is assumed by the interpreter that
his own way of understanding will not be seriously
challenged. For this reason if no other, weak hermeneutics
is not really hermeneutics at all. The outcome of a successful
hermeneutic encounter is self-transformation as a result of
self-criticism, as a result oflistening to the self-understanding
of others.

Rightly, Taylor’s strong hermeneutics constructs
recognition as a dialectical process which has both content
and an ineliminable moment of reason. This moment is not,
however, construed as impartiality. Here Taylor agrees
with the view that the classical liberal model is indeed
difference-blind. To show why, Taylor distinguishes two
kinds of liberal politics, both based on a principle of equal
recognition. The first – what he calls the politics of equal
dignity – is grounded in the principle that there is a universal
human potential in virtue of which all humans are equally
worthy of respect. This potential is the same in everyone and
respect of it requires that all be treated in a benign differenceblind fashion. For the second – which he calls the politics of
difference – the principle of equal recognition extends to the
Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

identities which are particular to each; equal recognition is
required here for what makes each different rather than the
same. Against the background of recent changes in patterns
of political conflict, characterised by a growing demand for
the political recognition of cultural differences, Tay lor
maintains that the politics of equal dignity is indeed
malignantly difference-blind. It is inhospitable to difference,
Taylor proposes, on account of the failure of rights-based
liberalism of equal dignity to accommodate the aspiration to
survival of distinct cultural forms. Survival, Taylorcontinues,
is a collective goal which requires context-sensitive
applications of principle, whereas the liberal model insists
on uniform application of the rules defining rights and is
suspicious of collective goals.

It is doubtful, however, whether this idea of survival is
complex enough to do the work required of it as the buffer
to difference-blind liberalism. As Habermas has observed,
the attempt to enshrine constitutionally the survival of a
particular culture risks – and in some cases, guarantees – a
reversal of the burden of prejudice. 28 If so, Taylor’s move
merely postpones the problem of recognition. Why, in any
case, should survival have to be given constitutional status
when a cultural identity is only living when it informs and
is reproduced by the communicative processes of everyday
life? Even if these questions were to be answered, Taylor’ s
theoretical manoeuvre would remain of limited application
to the multiplicity of ‘struggles for recognition’. Taylor’s
focus on the constitutionally inscribed survival of a cultural
identity makes little impact on feminist articulations of the
‘struggle for recognition’, for instance. 29 Most feminisms
share with the depth hermeneutics of suspicion an anxiety
about the incipient conservatism of the strong hermeneutics
of retrieval. At the same time, if the argument of the
previous sections is sound, there is no way back to the weak
hermeneutic critique of tradition as such. 30
Ideals, Idealism and Ideology
By way of a conclusion, I shall offer some thoughts on the
direction Taylor’s politics would take if it were to migrate
towards the pole of deep hermeneutics. Such a migration is
necessary because there are problems with the politics of
Taylor’s hermeneutics which issue from weaknesses in its
conception of social explanation and its construction of
critical distance. Habermas’ s critique of Gadamer, it was
noted, sprang from various sources of dissatisfaction with
hermeneutical idealism. Hermeneutical idealism attributes
an exaggerated explanatory weight to self-interpretations in
processes of self-formation and social evolution. This
explanatory deficit, Habermas says, could be made good by
means of a scientific analysis of culturally invariant social
mechanisms. The decisive mechanisms for Habermas are
social and system integration, but other functions could be
prioritised by the theory, like the production of the material
means of subsistence or biological reproduction. The point
of such ‘tiered’ analyses is to allow insight into those forces
of social change which operate behind the backs of selfinterpreters. This criticism, put to Gadamer by Habermas,
also has purchase on Taylor’ s hermeneutics – though it need

not be made from the vantage point of systems theory. In
Taylor’s hands, strong hermeneutics deploys genealogical
tools to clarify the sources of significance constituting the
modern identity; it constructs a narrative about how certain
self-interpretations came to take hold. To be sure, Taylor
emphatically distances himself from the claim that such an
account is sufficient for explanatory purposes. He
acknowledges that any adequate causal explanation would
have to take account of the ‘brutally imposed’ material,
economic, social and psychological forces which shaped
the conditions for cultural allegiances. 31 But the implications
of this acknowledgement are not taken up with any
seriousness. They should be, because if theories were
available which showed a systematic, non-contingent
relationship between the realm of (producti ve/reproducti ve )
necessity and the space for expressing, articulating and
transmitting need-interpretations and conceptions of the
good life, then according to just the ‘best account’ principle
of strong hermeneutics, Taylor’s account would stand at a
distinct disadvantage so far as explanatory power goes. We
would rightly call that failing hermeneutic idealism.

We might also rightly call it ideological, if by screening
off causally significant power-relations, the hermeneutics
served to perpetuate the very same relationships by way of
a retrieval of a supervening ideal. The role which Taylor
accords to ‘everyday life’ – the life of production and the
family – perhaps best illustrates this danger. 32 Within Taylor’ s
genealogy, family life is treated primarily as the object of an
affirmation: in the course of modernity’s unfolding it
becomes strongly evaluated for its own sake and not merely
as a means or background to some higher end. Within the
parameters set by Taylor, it is a legitimate goal of strong
hermeneutic reflection to retrieve the empowering moral
source of this ideal. But a deep hermeneutic of suspicion
will approach the ideals of family life from a very different
perspective. The agenda there would be set not so much by
a genealogical conflict between rival conceptions of the
good, as by the social space for rational -hermeneutic
deliberation about them. 33 Ordinary life would be interpreted
as a realm within which rational hermeneutic deliberation is
subject to the distortions of extra-linguistic pressures which
inflect the linguistic resources available to hermeneutic
reflection. In this way, the empirically guided theoretical
task of disclosing the brutally imposed conditions of cultural
allegiance to this ideal would reflect back on the conditions
of acceptability of the strong hermeneutic philosophical
anthropology. Such reflexivity makes for a more adequate
construction of critical distance.

There is also a more straightforward meaning to ideology
which bears on the politics of Taylor’s hermeneutics. For
despite his claim that hermeneutic reflection can bring
about change by way of recovering contact with
motivationally potent moral sources, Taylor is resigned to
the givenness of social structures which obstruct the
instantiation of the corresponding ideals. This happens
when, at the close of The Ethics ofAuthenticity, he announces
that, concerning the market and the bureaucratic state, ‘we
have to live with them forever’ .34 This view is objectionable

on a host of grounds internal to strong hermeneutics – the
internal relation between action and self-interpretation, the
openness and mutability of horizons of self-interpretation,
the narrative structure of historical explanation – which
forbid the naturalisation of social forms. And in its
irrationality, it serves to stoke deep hermeneutic suspicion
of the precedence given by strong hermeneutics to the
retrieval of moral sources over the possibility of overcoming
the mechanisms which prevent the instantiation of ideals especially the ideal of authenticity.






Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, London, Harvard
University Press, 1992. The text is based on a series of radio
lectures broadcast in Canada and previously published in Canada
under the title The Malaise of Modernity (1991).

Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism and ‘The Politics of
Recognition’, with commentary by Amy Gutmann, Princeton,
Princeton University Press, 1992.

See J tirgen Habermas, Moral Consciousness and Communicative
Action, Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 1989. But in his more recent
work, specifically Justification and Application: Remarks on
Discourse Ethics (Cambridge, Polity Press, 1993) Habermas
does indeed affirm the accountability of ideals to rational

See Jean-Fran~ois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition,
Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1984.

For a summary statement of Taylor’s avowed relationship to
hermeneutics, see ‘Interpretation and the Sciences of Man’, in
his Philosophy and the Human Sciences, Cambridge, Cambridge
University Press, 1985, pp. 15-57.


I consider the following a fine example of this kind of reasoning:

‘everything we encounter in our experience more and no
less than an interpretation – things in the world are always
interpreted into the terms of our own subjective values, and thus
the only world that can ever be known is a world of difference
(that is, a world of interpretations)’. This passage is taken from
Jon R. Snyder’s introduction to Gianni Vattimo, The End of
Modernity (London, Polity Press, 1988), p. xiii, in which the
author sympathetically summarises the idea of ‘weak thought’

advocated by Vattimo (especially pp. xxii. f). ‘Weak
hermeneutics’ thus seems to me an appropriate term for a
philosophy which articulates the relationship between
interpretation, subjective value, and difference in this way.


With specific respect to the form of its meta-ethic, weak
hermeneutics thus coincides with logical positivism.

Thoroughgoing Nietzscheans might find something ‘morally
humiliating’ in this shared genealogy.


R. Rorty, Essays on Heidegger and Others, Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 6.


This view is shared, though taken in a different, non-hermeneutic
direction, by Roy Bhaskar. See, for example, his Philosophy and
the Idea of Freedom, Oxford, Blackwell, 1989.


Considerations of a kind, for instance, which constitute ‘the
natural attitude’ of classical phenomenology. Taylor calls this
the ‘Best Account’ principle. It is elaborated in Taylor, Sources
of the Self, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 69 f.


Seethe ‘Introduction’ to Taylor’s Human Agency and Language,
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1985. The term has
provoked anxiety because of its association with the ‘metaphysical
biology’ of Aristotelianism. This anxiety can be quelled in two
ways: first, by a recognition of the validity of the ideal of
authenticity; second, by support from strong empirical theories
of self-formative processes. Because it has these resources, Axel
Honneth can describe his own project of Critical Theory as

Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994











philosophical anthropology, without embarrassment (Radical
Philosophy 65, Autumn 1993, pp. 35t).

This metaphilosophical stance is outlined in Tay lor’ s
‘Overcoming Epistemology’, in K. Baynes et al. (eds.) After
Philosophy, Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 1987, pp. 464-88.

Sources of the Self, p. 520.

Habermas’s ‘depth hermeneutics’ is elaborated in Knowledge
and Human Interests (London, Heinemann, 1972) and ‘The
Hermeneutic Claim to Universality’, in J.Bleicher (ed.)
Contemporary Hermeneutics, London, Routledge, 1981.

Of course Habermas was later to favour a very different kind of
construction: a theory of communicative competence as
reconstructive science. Nevertheless, Habermas has continued
to defend the appropriateness of depth hermeneutic self-critique
within a more narrowly circumscribed domain.

Pertinent criticisms of this kind, but from very different
perspectives, are to be found in Russell Keat, The Politics of
Social Theory, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1981;
and J. Bernstein, ‘Self-Knowledge as Praxis’ in Christopher
Nash (ed.) Narrative in Culture, London, Routledge, 1991.

This point is made effectively by Bernstein. The view he urges
as a consequence of it, however, seems to leave self-interpretations
hanging in the air, and as such is vulnerable to the same charge
of idealism.

Paul Ricoeur identifies this contrast in Freud and Philosophy,
New Haven, Yale University Press, 1970, p. 26. He assesses the
GadamerlHabermas debate, and develops his own notion of
critical ‘distanciation’ , in Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences,
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Taylor’s discussion of the concept of strong evaluation is most
focused in the papers ‘What is Human Agency?’ and ‘Selfinterpreting Animals’, both in Human Agency and Language.

That it is the key conceptual resource of Taylor’s hermeneutics
is suggested by the way it features in Taylor’s programmatic
remarks in his ‘Introduction’ to that volume, and in Sources of
the Self, p. 4.

Sources of the Self, p. 34.

For this reason, the reservations expressed by Jonathan Ree
about the philosophical cogency of the concept of identity do not
have application to Taylor’s notion (,Internationality’, Radical
Philosophy 60, Spring 1992, especially pp. 8t). Ree’s justified
misgivings stem from Locke’s introduction of the problem of
‘personal identity’ into philosophical discourse: ‘by virtue of
whatfact am I now the same person as I was in the past?’ But the
meaning of ‘fact’ here is tied to the empiricist notion of
qualitatively neutral sensory data. From the standpoint of strong
hermeneutics, Locke’s is a classic case ofreified philosophical
anthropology posing as epistemology (See Sources of the Self,














pp. 160-176).

This conclusion is crucial for the general programme of strong
hermeneutics. In its insistence on the immersion of the individual
within historically pre-given backgrounds of significance, strong
hermeneutics has typically been construed as an anti-individualist,
conservative philosophy. While the philosophical resources of
strong hermeneutics may have been applied for the purpose of
prioritising tradition over the individual, this can now be seen as
the result of an arbitrary dismissal of the ideal of individuality
which informs the culture of modernity. The incipient
conservatism of Taylor’s hermeneutics, I argue later, comes
from elsewhere.

One place in which Taylor makes an implicit response is his
contribution to David Wood (ed.), On Paul Ricoeur, London,
Routledge, 1991, pp. 176-77.

The best presentation of this case is Iris Marian Young, Justice
and the Politics of Difference, Princeton, Princeton University
Press, 1990. For an introductory summary, see Diana Coole,
Women in Political Theory, 2nd edition, Harvester Wheatsheaf,
1993. Another useful overview is Anne Phillips and Michele
Barrett (eds), Destabilising Theory, Cambridge, Polity Press,
1992. For sympathetic scepticism (not dissimilar in spirit to my
own), see Christine Synpnowich, ‘Some Disquiet about
“Difference”‘, Praxis International, 13:2, July 1993.

Habermas explores this point in ‘Struggles for Recognition in
Constitutional States’, European Journal of Philosophy, 1:2,
August 1993, pp. 128-155.

So I read Taylor’s Multiculturalism and the ‘Politics of
Recognition’ .

See, for example, the essays ‘Rationality’ and ‘Understanding
and Ethnocentrism’ , both in Philosophy and the Human Sciences.

Habermas, ‘Struggles for Recognition in Constitutional States’,

This point is made briefly by Amy Gutmann in her commentary
on Taylor’s text. Various phenomena of ‘struggles for
recognition’ and their corresponding mod~s of analysis are
distinguished by Habermas in ‘Struggles for Recognition in
Constitutional States,’ pp. 134-7.

For responses to the temptation of weak hermeneutics in
contemporary feminism, see note 24.

Sources of the Self, p. 207.

Tay lor’ s extended discussion of this idea is in Sources ofthe Self,
pp. 211-304.

A particularly powerful case for pressing this agenda is put by
Nancy Fraser in Unruly Practices, Cambridge, Polity, 1989.

The Ethics of Authenticity, p. 111.

Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy

A Conference – Saturday 29 October 1994
Sessions on: Romanticism & Technology
Habermas and the Ethics of Nature • Technology Contra Dionysus
Hermeneutics, Technology & Responsibility • Ecology & Technology
Another Subject: Freud to Cyborg • Heidegger’s ‘Age of the World Picture’


Speakers: Andrew Benjamin, Jay Bernstein, Andrew Bowie, Hauke Brunkhorst, Phillip Cole,
Simon Critchley, Peter Dews, Joanna Hodge, Russell Keat, Sadie Plant, Jonathan Ree,
Nick Smith, Kate Soper, Bernard Stiegler
Sponsered by the British Academy
Tickets (including Lunch, Tea and Reception): £251 £8 unwaged from:

The Secretary, School of Philosophy & Religious Studies, Middlesex University, White Hart Lane, London N17 8HR

Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994


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