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J. Jacobs

    Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


    This thesis is about a particular dilemma of sustainability. It arises if a sustainable solution of one sector implies a non-sustainable solution for another sector involved. I use Gadamers theory of hermeneutic as an analytical tool for a possible approach of this dilemma.

    I assume that in the case of sustainability, the interpretation of actions is prominent and not the interpretation of definitions in for instance international treaties. I claim that sustainability is achieved only if we actually do something. At an abstract level this means that I start from actions and that, in my view, language is an action.

    There is one opinion that we may wonder whether sustainability is an ideal that may never be achieved. In that case sustainability is considered to be a dream, as it were. There is another opinion that we could also start with the assumption that sustainability has been present for centuries. Many dynamic processes in society are responsible for the fact that sustainability is visible or not, as the case may be. In this approach to sustainability tradition is very important. It is the latter approach to sustainability that appeals to me. Sustainability is part of a dynamic process, a process that is in perpetual motion. Because of the fact that tradition is such an important element in sustainability, we can obviously describe sustainability as a hermeneutical problem. If we then add the notion that sustainability is all about actions, we conceive the notion that sustainability is a her meneutical problem of action.

    I shall first tell some more about the hermeneutical process.

    Gadamer's hermeneutics

    Gadamer's theory is my basis for a hermeneutics of action. In the case of Gadamer's hermeneutics, we are dealing with the interpretation of texts. Gadamer is interested in the question as to how we can understand a text that is for instance twentyfive centuries old. On the face of it, doesn't the application of Gadamer's hermeneutics appear to be counter-Intuitive? Why do I want to apply Gadamer's hermeneutics in particular for the interpretation of actions? The various propositions in Gadamer's hermeneutics, such as tradition, fusion of horizons, finiteness, historicity and dialogue fit in quite well to my conceptual analysis of sustainability. Can I then apply Gadamer's hermeneutics to actions just like that? In my thesis I show that Gadamer himself offers possibilities in his theory that allow the application of his hermeneutics to actions. His theory allows me to widen its sphere from products to processes, or actions. The dynamic aspect of processes is expressed in the dialogic character of Gadamer's hermeneutics. Usually dialogue is the characteristic in Gadamer's hermeneutics that people continue to focus on, but in my view the emphasis must be on tradition.

    Hermeneutics as dialogue

    Gadamer's hermeneutics has the character of a dialogue. How can I transpose this to the problem of sustainability? What is being interpreted in sustainability and who are 'conducting this dialogue'? In sustainability we are dealing with a dialogue between two or more practices that have to understand each other, in which either of them has its own interpretation of sustainability. A practice must be understood to be a combination of actions.

    Because of the fact that the practice concept is proposed to be the conceptual instrument for sustainability, the latter automatically assumes the structure of a practice. This means that the way in which sustainability develops, is related to the way in which internal and external aspects of a practice develop. It is thus no longer sufficient that sustainability develops solely within a practice. Sustainability must also be geared to the interaction with other connecting practices. The problem of sustainability arises in a situation in which the internal and external development of sustainability clash.

    This internal and external development of sustainability is reflected in the distinction of actions directed either towards making or toward doing. Actions leading to an end product typically occur within a practice, whereas actions dealing with a process take place between practices. Of course these two types of actions are interrelated. They may be distinguished, but not separated. According to Gremmen: 'the competence is in the performance.'

    A practice in Gremmen's view is a combination of knowledge and instrumental action. Even scientific knowledge cannot be separated from the practice - practicing science - from which it stems.

    What is known as scientific knowledge is the shared background of standards and values shown in the scientific achievements such as experimental results. This also applies to technical sciences. The only difference between knowledge that is part of, for instance daily life, the arts or crafts, is the difference in practice this knowledge is part of. Though the practice structure of technical scientists differs from that of other practices, this does not mean that it deserves an appreciation that is different from that of the practices it is dealing with.

    From the concept of practice to the concept of style

    By choosing a hermeneutic approach to sustainability you assume that actions must be interpreted. One and the same action may have different interpretations. Do we find this in the concept of practice? No, the concept of practice merely indicates that the development of a practice occurs within and between practices. This concept does not offer an explanation to the question as to what the differences in interpretation are within comparable practices. A particular practice is distinguished by a particular way of action. We call this a particular style. So, the concept of practice alone is not sufficient. The theory of the practice must be extended. We have to search for a concept that shows equivalent actions and activities in groups from different practices.

    This concept must show that groups belong together. These conditions are satisfied when we extend the concept of practice with the concept of style, The concept of style distinguishes the different ways of acting. It is a concept that structures actions and activities, so that these belong together as a group. Thus what we gain from the concept of style, is the fact that the different actions and activities and characteristics fit into a pattem, are related to each other. The different actions are organised. The relations between the actions are explained. I only call it a style, following Harwood (1992) when different styles may be distinguished within a practice and when the same style may be identified in another practice.

    The concrete material substrate

    I explained that the aspects that practices have in common are expressed by a comparable style. The question is, in what way the equivalence between styles is apparent in the coordination of people, knowledge and objects. We have seen that knowledge is typical for a particular practice and a person may well participate in two practices, though exercising different capacities in each. Therefore the common aspects must be the objects. On an abstract level, a concrete thing or object consists of something you could call substrate. This substrate stands for the physical characteristics of that thing. Obviously the aspects practices have in common are found on the level of the substrate. Subsequently the question is how to retrieve this notion on the level of the object, meaning how can we recognise it in the actions themselves. The concrete material substrate is an artefact. And how does this artefact fit into my theory about the hermeneutical approach to the sustainability dilemma? I assume that sustainability has its basis in reality. Sustainability is reflected in the way people deal with reality. Problems of sustainability take place on the object level. At first sight reality, such as a technical construct can only be used for a single purpose. Apparently people are able to deal with the technical construct in different ways. On the abstract level this may be explained hermeneutically by the fact that practices have a different interpretation of the substrate. These different interpretations on the abstract level are expressed in the actions on the object level in that each practice utilises the identical object differently. The fact that a technical construct may be used in different ways, offers a possibility of finding a solution to a dilemma of sustainability.

    A number of examples in my thesis show the role a concrete material substrate plays in practice. A good example of this is the American power company that built a dam in the Columbia River to generate clean power. This well intentioned project proved to be a barrier for the salmon in the river. The dam prevented them from returning to the place where they spawned. On the one hand therefore, the dam contributed to sustainability, on the other hand it prevented another kind of sustainability. The local fishermen, who contributed to sustainability by catching the salmon only after they had spawned, protested against the dam. The power plant could have put a big stack of dollar bills on the table to buy out the fishermen, but in that case the salmon would have perished. In such a situation, with both antagonists striving for sustainability, financial arguments are not sufficient. Nor are technical solutions: the fish farm built by the power company below the dam did not yield the desired results.

    The eventual solution is beautiful in its simplicity, and typical for successful solutions to this dilemma of sustainability: a maintenance gate in the dam was opened from time to time to allow the salmon passage upstream. Important is the realisation that we can interpret things in a different way from what we are accustomed to. The dam was initially understood to be something that closed off the river. It was only later that people realised that a dam with a maintenance gate also will be able to let something through.

    I have shown that, for sustainability to be achieved within this sustainability dilemma there must be a hermeneutical process. But what is it? Can a hermeneutical process be compared to negotiating. No, negotiations are about the form, hermeneutics however deals with content. When negotiating people can come to a solution on the basis of economic arguments. The outcome is predictable. The same economic arguments no longer apply in a hermeneutical process. By taking the sustainability dilemma mentioned above, as a hermeneutical problem, this is shown to arise from differences in interpretations by the practices concerned. When you want to cluster these differences in interpretation, a creative moment is required involving the traditions of the practices concerned. One condition is that people get to know each other's habits in order to reach a solution. The differences in interpretation may be clustered in a fusion of horizons. This blending of horizons is achieved through the co-operation of the practices concerned. The co-operation takes place on the action level. The actions themselves leads to the fusion of horizons. By exchanging views people attempt to agree on the subject. This is not a situation in which people aim at being in the right or in which they try to fathom the other's individuality, but in which they try to understand each other and continue to interpret. All this takes place in reality, in the way we deal with things. In the case of sustainability this may be a technical artefact or a certain method.

    In other words, the hermeneutical moment can only arise from an activity, and I call this cooperation. Eventually a comparable style develops. The concrete material substrate is the go-between or the interface between the practices. This substrate can also serve as interface within practices. For instance in the transition from a non-sustainable style to a sustainable style within the same practice. The substrate within a practice shows that a concrete thing may be helpful cementing the relationship between sustainability and the world. A particular style makes us sustain reality.

    Sustainability arises from the way in which different practices cooperate in dealing with reality.

    Original languageDutch
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Wageningen University
    • Korthals, M.J.J.A.A., Promotor
    • Gremmen, Bart, Promotor
    Award date25 Jun 2001
    Place of PublicationS.l.
    Print ISBNs9789058084354
    Publication statusPublished - 25 Jun 2001


    • sustainability
    • analysis
    • philosophy
    • hermeneutics
    • philosophical systems

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