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Integrating Meaningful Selfhood into the Sociological Study of Political Languages: Blending Mead's Pragmatism and Taylor's Hermeneutics

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The sociological study of political culture has made important headways. Scholars have demonstrated the significance of background culture, symbols and narratives as well as of the shared patterns of conduct. Yet, the relationship of those to ordinary people, how they become meaningful, has not been effectively explored. This paper argues that to comprehend this relationship we must understand political languages as concerning questions of being. I will show how the philosophical resources of Mead’s pragmatism and Taylor’s hermeneutics can enlighten the link between political languages and self, demonstrate its significance, and suggest ways in which the study of political cultures can be extended to integrate meaningful selfhood. Comparing and complementing pragmatism and hermeneutics, I will argue that political languages become meaningful along two intertwined dimensions: First, practical self-insertion in coordinative patterns, which involves the expression of concerns and senses of being. Second, self- and world clarification. Here, political languages become important when they articulate concerns and intuitions and bring moral sources into proximity. Moreover, by foregrounding Taylor’s hermeneutics of self-expression and articulation, which is yet to be integrated in the social sciences, I will show how both dimensions are connected in an hermeneutical cycle and thus ought to be analysed in their relationship.

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  1. Scholars who have discussed Taylor such as Craig Calhoun (1991) and Hartmut Rosa (1998) mainly draw on Sources of the Self (1989), or The Secular Age (2007), which has been widely discussed (Alexander, 2021; Calhoun, 2008; Gorski, 2016; Künkler et al., 2018). A reason for the oversight of may be that Taylor elaborated his hermeneutics the first time expansively in The Language Animal (2016) which is yet to find its way in the social sciences.

  2. This oversight is evident throughout Alexander’s oeuvre. While he emphasises and elaborates on different narratives, he does so by looking at its internal structure instead of its connection to audiences. In an earlier text co-authored with Ronald Jacobs, referring to Elihu Katz, he acknowledges that ‘media texts provide a certain flow of cultural material from producers to audiences, who in turn use them in their lifeworld settings to construct a meaningful world and to maintain a common cultural framework through which intersubjectivity becomes possible’ (Alexander & Jacobs, 1998, p. 27). However, the significance of these relationships have not made it in Alexander’s theoretical nor empirical focus. Empirically, the absence of audiences has been widely observed by several commentators; on Alexander’s The Civil Sphere (Emirbayer & Noble, 2013, pp. 628–629), as well as by Werner Binder (2017, p. 116) on Alexanders recent works on social performance.

  3. Without going into philosophical debates, I understand expression as related to bringing about something which did not, or only had the potential to, exist prior to expression.

  4. In practical action the solution lies in the consummation of an act. It is thus not defined in terms of some sort of inner gratification but externally as the ability to act where action has formerly stopped. ‘The action may be a very sorry affair and afflicted with gloom, but if the road now lies open to the meanings which had nullified each other, this road is the true road.’ (Mead, 1929, p. 73, see also 1900, p. 02).

  5. Mead merely posits principles of spontaneity and personal values in the I. One way to understand personal values through Mead is to see them as emergent from a personal reorganisation of the values of the various environments the individual participates in spanning spheres such as family, work, religion and politics. I hold that in order to understand what requests expression this reorganisation we need a stronger account than one of negotiation between multiple social consciences (Daniel, 2016) such as one of strong evaluation (Taylor, 1985a) in which the individual clarifies and orders the various values of the Me. The notion of strong evalatuation, however, requires an hermeneutic account of meaning.

  6. The problem of such reductive account of meaning for sure not only plagues Mead’s account but translates to sociological approaches which implement a pragmatist agenda more widely.

  7. To draw out Taylor’s criticism on Mead, Abbott (2020, pp. 11–12) resorts to a footnote in Sources of the Self which contains a reference to Mead. Taylor states that ‘Mead is still too close to a behaviourist view, and doesn't seem to take account of the constitutive role of language in the definition of self and relations.’ (1989, p. 525 emphasis added) Abbott interprets this note as a criticism of Mead’s dialogical self. However, what is contained here, and explicit in Taylor’s critique of Mead offered in The Importance of Herder (1997a) which Abbott does not cite at all, is a criticism of Mead’s reduction of meaning to tasks, thus, his inability to conceive the ‘constitutive role of language’.

  8. Implied in this view is the hermeneutic conception of non-arbitrariness of language. A signifier cannot attach itself to any signified, but brings along its own limitations, carries its own meaning. This is the idea of linguistic rightness which applies to the realm of human meanings for Taylor.

  9. Articulation here means giving something a shape. Articulations which give something a more explicit form never exhaust the content but are always a hermeneutical exercise of interpretation and clarification.

  10. Taylor developed these dimensions as early as in Theories of Meaning (1985b) without using the labels accessive and existential.

  11. Abbott’s (2020) recent comparison between Mead and Taylor is, thus, misleading in arguing that Taylor ‘neglects the fundamental significance of interaction and social relations ‘ (p. 2) and is thus ‘ill‐equipped to explore how moral understandings and identities develop and how these are lived at the level of practice’ (p. 10). Would Abbott have resorted to Taylor’s hermeneutic writings such as his Language Animal instead of exclusively focusing on Sources of the Self, he would have noticed that for Taylor as for Mead language and selfhood does not emerge inside individuals but in communication with others. Language ‘evolves always in the interspace of joint attention, or communion.’ (Taylor, 2016, p. 50).

  12. Rosa (2004) elaborates on basis of Taylor a similar account. He focuses on the dynamics between social implicit and explicit as well as personal implicit and explicit orientations and shows how pathologies emerge when these levels become too discrepant.


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I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers whose insights and encouragements helped me to clarify my argument and Sebastian Raza for lengthy discussions which contributed significantly to my argument on Taylor. Thanks, too, to Jason Mast’s for thoughtful comments which assisted me in final revisions.

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Correspondence to Daphne Fietz.

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Fietz, D. Integrating Meaningful Selfhood into the Sociological Study of Political Languages: Blending Mead's Pragmatism and Taylor's Hermeneutics. Am Soc 52, 721–739 (2021).

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