Circular Reasoning

The question of how we construct meaning has come to occupy a central place in the postmodern philosophical discourse. Such issues even have given rise to their own discipline, “hermeneutics,” the study of theories and methods of interpretation of texts and systems of meaning. (“Texts” meaning any object or idea subject to interpretation, of course.)

German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, the true father of hermeneutics, posited in Truth and Method that the primary dilemma of interpretation is the so-called “hermeneutic circle.” That is, when we construct a text’s meaning, we do so through a never-ending string of signifiers referring to more signifiers. For example, when we look up a word in the dictionary, the definition refers us to more words. Consequently, we’re thrown into a self-referential circle, negating our ability to establish objective meaning.

Enter The Wall Street Journal. Of all places, the financial journal of record recently offered up this stinging critique of the Big XII. In a nutshell: Big XII teams don’t play defense and have made hay against weak nonconference schedules.

When we engage in these discussions as college football fans, have we unwittingly jumped into our own hermeneutic circle?
Put a different way: How do we know a team is good? By the other teams they’ve beat, of course. But, how do we know the teams they’ve beat are any good? Well, we can tell by the teams they’ve beat… You can see where this is going.
Unfortunately for numbers geeks, we can apply this same line of thinking to statistical rankings in college football: “Oklahoma ranks 54th in defense.” That sounds bad, but what about the offenses they’ve faced? Well, they’re all bad, too. I see, but are the offenses bad, or have they all faced good defenses… Same thing.
So before we go writing off the Big XII as a no-defense conference that has fattened up on cupcakes this, let’s ask: Can we really say other conferences have played stronger nonconference competition with any kind of certainty? Likewise, how do we know if the Big XII defenses are so bad?
So, before all you conference homers read a story like this one from the WSJ and start spouting off about how dominant your league is and weak the Big XII, remember the hermeneutic circle.

One Response to “Circular Reasoning”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Okay, so I’ve thought about the Wall Street Journal some. I have some unhelpful comments to make on this matter.

    Polls, statistics, etc., inevitably are caught in a circle from which there is no escape. But that doesn’t mean that these polls, statistics, etc., fail to approximate the truth. They’re measurement tools, and, while fallible, they aren’t worthless.

    The BCS standings, defensive statistics, power rankings, and so on gain more and more validity as the season goes on. If the WSJ makes a claim about Big 12 defenses in October, the claim has less validity than a similar claim made later in the year. The real question for the Big 12 is ‘How are its teams going to do in bowl games?’. It’s hard to know ahead of time what to say. Texas beat USC. OU lost to USC and to LSU. Does the Big 12 champ deserve to be in the BCS finals game? I don’t know. That said, we may well see a Texas vs. Penn State (or Alabama) national championship game.

    As for OU, OU is a good team. And they’re not out of the national championship hunt.

    As for circular reasoning, it is something that must be kept in mind, for it properly tempers the authority that claims have — e.g., the claim that Big 12 defenses are bad. But there is such a thing as objective truth, and it can be had even if there is no way to break out of the circle. I don’t have the time now to spell out the details, but there is a Neurathian-style way out of the problem. You find objectivity step-by-step, piece-meal, from within the circle itself, always recognizing that there really is now way of breaking out of the circle. –Billy

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