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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


GADAMER

(1900 — 2002)

 

'PHILOSOPHICAL' HERMENEUTICS

Hans-Georg Gadamer was born in 1900, the son of a chemistry professor, and studied at the universities of Breslau, Marburg, Freiburg, and Munich. He later undertook post-doctoral work as Heidegger's assistant at Marburg, and became professor there in 1937. During World War II he was a reluctant 'fellow-traveller' with the Hitler regime and taught at Leipzig from 1938 until 1947 when he took up a Chair at Frankfurt. He moved to Heidelberg in 1949 and retired in 1968 although he continued to teach in Germany and in America. Influenced especially by Heidegger he moved beyond the 'methodological hermeneutics' of Schleiermacher and Dilthey and is now recognised as the major hermeneutic philosopher of the twentieth century. His principal work Truth and Method raises important issues concerning truth, rationality, authority, and language.

 

HERMENEUTICS

[1] Hermeneutics for Gadamer is more than simply a set of techniques for interpreting texts. It is concerned with the deeper issue of how human understanding (Verstehen) is possible. And as such it is a practical as well as a theoretical enterprise, akin to Aristotle's concept of phronesis or practical deliberation — to be identified with neither episteme nor techne. While it is a teaching about a technical skill it is also concerned with the relevance of this to "the distinctively human trait of having proairesis [free choice, purpose]" ['Hermeneutics as Practical Philosophy'; cf. Truth and Method, Pt 2, II, 2 (b)] and with the individual's quest for excellence as manifested in 'cultivation' (Bildung ) in the community [ibid., Pt 1, I, 1 (b) (i)] [a].

According to Gadamer, there is no absolute 'objective' interpretation of a text, work or art, or indeed a whole culture, to be discovered by some Enlightenment form of reason, through empathetic insight into the author's intentions, or by some process of cultural reconstruction. At the same time he rejects both individual rigid relativism and any transcendentally subjective verification whereby the insights of each individual or group are supposedly guaranteed equal validity or authenticity [b]. This becomes clear in the course of his exposition in Truth and Method. He firstly investigates art and the aesthetic dimension [Pt I] and then goes on to examine the historical sciences [Pt II, I]; for it is through modes of experiencing, he says, that we come to understand our own existence. The Romantic and Idealist traditions, however, have presented us with forms of consciousness which alienate our true being. Emphasis on aesthetic experience as such results in a work of art becoming abstracted from the world as a 'pure' artwork by means of a process of what Gadamer calls 'aesthetic differentiation'. His aim therefore is to show that the primordial experiences transmitted through history and art cannot be grasped from the point of view of these forms of consciousness. Understanding the truth of aesthetic experience belongs to the encounter with the work of art itself [Pt I, I, 3 (b)]. Works of art do indeed disclose the 'truth' of reality, but only, as it were, as appearance — a realization as it exists only in the content of the work of art itself (he thus rejects the notion of 'mirroring'): "...reality is defined as what is untransformed, and art as the raising up of this reality into its truth" [Pt I, II, 1(b)]. He is critical of subjectivist theories of art and affirms that aesthetic experience is a form of knowledge: "What one experiences in a work of art and what one is directed towards is rather how true it is, i.e., to what extent one knows and recognises something and oneself" [ibid.] In mimetic art imitation and representation are thus not merely a copy but a recognition of the essence. Moreover, he says, because they are not merely repetition but a "bringing forth", the spectator is also involved in them. This is particularly clear in Gadamer's discussion of tragic drama. In witnessing the consequences which flow from a guilty deed (in the Antigone) "the spectator recognises himself and his own finiteness in the face of the power of fate" [Pt I, II, 1(d)]. The events become a reality for him through which he is 'purified' in the sense of being transformed by the tragedy [c]. However, he goes on to argue that in art and history there are no pure starting-points free of presuppositions. Rather we find ourselves in a world in a particular place and time, born into a given society, influenced even by the landscape; we possess our own thoughts and moods, engage in our own activities. He refers to this as 'effective historical consciousness' (Wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewusstsein) [Pt 2, II, 1 (b) (iv)], reflecting the fact that, whether as authors of texts, readers, or interpreters, we are grounded in historicity of the communal, genuinely intersubjective 'life-world', within which all our thinking occurs; and he sees us as being thereby constrained by the prejudices of our cultural contexts [d]. 'Pre-judice' is here understood not in its common pejorative sense but as referring to the assumptions or traditions that we necessarily inherit by virtue of belonging to a particular culture in a particular place at a particular time. This limitation is implicit in his use of the term 'horizon'.

[2] Although we are limited in our horizons, Gadamer argues that the limits can be transcended — to the extent that we can open ourselves up to the discourse and cultural traditions of others; and in this way greater understanding can be achieved. What makes this possible for Gadamer is language — which plays a central role in his hermeneutics [Pt III]. He sees language as the medium in which we operate, through which we understand. But we cannot transcend or extricate ourselves from language to come into to direct contact with the 'reality' that language is in some sense about. The nature of human experience is essentially linguistic; Gadamer refers to this as 'linguality' (Sprachlichkeit). It is literally more correct, he states, to say that "language speaks us, rather than we speak it" [Pt III, 3 (b)] [a]. He does not seek to get behind a text but thinks it is possible to 'recreate' partially the 'ideal' meaning which he thinks is embedded in or implicit in the text itself — which may well pass beyond what was intended by the author and thus beyond the author's horizons. Interpretation has to be 'applied' in circumstances that may not have obtained when work or text was first created. He takes up the idea of a dialogue but for him it is a dialogue between interpreter and text, painting, or other cultural product. Through this dialogue the interpreter both separates the text from its horizons (the author's personal experiences, cultural context of the work) and transcends his own horizons. Gadamer argues that as the dialogue progresses a 'fusion of horizons' (Horizontverschmelzung) between author, text, and interpreter can be achieved and approximation to the ideal meaning attained [Pt 2, II, 1 (b) (iv)] [b]. Moreover, while our effective history necessarily prevents us from overcoming our prejudices, yet because an effective history constitutes those prejudices we bring to understanding it is only through them that we can approach our horizons. Prejudice is thus seen as a precondition for understanding: we must first be 'distanciated' from the text or culture if we are to interpret it [c]. The progressive dialogue leading to fusion of horizons is essentially dialectical in nature. But Gadamer's dialectic, which facilitates openness and transcendence, remains within language. He rejects any dialectic of Spirit which purports to be working itself out in and through consciousness and the world and culminating in an Absolute or total self-realization [d]. The 'meaning' or truth of the text should not therefore be understood in either rationalist or speculative idealist terms.

Hermeneutics is characterized by a 'forward-backward' movement which operates within the 'hermeneutical circle' [Pt 2, II, 1 (a) (i) and (b) (iii)]. For Gadamer this is a circle of whole and part: parts give us a sense of the whole, and to understand the significance of the parts we need to have an apprehension of the whole (just as we might come to understand the relationship between the chapters of a book and the book as a whole). But the whole is never fully realizable in terms of parts — there is no 'ultimate' truth [e]: we are offered only new fusions, new insights, achieved only within the constraints of history and effective historical consciousness, and the 'resistance' of text. It is essentially on on-going adventure; and Gadamer claims that to the extent that it is successful it will bring about a growth in inner awareness, self-understanding, and an understanding of the human condition.

[3] Hermeneutics is applicable not only to the human sciences but also to the natural sciences [see Foreword to 2nd edn]. But Gadamer makes it clear that he is not seeking to question the methodology or functions of empirical sciences within their own terms of reference, or even that they may be employed in the social sciences. The natural sciences may well aspire to certainty, but they have their limits in that here too our culturally related assumptions, prejudices, and distortions cannot be eliminated. On the other hand, although the human sciences differ from the natural sciences in their methodology this does not exclude them from offering access to truth. Gadamer's point is that both natural and human sciences are subordinate to hermeneutic categories: both kinds of enterprise must be open to interpretation and understanding — which is fundamental to what it is to be human [a]. His concern therefore is to pose the question 'How is understanding possible?' to the totality of human experience of the world and our conduct of life.

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

The significance of Gadamer lies in his expansion of the concept of hermeneutics. His achievement is essentially to have linked together the traditional areas — 'understanding', 'interpretation' and 'application' — and to have shown their interdependence in a wider theory of understanding. His work has had a major influence on contemporary philosophy and literary theory. His principal work Truth and Method has also raised important issues concerning truth, rationality, and authority, and language.

Unlike the hermeneutic philosophers of German Romanticism, Gadamer denies that an 'objective' understanding of texts, art, history, culture can be achieved. However, his anti-positivistic methodology allows for a conditioned understanding that he claims avoids relativism and subjectivism. This understanding is achieved through a 'fusion of horizons' — arising from 'dialogue' and the search for consensus. Personal and cultural 'pre-judices' and presuppositions cannot be transcended: indeed they are considered as essential aids for the acquisition of knowledge, the cultivation of reason, and human development. His approach to the question of the 'meaning' or 'truth' of a text is perhaps best understood as Aristotelian rather than Platonic — though this is contentious.

The main criticisms of his philosophy have arisen largely in the context of his debate with Habermas .

(1) It is argued that Gadamer ignores or underestimates the possibility of coercion of the free discourse required for consensus — he is too ready to submit to the 'authority' of tradition' [a]; and he is mistaken in supposing 'pre-judice' to be non-eliminable. His hermeneutics is supposedly limited in this respect, because it appeals to a linguistic idealism. It lacks a "reference system", a comprehensive view of society. Gadamer, however, denies this and argue that extra-linguistic factors do in due course enter into the system.

(2) It is also claimed that he does not allow sufficiently for 'causal' factors and the distortions (perhaps originating from the unconscious) in proposed reasons and intentions.

(3) More centrally, perhaps, his criterion for genuine understanding after 'dialogue' is essentially practical. It is not clear how self-development and the cultivation of reason are to be measured, or, given ideological distortion, how consensus is to be assessed. There is thus no clear indication of a role for reason as such.

These criticisms should of course be understood in the context of Habermas's own position. Nevertheless it is clear that the issue of truth is central to the debate concerning the acceptability of Gadamerian hermeneutics. Gadamer has been interpreted by some commentators as being an 'antirealist'. But while it is the case that for him we cannot transcend the language through which we articulate our interpretations of texts or cultural behaviour in general, it is arguable that he is not denying that what we say in language is in some sense about the 'world'. Rather, he is repudiating the possibility of any ultimate 'objective' revelation. The 'fusion of horizons' may be on-going, perhaps even asymptotic (though this raises the question of how progress might be measured), but such fusions are more appropriately still to be regarded as relative. Perhaps therefore Gadamer should be considered a 'weak' realist'.

 

READING

Gadamer: Wahrheit und Methode (1960) (Truth and Method, trans. W. Glenn-Doepel or, revd edn, by J. Weinsheimer and D. G. Marshall); Philosophische Lehrjahre, 1977 (Philosophical Apprenticeships, trans. R. R. Sullivan); and see also the two essays 'On the Scope and Function of Hermeneutical Reflection' and 'Text and Interpretation' in Wachterhauser (below), and 'Hermeneutics as Practical Philosophy' (in After Philosophy: End or Transformation, ed. K. Baynes, et al.). This last text also contains the Gadamer's Foreword to the 2nd edition of Truth and Method (1975, English edn 1979).

Studies

C. Lawn, Gadamer: A Guide for the Perplexed.

G. Warnke, Gadamer: Hermeneutics, Tradition and Reason.

J. C. Weinsheimer, Gadamer's Hermeneutics.

Collections of Essays

R. Dostal (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer.

L. E. Hahn (ed.), The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer

B. R. Wachterhauser (ed.), Hermeneutics and Modern Philosophy.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Gadamer

 

[1a] Interpretation/ understanding of texts, etc. practical and theoretical enterprise; cf. phronesis; quest for Bildung ('cultivation')

   Aristotle

   Heidegger

   Ricoeur

Rorty

[20d]

[1b]

[8c]

[1b]

 

[1b; cf. 2b] No objective interpretation through reason, empathy, etc.; rejection of relativism, transcendental subjective verification

   Schleiermacher

   Dilthey

   Husserl

   Heidegger

[3c]

[1b f 3a]

[5a 5b 7b 8a]

[1b 6a]

 

[1c] Critique of subjectivisation of aesthetics, 'abstraction', 'differentiation', alienating forms of consciousness; truth of reality disclosed in work of art; aesthetic experience as recognition; tragic drama and 'purification' of engaged spectator

   Plato

   Aristotle

   Kant

   Hegel

Heidegger

[sec. 8]

[23a b]

[9c]

[8b]

[7a]

 

[1d; cf. 1b 2c 3a] 'Effective historical consciousness' — we are grounded in historicity of communal life-world, constrained by cultural 'prejudices'

   Schleiermacher

   Dilthey

   Husserl

   Heidegger

Habermas

Rorty

[3c]

[3a]

[5b 8a]

[1c sec. 3]

[1a 2d]

[1b]

 

[2a; cf. 2d] Transcendental limits of one's horizon through language; 'language speaks us'

   Heidegger

Ricoeur

Habermas

[5c]

[1c 4a]

[2d 3a]

 

[2b; cf. 1b] Partial recreation and approximation to 'ideal' meaning in text through dialogue → 'fusion of horizons' Ricoeur [2b d]

 

[2c; cf. 1d] Prejudice as precondition for understanding: 'distanciation'

   Schleiermacher

   Dilthey

Ricoeur

[3c]

[3a]

[2c]

 

[2d; cf. 2a b] Dialogue dialectical but remains within language; critique of 'dialectic of Spirit'

   Hegel

   Heidegger

[2a]

[5c]

 

[2e] Hermeneutic circle of whole & part but no ultimate fully realizable truth

   Heidegger

Ricoeur

Rorty

[6c]

[2c d]

[1b]

 

[3a] Natural and human sciences have own methods but both subject to limitations (prejudices etc.); and both open to interpretation/ understanding (relating to life-world and being human)

   Schleiermacher

   Dilthey

   Husserl

   Heidegger

Ricoeur

Habermas

 

[3d]

[2a b]

[8a]

[6b]

[2b 3a]

[2e]

 

 

[CSa] Debate with Habermas

Habermas

Ricoeur

[2e 3c CSa]

[sec. 3 10i]