Gadamer’s Alternative Concept of Meaning

In an excellent introductory essay to Gadamer’s work, Philosophical Hermeneutics, David Linge discusses the ways in which Gadamer’s phenomenology of the game overcomes a number of hermeneutical difficulties. For example, instead of attempting to explicate understanding from the subjective points of view of the author or interpreter, Gadamer describes understanding as analogous to what occurs in the phenomenon of playing. In a game, the individual in a sense loses him/herself in the give and take of the game and experiences a release from subjectivity. As Linge explains, “what is essential to the phenomenon of play is not so much the particular goal it involves but the dynamic back-and-forth movement in which the players are caught up—the movement that itself specifies how the goal will be reached. Thus the game has its own place or space (its Spielraum), and its movement and aims are cut off from direct involvement in the world stretching beyond it” (xxiii).

Gadamer utilizes this “self-presenting, self-renewing” game structure to engage some of the most difficult and important issues in hermeneutics, viz., “the problem of meaning and of the fidelity of interpretation to the meaning of the text” (xxiii). For Gadamer, the meaning of a text is not simply restricted to the intention of the author, nor is interpretation solely construed as an attempt to replicate the author’s original intention. This reflects in part Gadamer’s understanding of the text itself as something living and dynamic. Moreover, the text cannot be approached as if it were a math problem in which one and only one answer is correct. Nor should one attempt to come up with a method or formula that when applied produces the same result each time—such a model has more in common with scientific experiments than with a living, breathing textual dialogue. In addition, a hermeneutical theory that restricts the meaning of the text to the intention of the author is riddled with seemingly insoluble difficulties. “The basic difficulty with this theory is that it subjectifies both meaning and understanding, thus rendering unintelligible the development of tradition that transmits the text or art work to us and influences our reception of it in the present. When meaning is located exclusively in the mens auctoris, understanding becomes a transaction between the creative consciousness of the author and the purely reproductive consciousness of the interpreter. The inadequacy of this theory to deal positively with history is perhaps best seen in its inability to explain the host of competing interpretations of texts with which history is replete, and that in fact constitute the substance of tradition” (xxiv). Some try to explain away the multiplicity of interpretations by claiming that there is a kind “meaning-in-itself” which is univocal, yet its significance for interpreters over time varies. This, however, is unsatisfactory as it is clear that interpreters in different historical epochs have disagreed not merely in the significance or application of the supposed univocal meaning of a text but in what they thought they saw in the very same text (xxiv). Rather, than limiting the meaning of a text to the author’s intention, Gadamer understand the text as having an “excess of meaning” upon which tradition builds. Elucidating his position, Gadamer writes,

“Every time will have to understand a text handed down to it in its own way, for it is subject to the whole of the tradition in which it has a material interest and in which it seeks to understand itself. The real meaning of a text as it addresses the interpreter does not just depend on the occasional factors which characterize the author and his original public. For it is also always co-determined by the historical situation of the interpreter and thus by the whole of the objective course of history … The meaning of a text surpasses its author not occasionally, but always. Thus understanding is not a reproductive procedure, but rather always also a productive one… It suffices to say that one understands differently when one understands at all (Wahrheit und Methode, p. 280).

9 thoughts on “Gadamer’s Alternative Concept of Meaning”

  1. Thanks Cynthia, I now see the impetus of your question on Rahner. This is very interesting and I believe there are appropriate sympathies that could be shared with Gadamer. I’ll have to think about this.

    Any hints on pronouncing his name?

  2. Hi Dru,

    I hope to post more on Gadamer during the winter break, so please feel free to interact more as the posts increase.

    I am not sure exactly how to properly pronounce his name–any German scholars want to help us out?


  3. Dear Anxietas,

    Thanks for the help with pronounciation :)

    All the best,

    p.s. Are you a grad student at UD? Just curious :)

  4. This aspect of Gadamer’s thought reminds me of Derrida and particularly his concept of iterability. That is, the grounds and method for writing to be communicated and understood is the same grounds for writing to be miscommunicated and misunderstood. The sign/symbol/writing must go beyond the author in order to reach an audience, but if the sign/symbol/writing goes beyond the author then it is, by definition, out of the control of the author and under the control of others/another.

    A similar concept emerges with meaning: If meaning is to be, well, meaningful(!) then it must necessarily go beyond the author. I (and possibly my community) must discover meaning in a text – it must become personal. But the fact that I discover meaning is also the grounds for that meaning being different from the original author’s intention for meaning.

    All these thoughts, however, are very general, and when we speak in these generalities it will beg the question of relativism – paritularly when making the parallel with Derrida. The general comments become clearer, however, when we engage particular texts. For example, there are texts that are by nature more given over to “play” and to a subjective recontextualized meaning. We might call these interpretations “jazz.” There is more improv required of the reader(s). Much poetry would fit this category.

    On the other hand there are texts that seem to require less improv – texts where the intention of the author or “the meaning of the text” is the goal. Legal texts come to mind as an example, or even instructions from the manufacturer for how to assemble a cabinet that I purchased at Walmart. When following these instructions I am not really going for any “play” of the text (although it may occur in a small degree), nor am I really looking for meaning that goes beyond the author to any large degree. I am seeking to match up the instructions with my activity of cabinet assembly such that the end result is a useable and workable cabinet.

  5. My apologies for using this example on multiple occasions, however, I find it interesting that many premodern Christian thinkers seem to have much in common with a hermeneutical approach such as Gadamer’s (or perhaps I should say that Gadamer fits well in the hermeneutical trajectory set by Augustine and company). For example,
    in Confessions XII, Augustine writes:

    “Having listened to all these divergent opinions and weighed them, I do not wish to bandy words, for that serves no purpose except to ruin those who listen. The law is an excellent thing for building us up provided we use it lawfully, because its object is to promote the charity which springs from a pure heart, a good conscience and unfeigned faith, and I know what were the twin precepts on which our Master made the whole law and prophets depend. If I confess this with burning love, O my God, O secret light of my eyes, what does it matter to me that various interpretations of those words are proffered, as long as they are true? I repeat, what does it matter to me if what I think the author thought is different from what someone else thinks he thought? All of us, his readers, are doing our utmost to search out and understand the writer’s intention, and since we believe him to be truthful, we do not presume to interpret him as making any statement that we either know or suppose to be false. Provided, therefore, that each person tries to ascertain in the holy scriptures the meaning the author intended, what harm is there if a reader holds an opinion which you, the light of all truthful minds, show to be true, even though it is not what was intended by the author, who himself meant something true, but not exactly that?” (Augustine’s Confess. XII.27, pp. 327-328, M. Boulding translation).

    Maria Boulding (the translator) adds the following note in regard to the passage above, “Augustine’s recognition that meanings other than those intended by the writer can legitimately be discovered in the sacred text is grounded in his conviction that the God of truth who inspired the writer and guarantees the text abides in the minds of believing readers, and that though God makes use of human words, they are never adequate to fully express his mystery; there is always a ‘plus’ of meaning” (p. 323, note 71).

    Clearly Augustine did not stipulate a gramatico-historical hermeneutics only approach, and no one in the Christian tradition (either Protestant, RC, or EO) tends to label him as a relativist.


  6. Cynthia,

    No, I’ve never been to SCP conference. But I have been to UD for the Texas Medieval Assoc. Conference three years ago.

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