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).