Part IV: Gadamer’s Ontological Perspectivism: A Way Around Relativism and Dogmatism

Given Gadamer’s rejection of a foundationalist paradigm of knowledge, he does not attempt to provide indubitable justification for his ontological views.   According to Gadamer, all forms of foundationalism fail to demonstrate that their own claims are indubitable; hence, he “rejects the possibility of a reflexive self-grounding of any philosophical position.”  Rather, as we have seen, Gadamer speaks of our grasping truth in the context of our various dialogical interactions.  In addition, Gadamer claims that “there is kind of self-validating truth that is available to those who are willing to participate in the dialogue of question and answer which we find in the philosophical tradition” (p. 12).  These self-validating truths do not purport to present us with certainty, yet they can be known and are (as the name suggests) true.  Many truths, such as those found in the human sciences, are simply part of our experience and are either taken as valid on their own terms or are rejected (p. 12). Rather than attempt to find a place outside of our experience upon which to stand so as to justify our experience of these truths, Gadamer endeavors to

offer a holistic explanation of that experience that attempts to understand it by thinking through the question of how mind and reality must be related to each other in order to make this experience possible.  This is an explicitly circular procedure that avowedly accepts its circularity but does not concede that such circularity is logically vicious.  Even logic itself rests on experiences of self-evidence that it cannot deduce (p. 13). 

Here Gadamer is operating against the grain of much of modern epistemology in that he assumes that our experiences are true “until their limitations are dialogically demonstrated.”  In other words, Gadamer offers a hermeneutics of trust rather than a hermeneutics of suspicion, and his position is not ignorant of the problems of modern epistemology.  Incarnating his own understanding of hermeneutics, Gadamer is in dialogue with the present (modern epistemology) and he also pulls from ancient philosophy, particularly Plato’s reflections on the connection between beauty and truth.  For example, in his book, The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, Gadamer writes,

Plato describes the beautiful as that which shines forth most clearly and draws us to itself, as the very visibility of the ideal.  In the beautiful presented in nature and art, we experience the convincing illumination of truth and harmony, which compels the admission:  “This is true.” […] The beautiful […] gives us an assurance that the truth does not lie far off and inaccessible to us, but can be encountered in the disorder of reality with all its imperfections, evils, errors, extremes and fateful confusions.  The ontological function of the beautiful is to bridge the chasm between the ideal and the real (pp. 14-15; as quoted in Wachterhauser, p. 13).

Here we have the self-validation of the beautiful whose connection with truth is not to be equated with certainty, as no truth-claim is beyond doubt.  Yet, according to Gadamer, the true manifests itself in the beautiful in that the true possesses a kind of luminosity or radiance.  With this claim, we see Gadamer drawing from the “metaphysics of light” tradition that Plato assimilated via Parmenides.  “In fact, Gadamer argues that ‘the close relationship that exists between the shining forth [Vorscheinen] of the beautiful and the evidentness [das Einleuchtende] of the understandable is based on the metaphysics of light.  This was precisely the relation that guided our hermeneutical inquiry’ (Truth and Method, 483).” Moreover,  Gadamer believes that  a critical  reworking of this tradition “can point the way beyond the impasses of skepticism and foundationalism by giving us the resources to rethink the concept of a self-validating or self-illuminating truth that does not make the fateful mistake of equating such ‘light’ with certainty” (pp. 13-14). 

In short, Gadamer’s neo-ancient view of truth, wherein truth presents itself as beauty and evinces a luminosity or radiance that is self-validating, does not deny the possibility of encountering truth, yet it does perhaps encourage us to embrace a more humble view of truth and in so doing to acknowledge our finitude in a non-despairing way. 

*Unless otherwise noted, all citations are taken from Brice R. Wachterhauser, Beyond Being:  Gadamer’s Post-Platonic Hermeneutical Ontololgy.  Evanston:  Northwestern Univ. Press, 1999. 

Part III: Gadamer’s Ontological Perspectivism: A Way Around Relativism and Dogmatism

As mentioned in Part II, Gadamer’s conception of identity is dynamic rather than static and is based on Gadamer’s critical reworking of Plato’s reflections on unity and multiplicity.  As Wachterhauser explains, Gadamer’s “general strategy is to argue that all Being is such that it is always at one and the same time both ‘one and many.’  Thus it is no surprise that interpretation constantly confronts us with the reality of ‘identity in difference.’  In fact, wherever we turn, ‘identity and difference’ or ‘one and many’ is the mark of Being itself” (p. 7).  [Here, it seems that a Christian could make a number of Trinitarian connections].  

In order to further support his ontology, Gadamer turns to the later Plato’s account of the nature of number.  Wachterhauser summarizes this better than I can, so I shall quote him at length:

Just as any number in the number series can be described only by its logical or intelligible relationships to other numbers, so any reality is what it is only by being situated in its logical or intelligible relationships to other realities.  With regard to number, the ‘hermeneutical’ implication of this relational ontology is that any number is always both ‘one and many,’ i.e., it is what it is in its distinct logical contours but those contours can be described from an infinite number of perspectives generated by the fact that it can be defined only in its relationship to all the other numbers in the infinite series, including its relations of negation (p. 7). 

In addition, Gadamer believes that non-numerical realities exhibit the same ontological features.  That is, “[a]ll things are what they are only in their infinite relationships to other things, including both positive and negative relationships.  Thus all things are always both ‘one and many'” (p. 8).  Such a situation suggests that a diversity of interpretations is to be expected.  However, this diversity is not “ontologically vicious, i.e., it does not necessarily threaten the identity of things, nor does it preclude a critical rejection of some interpretations in favor of others” (p. 8). 

Wachterhauser next attempts to unpack Gadamer’s oft misunderstood claim that language is a necessary medium of all thought.  As Wachterhauser explains, Gadamer is neither a “linguistic constructivist” nor does his position move in the direction of “alinguistic essentialism.”  Rather, Gadamer understands language as a necessary medium to thought in the sense that “language is an indispensable place where the intelligibility of the real makes itself manifest for us” (p. 9).  Here Gadamer is not claiming that without language, reality has no intelligibility, nor is he saying that language “represents in conventional signs an otherwise alinguistic reality” (p. 9).  Here Gadamer’s engagement with Plato plays a crucial role.  Drawing on Plato’s insights, Gadamer claims that language and reality have a participatory relationship and that both participate in intelligibility.  Wachterhauser describes this relationship as follows:

Intelligibility participates in both things and words such that words potentially clarify and enhance the inherent intelligibility of things. Moreover, things themselves are inherently intelligible such that we must always look to them as the beginning and end of all inquiry.  The intelligibility of language is not to supplant the intelligibility of things but to complement and complete that intelligibility in such way that the things themselves become more manifest and provide the final warrant for any justifiable articulation (p. 9). 

In short, we might say that Gadamer claims that reality is manifest through language, and yet reality is simultaneously concealed.  Here Gadamer shows continuity with both Heidegger and with the ancient tradition in that he affirms a dialectic of the unconcealment and concealment of reality.  However, Gadamer bases this dialectic “in the tendency of language to reveal reality in a limited set of semantic and logical relationships, which simultaneously covers over other possible sets of relationships from which the same reality could be disclosed.  Thus language can reveal, but it also simultaneously conceals, how any one thing stands to the whole of all things in which it is what it is” (p. 10). 

By employing the Platonic model of participation Gadamer of course is not simply repeating ancient ontology, but he does believe that it has something to say to us.  For example, Gadamer takes up the subject/object relation and instead of a mere repetitio Graeci regarding this relationship or promoting a modernist position that makes the subject the source of all meaning, he speaks of a belonging together between the subject and object that “takes place in our linguistically mediated experience of the world.”  Here we neither look solely to the object nor to the subject to serve as the source of meaning.  But instead, “we are driven back by ‘an internal necessity of the thing itself’ to discover a participation of thing and word in a common intelligibility.”  Thus, for Gadamer, words neither create meaning nor do they simply reflect it.  “Rather, words have the capacity to ‘enhance’ and in a sense ‘complete’ an already given meaning.  In this sense, language is the medium where thought and reality discover their prior accord.  Language is the place where intelligibility can manifest itself in a way that was not completely manifest before” (p. 10).  With these claims, we see that Gadamer is not merely repeating Plato’s views on language, but is taking Plato’s insights and extending them further so as to engage contemporary issues that are particularly relevant to our hermeneutical landscape. Gadamer does, however, see Plato as grappling in his dialogues with the idea of linguistically mediated truth.  According to Gadamer,

the Platonic dialogues are nothing less than Plato’s artful accounts of [these] limited, linguistically mediated insights into what is genuinely real and rational. For Gadamer, Socrates’s ‘flight into the logoi‘ is Plato’s testimony to the indispensability of linguistically mediated inquiry to the Platonic project.  According to Gadamer, Plato’s reliance on the Ideas is not an attempt to escape from the various logoi or discourses but a way to illuminate the fact that although our thought is always “in language,” or in some discourse with its own way of presenting issues and insights, such discourses inevitably point beyond themselves in their confrontation with other discourses to a truth which transcends them both (p. 11).   

This last statement needs further explication, lest one think that Gadamer is sneaking the traditional (dualistic) Plato in the backdoor.  For Gadamer, this “truth which transcends them both” is not grasped “outside of language, but is itself another linguistically mediated truth whose meaning and limits can only begin to show themselves in dialogue with other logoi.  For Gadamer, the claim that “all truth is relative to a language of inquiry or a dialectic of question and answer” does imply that the truths grasped through our dialogic engagements are “limited to the linguistically mediated questions we ask” (p. 11).  However, this limitation does not close us off from obtaining new truths through new dialogue partners who ask different questions.  Thus, a “finite truth” for Gadamer,

is neither a linguistic construct nor is it an alinguistic intuition; it is a truth that develops in time in conversation between historically situated conversation partners. Moreover it is a truth whose genuine possibility we can understand on the assumption that language participates in the intelligibility of reality such that finding the “right words” enhances and complements intelligible insight without brining it to final historical closure.  In sum, one might say that for Gadamer reason finds its voice through language but it is a voice with many valences that register themselves through the many discourses we engage with each other (p. 11). 

*All citations are taken from Brice R. Wachterhauser, Beyond Being:  Gadamer’s Post-Platonic Hermeneutical Ontololgy.  Evanston:  Northwestern Univ. Press, 1999. 

Part II: Gadamer’s Ontological Perspectivism: A Way Around Relativism and Dogmatism

As Wachterhauser stresses, Gadamer’s path avoids the pitfalls of both the relativist and the ahistorical dogmatist, not by eschewing all things metaphysical, but rather by gleaning ontological insights from ancient philosophy (particularly the later Plato).   Here we encounter a significant divergence between Gadamer and Heidegger in that the former rejects important aspects of Heidegger’s critique of the Western philosophical tradition’s so-called Seinsvergessenheit (“the forgetfulness of Being”).  That is, though appreciative of Heidegger’s contribution to philosophy, Gadamer thinks Heidegger’s narrative of Western metaphysics as necessarily culminating in nihilism is based on a univocal understanding of metaphysics.  Moreover, Gadamer discerns nihilistic tendencies in Heidegger’s own position, viz., a failure to consider the ways in which questions about the human good are fundamentally related to questions about Being (Beyond Being, p. 15).   For Gadamer, “Plato is not clearly the author of the so-called metaphysics of presence,” nor is metaphysics a “univocal phenomenon destined for the nihilism that dominates many parts of our culture” (p. 15).  Instead of seeing metaphysics as a dead end in need of overcoming, Gadamer “leaves the door open to the possibility that ‘metaphysics’ contains possibilities or resources for development that have not been adequately explored” (p. 15).  Interestingly, Gadamer’s project, in light of his openness to the ancient tradition and his appreciation for Heidegger’s work, attempts to synthesize the best of both worlds.  As Wachterhauser explains,

Not only does Gadamer’s hermeneutics rely on Heidegger’s insights into ‘self-manifesting Being, the Being of aletheia‘ but it attempts to expand these insights into a more fundamental ontological inquiry by reintroducing the fundamentally Platonic concern with the transcendentals (p. 15). 

So just what is Gadamer’s ontologico-hermeneutical strategy-a strategy that Wachterhauser claims carves out a path that bypasses the problems of relativism and ahistorical dogmatism?  First, Gadamer directs our attention to ontological questions, viz., what kind of being do works of art or texts possess that allows an identity in difference?  Here Wachterhauser introduces what he calls Gadamer’s “ontological perspectivism,” which claims that

things like texts are such that they contain within themselves different ‘faces’ or ‘looks’ that present themselves in different historically mediated contexts in such a way that we can say that it is possible for one and the same reality to show itself in many ways (p. 7). 

With his understanding of a non-univocal, non-staticized view of identity, Gadamer can, on the one hand, allow for the possibility of ever new (legitimate) interpretations, and on the other hand, because some kind of identity obtains, he can also regard other interpretations as illegitimate.  Here I propose a few of my own musical examples to further elucidate how Gadamer’s ontological perspectivism does not fall prey to relativism.  Jazz musicians often use what is called a “lead sheet” when learning a new piece of music.  A jazz lead sheet is similar to a notated score for a classical piece; however, only the melody is written out in standard musical notation.  Both the lead sheet and the classical score are “texts” that the musicians must engage and interpret in order for the music to, so to speak, appear.  In contrast, however, to the classical score in which the bass line, the chords, and more or less every note that will be played is written out in full notation, a lead sheet allows for much more flexibility.[1]   For example, above the melody one simply finds chord symbols, as opposed to chords displayed in standard notation with specific voicings.  Writing the chord symbols in this manner affords the pianist or guitarist, as well as the bassist, a significant amount of creative freedom in performing the piece.  However, we should be clear that this freedom does not swallow up the form or structure nor does it fundamentally alter the piece itself, as one must choose harmonies and bass lines that fall within a certain trajectory of the specified chord symbol that supports the melody and marks out the general harmonic structure of the piece.  Thus, with a jazz lead sheet, one is in a sense tied to the score, i.e., one must agree to submit to the givens that make the piece to be what it is and respond accordingly.   Yet, in other sense, one’s own personality, skill level, and creative sensibilities also come through making each performance something unique. (In Gadamer universe of discourse, a “fusion of horizons” occurs). One might even say that the flexibility that lead sheets afford, coupled with the distinctly human traits and personal idiosyncrasies that manifest in improvisation, in a sense engenders greater intelligibility and appeal to the piece itself.  That is, the built-in flexibility of lead sheets aids in preserving the piece through the passage of time while simultaneously allowing and even expecting various re-articulations because it has room for the creative expansions that inevitably come with temporal/historical progression and human interpretative endeavors.   

Just as in no way is it the case that when a jazz piece is performed and interpreted by various musicians from different time periods, a kind of free-for-all takes place in which the original melody is somehow destroyed, neither would it be the case according to Gadamer’s hermeneutical thesis that our interpretations have no strictures whatsoever and no relation to the to the text and even the author’s intentions.  (However, Gadamer would quickly add that our interpretations are not confined solely to the author’s intentions).  Though it is the case, that each jazz performance is distinctive, there is a common, yet dynamic range that unites each performance such that the melody is recognizable when played in a wide range of styles (from traditional to more avant-guard styles).  If one simply ignored the melody (text) and harmonic structure or distorted either such that they became completely unrecognizable, then clearly one has gone astray.  However, this is neither what I nor Gadamer have in mind.

In part III, I shall discuss in more detail Gadamer’s non-repetitious use of Platonic insights. 


[1] I would argue that even with classical music where all the parts are strictly defined and written out, the same piece played by the same group or musician is strictly speaking never played the same way twice; hence, we still have multiple interpretations though they are not as readily apparent as those encountered in jazz.

Part I: Gadamer’s Ontological Perspectivism: A Way Around Relativism and Dogmatism

Brice R. Wachterhauser, in his book, Beyond Being:  Gadamer’s Post-Platonic Hermeneutical Ontololgy, argues that Gadamer’s hermeneutical studies must be read in dialogue with his work on Plato in order to properly understand a number of Gadamer’s significant hermeneutical insights, as well as to avoid common misreadings of Gadamer.     In other words, Wachterhauser’s claim is that crucial Gadamerian hermeneutical claims presuppose his interpretation of Plato, particularly the later Plato and a Plato whom Aristotle would find more palatable.  As Wachterhauser explains,

unlike some commentators who think the Parmenides represents a definitive rejection of the Ideas, Gadamer thinks it reveals a common, mistaken interpretation of the Ideas, an interpretation that Plato himself may have inadvertently contributed to, but one which he never intended when he introduced the theme of the Ideas.  According to Gadamer, the Parmenides teaches us that we should not think about Ideas as discrete transcendental realities.  Instead we should think of the Ideas as internally related to each other and the things they inform.  Thus they cannot be defined without various kinds of logically complex relationships to each other and to the things which instantiate them.  And instead of thinking of them as occupying a transcendental realm of their own-a kind of repository of discrete ideal types-we should think of them as immanent to the things they inform, without being identical to them” (p. 5). 

In sum, according to Gadamer, Plato’s later dialogues show a greater depth in his thinking concerning the nature of methexis (participation), and consequently, they are not to be taken as Plato’s self-critical razing of his previous work. 

Among the most important findings in Plato’s later dialogues are insights concerning what later thinkers call “transcendentals” (being, unity, truth, beauty etc.).  On Gadamer’s read, Plato, in his later dialogues, was attempting to work out the problems of his comprehensive ontological vision via deeper a understanding of the transcendentals in order to correct a false understanding of the Ideas, viz., the interpretation that the “Ideas represent a second, transcendent reality wholly detached from the realm of ordinary things and logically distinct from each other” (p. 5). 

Wachterhauser then attempts to support his thesis regarding the importance of Gadamer’s interpretation of the later Plato for his hermeneutical writings by discussing one of the central concerns of Gadamer’s magnum opus, Truth and Method, viz., identity and difference as it relates to interpretation. With regard to identity, we have the claim that a text or a work of art exhibits unity or oneness and thus has only one meaning (or one finite set of meanings).  Yet, it seems impossible to deny that many valid interpretations exist for the very same text or work of art.  Likewise, in order to gain access to the identity of the text or work, we cannot bypass the interpretative process.  But admitting these claims seems to land us in an uncomfortable position, as the “diversity of interpretations threatens to dissolve the identity of the work” (p. 6).  And after all, if we lose the identity of the work, then how are we to discern a legitimate interpretation from an illegitimate one?  According to Wachterhauser, Gadamer provides a way out of this hermeneutical despair. 

Gadamer is neither a relativist or subjectivist who would say that interpreters may legitimately impute any meaning to the work, nor is he oblivious to the reality of genuinely legitimate but diverse interpretations.  Instead, Gadamer always has his eye on clarifying the unique type of identity that characterizes the objects of interpretation.  In this vein, he writes, ‘we ask what this identity is that presents itself so differently in the changing course of ages and circumstances.  It does not disintegrate into the changing aspects of itself so that it would lose all identity, but it is there in them all.  They all belong to it’ (TM, 121). His intent is to describe this identity in a plausible way that leaves room for multiple interpretations, without falling into the morass of relativism or the iron cage of dogmatism.  This issue is at the very heart of Truth and Method.  Key to his hermeneutics is the thesis that works like texts always present themselves differently in different historical circumstances, but they do so in such a way that they neither lose their identity nor safeguard it by unduly restricting its possible meaning (p. 6). 

Stay tuned for more…

Gadamer on Appropriating One’s Own Fore-meanings

According to Gadamer, we all have “fore-meanings” that we bring to the text-meanings that we each employ as a kind of standard in our attempts to understand the text.  If this is the case and my fore-meanings do not exactly match your fore-meanings, are we in a hopeless hermeneutical situation?  Gadamer answers with an emphatic “no.” Upon closer examination, explains Gadamer,

we find that meanings cannot be understood in an arbitrary way.  Just as we cannot continually misunderstand the use of a word without its affecting the meaning of the whole, so we cannot stick blindly to our own fore-meaning about the thing if we want to understand the meaning of another (Truth and Method, p. 268). 

This is not to suggest that in our attempts to understanding another person’s meaning we must somehow eradicate ourselves of our own fore-meanings-how could one perform such an impossible feat anyway?  Rather, according to Gadamer,

we must remain open to the meaning of the other person or text.  But this openness always includes our situating the other meaning in relation to the whole of our own meanings or ourselves in relation to it (Ibid., p. 268).

Gadamer seems to have a rather dynamic view of meanings, or perhaps one might say, he speaks more in favor of an analogical rather than a univocal concept of meaning.  This dynamic understanding of meaning, however, does not result in a kind of hermeneutical anarchy. 

[M]eanings represent a fluid multiplicity of possibilities (in comparison to the agreement presented by a language and a vocabulary), but within this multiplicity of what can be thought-i.e., of what a reader can find meaningful and hence expect to find-not everything is possible; and if a person fails to hear what the other person is really saying, he will not be able to fit what he has misunderstood into the range of his own various expectations of meaning.  Thus there is a criterion here also.  The hermeneutical task becomes of itself a questioning of things and is always in part so defined (Ibid., p. 269).

Gadamer goes on to explain that a person who truly desires to understand the text will not simply rely on her own fore-meanings, but instead will allow the text to speak to her.  In fact, this is in part what it means to exercise a “hermeneutically trained consciousness,” viz., to be “from the start, sensitive to the text’s alterity” (Ibid., p. 269).  Yet, as we mentioned above, this hermeneutical sensitivity,

involves neither “neutrality” with respect to content nor the extinction of one’s own fore-meanings and prejudices.  The important thing is to be aware of one’s own bias, so that the text can present itself in all its otherness and thus assert its own truth against one’s own fore-meanings (Ibid., p. 269). 

Gadamer on Romanticism’s Mirror Image of the Enlightenment

According to Gadamer, romanticism shares a certain schema of the philosophy of history with the Enlightenment. In its reaction to the Enlightenment, romanticism takes this schema as a premise, viz., “the schema of the conquest of mythos by logos.”  Gadamer goes on to say, “[w]hat gives this schema its validity is the presupposition of the progressive retreat of magic in the world. It is supposed to represent progress in the history of the mind, and precisely because romanticism disparages this development, it takes over the schema itself as a self-evident truth.  It shares the presupposition of the Enlightenment and only reverses its values, seeking to establish the validity of what is old simply on the fact that it is old […] the romantic reversal of the Enlightenment’s criteria of value actually perpetuates the abstract contrast between myth and reason.  All criticism of the Enlightenment now proceeds via this romantic mirror image of the Enlightenment.  Belief in the perfectibility of reason suddenly changes into the perfection of the ‘mythical’ consciousness and finds itself reflected in a paradisiacal state before the ‘fall’ of thought” (Truth and Method, pp. 274-275).