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).