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…

6 thoughts on “Part I: Gadamer’s Ontological Perspectivism: A Way Around Relativism and Dogmatism”

  1. Cynthia,

    What a marvelous book! Thanks so much for bringing it to our attention. I will use it in my own work, especially in its approach to the Parmenides, which is wonderful support for my own readings of that and other dialogues. My major concern also is thinking the way (via theory) through the rich territory that lies between dogmatism and relativism. So thanks again.


  2. Hi Janet,

    Good to hear from you! I am also very impressed with this book, and can hardly put it down. Perhaps you might be interested in doing a guest post series on my blog in the future–a series on the Parmenides? Let me know if you are interested.

    Best wishes,

  3. Hi C,

    You might be interested to know that Eric Perl, who was a visiting professor at UD while I was there, taught a course on Plato where he offered something very similar to Gadamer’s reading, at least as you have described it here. I remember thinking, as you mentioned, that it was a reading that seemed much closer to something Aristotle would be comfortable with. He was especially critical of the view that Ideas and their instances are somehow at a remove from each other, so that we end up talking about separate “realms”.

    Looking forward to the rest, and good to talk to you the other day.

  4. Hi Mike,

    That is interesting. I wonder if Orthodox scholars in general (or at least those with a more Neoplatonic slant) tend to read Plato this way? I read an excellent article by Perl last semester in the Dionysius class, so I’ll have to keep my eyes open for additional articles by Perl on Plato.


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