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.

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

  1. Hey Cynthia,

    Its Jason from over at Church and Postmodern Culture: a Conversation. I am compiling a biographical list for Geoff of the contributors there, and have been searching for your info. online…mostly to no avail. I am looking for name, profession, location, and then a link to your private webpage or school bio. For you I have:

    Cynthia R. Nielsen
    Adjunct philosophy instructor/graduate student

    It’d be great if you could email me and let me know what university you are at and where in Texas it is. You don’t, of course, have to do so. My email is:

    [email protected]

    Thanks Cynthia,


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