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. 

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

  1. Wonderful post. This book by Wachterhauser just gets better and better.

    Btw, the last two inset quotations are Wachterhauser, right? (The lead-ins might inadvertently give the impression that Gadamer is speaking.)

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