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.