Gadamer on the Self-Cancellation of the Heremeneutical Exchange
According to Gadamer, we all come to the text with different horizons. As we engage the text, our horizons, as well as our foremeanings are confirmed, altered, or perhaps a combination of both occurs. Gadamer understands textual hermeneutics as analogous to a live conversation in which, when fruitful, we have attentive listening, respect for the alterity of the other, and an interplay of give and take. Consider, for example, a conversation you’ve had in which you already anticipated ahead of time what a certain person was going to say. You need an extension on your paper, but your professor has made it clear in the past that she rarely grants such extensions. Here you approach the conversation with a fairly fixed idea of how the conversation will enfold. After class you begin to make your case for an extension, explaining that your daughter has been ill quite a bit this month, and you’ve had to keep her at home. Consequently, you were not able to complete your paper on time. At first, the likelihood of an extension without penalty seems less than hopeful. However, as the dialogue continues, your professor seems more open and in the end grants you an extension. The banality of the example aside, it does provide a window into Gadamer’s understanding of the back and forth movement of our hermeneutical experience. For example, as Gadamer explains,
A person who is trying to understand a text has to keep something at a distance-namely everything that suggests itself, on the basis of his own prejudices, as the meaning expected-as soon as it is rejected by the sense of the text itself. Even the experience of reversal (which happens unceasingly in talking, and which is the real experience of dialectic) has its equivalent here. Explicating the whole of meaning towards which understanding is directed forces us to make interpretative conjectures and to take them back again. The self-cancellation of the interpretation is dialectical not primarily because the one-sidedness of every statement can be balanced by another side-this is, as we shall see, a secondary phenomenon in interpretation-but because the word that interpretatively fits the meaning of the text expresses the whole of this meaning-i.e., allows an infinity of meaning to be represented within it in a finite way (Truth and Method, p. 465).
The latter part of the passage introduces the idea of a “self-cancellation” involved in a hermeneutical exchange. As Gadamer explains, the dialectic involved here is not simply an attempt to present the opposing viewpoint to balance out the perspective given. Rather, (I think) he means something analogous to the following. In a symphony, one has a meaningful whole, which consists of various particular parts organized in a very complex way. Each instrument group (brass, strings, woodwinds etc.) plays a different melodic line (melodic lines are analogous to sentences). These horizontal melodic lines, when considered vertically, constitute the various harmonies of the symphony (analogous to words). If we zero in on one particular harmonic moment in say the third movement of the symphony, we might find, for example, a C major triad. That C major triad can be abstracted and identified as a C major triad consisting of the notes C, E, G. However, within the larger meaning of the symphony, that C major triad, because of its function at that particular place within the whole, cannot be understand as merely a C major triad (though technically it is that); rather, it must be seen as integrally connected with all the notes that precede it, as well as all the notes that follow it. In a sense, the C major triad is both a one and a many-it is a C major triad and thus has an integral unity of meaning; yet, it is a many because of its intimate connection to and function within the symphony itself-that place where it lives and moves and has its being. The dialectical self-cancelling movement occurs due to the fact that as the C major triad emerges from the background of the whole, it must “cancel” part of itself (the whole) in order to do so. (This sounds very Heideggerian, which is no surprise given the latter’s influence on Gadamer). Yet, to avoid mis-interpretation, it must not become completely severed from the whole, lest in a very real sense it die. If this is a correct understanding of Gadamer on this point, there are some interesting Christian connections to be made.