Charles Taylor on Gadamer’s Contributions to Philosophy

Over the past few months, I have become increasingly interested in Charles Taylor’s work.  In an essay entitled, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,”[1] Taylor discusses some of the contributions Gadamer has made to philosophy by providing us an alternative way of understanding texts and events.  That is, rather than patten hermeneutics or even our knowledge of the other on the “scientific” model of grasping on object, we approach the text or other as a dialogue partner who can potentially change us as we expand our horizons to understand it or him/her.  As the essay unfolds, Taylor contrasts these two models of knowing or understanding: (1) knowing an object, and (2) coming to an understanding with a dialogue partner.  The first approach is unilaterial.  That is, in knowing the tree as object, I don’t have to consider its view of me.  I dictate the rules of the knowing activity, and there is little to challenge me by way of a genuine other as to whether or not my understanding is distortive of the other. Likewise, the two approaches have very different goals.  In knowing an object or the scientific approach, “I conceive the goal of knowledge as attaining some finally adequate explanatory language, which can make sense of the object, and will exclude all future surprises” (127).  In other words, the goal is to “attain full intellectual control over the object, such that it can no longer ‘talk back’ and surprise me” (127).  In contrast, when I come to an understanding of something or someone, this kind of (supposed) finality is not possible.  For example, when I understand something about text X or culture Y, these understandings are achieved through specific dialogue partners (texts are a kind of dialogue partner for Gadamer).  However, when I discuss text X or culture Y with another dialogue partner, new understandings come about.  In addition, the understandings of my various dialogue partners themselves are also in motion, ever-changing and expanding (as are my understandings).  They too are in dialogue with others and through their dialogic encounters are constantly making revisions to their understanding.  Given his claim that understandings are party-relative, some scholars have charged Gadamer with relativism and lumped him in with philosophers like Richard Rorty.  Taylor, however, disagrees and addresses this issue in a subsequent section (more on this shortly).Charles Taylor

Lastly, given that the goal of scientific knowing is to achieve intellectual control over the object, my objectives are never challenged.  I may make certain revisions to my conceptual scheme and even substantial ones; however, the goal remains the same:  to attain full intellectual control over the object (127).  The goal of coming to an understanding is decidedly not control.  Rather, “[t]he end is being able in some way to function together with the partner, and this means listening as well as talking, and hence may require that I redefine what I am aiming at” (128).

Gadamer clearly stands within the tradition of coming to an understanding via dialogic encounter, and the three features of his approach (as set forth by Taylor)-understanding as bilaterial, party-dependent, and open to revising one’s goal-have been challenged by many philosophers.  The objectors claim that these features cannot be aspects of real “science” or knowledge.  If party-dependence and revised goals characterize understandings, then they represent something distinct from knowledge (128).

So how does Gadamer respond to these criticisms?  First, he rejects the claim that knowledge of things human can be attained on the scientific model where the goal is full intellectual control over the object.  As Taylor explains, Gadamer expresses this in his discussion of experience in Truth and Method.

Following Hegel, he sees experience, in the full sense of the term, as the ‘experience of negation’ (Nichtigkeit, TM 354).  Experience is that wherein our previous sense of reality is undone, refuted, and shows itself as needed to be reconstituted.  It occurs precisely in those moments where the object ‘talks back.’  The aim of science, following the model above, is thus to take us beyond experience.  This latter is merely the path to science, whose successful completion would take it beyond this vulnerability to further such refutation (128-29; cf. TM 355).

For Gadamer, given his embrace of human finitude (which is, by the way, not a despairing embrace), the attempt to transcend human experience based on this scientific model of knowledge is simply not possible.  Gadamer takes seriously the role of culture in shaping and influencing human life and thought.  “Whatever we might identify as a fundamental common human nature, the possible object of an ultimate experience-transcending science, is always and everywhere mediated in human life through culture, self-understanding, and language.  These not only show an extraordinary variety in human history, but they are clearly fields of potentially endless innovation” (129).  In other words, whatever universal human nature we might arrive at is always mediated by our own cultural biases as well as the metaphors and languages we agree upon to express this human nature.  For example, consider the way in which race was understood in the West in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Certain races were considered inherently inferior to others and even sub-human, whereas the superior race always happened to be the white, European race (which, of course, happened to be the race of most of the advocates of the idea-Kant, Hegel, etc.).  Most today would have no reservations saying that surely cultural biases and self-understanding played a significant role in the conclusions of these philosophers on race.

As Taylor notes, here we come to a huge “watershed in our intellectual world.” That is, on the one side are those who want to secure an account of human nature “below the level of culture,” such that any significant cultural variation can be explicated by means of this more fundamental account (129).  Examples of this view include certain expressions of sociobiology and accounts of human motivation.  These types of accounts relegate cultural variation to a mere epiphenomenal status.  On the other side are those who find the first account unsatisfying because it doesn’t take serious enough the function, status and influence of cultural difference.  Gadamer, of course, falls within the second group and rejects the model of science as the model for understanding human life.

As we have said, Gadamer chooses a different model, the model of interpersonal understanding, which exhibits three central features:  it is bilateral, party-dependent, and involves revising-goals.  So how does he answer some of the major objections to his alternative model?  For example, how does party-dependence and goal-revising not turn into relativism?   According to Taylor,

The first [party-dependence] can be explained partly from the fact of irreducible cultural variation.  From this, we can see how the language we might devise to understand the people of one society and time would fail to carry over to another.  Human science could never consist exclusively of species-wide laws.  In that sense, it would always be at least in part, “idiographic,” as against “nomothetic” (129-130).

However, Gadamer conceives of party-dependence in more far-reaching way.  That is, not only does one’s account differ with respect to the persons or culture studied, but it also varies with respect to the one engaged in the studying.  Here Taylor gives the example of how an explanation of the decline of the Roman Empire by scholars in the eighteenth century will differ from an explanation offered by scholars in twenty-fifth century China and twenty-first century Brazil.  If this is the case, again, how is it not some version of relativism?

Before giving his answer, Taylor sets forth an additional way in which Gadamer departs from the general understanding of “science” (130).  According to Gadamer, it is not the case that scientific explanation (and scientific language), as we have been led to believe, is without presuppositions-a kind of neutral, clear, humanly untainted language.  One of the achievements, though in Gadamer’s view (and mine) not a good one, of the “seventeenth century scientific revolution was to develop a language for nature that was purged of human meanings” (130).  In contrast the “languages of ‘social science'” have not gone the route of purgation and “seem incapable of achieving the kind of universality we find with the natural sciences” (130).  Why is this the case?  Taylor offers the following explanation:

[L]anguages of human science always draw for their intelligibility on our ordinary understanding of what it is to be a human agent, live in society, have moral conviction, aspire to happiness, and so forth.  No matter how much our ordinary everyday views on these issues may be questioned by a theory, we cannot but draw on certain very basic features of our understanding of human life, those that seem so obvious and fundamental as not to need formulation.  But it is precisely these that may make it difficult to understand people of another time or place (131).

What Taylor has in view is Gadamer’s notion of prejudgments or more provocatively put, prejudices, which we all have and which we cannot completely shed.  When I attempt to understand, for example, the Russian culture on topic X, I bring with me a network of background understandings that influence every aspect of my attempt to grasp topic X.  In other words, I have a horizon that has been shaped by my own culture, education, upbringing and so, and I cannot completely suspend my assumptions, as natural science and some philosophers claim to do.  For Gadamer, however, we are not imprisoned by our horizons; horizons can and constantly do change and expand as we encounter the other in the other’s alterity.  “The road to understanding others passes through the patient identification and undoing of those facets of our implicit understanding that distort the reality of the other” (132).  In order for this to happen, I have to be open to allowing the other to genuinely challenge me, to be, as Taylor puts it, “interpellated by what is different in their lives” (132).  When this challenging is fruitful, two related changes take place:  (1) I recognize that a facet of my former way of thinking is particular to me, my culture or group and is not a universalizable feature of the human condition as such; (2) I perceive the equivalent feature of the other culture without forcing it to fit my preconceived grid of what topic X should consist in (132).  Does this mean that I have arrived a flawless, bias-free interpretation?  No.  However, my understand has been improved, and my horizon has been expanded, or better “fused,” with the horizon of the other.  “We may still have a long way to go.  But we will have made a step toward a true understanding, and further progress along this road will consist of such painfully achieved particular steps.  There is no leap to a disengaged standpoint which can spare us this long march” (132).


[1] Charles Taylor, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” in The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer, ed. Robert J. Dostal.  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002):  126-142.