Part I: An Introduction to Hans-Georg Gadamer

In his magnum opus, Truth and Method, Gadamer displays his knowledge not only of the modern tradition (Kant, Heidegger, Hegel, Schleiermacher) but likewise his knowledge of and interest in the ancient and medieval traditions (Plato, Aristotle, Neoplatonism, Augustine, Aquinas, Nicholas of Cusa).  Gadamer, unlike many moderns and postmoderns, believes that the ancient and medieval tradition still has something to teach us.  Yet, he also sees value in thinkers like Heidegger and Hegel.  Gadamer’s entire project might be understood as a “fusion of horizons” (to be explained later) between the ancient (and medieval) and the modern (and postmodern) traditions.  One might also rightly characterize his efforts in Truth and Method as the working out of the notion of identity-in-difference as manifest in hermeneutical experience.Gadamer Painting by Dora Mittenzwei

Rejection of the Enlightenment Prejudice Against Prejudice

Gadamer finds the Enlightenment’s rejection of authority and tradition an impossible and pointless path to trod.  According to Gadamer, though many key Enlightenment thinkers reject tradition, claiming it an impediment to the progress of true Enlightenment (e.g., Kant’s essay, “What is Enlightenment?”) and riddled with unjustified prejudices, Gadamer turns their critique back on them and shows that they in fact hold rather dogmatically to a “prejudice against prejudice.”  As Gadamer explains, the Enlightenment has so stressed the negative aspect of the word, “prejudice”, that its positive meaning, “pre-judgment” (Vor-urteil) has been lost.  One can in fact (and here Gadamer appropriates insights from Aristotle) by way of proper upbringing, customs and embracing one’s tradition, hold true “prejudices” and biases.  Thus, for Gadamer, just because one cannot justify (or as Aristotle might say, give the “why”) of one’s beliefs, it does not follow necessarily that these beliefs are wrong, false or misguided.   Because of his positive view of tradition, many contemporary thinkers (Derrida, Caputo) have labeled Gadamer a “dogmatist.” On this point, it seems that some postmoderns have not thrown off the prejudices of modernity either.

On a more positive note, Charles Taylor in his essay, “Gadamer and the Human Sciences,” highlights Gadamer’s rejection of key Enlightenment notions, particularly the desire to make knowledge conform to the image of science or what Taylor calls, “scientific knowledge of the object.”  In contrast to this model, Gadamer argues for “coming to an understanding” through a dialogic encounter where the modus operandi is question and answer (here Gadamer draws explicitly from Plato).  Gadamer’s model is characterized by the following three features:  (1) bilater-ality, (2) party-dependence, and (3) an openness to goal-revision.  Regarding (1) and (2) the text or Other is not a silent “object” to be mastered; rather, it “talks” back and can put the interpreter into question, thus challenging her “prejudices” and horizon and allowing for potential self-transformation.  Regarding (3), because one’s prejudices and biases can be altered (i.e., if one is open) by a dialogic encounter with the text (Gadamer views texts as a kind of dialogue partner), one must be willing to revision his or her objectives.

Fusion of Horizons

By “horizon” Gadamer does not mean that we are sealed off from others due to our cultural, historical and linguistic conditioning; rather, taking his cue from Husserl, upon whose concept of “horizon” he builds (see Walter Lammi, “Gadamer’s Notion of Horizon”), Gadamer understands horizons as fluid and ever open to new expansions.  Consequently, a dialogical encounter with a text, work of art, or an Other involves a “fusing of horizons,” as the text or Other is also constituted by a horizon.  Given the fluidity of horizons, Gadamer rejects the notion of radical incommensurabilty between communities of inquiry.   According to Gadamer, though “translation” between communities is often difficult, there is enough common ground to allow for a fusion to occur.  Thus, it is a mistake to label Gadamer a “strong” relativist and to group him with contemporary philosophers like Richard Rorty.

As we’ve seen, openness to goal-revision is part of a true hermeneutic experience, as horizons are characterized by fluidity.  On this point, as Joel Weinsheimer in his commentary on Truth and Method observes, we see Hegel’s influence on Gadamer.  That is, Gadamer follows Hegel’s understanding of experience as essentially negative.  As Gadamer puts it, “the experience of negation has a curiously productive function.”  By “negative” Gadamer draws our attention beyond the confirmation aspect of true experiences, which include hermeneutical experiences, and to the disconfirming aspect in which our expectations are often disappointed or shattered.  For example, we approach a text (or an Other) with a certain expectation of what the text means; yet, in the process of attempting to understand the text, we run into problems as our “projections” (as Heidegger would say) do not seem to match the text.   If we allow the text to speak to us and respect its alterity, we must revise our projected expectations.  This process of expectation, negation, and newly revised expectation characterizes our hermeneutic experience unless we grow “static” and become closed to new experiences.  The truly “experienced” person, according to Gadamer, is not a dogmatist who is unwilling to listen and be changed by the Other (which includes texts), but one who is open to the “event” of interpretation where surprise plays an essential but sometimes painful role.  (Perhaps one could appeal to the experience of the freed prisoner in Plato’s allegory of the cave as appropriate analogy here).

On American Mythologies and Thanksgiving

Destruction of Pequot IndiansBelow are excerpts from a post on  I find the reflections both provocative and worthy of serious consideration.

Thanksgiving in the united states is a holiday observed by pious Christians without much thought. What could be more Christian than thanking God for the blessings God has given us? The reality of this “secular” feast day is, of course, much less innocent and much more monstrous than we assume.  […]

…aside from the holi-day’s idolatrous core, there remains much to be concerned about. One is the obviously troubling history of the holiday and its relation to Native peoples. The story that is celebrated by mainstream white america is a lie, and indeed is not the story remembered by those who originally inhabited this land, which is a white supremacist story of extermination. And we Christians should not forget and should not fail to repent the fact that Christians and Christianity were complicit with this genocide, explicitly providing the theo-ideological justification for it.Secondly, the “blessings” that “we” (white, middle and upper class americans) celebrate are simply not shared by significant portions of the american population, let alone much of the rest of the world. Indeed, the poverty and misery experienced by many both inside and outside of the united states is not an accident of history, but is rather the dark underside of the “blessings” we feel so inspired to celebrate here in the so-called First World.

Third, in its “secular” form, this holi-day’s concept of “giving thanks” has become virtually unintelligible when God is taken out of the picture. This should make Christians concerned about who exactly we are thanking on such a holiday. In the absence of the Creator, what fills the “empty shrine” (in the words of Bill Cavanaugh) of the american empire on this holiday? Who or what are “we” thanking for “our blessings?” The fact is, the holi-day is delightfully vague, and this vagueness is precisely part of what makes american civil religion work.

Fourth, in the absence of any intelligible sense of true “thanksgiving,” we are left with a holiday that tends to be reduced to “being with family and loved ones,” something that is, of course, nice to do, but which can quickly become an opportunity for the virtual worship of family and blood ties, another important aspect of american civil religion. Jesus, despite what the Religious Right has done to him, could hardly be called a “family values guy,” and resisted such notions of blood ties in his own day. […]

Pro-life Christians who choose to be thoughtful about such things should be deeply troubled by the reality of Thanksgiving. Indeed, it is perhaps the holi-day par excellence of the culture of death [e.g. the slaughter of Native Americans]. Of course, the best option for Christians would be simply not celebrating Thanksgiving at all. After all, Christians have their own thanksgiving, only we use its Greek name, eucharist. It is a celebration of liberation and resurrection, not invasion and extermination. It is a celebration that embodies new familial relationships not based on blood or nationality but our common life in Christ. It is a celebration whose purpose is not to say “thank you for all the stuff we have when others are not so fortunate,” but rather “thank you for inviting all of us to this table.” And of course, the one we thank is the Author of Life, the One who is not to be replaced by sentimentalism or the idols of state, of “freedom,” of “choice” and the like. No wonder Jesus made the eucharist a vegetarian feast, a true foretaste of the banquet of the Kingdom of God.

Part II: Fanon’s Descent Under the Burden of the White Gaze

The history of black people, as mentioned previously, is simultaneously erased and re-written by the white Frantz Fanon imagination.  This new history defines what a black person is—intellectually inferior, in need of a (white) master, incapable of contributing positively to (white, European) society and culture.  The black person does not create this narrative, but is scripted into it and constructed by it.  Nonetheless, a time comes when a black person is confronted with the white mythos by way of a particular, concrete and often painful encounter and thus begins to accept and internalize the mythology.  In Fanon’s words, “[d]isoriented, incapable of confronting the Other, the white man, who had no scruples about imprisoning me, I transported myself on that particular day far, very far, from myself, and gave myself up as an object.”[1]

Fanon’s dramatic re-telling of the train episode and the pre-theoretical, racial assumptions apparent in the child’s remarks about Fanon serve a two-fold function.  First, the narrative calls attention to the deficiencies of Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema.  Second, the narrative highlights the way in which phenotypic or so-called “racial” differences—as negatively interpreted by the dominant group in a given historical epoch—close off or a least severely hinder the possibilities of freedom, as well as personal and cultural transformation for the oppressed group.   Hence, Fanon offers his historico-racial schema as a corrective.  Yet, his account also includes the racial-epidermal schema.  Whereas the historico-racial schema brings to light the historical contingencies and mythological narratives imposed upon blacks, the racial-epidermal schema speaks to the sedimentation of the so-called “black essence.”   In other words, once the new narrative of what it means to be a black person, which includes the various meanings that have been assigned to phenotypic differences, has become fixed, ossified and even naturalized in the social consciousness and cultural and legal practices, the black essence has been successfully created.[2]

Once we transition to the racial-epidermal schema, the all-pervasiveness of the white gaze—here understood broadly as the white mythos as manifest in the cultural consciousness and systematically expressed in the cultural institutions and practices of a given society—functions like a Panopticon, keeping the black person under constant inspection.  Though speaking of the incarcerated, Foucault’s description applies quite well to the black person’s situation vis-à-vis the white, European other, “he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.”[3] Once the racial-epidermal schema has come to fruition and the black essence has been fixed, the requisite racial machinery has likewise been established to ensure “proper” social boundaries and to keep the white mythology unchallenged.  In a way similar to the Panopticon’s ability to “disindividualiz[e] power” and distribute it through various socio-cultural and legal structures, institutions and people, Fanon’s schemata points to the systemic racial structures of colonized Europe.  These racialized disciplinary practices, though not identical to the disciplinary practices Foucault describes, nonetheless share close family resemblances with “a machinery that assures dissymmetry, disequilibrium, difference.” [4] The racial-epidermal schema, broadly construed to include these systemic, disindividualized power structures, enables even the most vulnerable and innocent members of society—the child on the train—to be an instrument of and even operate the racial machinery.


[1] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 92.

[2] On the movement and interpretation of Fanon’s schemata, I follow Weate, who views the racial epidermal schema as “a later stage in psychosomatic disintegration and alienation” (p. 174).  Weate describes the movement to the epidermal schema as Fanon’s attempt to trace a “genealogy of racial essentialism” (p. 173).  As he explains, “[t]he epidermal marks the stage where historical construction and contingency is effaced and replaced with the facticity of flesh.  The colour of skin now appears to be intrinsically significant.  With the outset of epidermalization, we are at the edge of being-for-others sedimenting into an essence, a ‘fact’ of blackness.  Fanon is therefore demonstrating that essentialism is a discourse derived from a perversive repression of history.  By marking the two stages of the ‘historico-racial’ and then the ‘racial-epidermal’, he is therefore contesting the view that essentialism, and in particular black essentialism, is grounded in a biological problematic.  For Fanon, the essentialization of blackness is the product of a concealed perversion of history. It is only once this concealment is consolidated (through epidermalization) that questions concerning the biological ground of race arise.  The distinction he makes between the two stages of schematization or epistemic enframing therefore allow biologistic discourses around race to be seen as phenomena derivative upon a prior perversion of history that is subsequently concealed” (“Fanon, Merleau-Ponty and the Difference of Phenomenology,” pp. 174-75).

[3] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 200.

[4] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 202.

Part I: Fanon’s Descent Under the Burden of the White Gaze

In his book, Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon challenges Merleau-Ponty’s inclusive notion of a Frantz Fanon corporeal schema and substitutes his own schemata, first an historical-racial schema, and second an epidermal racial schema.  Briefly stated (and more on this later), Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema describes the way in which the body’s agency makes manifest the historical world.  For Merleau-Ponty, our bodies are not objects in space, rather they inhabit space and through them we experience the world and the other.  In so far as the body is able to participate in and transform its historico-cultural horizon, it is free; in so far as its capacity for expression and its ability to alter its own history and given context are denied, it is not free.[1]

With this background in mind, we turn to Fanon’s text in order to understand why he substitutes his historical-racial schema and epidermal racial schema for Merleau-Ponty’s notion of a corporeal schema.  Fanon argues that a phenomenology of blackness—the experience of skin difference and of being the black other—can only be understood in the encounter with whiteness or more precisely, the white imagination.[2] That is, in a mostly black community in the Antilles, Fanon was “content to intellectualize these differences”; however, once he entered the white world and felt the weight of the “white gaze,” he experienced his otherness and became aware of pre-theoretical racial attitudes which up to that point had not existed for him.[3] In his chapter, “The Lived Experience of the Black,” Fanon recounts his experience on a train of being “fixed” by a white other—an other which happened to be a child who had already been habituated to see blacks as defined by the white imagination.  As the child’s refrain, “Look! A Negro!,” crescendoed forth and came to a close with a fearful questioning of the “Negro’s” next move,  Fanon not only experienced the gaze of the white other, he also began to see himself through the white gaze.

I cast an objective gaze over myself, discovered my blackness, my ethnic features; deafened by cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism, racial stigmas, slave traders, […]  Disoriented, incapable of confronting the Other, the white man, who had no scruples about imprisoning me, I transported myself on that particular day far, very far, from my self, and gave myself up as an object.  What did this mean to me?  Peeling, stripping my skin, causing a hemorrhage that left congealed black blood all over my body.  Yet this reconsideration of myself, this thematization, was not my idea.  I wanted simply to be a man among men.[4]

As Fanon takes up the white view of himself, he experiences its all-encompassing reach.  That is, his becoming a white-defined black other involved more than his present encounter with the child on the train; in essence, he entered into the white erasing and re-scripting of black history.  Not only is his present fixed by the white other, but his past is fixed as well.  The child’s unison refrain gives rise to polyphonic lines of “cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism” and the like.

A few paragraphs before his description of the train episode with the child, Fanon mentions Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema, highlighting the difficulties that a black person experiences in a white-scripted world because of his skin color and the various meanings that have been given to these and other embodied differences.  In Merleau-Ponty’s account, the reciprocal and fitting relation between body and the world gives rise to the possibility of a mutual constructing and transforming of both.  The body is not a mere object in space, but rather is our way of being in a spatio-temporal world; it is the background “always tacitly understood.”[5] With his corporeal schema, Merleau-Ponty emphasizes the body’s free agency in its ability to both disclose and transform the historical world.[6]

Fanon, however, is not satisfied with this generic schema and thus introduces his historical-racial schema, which is imposed on him by the white other.  For Fanon, Merleau-Ponty’s inclusive, universal rendering of the corporeal schema through which the self and world emerge does not account for the disparity of experience between whites and blacks with regard to their ability to actively participate and transform themselves and the world.  As Jeremy Weate explains,

In the interracial encounter, the White is able to participate in the schematization of the world, whilst the Black may not, for his skin difference closes down the possibility of free agency.  A white mythos inserts itself between the black body and its self-image, becoming the ‘elements used’ in a reflexive understanding of black subjectivity.  In contesting the terms of Merleau-Ponty’s account of bodily freedom, Fanon provides a genealogy of the existential unfreedom of the black body in the racialized encounter.”[7]


[1] Admittedly, I am speaking of the body in a reified way; however, body should not be understood as a res, but rather as a crucial aspect of the psychosomatic whole, which constitutes a human being.

[2] Weate, “Fanon, Merleau-Ponty and the Difference of Phenomenology,” p. 171.  See Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 89.  In addition to Merleau-Ponty, Fanon perhaps also has Hegel and Sartre in mind, particularly the former’s dialectical understanding of recognition and reciprocity.  See Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, pp. 191–97.  For an analysis of Fanon’s reflections on Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, see Turner, “On the Difference between the Hegelian and Fanonian Dialectic of Lordship and Bondage,” in Fanon: A Critical Reader, ed. Lewis R. Gordon et al., pp. 134–51.

[3] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 90.

[4] Ibid., p. 92.

[5] Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, p. 115.  Elaborating his notion of body schema, Merleau-Ponty explains, “[b]odily space can be distinguished from external space and envelop its parts instead of spreading them out, because it is the darkness needed in the theatre to show up the performance, the background of somnolence or reserve of vague power against which the gesture and its aim stand out, the zone of not being in front of which precise beings, figures and points can come to light.  In the last analysis, if my body can be a ‘form’ and if there can be, in front of it, important figures against indifferent backgrounds, this occurs in virtue of its being polarized by its tasks, of its existence towards them, of its collecting together of itself in its pursuit of its aims; the body schema is finally a way of stating that my body is in-the-world” (Ibid., p. 115).

[6] Fanon describes with ironic overtones Merleau-Ponty’s account as follows, “[a] slow construction of my self as a body in a spatial and temporal world seems to be the schema.  It is not imposed on me; it is rather a definitive structuring of my self and the world” (Black Skin, White Masks, p. 91)

[7] Weate, “Fanon, Merleau-Ponty and the Difference of Phenomenology,” p. 172.

Rowan Williams on the Continuity-in-Discontinuity of Theological History (Re)writing

Rowan Williams“By the time the first texts in the New Testament were being written, Christians were aware of tensions over whether they still shared the same identity as Jews; there were no short answers (there still aren’t in some important respects).  There was, they believed, fulfillment; there was also redefinition.  And while these texts were being written and developed and responded to, the dramatic events which marked the end of Jewish political independence (the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE) added a further element in Christian interpretation, with some long and unhappy consequences.

Thus what we read in the New Testament is not a simple record of what happened, but also a hugely creative and innovative attempt to make one story out of a set of memories that covers events of great disruptive force.  Jesus brings the earlier history to a climax, yet in such a way that the history is seen quite differently; what mattes in the earlier story will be different depending on the point of view of the telling, and passages and incidents that did not necessarily occupy the foreground now take on fresh significance.  This, incidentally, is why Jewish-Christian dialogue can be very complicated:  the Christian will read Hebrew Scripture looking for answers to questions that the Jewish reader isn’t asking.  But the point is that the New Testament writers know quite well that they have to present a story that is both coherent in essential ways and yet does justice to the novelty of what happens in the life and death of Jesus.  They cannot unequivocally say either yes or no to the history of God’s people as the Hebrew Scripture they were reading sets it out.

In this, they are doing nothing that is not already happening in the Old Testament itself, which goes on rewriting its own history.  Look, for example, at Hosea 1:4, where the massacre of Jezreel, implicitly celebrated elsewhere as the triumph of orthodox faith over idolatry, is roundly condemned.  Because God works in a long and varied historical process, the perspective within the Hebrew Scriptures is necessarily one that is constantly developing and moving; if Jesus is the culmination of that process, his life and death will provoke an unprecedentedly far-reaching shift of perspective, and thus a major essay in historical revision” (Why Study the Past?  The Quest for the Historical Church, (pp. 6-7).

Descartes’ Ambivalent Relationship with Tradition

Descartes StampDescartes is often referred to as the “father” of modern philosophy and for good reasons.  In several of his works, Descartes speaks openly of his frustrations with his philosophical predecessors, highlighting the various ways that they contradict themselves and leave one in a state of skepticism and despair.  Although embracing fervently the scientific revolution of his day and hoping to clear away the clutter of the philosophic past, Descartes, despite his own intentions, retains much of the previous tradition.   Like Beethoven, who mediates the Classical and Romantic eras of music history, Descartes functions as a transitional figure mediating the medieval and modern periods.   Many scholars have noted that his Meditations are modeled after the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius.  (Cf. Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, “Experiments in Philosophic Genre:  Descartes’ ‘Meditations’.  Rorty discusses the various meditational traditions that Descartes brings together in the Meditations).  Although literary analyses of the Meditations vary and suggest complex, multiple levels at work in the Meditations, it seems safe to say that Descartes’ concern in that work is with certainty (a common quest of the modern period) rather than spiritual growth.  In light of the new scientific discoveries of the 17th century, Descartes is convinced that he must make a break with the past (Aristotelian/medieval) tradition and build a new, more secure philosophical system on the model of geometry and compatible with modern science.[1] One of the components of his razing project involves the use of methodological doubt.  (As Gadamer highlights in Truth and Method, the search for the “right method” is a common quest of the modern philosophers).  Having shown that the various possible avenues of knowledge can be deceptive or called into question (senses, mathematical knowledge [cf. the evil demon exercise], various authorities etc.), Descartes finally arrives at his indubitable truth, viz., that he cannot doubt his own existence, as doubting presupposes thought and thought presupposes existence.  From this supposed Archimedean point, Descartes attempts to construct a philosophical system that will yield the certainty lacking in views of his predecessors.

Ironically, Descartes, though criticizing past thinkers, continues to rely on ancient and medieval theological and philosophical insights.   We see this especially in Descartes’ various arguments for the existence of God, one of which is a version of St. Anselm’s ontological argument.  In the other arguments for God’s existence, Descartes takes the causal principle as self-evident, viz. there must be at least as much formal reality in the cause of an idea as there is objective reality in the idea itself, where the objective reality of the idea is something like the intentional or representational complexity of the idea. For example, the idea of a computer contains more objective reality than the idea of a plastic screw.  In addition, Descartes even engages in a defense of God’s goodness—a kind of theodicy—by appealing to an Augustinian, Neoplatonic understanding of evil as a privation.   In meditation IV the question arises, if God a non-deceiving God and is all-powerful, why did he create us as beings capable of going astray? In other words, why not make us incapable of erring?   How does Descartes respond to these questions?  He appeals to a traditional Neoplatonic-Augustinian answer!  First, he says that evil is a privation; it is not a thing but is rather the absence of good.  Thus, God does not create evil, as evil is a form of non-being.  Second, God created a diverse universe, which contains beings of various sorts and of varying degrees of perfection depending upon how “close” or “far” they are (ontologically speaking) from God who is all-perfect.

In short, though Descartes wants in many ways to “throw off” tradition, both the form and content of the Meditations show how indebted he was to the past,


[1] Descartes does in fact separate himself from the ancient and medieval past when he replaces Aristotelian empiricism with his own version of rationalism.  That is, in Aristotelian empiricism one knows an external object by the process of abstracting a form from it.  In Descartes’ rationalism, one knows an external object by grasping it directly through intellectual intuition—as e.g., the way in which I know myself directly as an immaterial substance, a res cogitans.  With regard to external objects, we grasp these directly as well; however, we know them as something extended, a res extensa. For Descartes, material substance just is extension. Given this identity, Descartes can then explain why mathematics applies to external reality: as a quantity, extension is describable in purely mathematical terms.  Since external objects just are quantities of extension, they are also mathematically describable.