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).

6 thoughts on “Part I: An Introduction to Hans-Georg Gadamer”

  1. Cynthia,

    Thanks; I look forward to forthcoming posts. Question: Do you agree with Georgia Warnke equating Gadamer’s view of authority with Habermas’s defense of Enlightenment ideals? I concur that Gadamer seems to be more conservative than many credit. Would you even classify him as a relativist?

  2. You say that Gadamer is not a strong relativist. True, he doesn’t want to be… but does he succeed in answering his own “fundamental epistemological question” which is “what distinguishes legitimate prejudices from the countless others, which it is the undeniable task of critical reason to overcome?” (TM’89 p277) I’m not sure that he has the resources to do so.

  3. Hi Brett,

    I’m not familiar with Warnke’s argument regarding Habermas. Would you elaborate and give me the specifics of her claims? One of the best essays I’ve come across on Gadamer and the issue of relativism is Brice Wachterhauser’s essay in the _Cambridge Companion to Gadamer_.


    Of course Gadamer is not going to provide a foundationalist justification for legitimate prejudices or interpretations–he rejects the foundationalist project. However, he does speak of not forcing one’s projections on a text, but instead allowing the text as Other to “speak” and transform one’s own horizon. The model is one of “coming to an understanding” not one of scientific mastery where the text as inert “object” is mastered and has no voice. For a more detailed elaboration of what I mention here, see Charles Taylor’s article in the _Cambridge Companion to Gadamer_, “Gadamer and the Human Sciences.”

    Best wishes,

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