Part II: An Introduction to Hans-Georg Gadamer
As mentioned in my opening post, Gadamer’s overall project in Truth and Method is plausibly understood as an attempt to work out the notion of identity-and-difference as manifest in hermeneutical experience. That is, on Gadamer’s view the “being” of texts (and works of art and music) exhibit a flexibility which allows for multiple, true interpretations, as different communities of inquiry approach the text with new questions. Yet, these multiple, true and very diverse (yet non-contradictory) interpretations are of the very same text or work or art/music and thus exhibit an identity through time. In this view, interpretation is not mere re-production but involves a productive aspect given the new questions and new “horizon fusings” that take place as various communities of inquiry engage the texts of the tradition over time. Here Gadamer speaks in phenomenological language, using terms like “aspects” (=the multiple, true interpretations) and “things themselves” (=the subject matter of the text).
As I’ve suggested on numerous occasions, a helpful way to understand what Gadamer has in mind with his view of the expansive “being” of texts is to consider a musical analogy . In jazz, the performer works with a “lead sheet” (something akin to a text) which contains a given melody and harmonic progression. Thus, there certain givens/structures to which the performer must submit. However, various performers interpret the (very same) piece differently and bring out new aspects not seen—or rather heard—up to that point. This is not to suggest a kind of hermeneutical anarchy, as the interpretation/performance must be recognizable by particular musical community/tradition as a valid instance of that particular piece. Likewise, the performer cannot simply impose onto the piece whatever harmony s/he chooses. To do so would be to produce an illegitimate interpretation, just as imputing any meaning onto a text would likewise not count as a valid interpretation. Because the “being” of musical works (like texts and works of art) contain this built-in-flexibility, multiple, true interpretations are not only possible but to be expected. However, in order to count as valid, legitimate, true interpretations, they must exhibit continuity with the tradition in that each (to use Gadamer’s term) “aspect” manifests the thing itself in its presentation, though no two aspects are exactly the same. This flexibility allows the tradition to grow and continue its influence through time, as the “being” of texts and works of art show themselves differently in different historical epochs, yet they retain continuity with the tradition. (Though some scholars have begun to explore the ways in which Gadamer’s work might be brought into conversion with the development of religious traditions, including Christianity, there is certainly room for additional work in this area. Those working in biblical hermeneutics have, of course, already enjoyed the fruits of his labors).