Part III: An Introduction to Hans-Georg Gadamer

Another key aspect to Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics is his emphasis on human finitude.  Here Gadamer’s understanding of history and language comes into play, as these function as two conditions of our all our knowledge endeavors.  We cannot fully comprehend these conditions, as their origins stretch back into a past that escapes our complete grasp.  Yet, Gadamer believes firmly that we do in fact have some, though limited and partial, knowledge of these conditions even if we cannot make either fully transparent to ourselves.  In this vein, Gadamer speaks of Wirkungsgeschichte (“effective history”).  For example, we are not fully aware of the extent to which language shapes and “makes” us.  As Gadamer puts it, “Language is always out in front of us.”  The same is true of culture, tradition and customs.  (If you have ever spent any significant time outside of your own culture, this cultural “shaping” becomes readily evident).  Likewise, we see “effective history” in the various ways in which different communities of inquiry employ certain analogies, as well as choose (and reject) certain metaphors etc.  Language, in other words, is pregnant with tradition, culture and in fact opens up a world to us (Heidegger)—a world unlike the mere “environment” of non-rational animals who lack the kind of freedom we as linguistic, rational beings have.Gadamer Painting by Dora Mittenzwei

Here I should discuss Gadamer’s well-known but often misunderstood statement, “Being that can be understood is language.”  First, Gadamer does not mean that words create reality.  As Charles Taylor, B. Wachterhauser, Joel Weinsheimer and Robert Sokolowski argue, Gadamer is not a linguistic constructivist.  On Gadamer’s account, both language and reality “participate” in intelligibility.  The function of language (at least one function) is to enhance the intelligibility of the already intelligible world.  There is no re-doubling of the interpreter in the otherwise uninitelligible world in Gadamer’s account.  Rather, language functions as a lens that makes reality come into sharper focus than would be the case if language were absent.  Thus, language does not stand between us and reality, as a kind of shroud or hindrance.  Language functions instead as a “medium” through which we gain access to the world—it has a kind of “iconic” function.  I emphasize the world to highlight the fact that Gadamer is a realist (cf. Wachterhauser, Beyond BeingGadamer’s Post Platonic Ontology, and Robert Sokolowski, An Introduction to Phenomenology).  Though we no doubt have our horizons, are conditioned by culture, history and language, we are not trapped in our horizons or imprisoned by our prejudices and thus cut off from the things themselves.  Gadamer is adamant that as rational, linguistic beings, we are free to step back, reflect and allow the world (and texts) to disconfirm our “projections”.

In addition to the intelligibility of both language and reality, Gadamer emphasizes the Zugehorigkeit (“belongingness”) of language and thought.  What may come to as a surprise to many is Gadamer’s interaction and largely positive, though not uncritical, appropriation of both the ancient and medieval traditions.  In Truth and Method, Gadamer devotes significant space to a discussion of the “theology of the verbum,” interacting with Greek theories, as well as, the teachings of Augustine, Aquinas and Nicholas of Cusa.  Gadamer rejects the medieval view of a pure, mental language, as in his account we always think in a particular (natural) languages.  Yet, Gadamer employs the medieval, Christian teaching of the unity of the Father and the (pre-incarnate) Son, as well as St. Thomas’ discussion of the “processual” nature of this relationship in order to explicate his own theory of the “belongingness” of thought and language.  Just as the Father and the Son/Word share exhibit both a unity (in substance) and diversity (they are different Persons), thought and language share a similar unity or prior accord prior but are not reducible to each other.  As the Word “proceeds” from the Father (non-temporally), so thought unfolds “within” the mind (think of the way deductive reasoning unfolds) which is an image of the discursive nature of our thinking.  Yet, as noted above (and here the dis-anaologies enter), Gadamer rejects Augustine and Aquinas’ view of a pure, mental language, focusing instead of the various “incarnations” of natural languages (even prior to their utterances “outside” the mind).  Here Gadamer appeals to the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation in which Christ’s taking to Himself of human flesh (and one might add à la J. Kameron Carter, Christ’s particular Jewish flesh) in no way de-values his divinity.   Similarly, the incarnation of thought by particular natural languages does not hinder intelligibility; yet, given our finitude, each language opens up partial yet true views of the world.  (In this section and with regard to our finitude, Gadamer highlights the difference between the discursive nature of our knowledge and God’s knowing in one intuition).

Wachterhauser provides another way to understand Gadamer’s notion of the “belongingness” of thought and language and the “productive” function of language in connection with reality.  Gadamer speaks of language as symbol, that is, as a symbolon in the Greek sense.  In ancient Greece, a member of one family would break a piece of pottery into two halves, keeping one half and giving the second to the member of the other family.  The pieces were then handed down through the various generations of each respective family.  If a member of one family (born at a later date) presented his half of the broken piece of pottery to a member of the other family, the pieces would be re-united, showing the prior accord of their families.  The pottery functioned not as a mere empty sign but actually effected what it symbolized.  Similarly, language and thought exhibit a unity prior to the various (extramental) utterances and dialogical encounters with others in which language gives us access to and enhances (already intelligible) reality.

Wachterhauser then turns to Plato’s Symposium and Aristophanes’ myth of how humans have to come in their present state to further elucidate the unity of thought and language, as well as the “achievement” of language—here emphasizing its creative function as employed by free, rational beings.  As Aristophones explains, originally humans were spherical and needed no “other” to complete them sexually or otherwise.  However, due to their arrogance they upset the gods who then divided them and turned their sexual organs outward (as we find humans in their present form).  Given this “fall” and division, humans now seek an “other” for completion, and here the emphasis is on sexual completion.   Just as the two halves of the lovers share a prior unity, so too do thought and language.  Yet, the new completion for which the lovers seek is not predetermined or predestined.  That is, a kind of achievement or work of sorts must occur.   Here the analogy turns to the work required for true hermeneutical engagement and transformation.  In order for the interpreter to be transformed by the alterity of the text, s/he cannot exhibit the characteristics of a false lover.  A false lover is not interested in what the other has to say; rather, s/he simply re-creates her/himself in the other.  By contrast, a true lover allows the other to speak, to call her/him into question and thus is open to the “event” of understanding which exhibits a “surprise” character.