Part III: Toward an Archaeologico-Hermeneutical Fusion

In light of the kind of openness I have detailed in the previous two posts [part I, part II] with respect to Gadamer’s approach to texts, works of art, and coming to an understand with the other, I want to encourage contemporary thinkers to reconsider the fruitfulness of Gadamer’s historically-friendly hermeneutics. In particular, his notion of a fusion of horizons, his acknowledgment of our finitude and knowledge constraints, and his emphasis on our need to be always open to new ways of seeing the other have much to offer philosophers, theologians, cultural critics, as well as theorists of “race,” ethnicity, gender, and sexuality (and this list is by no means exhaustive).Archeaological Dig

Although, as Gadamer acknowledges, I can only go through my horizon to reach the other, I am neither imprisoned by my horizon nor must I imprison the other by forcing her to conform to my horizon. Because horizons are historically contingent, culturally constructed, they are always revisable so long as I am willing and receptive to such revisionary activity. As Taylor observes, “[t]he 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.”[1] But in order for this to happen, I have take risks and allow the other to genuinely challenge me; I must be willing to be “interpellated by what is different in their lives.”[2] When this risk-taking is fruitful and I come to see the other by way of an expanded horizon, 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 aspect of the other culture without forcing it to fit my preconceived grid of that in which the topic at hand should consist.[3]

Does this mean that I have arrived a flawless, bias-free interpretation in need of no further future revisions? Absolutely not. However, my understanding has been improved, and my horizon has been enriched or better “fused” as a result of listening to and being interpellated by the other’s horizon.  Undoubtedly, we will continually bump up against interpretative problems and places of, at least seeming if not actual, (partial) incommensurability; thus, there is always room for more horizon-fusing. “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.”[4]

Thus far I have described the fusing of horizons as an expansion or enrichment of one’s former horizon. This is an accurate description; however, I want to offer a new descriptive metaphor, the improvisational attitude, to try and capture the permeability, as well as the semi-solid-(temporal)-stability characteristic of horizons. When a jazz small group—for example, a trio or a quartet—performs, each musician has an assigned part which contributes to the overall coherence of the group as a whole.  The drummer keeps the rhythm steady and solid. The bass player also has a key role in the rhythm section, working closely with the drummer and, in addition, providing the low-range contours of song’s harmony. The piano player fills in the harmonic details, providing a wide range of chordal textures and colorings, as well as harmonic extensions and superimpositions. The saxophonist interprets the melody, which, compared to the other parts, is what “connects” most easily with the audience.  When all of these parts come together well, a unified, not to mention aesthetically-pleasing whole results.  Each player does more than simply play his or her part as an atomized individual. Instead, the individual musicians must perform in a constant mode of attentive listening in order to play as a unified group.  If one player decides to stick rigidly to a rhythm pattern or a harmonic progression—both of which perhaps worked quite well the first and second times through the piece—while the other members have collectively developed new patterns, then the cohesion of the group is diminished.

Alternatively, the unity of the group is augmented when, for example, the saxophonist in a mode of attentive listening hears and responds to pianist’s altered, superimposed harmonies by adjusting her solo accordingly. That is, she does not simply continue to play melodic lines that fit the original, unaltered harmonic progression; instead, she changes her lines to harmonize with the pianist’s new chordal colorings. By listening carefully to the pianist (the other), the saxophonist does not continue with her previous, as it were, “way of understanding” the pianist’s horizon. Rather, she modifies her own horizon so that the pianist’s horizon is made intelligible and put in the best light. A genuine understanding has been achieved through a re-harmonization of horizons. The example speaks to the fluidity of horizons, but we should also recognize the ability of horizons to solidify through shared practices and customs. For example, the pianist’s harmonic superimposition may catch on and become a regular practice associated with a certain style of jazz. This temporary solidifying-ability in no way translates into a permanent immutability, and the same is true for horizons. Gadamer sums this up nicely,

“Just as the individual is never simply an individual because he is always in understanding with others, so too the closed horizon that is supposed to enclose a culture is an abstraction. The historical movement of human life consists in the fact that it is never absolutely bound to any one standpoint, and hence can never have a truly closed horizon. The horizon is, rather, something into which we move and that moves with us. Horizons change for a person who is moving. Thus the horizon of the past, out of which all human life lives and which exists in the form of tradition, is always in motion.”[5]

As contingently formed ways of seeing and engaging the world and others, horizons are neither closed nor are their boundaries opaque. Rather, they are mutable, porous, and capable of re-harmonization—that is, if one adopts an improvisational attitude and is willing to listen to and be changed by the other.

Another aspect of Gadamer’s hermeneutics that speaks against commonly held beliefs required for interpretative “objectivity” is his observation that our own pre-judgments and biases are made explicit in and through our hermeneutical struggles.  Our unreflective prejudices, in other words, often show up as such when they, recalling our musical example above, cannot be harmonized with the choral progressions (i.e., horizon) of the other. Stated slightly differently, we are not able hear our own assumptions and biases as dissonant until we risk “playing” them over the other’s harmony. So rather than abstract ourselves from the hermeneutical performance, we must remain engaged with prejudices, as it were, in full force. Rather than “disregard ourselves” as “historical objectivism” demands, we bring our pre-judgments to the hermeneutic table.[6] In so doing, we put our own prejudices and thus ourselves at risk. By allowing our prejudices “full play,” we are “able to experience the other’s claim to truth and make it possible for him to have full play himself.”[7]

Taylor’s essay also helps us to understand key aspects of Gadamer’s notion of a fusion of horizons. Though prior to the “fusion,” my horizon and that of the other are distinct ways of “understanding the human condition,” once the “fusion” occurs and “one (or both) undergo a shift; the horizon is extended so as to make room for the object that before did not fit within it.”[8] But as Taylor emphasizes, what has taken place is more than a mere extension of previous conceptual limits; it is better described as a “fusion” creating something new. For this reason, I have opted for the analogy of an improvisational attitude in which melodic lines and harmonies are constantly being re-harmonized in order to describe the act of ongoing horizon-fusing. It is not that the other’s melodic fragment or harmonic progression is completely foreign or unintelligible to me—otherwise, neither would show up as problems or puzzles.  Rather, they do not fit well within my present harmonic and melodic schema (i.e., my unchanged horizon). However, when a genuine fusion takes place, something has happened allowing me to, as Taylor puts it, “find a language” in which my understanding of the other has come about through an in-fusion of something of the other’s world in me. Mixing metaphors, my horizon has been reharmonized by the melodic lines of the other such that the other’s melody is heard undistortively in the new harmony. This is not to say that the other’s “melody” is heard exactly the same in my horizon as in her horizon. It is to say that the other’s voice has been preserved, neither muted nor silenced but continues to sound its melody within the new harmony.

On a related note, Taylor explains how Gadamer’s fusion of horizons avoids the “ethnocentric temptation.”[9] That is, because I attempt to interpret the other in the language we have created together (that is, my new horizon) rather than my prior un-fused language, I can avoid distorting the other by making him “intelligible” only if he passes through my Procrustean mold (my un-fused horizon). “[T]he problem is that the standing ethnocentric temptation is to make too quick sense of the stranger, i.e., sense in one’s own terms.”[10] An example of ethnocentric distortion would be to conclude that a people group with no written language and hence no written constitution must be, first of all, inferior intellectually to my group possessing both of the above, and, second, less able to transfer their traditions and to implement their laws. Here I have “made sense” of the other, but only by holding up my group’s practices as the standard. With this approach, whatever does not conform to my group’s way of doing things is a deviation. No fusion, expansion, or, using my metaphor, reharmonization of horizons has occurred. However, precisely what we need in order to avoid distorting the other, as Taylor puts it, is a “richer language,” a reharmonized horizon.[11]

As we move from our initial encounter wherein the other is strange and puzzling toward a fusion of horizons, we strive to locate “that facet of our lives that their strange customs interpellate, challenge, and offer a notional alternative to.”[12] To illustrate, Taylor gives an example of how a Gadamerian-reading of Aztec practices of human sacrifice might correspond to one’s own ritualistic practices such as the Catholic mass. Perhaps we will not be able to name what this common element between the two cultures is. We might be tempted to call it “religion,” as both practices involve a sacrifice of some sort and are ways of coming to terms with our common human condition.[13] However, here we must take care not to import unnecessary conceptual and other baggage from our horizon into the meaning of the term, lest we fall prey to the ethnocentric temptation. So we must “beware of labels”; yet, that the two sacrificial practices offer competing interpretations of some aspect “of the human condition for which we have no stable, culture-transcendent name, is a thought we cannot let go of, unless we want to relegate these people to the kind of unintelligibility that members of another species would have for us.”[14] Clearly, for Gadamer (and myself) the latter is not a viable option.

We have seen how our interpretation of the other’s practice and the other’s interpretation of her practice is not the same.  This is true even after a fusion of horizons has occurred because we both come to understand the practice under consideration through our original horizons, each of which involve different questions, struggles, cultural and institutional conditioning, and many other factors too numerous to list.  This non-identity of our common “object” of knowledge speaks to the party-dependence feature of Gadamer’s model of coming to an understanding with a dialogue partner. Our understandings of the other can and do improve, but their accuracy and correctness do not translate into an identical understanding that we now both possess. A corollary of coming to understand the other through a fusion of horizons is, of course, that we are changed. Genuine understanding of the other requires an “identity shift in us.”[15]

Then, by way of negation, Taylor spells out what Gadamer’s dialogical approach to understanding the other is not. First of all, it is not “[t]he kind of understanding that ruling groups have of the ruled, that conquerors have of the conquered,” which assumes that the terms for understanding the other are already present in the rulers’ vocabulary.[16] Moreover, the “perks” that come with ruling—the stolen goods, the exploitation and instrumentalization of the other, and the like “includes the reaffirmation of one’s identity that comes from being able to live this fiction without meeting brutal refutation. Real understanding always has an identity cost—something that the ruled have often painfully experienced.”[17]


[1] Taylor, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” 132.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 304.

[6] Ibid., 299.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Taylor, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” 133.

[9] Ibid., 138.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 139.

[13] Ibid., 140.

[14] Ibid.

[15] The full sentence (and then some) reads, “[r]eally taking in the other will involve an identity shift in us.  That is why it is so often resisted and rejected. We have a deep identity investment in the distorted images we cherish of others” (ibid., 140–41).

[16] Ibid., 141.

[17] Ibid., 141.

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