Per Caritatem

Like Foucault, Gadamer has developed his philosophy in critical conversation with the Western philosophical tradition. Among the many significant dialogue partners Gadamer has engaged, Plato stands out as one having captured Gadamer’s attention in a special way. For example, with respect to his corpus as a whole, Gadamer’s writings on Plato outnumber his writings on any other thinker in the tradition. Although his interpretations of Plato are controversial in some scholarly circles, his discussions of the later Plato have earned him respect among political philosophers and classicists alike. Below I provide a sketch of one aspect of Gadamer’s interpretation of Plato’s theory of the forms. Then I highlight certain overlaps between Gadamer’s view of mutable forms and Foucault’s notion of historical a prioris and argue for an archaeologico-hermeneutical fusion, using a few musical analogies along the way.Archeaological Dig

Gadamer approaches Plato’s corpus by first looking at his later works (for example, the Parmenides, Sophist, Statesman, and so forth) and then reading these as the fulfillments of what was presented in shadow-form in his early and middle dialogues. Not only does Gadamer find a great deal of continuity in Plato’s oeuvre, but his interpretation of a non-dualistic theory of the forms or ideas likewise makes Gadamer’s Plato resemble Aristotle in significant ways.  The ideas are not, according to Gadamer, the central focus of Plato’s philosophy.  Rather, the theory of forms or ideas is a presupposition Plato believes is required in our strivings for truth, understanding, and living well.  In a sense, the ideas or forms function in a way similar to Kant’s regulative ideas—as ideals toward which we must aim but never quite attain. However, as Brice R. Wachterhauser explains, Gadamer’s view goes beyond Kant’s regulative ideas and involves a metaphysical “thickness.” Gadamer holds that Platonic ideas “refer to the most basic structures or patterns of intelligible meaning that lend reality whatever intelligibility it has.”[1] In addition, he claims—both as an interpretation of Plato and as his own view—that we share a common world, although we no doubt interpret, decipher, linguistically approach, experience, and navigate that world differently and often in opposing and conflicting ways.

In short, Gadamer’s Plato is more like Aristotle in that both place the forms or metaphysical structures of things squarely in this world and not in some Platonic other-worldly world. These structures are logically distinct and can be distinguished mentally; however, they exist as an “a web of ideal relations, which are internally connected to each other in inseparable ways and at many different levels.”[2] Consequently, the ideas implicate one another and come as a “unified package”; for example, questions of justice will lead to questions of the good, truth, virtue, and so on. In order to attain a proper understanding of one notion, we must enter into the web as a whole.  However, our finitude, which as we have seen Gadamer wholeheartedly embraces, makes it such that we can only grasp (and partially at that), one strand or node at a time. We simply cannot know the web of ideas in its totality and all at once. To claim that we can is to claim that we know, as medieval thinkers put it, as God knows, namely, in uno intuitu. Moreover, when we focus on one strand or section of the web, we necessarily suppress or choose not to focus upon the other strands. Here Gadamer employs Heidegger’s notion of aletheia or truth as characterized by a dialectical movement between concealment and unconcealment.

If we connect Gadamer’s Platonic web of ideas and his more Aristotelian Plato, we can begin to see how a kind of movement (for us) in the structures or forms is possible.  Aristotle, of course, via his act/potency distinction was able to account for a teleological movement in plants, animals, humans and so forth.  According to Gadamer, Plato presented this same movement albeit mythically and literarily in his dialogues. Since the things of the world are themselves in motion given their movement from potency to act, could it be that metaphysical structures themselves are to some degree dynamic rather than rigidly static?  This is not to suggest a dynamism with no boundaries; instead, the notion is more of a structure that can flex, show itself differently in different historical periods, and yet retain a basic identity. In other words, if reality itself is constituted by a complex set of interconnected metaphysical structures capable of manifesting a flexible-multifaceted identity, then we ought to expect a multiplicity of subject constructions and textual interpretations across historical epochs (or in Foucauldian terms, across epistemai).

Wachterhauser refers to this flexible ontology as Gadamer’s “ontological perspectivism,” which claims that both things and texts “contain within themselves different ‘faces’ or ‘looks’ that present themselves in different historically mediated contexts in such a way that we can say that it is possible for one and the same reality to show itself in many ways.”[3] This brings us to what Gadamer sees as the crux of Plato’s philosophy—the relation of the one and the many. Gadamer states this explicitly in his essay, “Dialectic and Sophism in Plato’s Seventh Letter,”

[t]he assumption that there are ideas remains for Plato an inescapable conclusion to be drawn from the nature of discussion and the process of reaching an understanding of something. […] Far from being Plato’s philosophy itself, the assumption occasions his real philosophical endeavor.  As the Parmenides shows, a single idea by itself is not knowable at all, and here is the source of error which the young Socrates makes. In any insight an entire nexus or web of ideas is involved.[4]

Because each idea—justice, reason, virtue, and so forth—has its own distinct contours or unity (its oneness) and yet simultaneously is multiple as a result of its interrelation to other nodes in the web such as truth, equity, and decency, the notion of grasping an idea in isolation is a fiction. Thus, whenever we encounter the one, we also encounter the many, and with the presence of the (unveiled but in no way fully transparent) one there is also present even if absent the (hidden) many.[5]

Much more could be said with respect to Gadamer’s interpretation of Plato; however, from what I have sketched above, it is clear that the former’s recognition of our finitude, historical embeddedness, and epistemological limitations, in conjunction with his understanding of the metaphysical structures of reality as dynamic, function in a sense as correlates to his dialogical hermeneutics. That is, given our knowledge constraints and the dynamic-range built in to the ontology of things, subjects, texts, and works of art, we ought to expect multiple interpretations saturated with polysemous meanings— meanings whose flexible identity make possible a surplus of new meanings through interaction with diverse dialogue partners.

At this point, I want to turn to Foucault and his account of epistemai and historical a prioris.  For Foucault, each epistemai or distinct historical epoch has its own peculiar set of historically-formed and hence contingent conditioning principles, that is, his “historical a prioris.” These conditioning structures are dynamic, as are Gadamer’s structures; however, the former are dynamic in a much stronger sense than the latter. To be clear, I am in no way suggesting that Foucault’s historical a prioris are equivalent to Gadamer’s structures; however, given the shared interests of the two thinkers, a successful synthesis or fusion of their accounts would, I contend, produce a compelling philosophy yielding significant socio-political import.

Foucault’s conditioning rules are contingently formed rules or requirements stipulating what can appear as objects of knowledge, valid practices, and so forth. By contrast, Gadamer’s metaphysical structures are similar to Aristotlean forms;[6] however, Gadamer’s Platonic version of these forms allow for a kind of limited movement because the forms themselves are structured to allow the things they in-form to have diverse manifestations and appearances as they develop.  In addition, forms are not isolated but are part of a larger interconnected web, which, for finite historical beings like ourselves, cannot be known exhaustively or all at once. We know some aspects of some things discursively, and the movement and ongoing change in the things and in ourselves ought to compel us to a more humble epistemological ethos.

These differences notwithstanding, Gadamer’s web of ideas, particularly, his notion of transcendental ideas, play a more fundamental yet similar role to Foucault’s historical a prioris, which make possible the appearance and intelligibility of objects. As Wachterhauser explains, Gadamer distinguishes ontological differences among the ideas. That is, he recognizes ideas functioning like genera and species and those functioning as transcendentals. The latter, which, in Gadamer’s formulation, include being and non-being, one and many, identity and difference, goodness, truth, beauty, and even motion and rest, cut across or transcend the categories of genera and species. The transcendentals make it possible for identity, unity, differentiation, and the like to “show up” at all. Analogous to the way that vowels when properly combined with consonants allow us to recognize words as such, “the transcendental ‘elements’ of discourse make it possible for us to both group together things in terms of various unities and differentiate them by recognition of difference. In this sense, […] they make all speech possible.”[7]

Likewise, the transcendentals are syncategorematic, as they are always present with the other ideas. “Whenever we grasp a determinate something we have an understanding of its being, of what and how it is, as well as what it is not: we grasp it as a unity of properties and a ‘true’ instance of its kind” and similarly with the other transcendentals.[8] In addition, we do not know the transcendentals by way of genera or species, nor in some kind of direct vision; “rather, they are always already there whenever we become aware of our own thinking.”[9] They are grasped as present with or in combination with other ideas. Again, this is similar to the way that vowels are understood not in isolation but “in their function of combining letters.”[10] As simples or primitives always present in complexes, transcendentals are grasped intuitively and cannot be further divided (logically speaking). Lastly, to claim that we have an intuitive understanding of transcendentals is not to claim that we have complete transparent knowledge of them. Gadamer stresses this point with his recognition of the crucial role of non-being or negation in our thinking. As Wachterhauer explains, we come to understand something not only by what it is but by what it is not. Not only positive but negative predicates play a constitutive role in understanding whom or what a person or thing is. Because concepts, entities, and individuals stand in a complex interrelation with one another, they can be described from “nearly inexhaustible viewpoints.”[11] This complex interrelated net of relations into which all of reality is implicated gives rise to multiple perspectives and (legitimate) multiple and diverse meanings, whose accounts include both positive and negative descriptions of what things are and are not. Such an ontological vision is both hermeneutically rich and yet retains an epistemological humility, which both Gadamer and Foucault value.

Acknowledging these differences, might it be possible to harmonize Foucault’s episteme-specific conditioning principles and Gadamer’s metaphysical structures into a coherent and valuable socio-political philosophy furthering Foucault’s (and Gadamer’s for that matter) critical project? By incorporating Gadamer’s metaphysics and ontology into his account of epistemai and mutable historical a prioris, Foucault would have access to non-constructed shared structures, which because of their web-like interconnections and flexible boundaries, would be both amenable to his episteme-specific conditioning rules and would provide the present-yet-absent background “space” needed to fill the gaps between epistemai. In other words, these interconnected metaphysical structures, given their identity-range and ongoing concealment-unconcealment dialectic, would give Foucault a way to explain the transitional movements between epistemai and how elements from past epistemai can be taken up in subsequent historical periods, be reconfigured and yet still recognizable as echoes of something else, and come to play a completely different role in the new episteme. These common structural yet non-identical overlaps across epistemai, in which former discursive elements, concepts, and practices are reharmonized in a new episteme and inhabit an organization “place” along a continuum of central and peripheral roles, support and strengthen a view of epistemai with porous and permeable rather than rigidly fixed boundaries and internal rules.

Just as Foucault is reticent to speak of historical a prioris as metaphysical principles, he is also reticent to make explicit claims regarding transcultural structures or capacities possessed by all human beings—even though his account presupposes such structures. We have also seen that Foucault’s expansion of his methodology to an archaeology-plus-genealogy and his affirmation in later writings of our inability to step outside of the conditioning of our own episteme allow him to overcome deficiencies of his earlier formulations. Foucault’s methodological amendment and the accompanying implication that the archaeologist too is historically conditioned share family resemblances with Gadamer’s notion of our socio-cultural and linguistically shaped hermeneutical horizons. Because they both affirm the contingency of these socially-formed conditioning factors, neither thinker advocates a social determinism locking us into a particular horizon or prohibiting us access to other historical periods.

Like Foucault, Gadamer, as Taylor points out in his essay, presupposes some kind of common human nature or shared transhistorical metaphysical structures.[12] Unlike Foucault, Gadamer acknowledges and makes explicit his appropriations and reharmonizations of ancient metaphysics to support a historically-friendly view of shared human structures.  In light of the fact that Foucault’s notion of power relations, resistance possibilities, and his analyses of active subjects and self-transformative technologies presuppose common volitional and rational capacities among humans, he has much to gain from joining hands with Gadamer and making these metaphysical assumptions explicit. Given Foucault’s expanded archaeology and his affirmation of our finitude and interpretative constraints, my proposed archaeologico-hermeneutical fusion would, if my account is correct, allow him to retain his innovative insights and philosophical contributions in a fortified form. Not only would his account become more coherent, but the emancipatory aspects of his analyses would be redoubled and their viability amplified and available for application to current socio-political issues.


[1] Wachterhauser, Beyond Being, 66.

[2] Ibid., 67.  Wachterhauser adds that Plato himself employs the metaphor of a “woven fabric” in the Sophist, 260a (ibid.).

[3] Wachterhauser, Beyond Being, 7.

[4] Gadamer, “Dialectic and Sophism,” 119.

[5] See, for example, Gadamer, “Plato’s Unwritten Dialectic,” 136–37.

[6] Foucault, of course, in no way depicts the historical a prioris as metaphysical structures immanent in-forming the changing things of the world.

[7] Wachterhauser, Beyond Being, 85.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 86.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 87.

[12] See, Taylor, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” 140.

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