Book Plug: Gadamer’s Ethics of Play. Hermeneutics and the Other by Monica Vilhauer

Gadamer's Ethics of PlayGiven my own research interests in the work of Hans-George Gadamer, it has been a pleasure to read Monica Vilhauer’s recent book, Gadamer’s Ethics of Play. Hermeneutics and the Other. The book is divided into four parts: (1) Gadamer’s Hermeneutic Problem, (2) Gadamer’s Concept of Play: Re-Conceiving the Process of Understanding, (3) The Ethical Dimensions of Play, and (4) When Ethical Conditions are Lacking.

In the present mini-review, I focus on Vilhauer’s claims in Chapter 5, “The Ethical Conditions of Dialogic Play: Between I and Thou.” Having convincingly argued that Gadamer’s notion of play is central not only to his reflections on art’s dynamic ontology, but also is central to his understanding of philosophical hermeneutics, Vilhauer then highlights the dialogical and ethical dimension of Gadamer’s concept of play. As Vilhauer explains, the “play-process of understanding”—whether understanding artworks, texts or other people—shows itself “to be a process of communication that occurs between I and Thou” in what one might call “dialogic play” (75). In other words, with the recognition that the play movement of understanding is dialogical—not monological—an ethical dimension of play emerges. “It now becomes apparent that the dynamic event of play in which understanding occurs relies on a particular kind of relation between I and Thou. Hermeneutic experience is not the experience of some object, but of the articulation of some other human being” (75). Of course for Gadamer, a text and a work of art takes on a life of its own and functions as a dialogue partner or “other.” Thus, whether or not the author or artist is living, the text or work still “speaks.” Given the dialogical character of hermeneutical experience, Vilhauer analyses what kind of relationship between an I and Thou is required for a shared understanding about some subject matter to occur. She begins by sketching Gadamer’s three types of I/Thou relationships, viz., (1) a scientific, (2) a psychological, and (3) an “open” approach to the other. The first two ways of engaging the other do not result in a genuine dialogue; the third way, however, makes possible a true engagement with the other wherein shared understanding becomes possible. In addition, in an “open” approach to the other, various ethical conditions are present such as mutual respect, a shared commitment to seek understanding (if possible), and a willingness to learn from (and be challenged by) one another for the purpose of individual and communal growth. Below I highlight some of the salient points in Vilhauer’s description of each type of I/Thou relationship.

In the scientific approach to the other, the Thou is treated as an object or “thing,” whose characteristics are “objectively” analyzed and categorized and its future behavior made more “predictable.” In short, the I’s relational stance toward Thou-as-object is one of distance and mastery; the Thou is neither respected nor listened to as a genuine dialogue partner with something valuable to contribute to the conversation. Vilhauer gives the example of a doctor/patient relationship where the doctor qua expert treats the patient more as an object of study upon which various tests must be performed than a human being with cares, concerns, and experiences that ought to be consulted in the process of reaching a mutual diagnosis and treatment plan. Here the other is disrespected and his or her dignity devalued. Gadamer himself draws upon the Kantian moral tradition and highlights how treating the other as an object instrumentalizes the other. “From the moral point of view this orientation toward the Thou is purely self-regarding and contradicts the moral definition of man. As we know, in interpreting the categorical imperative Kant said, inter alia, that the other should never be used as a means but always as an end in himself” (TM, 358).

In the psychological approach to the other, the other becomes a “psychological thing.” That is, the other is acknowledged as one who makes meaningful statements; however, the other merely expresses his or her particular subjective experience, attitude, or personal point of view. The relationship between “I” and “Thou” is again one of mastery and control, as the “I” is the superior who claims to have a special expertise enabling him/her to properly understand the Thou. Here the other is allowed to speak, but the way in which the “I” listens to the “Thou” is highly problematic. As Vilhauer explains, [t]he ‘I’ in this scenario does not listen to what the other has to say as a ‘claim to truth,’ but as a reflection of the other’s ‘self.’ The ‘I’ does not recognize the ‘Thou’ as a being that has something meaningful to say about the way the world is, about the truth of things, but only as a being that is capable of expressing the way he ‘feels,’ or the way he sees things as a result of his personal life history” (79). Gadamer describes this mode of “knowing” the other in advance as both a denial of the validity of the other’s claims and as a way “to keep the other person’s claim at a distance” (TM, 360). In other words, the “I” allows the other to present his or her perspective but really has no interest in what the other has to say. Before the conversation is even underway, the “I” sees his view as superior, as he is convinced that he possesses some special insight or knowledge allowing him to grasp the other more clearly than the other understands himself. Once the “Thou” is placed in the “I’s” category, stereotype, or other “box,” there is no escaping.

Vilhauer also shows how this approach to the other can be traced to Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics. That is, this second I/Thou relation can be understood as an attempt to get inside the “head” of the other, that is, the other as author of a text. Here one only properly understands the text when one understands the author’s intentions and the particulars of his life. The author is different from me, yet as fellow humans we experience similar feelings; thus, by means of a “sympathetic feeling,” I can understand the author’s intentions and meanings—both known and unknown to him. As Vilhauer observes, “[i]n coming to know the author’s life and mind, in deciphering the inner meaning, root, and origin of his expressions of which he himself is unaware, and in exposing this meaning in a way that makes conscious what was to him unconscious, one comes to know the author better than he knows himself” (80­–1). According to Gadamer, Schleiermacher’s model involves a fundamental misunderstanding of language. That is, Schleiermacher views “language merely as an ‘expressive field’—expressive of the author’s personal life, experience, and perspective” (81). Gadamer, in contrast, understands language as a social reality that exceeds one’s subjective experience. Linguistic statements for Gadamer articulate various subject matters (Sache) and make claims to truth; thus, when we enter a genuine dialogue with the other, our goal is not to understand the other’s subjective, psychological perspective, but the “substantial content” or subject matter that he or she articulates (81).

It is only in the “open” approach to the other that one finds mutual recognition among the dialogue partners and thus the possibility of a genuine dialogue in which understanding might occur. When we comport ourselves to the other in a mode of openness, we are ready and expect to “hear something meaningful and something different from what we already think, know, or have heard others say” (83). In addition, we believe that the other has something to teach us—“something true—about our world and ourselves” that might challenge us to think differently and thus expand our horizons. In this third and highest I/Thou relation, we genuinely put our most cherished assumptions, “prejudices” (i.e. pre-judgments), and Weltanschauung at risk. In this mode of engagement, we treat the other as a human being worthy of dignity and respect—not as a thing we must master or control, nor as an inert object of study whose voice is muted from the start. Or to put it in Gadamer’s own words:

“In human relations the important thing is, as we have seen, to experience the Thou truly as a Thou—i.e., not to overlook his claim but to let him really say something to us. Here is where openness belongs. […] Without such openness to one another there is no genuine human bond” (TM, 361).

My mini-review provides only a glimpse into Vilhauer’s lucid study of the ethical dimensions of Gadamer’s notion of play and by extension his entire hermeneutical project. Those familiar with as well as those new to Gadamer’s work will not only enjoy this book, but will also greatly benefit from Vilhauer’s scholarly labors.