Book Plug: Unfinished Worlds: Hermeneutics, Aesthetics, and Gadamer by Nicholas Davey

Unfinished Worlds by Nicholas DaveyNicholas Davey’s book, Unfinished Worlds: Hermeneutics, Aesthetics, and Gadamer, is a thought-provoking study of Gadamer’s integration of hermeneutics and aesthetics. Importantly, Gadamer’s fusion of hermeneutics and aesthetics reverses traditional conceptions of both disciplines. For example, hermeneutics is typically understood as focusing on meaning, whereas aesthetics is concerned with the particularities of visual, auditory, and related sensual experience. Davey, however, shows both how Gadamer challenges traditional accounts and the resultant consequences, which include: (1) an anti-essentialist account of the artwork as dynamic and relationally constituted, (2) a significant revision of the theory-practice relationship in art and the humanities, (3) a hermeneutics of transformative experience, and (4) a redefinition of the nature of aesthetic attentiveness (2). Davey not only helps us to better understand Gadamer’s reorientation of aesthetics (chapter 2) and his philosophically robust account of the artwork, but he also advances Gadamer’s insights, bringing them to bear on central issues in contemporary hermeneutics, philosophy of art, and aesthetics.

Davey’s analysis and constructive development of Gadamer’s contributions intersect with broader philosophical concerns of interest to the Continental philosophical tradition. For example, is an excess of meaning a problem that constricts one’s understanding of the aesthetic or does it enlarge one’s understanding? Is ambiguity and multiplicity of meaning something to be embraced (as Derrida and other contemporary thinkers claim) or avoided? Given certain readings of Gadamer as a traditionalist averse to ambiguity and fluidity, some might be surprised that his hermeneutical aesthetics is quite at home with polysemy, excess of meaning, and  ever-open “unfinished” worlds.

One of the central claims with which Davey dwells is Gadamer’s proposal that artworks address us. That is, hermeneutical aesthetics maintains that artworks possess a meaningful content and such meaning is relational. In the experience of art’s address, the viewer or auditor is both drawn in by the work and actively participates in its occurrence or event-ful character. Art’s address has the capacity to transform one’s horizon. As Davey’s explains, such a transformative experience “entails the cognitive relations within a spectator’s outlook being transformed by those which constitute the work. This is made possible because of the surplus of meaning attached to visual signs and symbols as well as to the images of literature and poetry” (2). Such symbols and literary ideas have the ability to function as placeholders in multiple discourses. This “transactional capacity” of symbols and poetic and literary ideas, and what Gadamer calls “subject-matters” (Sachen) allows a key term in one’s home horizon to be “transformed when that term meets different deployments within a foreign horizon” (2). In such an encounter, one’s horizon is not superseded but rather acquires a significantly expanded, enriched form. This account of the transactional or placeholder capacity of symbols and subject-matters to operate across different horizons or frameworks of meaning not only provides an explanation of the structure of transformative experiences in art, but it also clarifies how “the transformative capacity of interdisciplinary study depends precisely upon the movement of shared placeholder terms between different practices” (3). Here we encounter one of Gadamer’s innovative contributions, viz. an articulation of an active, participatory aesthetic attentiveness as a practice, which Davey discusses in detail in chapters 3 and 4. In contrast to traditional accounts of aesthetics wherein one passively receives a work and relishes in its aesthetic qualities, in a Gadamerian practice of aesthetic attentiveness the spectator lingers with the work, allowing its complexities to emerge and actively facilitates movement between the placeholders in her own horizon and that of the artwork (3). Such lingering or tarrying with the artwork is necessary for a transformative experience to occur. In short, Davey shows how Gadamer successfully reconciles the “alleged disinterestedness of aesthetics with the cognitive interests” attendant to a phenomenological examination of our experience of art” (16). As Davey puts it, “Aesthetic attentiveness is no unthinking receptiveness but a complex reflective practice capable of transforming understanding” (ibid.) Moreover, this reconfiguration of our experience of art as participatory adds a new dimension to the hermeneutical part-whole relationship. Such part-whole structures can only be understood via participatory engagement. Thus, given Gadamer’s emphasis on the dynamism of aesthetic experience, the idea of a “detached aesthetic observer” must be discarded and replaced with an engaged spectatorial (or auditoral) participant (ibid.)

For Gadamer, profound aesthetic experience involves the ineffable and thus serves as a challenge to philosophy’s predilection to clarify and even master the “objects” of its study. Although Gadamer agrees with the artist and practitioner that the complexity of aesthetic experience transcends linguistic capture, he nonetheless contends that striving to find new words and a new language that more adequately approximates the intricacies of such experience is a worthwhile endeavour. Here Gadamer’s hermeneutical aesthetics unites practitioner and theorist as mutually beneficial dialogue partners who facilitate a greater understanding of aesthetic experience.

Other significant topics addressed in Davey’s study are as follows: appearance as ontologically significant (chapter 5), aesthetics attentiveness and distanciation (chapter 3), the disjunctive image (chapter 3), art’s language and Gadamer’s rich yet often misunderstood notion of Sprachlichkeit or linguisticality (chapter 6). Lastly, chapter 7 provides a helpful summary of Davey’s principle arguments.

I highly recommend Davey’s study for those interested in Gadamer’s hermeneutical aesthetics, as well as anyone interested in a defence of the value of aesthetic education and the humanities in general. Not only does he accomplish the noteworthy task of lucidly explaining the key moments of Gadamer’s hermeneutical aesthetics, but he also makes a compelling case for applying a Gadamerian “poetics” of aesthetic experience to our understanding of interdisciplinary study and in so doing urges us to reconsider the social and cultural significance of the humanities. In light of its transformative possibilities, aesthetic education takes on new urgency in our fragile, violence-ridden, and ever-changing world. “Not to invest in the attentive practices of the humanities, not to nurture the ability to dwell within spaces of hermeneutical challenge and not to teach how to be patient in developing as yet unknown but wished for responses to such provocations is to disinvest in our collective ability to respond creatively to the inevitable challenges of the future” (171).

[Unfinished Worlds is part of Edinburgh University Press’s excellent Crosscurrents series, edited by Christopher Watkin, Monash University, Australia. This series explores the development of European thought through engagements with the arts, humanities, social sciences and sciences.]



Book Plug: Interstitial Soundings. Philosophical Reflections on Improvisation, Practice, and Self-Making

Interstitial SoundingsMy new book, Interstitial Soundings. Philosophical Reflections on Improvisation, Practice, and Self-Making, is now available for purchase. Below I have included a brief description of the book. Also, Cascade/Wipf & Stock has put together a very nice promotional flyer with lengthy excerpts from the first two chapters. Those interested may download this document via this link.*

In the present work, Cynthia R. Nielsen brings music and philosophy into a fruitful and mutually illuminating dialogue. Topics discussed include the following: music’s dynamic ontology, performers and improvisers as co-composers, the communal character of music, jazz as hybrid and socially constructed, the sociopolitical import of bebop, Afro-modernism and its strategic deployments, jazz and racialized practices, continuities between Michel Foucault’s discussion of self-making and creating one’s musical voice, Alasdair MacIntyre on practice, and how one might harmonize MacIntyre’s notion of virtue development with Foucauldian resistance strategies.

*Used with permission of Wipf & Stock Publishers.

The Sense of Painting

The post below was penned by artist Peter Kline. For more information about Peter and his beautiful artwork, please visit: (All images are of Peter Kline’s paintings.)

“Painting is the art of bodies, in that it only knows about skin, being skin through and through. Another name for local color is carnation. Carnation is the great challenge posed by those millions of bodies in paintings: not incarnation, where Spirit infuses the body, but carnation plain and simple, referring to the vibration, color, frequency, and nuance of a place, of an event of existence.” – Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus

To Cynthia, for offering this space on her blog: thank you!

What I’d like to do here is try to make some sense of my own practice as a painter by thinking along with Jean-Luc Nancy.

At the heart of Nancy’s thought is a thinking of sense. Rather than truth or meaning, Nancy prefers to speak of sense. We don’t know the truth of the world so much as we sense the world. We make sense of the world. We touch it, and we are touched by it.

Sense, for Nancy, is always a form of touching. There is no sense, no meaning, no truth, without touch. This is simply to say that there is no sense without relation, without being-with.

The sense of a work of art, like the sense of anything else, arises only from the way it touches and is touched, from the way it engages one or multiple senses. A painting or drawing, for instance, asks to be touched by the viewer’s sight or vision. Nancy writes:

Vision…glides along swerves and follows along departures. It is a touching that does not absorb but moves along lines and recesses, inscribing and exscribing the body.[1]

The sense of a painting is found not only, or even primarily, in the apprehension of its finished form. The sense of a painting is always per-formed in the contact between the painting as skin and the vision that touches it and is touched by it. Eyes glide along curves and angles and feel out their sense. They follow formations and deformations, fissures, borders, and gaps. They leap between colors and get lost in shades.

Painting, no less than music, even if differently, unfolds in time, as the movement, the sense, of bodies in space.

Nancy’s philosophical and religious thought traces and performs the deconstruction of principled form that opens onto the touching of sense. What is possible on the other side of the death of metaphysical reason? Touching sense, Nancy answers, touching the infinite sense of the world, its being-with, that has no principle, no necessary form, only its own infinite possibility.

The self-deconstruction of Christianity is paradigmatic here, for Nancy. At the heart of Christianity is a body, specifically a body that calls attention to itself, absolutely: Here is my body. The sense of Christianity is the sense, the touch, of this body. Christianity proclaims nothing else, for Nancy, than the absolute “here” of the body. In doing so it also proclaims the absence of any hierarchical principle that would form the world from beyond, from elsewhere. Sense is absolutely here, not elsewhere, in and as the body that touches and is touched.

Nancy titles one of his chapters in his book, Adoration: The Deconstruction of Christianity II, “There Is No Sense of Sense: That Is Worthy of Adoration.” There is no grounding principle that is worthy of adoration. Monotheism in its radically deconstructive gesture proclaims “the gods,” the principles that structure the world, to be nothing but idols. There is no grounding principle. The sense of the world is its opening to what exceeds any and all principle. This “what” is not any “thing,” no old or new god, but only the movement of the world’s own opening, its being-with itself as an opening.

Now that is worthy of adoration. The world comes from and rests on nothing. We are here, absolutely here, to adore this, to touch the opening that without principle forms at and as the heart of the world.

The self-deconstruction of painting over the past several centuries has followed this same movement. On the cover of the English translation of Nancy’s book Adoration, there is a reproduction of a painting by the French painter Simon Hantaï. Hantaï developed a method of painting in which the canvas is scrunched and folded up into itself, painted along its folds, ridges, and recesses, and then unfolded to reveal the unpredictable form of the painting. Hantaï lets the canvas touch itself. He lets it touch and be touched. The principled form of the canvas gives way to an unprincipled touching, a being-with of the painting with itself that is not a closure into itself but an opening onto infinite sense.

What is it that I do when I paint? Above all, I touch, I sense. I play with the infinite possibilities of sense. I let paint touch itself. I touch paint. I let paint touch me. Often I abandon my tools—principled instruments—and use my hands and fingers directly on the canvas or the wood or the paper. Or I use my tools in excess of their intended purpose. I touch them and let them touch differently, without principle.

My inspirations as a painter, those I adore, are painters who abandon themselves to the unprincipled sense of painting. Above all, for me, Cy Twombly:

As far as painting goes there’s enormous—probably more than with a lot of people—freedom…It’s instinctive in a certain kind of painting, not as if you were painting an object or special things, but it’s like coming through the nervous system. It’s like a nervous system. It’s not described, it’s happening. The feeling is going on with the task. The line is the feeling, from a soft thing, a dreamy thing, to something hard, something arid, something lonely, something ending, something beginning. It’s like I’m experiencing something frightening, I’m experiencing the thing and I have to be at that state because I’m also going.[2]

And Jean-Michel Basquiat:

I was a really lousy artist as a kid. Too abstract expressionist. Or I’d draw a big ram’s head, really messy. I’d never win painting contests. I remember losing to a guy who did a perfect Spiderman.[3]

And Dorothea Tanning:

By the time I stood in front of this big white canvas, the game of prisms had taken me over. I don’t even know if it was a game anymore. It seemed so desperate, sometimes. It carried me away—so far that I didn’t even have to choose what would be there—I just dived in, and among the forms that came out were these things, there, presiding like friends at a picnic.[4]

To paint is to touch is to sense is to feel the opening of the world right here. Painters play with this opening. We try to sense it, to touch it, to let it touch us. It is an opening more intimate to the world than the world is to itself. It is this infinite dis-enclosure, like canvas as skin exposed to painter as lover, that forms, without measure, the gift of the world—that is worthy of adoration.

Peter Kline: [email protected]


[1] Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus, p. 45.




Romare Bearden: On Re-imaging and (Re)imagining Black Life and the Unified Fragments of “Three Folk Musicians”

Like many African American artists of his day, Romare Bearden created artworks birthed and nurtured in struggle—a struggle not only for recognition and respect, but also a struggle to break the bonds of racialized stereotypes. Bearden’s complex understanding of the individual and the community and the artist and the art historical tradition plays an important role in the development of his own artistic style and social identity as well as his re-imaging of black life in America.

R. Bearden, "Three Folk Musicians," 1967Critical theorists, philosophers of race, and novelists have analyzed and depicted the experiences of black people in racialized contexts as an ongoing experience of absence. That is, to be black in a white world is to be rendered invisible and muted—to be treated socially and politically as if you did not exist or did not exist as a human being worthy of respect, civic rights, and mutual recognition. Conversely, theorists have analyzed blackness as an over-determined, fixed presence. In this understanding, the black body’s presence is amplified in public spaces, perceived in advance as dangerous, criminal, sexually deviant. Under this (white) lens, black bodies must be constantly surveilled, hemmed in, monitored, and segregated. Either way, blackness is scripted by the white other and in ways that blacks find demeaning, false, and in need of re-formation and re-narration.

One encounters this type of personal and communal identity re-narration in the works of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Aime Césaire, Franz Fanon, W. E. B. Dubois, and many others. The quest to find one’s (black) voice involves an intertextual performativity. That is, the subjugated writer or artist engages the dominant tradition through serious study of its tropes, metaphors, stylistic nuances, and exemplary figures. While the black artist appreciates and admires the renowned works of the dominant tradition, the goal is not mere imitation or assimilation; rather, the black artist seeks to affirm the value and beauty of black difference. Given that the black artist is creating from a subaltern position, her works not only proclaim the significance of black difference, but they also challenge and seek to expand and even overturn both the society’s and the (in this case, art) tradition’s accepted discourses, values, and practices. Artist Aaron Douglas, a key player in the Harlem Renaissance, and poet Aime Césaire, one of the founders of the Négritude movement intentionally drew from African sources and inspirations in order to insert black difference into the prevailing artistic discourses and practices. By fashioning new aesthetic forms, styles, and ways of expressing black culture and history, these artists helped to dismantle negative and demeaning images of blacks as uncivilized, lacking in culture and intellectual acuity, and mere “entertainers” for whites (rather than serious artists).

Like the artists mentioned above, Bearden too chose to foreground black difference in his artistic creations. In his artworks we encounter European stylistic influences infused with symbols, rituals, and mythic elements associated with African American life in both its Southern and Northern expressions. The resulting style is clearly modern but manifests a distinctively black-modern identity. For example, in his 1967 painting, Three Folk Musicians, Beardon combines cubist formal elements with his own collage technique. The content of the painting focuses on three African American folk musicians adorned in brightly colored clothing—clothing that unites both black rural and urban life as symbolized by the figures donning both overalls and berets. The musician on the left and the one in the center are pictured with guitars, and the musician on the right—the one wearing overalls—is holding a banjo, an instrument believed to have been introduced to America via the slave trade. Many of the musicians facial features and parts of their hands have been cut out and reconfigured from various previously existing pictures taken from popular magazines and other sources. Not only does Bearden fuse together different aspects of black life and history, but he also presents a complex view of social construction. That is, our individual lives are both constituted by others—depicted visually in the artwork through the collage assemblage of various body parts of others forming the bodies of each individual musician—and (re)formed through the artist’s creative fashioning of him- or herself in relation to others. In his use of symbols of African American life and history—the overalls signifying life in the rural South, the beret signifying urban life in the North (the beret was a popular fashion trend during the Harlem Renaissance), the banjo, and the emphasis on creative activity via music-making—Bearden subverted white discourses demeaning black life and culture and presented black difference as vibrant, creative, complex, and worthy of respect. As Glazer puts it, “in Three Folk Musicians, Bearden seems to have defined his artistic identity in exclusively black terms, emphasizing the difference and distinction—in short, the presence—of black creativity.”[1] By bringing fragments together to form a unified work, Bearden shows art’s power to create a world, to bring some sense of wholeness to fragmentation (even if the wholeness is temporary and open to change).


[1] Lee Stephens Glazer, “Signifying Identity: Art and Race in Romare Bearden’s Projections,” Art Bulletin 76 (1994): 411–426, here 413.

*The image of Bearden’s, “Three Folk Musicians,” 1967 (Photographs © Romare Bearden Foundation/VAGA, New York) is taken from the following website:

Gadamer on Art’s Emergence, Motion, and Non-Utility (and a Creative “Riff” or Two on Plato and Aristotle)

Malevich "Bureau and Room"In this post I continue my reflections on Gadamer’s analysis of the artwork and its presentations by way of a brief sketch of Gadamer’s relevant work on Plato and Aristotle. If Plato is read as devaluing or demoting art due to its status as third-removed from the truth and a mere copy of the original Idea, then of course Gadamer rejects this view and has no interest in this characterization of mimesis. (In fact, Gadamer argues that Plato himself rejected this view and that his position is articulated in his later dialogues, especially in the Philebus.)[1] For my purposes, I will focus on Gadamer’s creative appropriations of the Platonic-Aristotelian linking of beauty, goodness, and truth in his reflections on art.[2]

In the Philebus, Plato introduces a third category of being, which he calls, “coming into being” (genesis eis ousian; 26d8). This category opposes a dualistic view of reality in which the world of Ideas is separate from the world of appearances. Along similar lines and again in order to stress the unity of being and becoming, Plato speaks of “being that has been” (gegenêmenê ousia; 27b8). With this new category Plato shows how not only in our lived experience but also in the very structure of the world, “we encounter the mixed, and within it we must seek and find the ‘exact.’”[3] Here the “exact” or in Plato’s words, “the exact itself,” is not the “pure” exactness of mathematics but rather the “appropriate” (metrion) discussed in the Statesman, where two arts of measure are introduced and distinguished.[4] Gadamer, in fact, sees the “appropriate” or the “fitting”—the, so to speak, “im-pure” exactness—as an anticipation of Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean. Both types of measure are crucially important; however, we must discern and respect their difference and resist any push to make mathematical exactness the ultimate measure and model of all knowing and truth. In short, on Gadamer’s reading, if initially Plato advocated dualism, he has himself subverted such a view. In the Philebus, becoming is a coming into being and being comes forth from becoming. Plato and Aristotle have much more in common than Philosophy 101 might lead us to believe.

In fact, Gadamer sees Aristotle’s introduction of the concept of energeia as a mere “step beyond” Plato’s development of this third category of “coming into being.”[5] As Gadamer explains, Aristotle’s understanding and unique employment of energeia is complex and includes the ideas of actuality, reality, and activity. Moreover, energeia shares close conceptual resemblances with Aristotle’s notion of entelecheia (entelechy). The common idea of both terms is that they indicate the unfolding action, not the finished action (ergon). Of course, the activity of energeia and entelecheia involves an unfolding, internal telic movement. Yet Aristotle’s notion of energeia—such as the “pure energeia” of being aware, seeing, and thinking—also designate a movement with no goal outside or beyond the activity itself.[6] Thus, Gadamer suggests that these a-telic activities are characterized by a temporal structural of “tarrying.” That is, the activity of considering or having considering something does not designate a this-after-that sequence but speaks of lingering over something—a being absorbed or immersed in something until it manifests or shows itself. Similarly, with the artwork, as we tarry with it, “it” emerges. This is how we experience art’s truth; we allow ourselves to be absorbed by it, and as we wait and linger, it comes forth and addresses us. As Gadamer explains:

To tarry is not to lose time. Being in the mode of tarrying is like an intensive back-and-forth conversation that is not cut off but lasts until it is ended. The whole of it is a conversation in which for a time one is completely “absorbed in conversation,” and this means one “is completely there in it.”[7]

Given art’s non-practical focus and lack of use-orientation, Gadamer claims that art finds kinship with the ancient notion of theoria.[8] Here Gadamer’s creative appropriations of ancient Greek philosophical concepts are deployed not in order to mute the voice of the other, but rather they enable us to better understand and appreciate a modern conception of art for art’s sake. That is, as we come to understand what Aristotle meant by theoria, techne, physis, and energeia, we have a better grasp of modern art’s claims regarding its absoluteness and non-utility. Rather than associate the making of craftsmanship, whose products serve purposes of utility, with the making of artworks, Gadamer highlights the affinities between art and nature. For example, a work of art, like a flower that comes to bloom, has a developmental history and a process-oriented temporal structure that makes possible its manifestations of sameness in difference. In addition, art like physis shows its life through being in motion; art lives through enactment (Vollzug). Lastly, although in our exploitation of nature via technology, we have by and large lost the sense of wonder at nature’s beauty and its emerging and simply “being-there,” yet even so nature still has the power to surprise and overwhelm us. The same is true of art—even avant-garde art.


[1] See, for example, Hans-Georg Gadamer Dialogue and Dialectic. Eight Hermeneutical Studies on Plato, trans. P. Christopher Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980,) esp. chapter 6, “Plato’s Unwritten Dialectic.”

[2] For a friendly yet critical engagement with Gadamer’s position, see Michael Kelly, “A Critique of Gadamer’s Aesthetics,” in Gadamer’s Repercussions. Reconsidering Philosophical Hermeneutics, ed. Bruce Krajewski (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 103­–120. On the one hand, Kelly agrees with “Gadamer’s critique of any philosophy of art that considers art to be a lie,” on the other, he rejects the notion that art makes truth claims (ibid.,103). Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Artwork in Word and Image: ‘So True, So Full of Being!’” in The Gadamer Reader. A Bouquet of the Later Writings, trans. and ed. Richard E. Palmer, 192–224 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2007), 209.

[3] Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Artwork in Word and Image: ‘So True, So Full of Being!’” in The Gadamer Reader. A Bouquet of the Later Writings, trans. and ed. Richard E. Palmer, 192–224 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2007), 209.

[4] See, for example, Plato, Statesman, 284e ff.

[5] Gadamer, “The Artwork in Word and Image,” 210.

[6] Ibid., 213.

[7] Ibid., 211.

[8] As Gadamer explains, theoria was linked with divine activity and thus involves participation in the highest activity and reality. He also notes that the term originally meant to “participate in a festive act. Thus, it is not merely being a spectator. Rather, it means ‘to be fully there’” (ibid., 213).

Part II: Gadamer on Play, the Play of Art, and the Reality of the Work in its Presentation

Kasimir Malevich "Composition with the Mona Lisa"As I explained in the previous post, in every presentation, performance, and interpretation of a work—even those which critics and other relevant communities judge as missing the mark—the identity of the work is not destroyed. For example, in the case of a poor performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Opus 18, it is understood as presenting, albeit poorly, the structure of the work in view. Every presentation has a relation to the work’s structure and must “submit itself to the criterion of correctness that derives from it.”[1]

That we can discern a failed presentation of a work does not imply that there is only one excellent way for the work to manifest. There can be many correct, fitting, and even exemplary presentations, enactments, and performances of the same work. Here the notion of “structure” should not be equated with the “original” composition or performance, as if the “original” is the ideal and standard against which all future performances and presentations are judged. In fact, future performances of a work often bring out a depth and richness not manifest in the original. John Coltrane’s performance of the popular Broadway tune, “My Favorite Things,” is one such example. In Coltrane’s version, the standard and rhythmically simple three-four waltz time is transformed into a polyrhythmic and densely textured six-eight (and beyond) time. In addition, Coltrane adds lengthy improvisatory solos and complex harmonic textures to the original piece. In both Julie Andrew’s and John Coltrane’s performances, the work is presented and a common structure is discerned; yet Coltrane’s performance displays a level of harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic complexity not present in the original.

In fact, Gadamer argues that through presentation (and performance) an “increase in being” occurs.[2] In order to understand what Gadamer means, one must examine his account of the complex relationship between Bild and Ur-bild. If presentation (Darstellung) is the artwork’s mode of being, how does a symphonic performance or a painting present the work? For example, on Gadamer’s analysis, a painting’s mode of being as presentation ought not be understood as a copy of something. The defining task of a copy is to reduplicate as closely as possible the original. Thus, its essence is self-erasure or self-effacement; it points not to itself but away from itself to what it copies. “[I]ts nature is to lose its own independent existence and serve entirely to mediate what is copied.”[3] A copy’s self-effacement indicates its function as a means, not an end. In fact, its independent existence serves this very purpose of self-erasure. In contrast, a picture’s essence is not self-erasure, nor does it function as a means to some other end. The picture points to itself and how it presents its subject-matter. In other words, “one is not simply directed away from the picture to what is represented. Rather, the presentation remains essentially connected with what is represented—indeed belongs to it.”[4] Again, instead of a self-cancelling existence and purpose, the picture’s being is autonomous; its being brings out something new in the reality which it depicts; thus, the picture is more than a mere copy or reduplication of an original; it belongs to the being of the original and expands its being. As Gadamer puts it, “[b]y being presented [the original] experiences, as it were, an increase in being. The content of the picture itself is ontologically defined as an emanation of the original.”[5] Here Gadamer draws upon Neoplatonic philosophy with its notion of an emanation as an overflow of the being of the One, whose being is not reduced as a result of its multiple emanations, but rather increases.[6]

Although helpful, the Neoplatonic model doesn’t quite capture Gadamer’s understanding of the relation between Bild and Ur-bild, as the emanations flowing from the One are ontologically inferior to the One. Here I suggest another analogy, which also has its limits, to supplement Gadamer’s account. In the Christian tradition, Jesus Christ is the perfect image of God, in which the fullness of deity dwells.[7] Here there is no ontological subordination, yet Christ reveals the Father in a unique way, presenting him, so to speak, in a new light. Likewise, the Son and the Father are different expressions of the same being. The Christian model thus highlights an instance where difference essentially belongs to sameness without destroying unity and identity. Lastly, the revelation of Godself is given over time through many presentations and performances, and in each case God himself is manifest.

As should be clear from our analysis up to this point, even though the same work is repeated in each new presentation or performance, the subsequent presentations are not mere copies of an original and are thus not ontologically inferior imitations. Instead, Gadamer’s hermeneutic identity involves a phenomenon of repetition in presentation that, like the phenomenon of play, allows for flexibility and freedom that does not negate the work’s unity or identity but is instead an intrinsic aspect of the work’s ontology. The work lives, as it were, only in its presentations, performances, and interpretations.


[1] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 122.

[2] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 140.

[3] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 138.

[4] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 139.

[5] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 140.

[6] Ibid., 140.

[7] See, for example, 2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15, and Heb. 1:3.