“Hearing the Other’s Voice” in Otherness, Essays and Studies 4.1

For those interested, a revised version of my formerly (unpublished) essay on Gadamer has now been published in the open access journal, Otherness, Essays and Studies. You can access my essay for free here. Below is the abstract:

Hearing the Other’s Voice: How Gadamer’s Fusion of Horizons and Open- ended Understanding Respects the Other and Puts Oneself in Question

Cynthia R. Nielsen, Villanova University Ethics ProgramGadamer in Study

Although Gadamer has been criticized, on the one hand, for being a ‘traditionalist’ and on the other, for embracing relativism, I argue that his approach to knowing, being, and being-in-the world offers contemporary theorists a third way, which is both historically attuned and able to address significant social and ethical questions. If my argument holds, then we ought to give Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics a fair hearing, as its import and application can be expanded and employed for contemporary ethical and sociopolitical purposes.1 In section one I discuss key features of Gadamer’s hermeneutics broadly construed, commenting on partial incommensurability, horizon-fusing, and—via dialogue with Charles Taylor’s essay—Gadamer’s notion of dialogical, open-ended understanding. Next, I explain Gadamer’s complex account of experience, comparing and contrasting it with Hegel’s account. In section two I continue my analysis of Gadamer’s understanding of a fusion of horizons and provide several musical analogies to further explicate key aspects of this concept. Throughout my essay I highlight how his philosophical hermeneutics and dialogical model of understanding not only emphasizes but also embraces our finitude and thus our partial claims on knowledge. Given his stress on our ontological and epistemological limitations, his model requires that in our quest to understand the other—whether a live dialogue partner or a text—we must continually put ourselves in question. In other words, Gadamerian dialogue necessitates a willingness and openness to hearing the other’s ‘voice’ in a reharmonized key and to creating a new language together. Lastly, in the final section I present a brief analysis of Gadamer’s interpretation of Plato’s doctrine of the forms.

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.

Part II: Toward an Archaeologico-Hermeneutical Fusion

I ended my previous post with a discussion of Gadamer’s rejection of the notion that knowledge of “all things human” is attainable via a scientific model in which one’s aim is full intellectual control over the object of knowledge. Gadamer’s Hegel-inspired notion of “experience” helps us to get a better grasp both as to his criticism of scientific knowing applied to the human sciences and his own view of “knowledge” as coming to an understanding through a dialogic encounter. According to Gadamer, experience in general is a process which is essentially negative. By “negative,” he means that our expectations of what something is or means are regularly disappointed and disconfirmed.[1] As Gadamer explains, experience “cannot be described simply as the unbroken generation of typical universals. Rather, this generation takes place as false generalizations are continually refuted by experience and what was regarded as typical is shown not to be so.”[2] In other words, it is when we are surprised, see things from a new perspective and come to know them with more clarity that we experience what experience is. “Thus the negativity of experience has a curiously productive meaning.”[3] Here it is not merely that we correct our false beliefs—although that does occur–; rather, we gain a new, improved, and expanded understanding. We do not “have an experience of any object at random, but it must be of such a nature that we gain better knowledge through it, not only of itself, but of what we thought we knew before—i.e., of a universal.”[4]Archeaological Dig

Gadamer is not denying that our experience of history leads to (historical) knowledge. However, as Joel Weinsheimer observes (and Taylor echoes this thought in his essay), Gadamer’s account of experience as ongoing process challenges the typical conception of experience ending in (final) knowledge and thus emphasizing result, closure, and, effectively, the end of experience.[5] The theory of induction is an example of experience conceived as result. For example, I look for patterns in my experience that produce the same results.  When I do x, y results.  From various similar experiences, I abstract a general concept that now applies to all such experiences.  Thus, the need for further experiences of this kind is eliminated.  Weinsheimer puts it nicely,

[i]nductive experience is fulfilled in the knowledge of the concept—which, in both senses, is the end of experience. Thus, in the teleological view, experience finds its fulfillment in its extinction. The theory of induction implies that confirmation is the primary and most important aspect of experience. The process of experience is essentially an experience of repetition and the identity of experiences.[6]

Instead of an exclusive focus on confirmation as the key aspect of experience, Gadamer highlights the disappointments and disconfirmations of experience (which is not to exclude the role of confirmation) in order to foreground how “the negativity of experience has a curiously productive meaning.”[7] Appropriating Hegel’s insight, Gadamer views hermeneutical experience and experience generally speaking as dialectical, consisting of the working out and ongoing harmonization of identity-in-difference. Thus, experience involves an element of the new rather than a mere accumulation of past repetitions. For Hegel, experience is “skepticism in action,” as it has the potential alter “one’s whole knowledge.”[8] To be sure, confirmation is part of the nature of experience; thus, repetition is not disregarded completely. However, paradoxically, once repetition and confirmation occur, the experience is no longer new.[9] “We can now predict what was previously unexpected. The same thing cannot again become a new experience for us; only something different and unexpected can provide someone who has experience with a new one.”[10] Hegel identified this reversal of the experiencing consciousness as a dialectical structure in the nature of experience itself.  As Gadamer explains, when a person becomes “experienced,” he has “become of aware of his experience”; “[h]e has acquired a new horizon within which something can become an experience for him.”[11]

Up to this point, Gadamer agrees with Hegel’s account. However, he rejects emphatically Hegel’s idea that “conscious experience should lead to a self-knowledge that no longer has anything other than or alien to itself.”[12] For Hegel, the goal of experience is knowledge, and “his criterion of experience is self-knowledge.  That is why the dialectic of experience must end in that overcoming of all experience which is attained in absolute knowledge—i.e., in the complete identity of consciousness and object.”[13] In stark contrast, for Gadamer experience does not find its consummation in something that finalizes, overcomes, or annuls it. Consequently, Gadamer parts ways with Hegel’s account of history as a dialectical movement leading inevitably to the “absolute self-consciousness of philosophy,” and concludes that it “does not do justice to hermeneutical consciousness.”[14] Experience and knowledge-as-staticized-finality stand in opposition to one another. “The truth of experience always implies an orientation toward new experience.”[15] For Gadamer, then, the experienced person “has become so not only through experiences,” but because he has acquired the habit of continual openness to new experiences.[16] The perfection of experience, moreover,

does not consist in the fact that someone already knows everything and knows better than anyone else. Rather, the experienced person proves to be, on the contrary, someone who is radically undogmatic; who, because of the many experiences he has had and the knowledge he has drawn from them, is particularly well equipped to have new experiences and to learn from them.  The dialectic of experience has its proper fulfillment not in definitive knowledge but in the openness to experience that is made possible by experience itself.[17]

Gadamer is describing experience in general; he is telling us something about the structure of experience qua experience.  In addition, he wants to stress that experience as he has described it is connected intimately to what it means to be a historical, finite being.  None of us are exempt from experience; all of us must acquire experience, which involves necessarily having one’s expectations upset, overturned, unsettled.[18] Gadamer’s negative understanding of experience—as is hopefully clear by now—should not be interpreted as a pessimistic outlook on life; rather, he brings to our attention the fact that experience and growth by way of experience involves an openness to ongoing confrontations, challenges, and a genuine questioning of our own assumptions and beliefs. When confronted with new information about a person or event, or when we are able to genuinely “see” an issue or subject matter from a different perspective, we simultaneously put ourselves at risk.  That is, we allow questions to be put to us, questions that can expose our own false biases and misguided assumptions. Putting ourselves at risk in this way means that we are open to exposure, open to considering what it means, for example, that we characterize certain groups as more dangerous, deviant, or criminally disposed than others. The realization that we have been operating under counterfeit assumptions, and the uprooting and relinquishing of our former beliefs, is, though necessary, often unpleasant and painful.

Gadamer continues his discussion of experience through an interesting connection with Aeschylus. On Gadamer’s reading, with his phrase, pathei mathos (“learning through experience”) Aeschylus also recognized something essential about the structure of experience. Like Gadamer, Aeschylus does not claim merely that through suffering we learn to correct our misguided and false views. Rather, his insight is that through suffering we come to see “the limitations of humanity,” and begin to realize the “barrier that separates man from the divine. It is ultimately a religious insight.”[19] Thus, genuine experience as Gadamer conceives of it is experience of our finitude and historicity. The experienced person comes to see herself for what she is—limited, subject to time, subject to change, subject to uncertainty.  She has come to realize the wisdom in cultivating an attitude of openness to the other, which involves a willingness to listen to the other’s perspective not once but again and again. She also comes to see that being “perfectly experienced” in no way means

that experience has ceased and a higher form of knowledge is reached (Hegel), but that for the first time experience fully and truly is. In it all dogmatism, which proceeds from the soaring desires of the human heart, reaches an absolute barrier. Experience teaches us to acknowledge the real.[20]

For Gadamer, given his embrace of human finitude, the attempt to transcend human experience based on the scientific model of knowledge is simply not possible. Because we are historical, finite beings, we must, as Gadamer maintains, take seriously the role of culture in shaping and influencing human life and thought. Taylor helps us to grasp how Gadamer, who, unlike many modern and postmodern thinkers does not reject premodern views of metaphysics tout court, nor does he simply embrace them uncritically. Rather, he allows the premodern tradition to speak and appropriates those insights that still shine forth as true. Gadamer’s project might be characterized as a critically reharmonized Platonic-inspired metaphysics, whose ontology of the human person and of texts is amenable to cultural, socio-political, and historical concerns. Below I sketch the contours of what such a synthesis looks with respect to human being (identity) in all its diversity and ongoing improvisational manifestations (difference).

A Gadamerian identity-in-difference approach to human ontology affirms that there is some common, unchanging human nature or universally-shared, non-constructed metaphysical structures essential to humans qua humans; nonetheless, this nature or these structures are, as Taylor explains, “always and everywhere mediated in human life through culture, self-understanding, and language. These not only show an extraordinary variety in human history, but they are clearly fields of potentially endless innovation.”[21] In other words, it is possible, on the one hand, to argue for a universally-shared human nature or for common, non-constructed, transcultural, metaphysical structures, and, on the other hand, to affirm that our articulations and grasp of these structures are always mediated by our own cultural biases, discourses, preferred metaphors, and the knowledge “pools” from which we draw. Of course there have been many absurd and misguided philosophical and “scientific” narratives constructed over the course of history, claiming to have identified the essential nature of women, people of African descent, Jews, and homosexuals. Taking into account such narratives and the harm they have caused, one can understand why (post)moderns are by and large skeptical and suspicious of accounts appealing to universal metaphysical structures common to all humans.  However, if we adopt a Gadamerian-hermeneutical approach, we can (and should) acknowledge and reject the errors of these past constructions and yet not give up on the metaphysical project in toto. If we are able to finesse a mediating position (and I believe we can), the potential gains for defending human rights, social justice, and emancipatory struggles of all stripes ought to motivate us to rethink our own (post)modern prejudices and approach “the metaphysics question” anew with the openness of a truly experienced person.


[1] Joel Weinsheimer discusses Gadamer’s account of experience as negative, which he interprets as characterized by alternating cycles of hope and disappointment. As a result, experience should be understood as a process rather than a staticized end. As Weinsheimer explains, if we begin in hermeneutical openness with an expectation, a hope, then hope is always prior to experience and is its condition.  As we move through our hermeneutical disappointments, recover from our false and misguided assumptions, and struggle to understand the person or subject at hand, new expectations and hopes arise.  Thus, hope both precedes and follows disappointment and disconfirmation.  See, Weinsheimer, Gadamer’s Hermeneutics, 202.

[2] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 353.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Weinsheimer, Gadamer’s Hermeneutics, 202.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 353.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 354.

[12] Ibid., 355.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 356.

[19] Ibid., 357.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Taylor, “Gadamer on the Human Science,” 129.

Part I: Toward an Archaeologico-Hermeneutical Fusion

The socio-political consequences of embracing absolute incommensurability across historical epochs or what Foucault calls epistemai would be far worse than accepting a partial incommensurability in which we acknowledge our attempts to understand the other through our own conceptual, culturally-shaped grid.[1] Given what Foucault acknowledges in his essay “What is Enlightenment?” regarding our limited point of view and thus always partial rather than complete knowledge, we can—applying the principle of charity—assume that if Foucault did in fact claim that epistemai are incommensurable in toto, he without a doubt abandoned such a view and came to adopt a partial incommensurability position. It simply does not follow, as some critics claim, that adjustments to his earlier views, particularly those of his archaeological period, signal a fundamental rift or irresolvable incongruity with his later genealogical methodology and his emphasis on a more active subject in his ethico-aesthetic period.Archeaological Dig

With absolute incommensurability, the other is completely unintelligible, and consequently, I am forever hermetically sealed and unable to genuinely identify or sympathize with, much less learn from and attempt to understand him or her. Whereas in accepting partial incommensurability, although I must start with my own presuppositions, linguistic and cultural inheritances—or as Gadamer calls these various conditionings, “prejudices”—I am not trapped by the historically formed grid through which I see and engage the world.  Rather, to use Gadamer’s terminology, the horizon I bring to the text (or other) is permeable and mutable; through my engagement with the text, a fusion of horizons can occur, in which the horizon of the text calls me, the interpreter, into question with a possible outcome of reshaping and even fundamentally altering my horizon for the better. I shall take up this topic in more detail below; however, before discussing Gadamer’s notion of horizon-fusing, I want to begin with a brief discussion of several key aspects of his philosophical hermeneutics to prepare the way for my own archaeologico-hermeneutical fusion.

Gadamer finds the Enlightenment’s rejection of authority and tradition both impossible and undesirable. Although many key Enlightenment thinkers speak disparagingly of tradition, claiming it an impediment to the progress of true Enlightenment and riddled with unjustified prejudices,[2] Gadamer argues by way of reverse discourse that the Enlightenment’s prejudice against prejudice is itself held dogmatically. As he explains, the Enlightenment’s foregrounding of the negative aspect of the word, “prejudice,” has resulted in the shrouding of its positive meaning, “pre-judgment” (Vor-urteil). One can in fact—and here Gadamer appropriates insights from Aristotle—through proper upbringing, adopting ancestral and other customs, and embracing the teachings of one’s tradition, hold true “prejudices” and biases. Consequently, for Gadamer, just because one cannot justify or provide a syllogistic argument for one’s beliefs, it does not follow necessarily that these beliefs are false or misguided. Because of his positive view of tradition, some contemporary thinkers (for example, Jacques Derrida and John Caputo) have labeled Gadamer a “dogmatist”; however, others such as Charles Taylor have viewed Gadamer’s position more positively, emphasizing the historical and cultural benefits of his philosophical hermeneutics.

Taylor opens his essay, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” by highlighting the presumption that has characterized the West in its engagement with other cultures.  “The great challenge of the coming century, […] is that of understanding the other. The days are long gone when Europeans and other ‘Westerners’ could consider their experience and culture as the norm toward which the whole of humanity was headed.”[3] As the seeds of the (rationalistic) Enlightenment-model of knowledge were planted and continued to spread their roots and extend their branches, it became axiomatic that knowledge of science be characterized by “pure” objectivity and that it produce certainty in its possessors.  Yet, the twentieth century’s recognition of a “necessary modesty” in relation to its knowledge claims of the other seemed to land us in a no-win dilemma: either we accept ethnocentrism and remain cut off from the other, or we accept relativism and forfeit all objectivity.[4] Gadamer’s model, however, takes us through this seeming impasse and calls into question many of the Enlightenment-inspired notions that have shaped the epistemology of natural science and its attempt to colonize the social or human sciences.

In his magnum opus, Truth and Method, “Gadamer shows how understanding a text or event, which comes to us through our own history or horizon, ought to be construed, not on the model of the ‘scientific’ grasp of an object, but rather on that of speech-partners who come to an understanding (Verständigung).”[5] In light of Gadamer’s influence and the potential for further development of his project, Taylor devotes most of his article to explicating Gadamer’s model, which he describes as “coming to an understanding with an interlocutor,” vis-à-vis the scientific model of “knowing an object.”[6] In contrast with the latter method, Gadamer argues for coming to an understanding through a dialogic encounter where the modus operandi is question and answer (here Gadamer draws explicitly from Plato). As Taylor explains, Gadamer’s approach is characterized by three features: (1) bilateralism, (2) party-dependence, and (3) an openness to goal-revision.

First, the text or other is not a silent “object” to be mastered; hence, it is characterized by bilateralism as opposed to unilateralism. For example, in knowing a tree as object, I do not have to consider its view of me. The knowledge encounter is unilateral.  I dictate the rules of the knowing activity, and there is little to challenge me by way of a genuine other as to whether or not my understanding of it is distortive. Whereas in a bilateral exchange, both the text and other are given a voice; here the text “talks” back and can put the interpreter into question, thus challenging her prejudices and horizon and allowing for potential self-transformation.

Second, Gadamer’s view of coming to an understanding is party-dependent. Grasping this aspect of his model also helps us to see the different goals connected with the two approaches to knowing.  For example, in knowing an object, “I conceive the goal of knowledge as attaining some finally adequate explanatory language, which can make sense of the object, and will exclude all future surprises.”[7] In other words, the goal is to “attain full intellectual control over the object, such that it can no longer ‘talk back’ and surprise me.”[8] In contrast, when I come to an understanding of some text or some individual, this kind of supposed finality is not possible. For instance, when I understand something about Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” or Russian culture, these understandings are achieved through specific dialogue partners—as mentioned above, for Gadamer, texts are a kind of dialogue partner.  However, when I discuss Dr. King’s letter or enter a conversation about Russian culture with another dialogue partner or with different interpretative communities, new understandings surface given the fusion of my horizon with theirs. In addition, both my understandings and those of my various dialogue partners are in motion, ever-changing and expanding with each new dialogical engagement.  By entering these mutually reciprocal hermeneutical conversations, we allow our own understandings to be questioned and our most cherished beliefs to be challenged.[9]

Third, a key feature of Gadamer’s model is openness to goal-revision.  Because one’s prejudices and biases can be altered by a dialogic encounter with the text, one must be willing to modify, update, or even in certain cases relinquish his or her original objectives. In stark contrast with scientific knowing and its attendant goal of “attain[ing] full intellectual control over the object,” the goal of coming to an understanding is decidedly not control.[10] Rather, “[t]he end is being able in some way to function together with the partner, and this means listening as well as talking, and hence may require that I redefine what I am aiming at.”[11]

Gadamer’s dialogical model of understanding, of course, has been challenged by philosophers and those wanting to preserve the scientific model and its supposed “pure” objectivity. More specifically, the critics claim that the three features outlined above cannot be aspects of genuine science or knowledge.  If, for example, party-dependence and openness to goal-revision characterize our understandings, then “they represent something distinct from knowledge.”[12] As Taylor explains, Gadamer responds to his critics by rejecting the claim that knowledge of things human can be attained on the scientific model where the goal is full intellectual control over the object.


[1] Hans-Georg Gadamer and Charles Taylor argue for a variant of partial incommensurability.

[2] See, for example, Kant’s essay, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”

[3] Taylor, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” 126.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 127.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] In light of his claim that understandings are party-relative, some scholars have charged Gadamer with relativism and have classified him indiscriminately with philosophers such as Richard Rorty. Taylor, however, highlights the inaccuracies of such a move and addresses this issue in detail in his essay, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences.”

[10] Ibid., 127.

[11] Ibid., 128.

[12] Ibid.

Charles Taylor on Gadamer’s Hermeneutic Experience of the Other and the Changed Self

“In coming to see the other correctly, we inescapably alter our understanding of ourselves.  Really 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 … If understanding the other is to be construed as fusion of horizons and not as possessing a science of the object, then the slogan might be:  no understanding the other without a changed understanding of self.  The kind of understanding that ruling groups have of the ruled, that conquerors have of the conquered—most notably in recent centuries in the far-flung European empires—has usually been based on a quiet confidence that the terms they need are already in their vocabulary.  Much of the ‘social science’ of the last century is in this sense just another avatar of an ancient human failing.  And indeed, the satisfactions of ruling, beyond the booty, the unequal exchange, the exploitation of labor, very much 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 the ruled have often painfully experienced.  It is a feature of tomorrow’s world that this cost will now be less unequally distributed” (“Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” 141).

Charles Taylor on Gadamer’s Contributions to Philosophy

Over the past few months, I have become increasingly interested in Charles Taylor’s work.  In an essay entitled, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,”[1] Taylor discusses some of the contributions Gadamer has made to philosophy by providing us an alternative way of understanding texts and events.  That is, rather than patten hermeneutics or even our knowledge of the other on the “scientific” model of grasping on object, we approach the text or other as a dialogue partner who can potentially change us as we expand our horizons to understand it or him/her.  As the essay unfolds, Taylor contrasts these two models of knowing or understanding: (1) knowing an object, and (2) coming to an understanding with a dialogue partner.  The first approach is unilaterial.  That is, in knowing the tree as object, I don’t have to consider its view of me.  I dictate the rules of the knowing activity, and there is little to challenge me by way of a genuine other as to whether or not my understanding is distortive of the other. Likewise, the two approaches have very different goals.  In knowing an object or the scientific approach, “I conceive the goal of knowledge as attaining some finally adequate explanatory language, which can make sense of the object, and will exclude all future surprises” (127).  In other words, the goal is to “attain full intellectual control over the object, such that it can no longer ‘talk back’ and surprise me” (127).  In contrast, when I come to an understanding of something or someone, this kind of (supposed) finality is not possible.  For example, when I understand something about text X or culture Y, these understandings are achieved through specific dialogue partners (texts are a kind of dialogue partner for Gadamer).  However, when I discuss text X or culture Y with another dialogue partner, new understandings come about.  In addition, the understandings of my various dialogue partners themselves are also in motion, ever-changing and expanding (as are my understandings).  They too are in dialogue with others and through their dialogic encounters are constantly making revisions to their understanding.  Given his claim that understandings are party-relative, some scholars have charged Gadamer with relativism and lumped him in with philosophers like Richard Rorty.  Taylor, however, disagrees and addresses this issue in a subsequent section (more on this shortly).Charles Taylor

Lastly, given that the goal of scientific knowing is to achieve intellectual control over the object, my objectives are never challenged.  I may make certain revisions to my conceptual scheme and even substantial ones; however, the goal remains the same:  to attain full intellectual control over the object (127).  The goal of coming to an understanding is decidedly not control.  Rather, “[t]he end is being able in some way to function together with the partner, and this means listening as well as talking, and hence may require that I redefine what I am aiming at” (128).

Gadamer clearly stands within the tradition of coming to an understanding via dialogic encounter, and the three features of his approach (as set forth by Taylor)-understanding as bilaterial, party-dependent, and open to revising one’s goal-have been challenged by many philosophers.  The objectors claim that these features cannot be aspects of real “science” or knowledge.  If party-dependence and revised goals characterize understandings, then they represent something distinct from knowledge (128).

So how does Gadamer respond to these criticisms?  First, he rejects the claim that knowledge of things human can be attained on the scientific model where the goal is full intellectual control over the object.  As Taylor explains, Gadamer expresses this in his discussion of experience in Truth and Method.

Following Hegel, he sees experience, in the full sense of the term, as the ‘experience of negation’ (Nichtigkeit, TM 354).  Experience is that wherein our previous sense of reality is undone, refuted, and shows itself as needed to be reconstituted.  It occurs precisely in those moments where the object ‘talks back.’  The aim of science, following the model above, is thus to take us beyond experience.  This latter is merely the path to science, whose successful completion would take it beyond this vulnerability to further such refutation (128-29; cf. TM 355).

For Gadamer, given his embrace of human finitude (which is, by the way, not a despairing embrace), the attempt to transcend human experience based on this scientific model of knowledge is simply not possible.  Gadamer takes seriously the role of culture in shaping and influencing human life and thought.  “Whatever we might identify as a fundamental common human nature, the possible object of an ultimate experience-transcending science, is always and everywhere mediated in human life through culture, self-understanding, and language.  These not only show an extraordinary variety in human history, but they are clearly fields of potentially endless innovation” (129).  In other words, whatever universal human nature we might arrive at is always mediated by our own cultural biases as well as the metaphors and languages we agree upon to express this human nature.  For example, consider the way in which race was understood in the West in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Certain races were considered inherently inferior to others and even sub-human, whereas the superior race always happened to be the white, European race (which, of course, happened to be the race of most of the advocates of the idea-Kant, Hegel, etc.).  Most today would have no reservations saying that surely cultural biases and self-understanding played a significant role in the conclusions of these philosophers on race.

As Taylor notes, here we come to a huge “watershed in our intellectual world.” That is, on the one side are those who want to secure an account of human nature “below the level of culture,” such that any significant cultural variation can be explicated by means of this more fundamental account (129).  Examples of this view include certain expressions of sociobiology and accounts of human motivation.  These types of accounts relegate cultural variation to a mere epiphenomenal status.  On the other side are those who find the first account unsatisfying because it doesn’t take serious enough the function, status and influence of cultural difference.  Gadamer, of course, falls within the second group and rejects the model of science as the model for understanding human life.

As we have said, Gadamer chooses a different model, the model of interpersonal understanding, which exhibits three central features:  it is bilateral, party-dependent, and involves revising-goals.  So how does he answer some of the major objections to his alternative model?  For example, how does party-dependence and goal-revising not turn into relativism?   According to Taylor,

The first [party-dependence] can be explained partly from the fact of irreducible cultural variation.  From this, we can see how the language we might devise to understand the people of one society and time would fail to carry over to another.  Human science could never consist exclusively of species-wide laws.  In that sense, it would always be at least in part, “idiographic,” as against “nomothetic” (129-130).

However, Gadamer conceives of party-dependence in more far-reaching way.  That is, not only does one’s account differ with respect to the persons or culture studied, but it also varies with respect to the one engaged in the studying.  Here Taylor gives the example of how an explanation of the decline of the Roman Empire by scholars in the eighteenth century will differ from an explanation offered by scholars in twenty-fifth century China and twenty-first century Brazil.  If this is the case, again, how is it not some version of relativism?

Before giving his answer, Taylor sets forth an additional way in which Gadamer departs from the general understanding of “science” (130).  According to Gadamer, it is not the case that scientific explanation (and scientific language), as we have been led to believe, is without presuppositions-a kind of neutral, clear, humanly untainted language.  One of the achievements, though in Gadamer’s view (and mine) not a good one, of the “seventeenth century scientific revolution was to develop a language for nature that was purged of human meanings” (130).  In contrast the “languages of ‘social science'” have not gone the route of purgation and “seem incapable of achieving the kind of universality we find with the natural sciences” (130).  Why is this the case?  Taylor offers the following explanation:

[L]anguages of human science always draw for their intelligibility on our ordinary understanding of what it is to be a human agent, live in society, have moral conviction, aspire to happiness, and so forth.  No matter how much our ordinary everyday views on these issues may be questioned by a theory, we cannot but draw on certain very basic features of our understanding of human life, those that seem so obvious and fundamental as not to need formulation.  But it is precisely these that may make it difficult to understand people of another time or place (131).

What Taylor has in view is Gadamer’s notion of prejudgments or more provocatively put, prejudices, which we all have and which we cannot completely shed.  When I attempt to understand, for example, the Russian culture on topic X, I bring with me a network of background understandings that influence every aspect of my attempt to grasp topic X.  In other words, I have a horizon that has been shaped by my own culture, education, upbringing and so, and I cannot completely suspend my assumptions, as natural science and some philosophers claim to do.  For Gadamer, however, we are not imprisoned by our horizons; horizons can and constantly do change and expand as we encounter the other in the other’s alterity.  “The 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” (132).  In order for this to happen, I have to be open to allowing the other to genuinely challenge me, to be, as Taylor puts it, “interpellated by what is different in their lives” (132).  When this challenging is fruitful, 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 feature of the other culture without forcing it to fit my preconceived grid of what topic X should consist in (132).  Does this mean that I have arrived a flawless, bias-free interpretation?  No.  However, my understand has been improved, and my horizon has been expanded, or better “fused,” with the horizon of the other.  “We may still have a long way to go.  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” (132).


[1] Charles Taylor, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” in The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer, ed. Robert J. Dostal.  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002):  126-142.