Part IV: An Introduction to Hans-Georg Gadamer

Walter Lammi, Kathleen Wright, Brice Wachterhauser and others have highlighted Heidegger’s influence on Gadamer.  Gadamer readily acknowledges his indebtedness to Heidegger, after all he was a student of Heidegger’s for many years.  In Truth and Method, Gadamer mentions his use of Heidegger’s “hermeneutical circle” (an on-going movement between whole and part and part and whole in our interpretative endeavors) and embraces Heidegger’s understanding of truth as aletheia (a dialectic of concealment and Gadamer Painting by Dora Mittenzweiunconcealment), yet Gadamer is also critical of Heidegger.  For example, Gadamer rejects Heidegger’s Seinsvergessenheit thesis (the “forgetfulness of being”) and denies that the Western metaphysical tradition necessarily culminates in nihilism.  In fact, Gadamer detects nihilistic tendencies in Heidegger’s views in the latter’s separation of questions of Being from questions of the human good.  According to Gadamer, Heidegger’s critique of the Western metaphysical tradition fails because he employs a univocal understanding of metaphysics.   Here Gadamer’s study of Plato, particularly the later dialogues causes him to reject Heidegger’s read of Plato as a “metaphysics of presence” advocate.  Gadamer sees the later Plato as endeavoring to work out an ontological vision that overcomes a certain misread of his theory of Ideas, viz. the interpretation that the Ideas constitute a separate realm (i.e. a view of the Ideas that suggests a strong dualism in Plato).   Instead, Gadamer interprets the later Plato as sharing similarities with Aristotle (non-dualistic) and developing what subsequent thinkers have called the “transcendentals” (good, true, unity, beauty etc.).   Gadamer argues that the center of Plato’s thought is not the theory of the Forms but rather the relationship of the One and the Many.  On Gadamer’s read, there is a kind of “movement” in the Forms in that when they reveal themselves they simultaneously conceal themselves (i.e., in their relation to the whole, that is, the other Forms and of course the ever-elusive Form of the Good).  Thus, for Gadamer, Plato does not promote a “metaphysics of presence” philosophy.  Rather, he acknowledges our finitude and our incomplete (yet real) grasp of the Forms.

Reappropriation of Platonic Insights:  “Metaphysics of Light”

At the end of Truth and Method, Gadamer turns explicitly to Plato’s view of beauty and self-validating truth.  Beauty is that which draws us to itself; it shines forth and presents itself as tangible in its visibility.   Truth likewise exhibits radiance and manifests itself in the beautiful, thus functioning as a “mediator” between the ideal and the real.  Given his rejection of the modern foundationalist project and its attempt to make knowledge completely transparent along with its search for a “method” to justify its every move, Gadamer suggests that an appropriation of this ancient version of self-validating truth, in which knowledge is not identified with certainty, is a possible way beyond the impasse of skepticism and the ruins of (modern) foundationalism.

In keeping with the overall vision of his dialogical, hermeneutical project, Gadamer continues his “fusion of horizons,” interacting with both ancient and modern thinkers and philosophical traditions and suggesting a way forward through an appropriation of the past and present so that the tradition can continue to speak, flourish and “surprise” us and generations to come.

Part III: An Introduction to Hans-Georg Gadamer

Another key aspect to Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics is his emphasis on human finitude.  Here Gadamer’s understanding of history and language comes into play, as these function as two conditions of our all our knowledge endeavors.  We cannot fully comprehend these conditions, as their origins stretch back into a past that escapes our complete grasp.  Yet, Gadamer believes firmly that we do in fact have some, though limited and partial, knowledge of these conditions even if we cannot make either fully transparent to ourselves.  In this vein, Gadamer speaks of Wirkungsgeschichte (“effective history”).  For example, we are not fully aware of the extent to which language shapes and “makes” us.  As Gadamer puts it, “Language is always out in front of us.”  The same is true of culture, tradition and customs.  (If you have ever spent any significant time outside of your own culture, this cultural “shaping” becomes readily evident).  Likewise, we see “effective history” in the various ways in which different communities of inquiry employ certain analogies, as well as choose (and reject) certain metaphors etc.  Language, in other words, is pregnant with tradition, culture and in fact opens up a world to us (Heidegger)—a world unlike the mere “environment” of non-rational animals who lack the kind of freedom we as linguistic, rational beings have.Gadamer Painting by Dora Mittenzwei

Here I should discuss Gadamer’s well-known but often misunderstood statement, “Being that can be understood is language.”  First, Gadamer does not mean that words create reality.  As Charles Taylor, B. Wachterhauser, Joel Weinsheimer and Robert Sokolowski argue, Gadamer is not a linguistic constructivist.  On Gadamer’s account, both language and reality “participate” in intelligibility.  The function of language (at least one function) is to enhance the intelligibility of the already intelligible world.  There is no re-doubling of the interpreter in the otherwise uninitelligible world in Gadamer’s account.  Rather, language functions as a lens that makes reality come into sharper focus than would be the case if language were absent.  Thus, language does not stand between us and reality, as a kind of shroud or hindrance.  Language functions instead as a “medium” through which we gain access to the world—it has a kind of “iconic” function.  I emphasize the world to highlight the fact that Gadamer is a realist (cf. Wachterhauser, Beyond BeingGadamer’s Post Platonic Ontology, and Robert Sokolowski, An Introduction to Phenomenology).  Though we no doubt have our horizons, are conditioned by culture, history and language, we are not trapped in our horizons or imprisoned by our prejudices and thus cut off from the things themselves.  Gadamer is adamant that as rational, linguistic beings, we are free to step back, reflect and allow the world (and texts) to disconfirm our “projections”.

In addition to the intelligibility of both language and reality, Gadamer emphasizes the Zugehorigkeit (“belongingness”) of language and thought.  What may come to as a surprise to many is Gadamer’s interaction and largely positive, though not uncritical, appropriation of both the ancient and medieval traditions.  In Truth and Method, Gadamer devotes significant space to a discussion of the “theology of the verbum,” interacting with Greek theories, as well as, the teachings of Augustine, Aquinas and Nicholas of Cusa.  Gadamer rejects the medieval view of a pure, mental language, as in his account we always think in a particular (natural) languages.  Yet, Gadamer employs the medieval, Christian teaching of the unity of the Father and the (pre-incarnate) Son, as well as St. Thomas’ discussion of the “processual” nature of this relationship in order to explicate his own theory of the “belongingness” of thought and language.  Just as the Father and the Son/Word share exhibit both a unity (in substance) and diversity (they are different Persons), thought and language share a similar unity or prior accord prior but are not reducible to each other.  As the Word “proceeds” from the Father (non-temporally), so thought unfolds “within” the mind (think of the way deductive reasoning unfolds) which is an image of the discursive nature of our thinking.  Yet, as noted above (and here the dis-anaologies enter), Gadamer rejects Augustine and Aquinas’ view of a pure, mental language, focusing instead of the various “incarnations” of natural languages (even prior to their utterances “outside” the mind).  Here Gadamer appeals to the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation in which Christ’s taking to Himself of human flesh (and one might add à la J. Kameron Carter, Christ’s particular Jewish flesh) in no way de-values his divinity.   Similarly, the incarnation of thought by particular natural languages does not hinder intelligibility; yet, given our finitude, each language opens up partial yet true views of the world.  (In this section and with regard to our finitude, Gadamer highlights the difference between the discursive nature of our knowledge and God’s knowing in one intuition).

Wachterhauser provides another way to understand Gadamer’s notion of the “belongingness” of thought and language and the “productive” function of language in connection with reality.  Gadamer speaks of language as symbol, that is, as a symbolon in the Greek sense.  In ancient Greece, a member of one family would break a piece of pottery into two halves, keeping one half and giving the second to the member of the other family.  The pieces were then handed down through the various generations of each respective family.  If a member of one family (born at a later date) presented his half of the broken piece of pottery to a member of the other family, the pieces would be re-united, showing the prior accord of their families.  The pottery functioned not as a mere empty sign but actually effected what it symbolized.  Similarly, language and thought exhibit a unity prior to the various (extramental) utterances and dialogical encounters with others in which language gives us access to and enhances (already intelligible) reality.

Wachterhauser then turns to Plato’s Symposium and Aristophanes’ myth of how humans have to come in their present state to further elucidate the unity of thought and language, as well as the “achievement” of language—here emphasizing its creative function as employed by free, rational beings.  As Aristophones explains, originally humans were spherical and needed no “other” to complete them sexually or otherwise.  However, due to their arrogance they upset the gods who then divided them and turned their sexual organs outward (as we find humans in their present form).  Given this “fall” and division, humans now seek an “other” for completion, and here the emphasis is on sexual completion.   Just as the two halves of the lovers share a prior unity, so too do thought and language.  Yet, the new completion for which the lovers seek is not predetermined or predestined.  That is, a kind of achievement or work of sorts must occur.   Here the analogy turns to the work required for true hermeneutical engagement and transformation.  In order for the interpreter to be transformed by the alterity of the text, s/he cannot exhibit the characteristics of a false lover.  A false lover is not interested in what the other has to say; rather, s/he simply re-creates her/himself in the other.  By contrast, a true lover allows the other to speak, to call her/him into question and thus is open to the “event” of understanding which exhibits a “surprise” character.

Part II: An Introduction to Hans-Georg Gadamer

As mentioned in my opening post, Gadamer’s overall project in Truth and Method is plausibly Gadamer Painting by Dora Mittenzweiunderstood as an attempt to work out the notion of identity-and-difference as manifest in hermeneutical experience.   That is, on Gadamer’s view the “being” of texts (and works of art and music) exhibit a flexibility which allows for multiple, true interpretations, as different communities of inquiry approach the text with new questions.  Yet, these multiple, true and very diverse (yet non-contradictory) interpretations are of the very same text or work or art/music and thus exhibit an identity through time.  In this view, interpretation is not mere re-production but involves a productive aspect given the new questions and new “horizon fusings” that take place as various communities of inquiry engage the texts of the tradition over time.  Here Gadamer speaks in phenomenological language, using terms like “aspects” (=the multiple, true interpretations) and “things themselves” (=the subject matter of the text).

As I’ve suggested on numerous occasions, a helpful way to understand what Gadamer has in mind with his view of the expansive “being” of texts is to consider  a musical analogy .  In jazz, the performer works with a “lead sheet” (something akin to a text) which contains a given melody and harmonic progression.  Thus, there certain givens/structures to which the performer must submit.  However, various performers interpret the (very same) piece differently and bring out new aspects not seen—or rather heard—up to that point.  This is not to suggest a kind of hermeneutical anarchy, as the interpretation/performance must be recognizable by particular musical community/tradition as a valid instance of that particular piece.  Likewise, the performer cannot simply impose onto the piece whatever harmony s/he chooses.  To do so would be to produce an illegitimate interpretation, just as imputing any meaning onto a text would likewise not count as a valid interpretation.  Because the “being” of musical works (like texts and works of art) contain this built-in-flexibility, multiple, true interpretations are not only possible but to be expected. However, in order to count as valid, legitimate, true interpretations, they must exhibit continuity with the tradition in that each (to use Gadamer’s term) “aspect” manifests the thing itself in its presentation, though no two aspects are exactly the same.  This flexibility allows the tradition to grow and continue its influence through time, as the “being” of texts and works of art show themselves differently in different historical epochs, yet they retain continuity with the tradition. (Though some scholars have begun to explore the ways in which Gadamer’s work might be brought into conversion with the development of religious traditions, including Christianity, there is certainly room for additional work in this area.  Those working in biblical hermeneutics have, of course, already enjoyed the fruits of his labors).

Gadamer on Symbolon and the Zugehörigkeit of Language and Reality

Gadamer understands language as having an ability to enhance the intelligibility of reality and thus make the truth of things more evident. Wachterhauser offers a way into Gadamer’s claim by turning to the latter’s claim that language and reality belong together, as language has a symbolic function.  Here Gadamer has in view the Greek understanding of a symbol (symbolon) in which a simple object, such as a piece of pottery, was broken and one half was given to the host and the other kept by the guest.  As Wachterhauser explains, this symbol

was originally given as a gesture of friendship and hospitality between households that were able to visit each other only rarely.  […]  If on some date, far in the future, a descendant of the original recipient presented this token of friendship, it was acknowledged as a symbol of the accord and bond of hospitality linking both families over generations.  The key idea is that such a ‘symbol’ represents a prior accord and the presentation of the symbol functions not only as a sign of that accord but it actually functions to make that accord palpable and real.  In this sense, the symbol is not a mere symbol or a sign that has no essential effect on the reality it stands for.  In this case, the ‘symbol’ completes the pledge; it plays an integral role in fulfilling the promise once given.  What was not manifest—the bond of hospitality between households—becomes manifest with the presentation of the symbolon.  The ‘symbol’ actually has an effect on making the bond between households real (Beyond Being, 100).

Similarly, language has a symbolic function (in the sense indicated above) in that it makes manifest both the prior accord or unity of thought and language, and it affects reality by making reality more intelligible.  In short, language affects reality by bringing it into sharper focus and enhancing the already-existing intelligibility of the thing itself.  Watcherhauser builds upon Gadamer’s notion of symbolon via a discussion of Plato’s Symposium.  In Plato’s dialogue, Aristophanes gives a mythological account of how humans how come to be in their present “incomplete” form.  Originally, humans were spherical and whole in themselves, needing no other to complete them sexually or otherwise.  However, their self-sufficiency soon turned into pride that led to their downfall.  As punishment for their arrogance and autonomy-gone-astray, the gods cut them in half and turned their sexual organs outward (in their present form) so that they would seek their completion in an other.  Connecting this myth to Gadamer’s understanding of the belongingness of language, thought and reality, Wachterhauser writes,

The relevance of this myth for language is that in Gadamer’s terms language stands to reality like these two lovers stand to each other.  Language belongs so closely to intelligible reality that although it is never synonymous with intelligible reality it is capable of ‘completing’ it in a sense by enhancing its intelligibility.  Understanding is never merely a receptive act in which the intelligible form is, as it were, poured into us from without, but also always an achievement of language.  Reality and language ‘belong together,’ like two lovers each of whom is essential to the other.  This ‘belonging together’ that lovers experience is never simply experienced as ‘fate,’ as if it were preordained that they find each other and ‘complete’ each other.  Such a ‘belonging together’ of lovers is also an achievement and a work of the lovers themselves.  I say “also an achievement” because it is never solely their achievement.  Love between two people cannot be forced; it depends on a prior disposition of each person, which allows them to ‘fit together.’  But love also does not succeed automatically; such ‘elective affinities’ require work and always remain, in part, a genuine achievement of the persons involved with each other (Beyond Being, 101).

Just as the two lovers must have a prior compatibility, so too must language and reality have this prior unity so that they might contribute to the other’s good rather than do violence to the other.  In other words, just as a false lover by re-creating himself in the other is not really interested in what he can learn from the other, and how he might be transformed by the truth of the other, so too linguist theories that deny the intelligibility of reality in itself simply re-double the interpreter and leave no room for genuine reciprocity.  Yet, as mentioned previously, on Gadamer’s view, language does not merely reflect reality, it also has a productive role which allows new insights to emerge.  For example, when Richie Beirach (an amazing jazz pianist) plays Chopin’s Prelude Op. 28, No. 20 in C Minor, his performance is not identical to Chopin’s—it’s not a re-production or a mere repetition (as if such were possible).  Beirach’s version adds something new to Chopin’s piece; yet, this something new in no way destroys the identity of the work, as anyone listening and familiar with the piece immediately recognizes it as Chopin’s Prelude Op. 28, No. 20 in C Minor.

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).

Gadamer on Language and Being

Gadamer’s claim, “being that can be understood is language,” (Truth and Method, 474) has been widely misunderstood, earning him the label of linguistic constructivist and placing him in the ranks of worthy anti-metaphysics of presence philosophers.  However, as Brice Wachterhauser, Joel Weinsheimer, Robert Sokolowski and Charles Taylor have argued, Gadamer is neither a linguistic constructivist who repudiates the metaphysical tradtion in toto nor a tradition-loving dogmatist (contra Habermas).  According to Gadamer, language does not create the intelligibility of reality.  Reality is itself intelligible; however, language functions as a kind of lens that makes reality more intelligible to us.  That is, just as the lenses of my glasses bring things into sharper focus, allowing me to see details to which I otherwise would have limited or no access, so too language brings reality into sharper focus but in no way is it the sole source of reality’s intelligibility.  On the one hand, in a “behind the scenes” kind of way, thought is mediated by language—particular languages such as Russian, German, French, etc.—all of which are both disclosing and limiting.  On the other hand, reality is mediated by language which enhances the intelligibility of the former.  Language opens up a world to us–a distinctively human world.  That is, as humans we have a world (in Heideggerian-inspired sense) because we have language, which is not to claim that language creates ex nihilo the intelligibility of reality.  Since, according to Gadamer, extramental reality has its own intelligibility which is compatible with language and in which language “participates,”  his view falls within the realist camp.  Yet, his realism has passed through both Hegel and Heidegger and having plundered their riches, he turns back to mine the Greek and Christian metaphysical traditions (yes, I said, “metaphysical,” but metaphysical in a non-repetition, history-friendly kind of way).Gadamer Painting

Language, for Gadamer is neither a tool to be used and discarded nor a stumbling block between us and reality, rather it is the medium through which reality comes into focus.  As Wachterhauser explains, “[f]ar from separating the intelligibility of the world from us, or substituting its own intelligibility, the thesis that ‘Being that can be understood is language’ roots language in the world and points instead to its integral connection with the things themselves” (Beyond Being:  Gadamer’s Post-Platonic Hermeneutical Ontology, 98).  One could even say that on Gadamer’s account language functions iconic-ly.  Language, when functioning properly, has, to use Watchterhauser’s words, a “self-effacing” quality. That is, it disappears and makes itself nothing in order to point to the subject matter or meaning itself; it allows the things themselves to become present while not drawing attention to itself.

By claiming that language enhances or brings reality into sharper focus, Gadamer is both embracing the idea of language as a mirror of reality (and he explicitly turns to the medieval, Christian thinkers here) and yet he goes beyond and adds to this metaphor.  That is, language does not simply reflect the intelligibility of reality but actually contributes to it.  Of course, such contributions can be negative and distorting; yet, they can also be positive and expansive, opening up new insights and ways of seeing the (very same) realities or texts we happen to be studying.  Here one can think of the many insights that have come to light through various interpretations of Holy Scripture, Plato’s dialogues, Augustine’s Confessions and any other text or work of art that has had lasting value.  As each interpreter, who is of course always already situated in an interpretative tradition, comes to the text, she comes with questions and concerns that relate to her own cultural context.  These questions in addition to her own preconceptions or prejudices (Vorurteilen) make up her horizon, which then fuses with the horizon of the text in the ongoing act of interpretation.  Though, as I mentioned, distortions of the text can and do occur, it is clear that this negative result is not the inevitable outcome of horizon-fusing over time.  Rather, as each age/interpreter comes to the text with different questions and concerns, the fusion of the two horizons allow the text to take on new life and to continue to speak as a true dialogue partner—a dialogue partner who can question me and my horizon, thus functioning as a potential catalyst for my own transformation.