Gadamer’s Alternative Concept of Meaning

In an excellent introductory essay to Gadamer’s work, Philosophical Hermeneutics, David Linge discusses the ways in which Gadamer’s phenomenology of the game overcomes a number of hermeneutical difficulties. For example, instead of attempting to explicate understanding from the subjective points of view of the author or interpreter, Gadamer describes understanding as analogous to what occurs in the phenomenon of playing. In a game, the individual in a sense loses him/herself in the give and take of the game and experiences a release from subjectivity. As Linge explains, “what is essential to the phenomenon of play is not so much the particular goal it involves but the dynamic back-and-forth movement in which the players are caught up—the movement that itself specifies how the goal will be reached. Thus the game has its own place or space (its Spielraum), and its movement and aims are cut off from direct involvement in the world stretching beyond it” (xxiii).

Gadamer utilizes this “self-presenting, self-renewing” game structure to engage some of the most difficult and important issues in hermeneutics, viz., “the problem of meaning and of the fidelity of interpretation to the meaning of the text” (xxiii). For Gadamer, the meaning of a text is not simply restricted to the intention of the author, nor is interpretation solely construed as an attempt to replicate the author’s original intention. This reflects in part Gadamer’s understanding of the text itself as something living and dynamic. Moreover, the text cannot be approached as if it were a math problem in which one and only one answer is correct. Nor should one attempt to come up with a method or formula that when applied produces the same result each time—such a model has more in common with scientific experiments than with a living, breathing textual dialogue. In addition, a hermeneutical theory that restricts the meaning of the text to the intention of the author is riddled with seemingly insoluble difficulties. “The basic difficulty with this theory is that it subjectifies both meaning and understanding, thus rendering unintelligible the development of tradition that transmits the text or art work to us and influences our reception of it in the present. When meaning is located exclusively in the mens auctoris, understanding becomes a transaction between the creative consciousness of the author and the purely reproductive consciousness of the interpreter. The inadequacy of this theory to deal positively with history is perhaps best seen in its inability to explain the host of competing interpretations of texts with which history is replete, and that in fact constitute the substance of tradition” (xxiv). Some try to explain away the multiplicity of interpretations by claiming that there is a kind “meaning-in-itself” which is univocal, yet its significance for interpreters over time varies. This, however, is unsatisfactory as it is clear that interpreters in different historical epochs have disagreed not merely in the significance or application of the supposed univocal meaning of a text but in what they thought they saw in the very same text (xxiv). Rather, than limiting the meaning of a text to the author’s intention, Gadamer understand the text as having an “excess of meaning” upon which tradition builds. Elucidating his position, Gadamer writes,

“Every time will have to understand a text handed down to it in its own way, for it is subject to the whole of the tradition in which it has a material interest and in which it seeks to understand itself. The real meaning of a text as it addresses the interpreter does not just depend on the occasional factors which characterize the author and his original public. For it is also always co-determined by the historical situation of the interpreter and thus by the whole of the objective course of history … The meaning of a text surpasses its author not occasionally, but always. Thus understanding is not a reproductive procedure, but rather always also a productive one… It suffices to say that one understands differently when one understands at all (Wahrheit und Methode, p. 280).

Listening for Built-in-Flexibility as a Hermeneutical Disposition

Below is an excerpt from the recent paper that I presented at Baylor. I would be interested in your feedback (positive and negative)—specifically, I would love to hear ideas as to how what I suggest might be brought into conversation with the hermeneutical insights of Gadamer [whom I have just begun to read this week and am thoroughly enjoying] (or others who have done work in philosophical hermeneutics). Any suggestions regarding primary literature on Gadamer other than Truth and Method and Philosophical Hermeneutics, as well as secondary literature on Gadamer would be appreciated as well.


I offer the following analogy as a way to explore the possibilities that jazz might offer as to how we as Christians read the “text” of creation, as well as the text of Scripture. The analogy runs as follows. First, God’s revelation, both natural and supernatural, might be understood to play a similar role to what jazz musicians call “lead sheets.” Second, our various and multi-layered understandings of this revelation would then be similar to the different ways that jazz works can be performed and interpreted. Before proceeding further, let me explain what a jazz “lead sheet” is by way of comparison to a classical score. A jazz lead sheet is similar to a notated score for a classical piece; however, only the melody is written out in standard musical notation. In other words, in contrast to the classical score in which the bass line, the chords, and more or less every note that will be played is written out in full notation, a lead sheet allows for much more flexibility. For example, above the melody one simply finds chord symbols, as opposed to chords displayed in standard notation with specific voicings. Writing the chord symbols in this manner affords the pianist or guitarist, as well as the bassist, a significant amount of creative freedom in performing the piece. However, we should be clear that this freedom does not swallow up the form or structure, as one must choose harmonies and bass lines that fall within a certain trajectory of the specified chord symbol that will support the melody and mark out the general harmonic structure of the piece. Thus, with a jazz lead sheet, one is in a sense “tied to” the “score,” i.e., one must agree to submit to the “givens” that make the piece to be what it is and respond accordingly.[1] Yet, in other sense, one’s own personality, skill level, and creative sensibilities also come through making each performance something unique. One might even say that the flexibility that lead sheets afford, coupled with the distinctly human traits and personal idiosyncrasies that manifest in improvisation, in a sense engenders greater intelligibility and appeal to the piece itself. That is, the built-in flexibility of lead sheets aids in preserving the piece through the passage of time while simultaneously allowing and even expecting various re-articulations because it “has room for” the creative expansions that inevitably come with temporal progression.

Keeping with Christianity’s desire to uphold the traditional doctrines of God’s incomprehensibility and yet knowability in light of his condescending to reveal himself to us, perhaps our understanding of the created order given the ultimate “Signified” to which both the created order and Scripture point, indicates that our approach to understanding and interpreting these signs should not be a quest to attain the closest “copy” of the original archetype as God knows and understands it. After all, how could we as creatures know creation or Scripture as God knows them? Instead of trodding down the path of univocity, a more fruitful way to conceive our role as interpreters may be to think of ourselves more like jazz improvisers. That is, as those who are called to creatively re-interpret God’s various “lead sheets,” which themselves were never meant to produce a one-to-one, univocal meaning for us but rather a multi-layered analogico-symbolic meaning that reflects the inexhaustible nature of the Author.

Anticipating possible objections, viz., does this not lead to relativism and render the text more or less superfluous? On the contrary, just as in no way is it the case that when a jazz piece is performed and interpreted by various musicians from different time periods, a kind of free-for-all takes place in which the “original” melody is somehow destroyed, neither would it be the case that our interpretations have no strictures whatsoever and no relation to God’s archetypal ideas. Though it is the case, that each jazz performance is distinctive,[2] there is a common, yet dynamic range that “grounds” each performance such that the melody is recognizable when played in a wide range of styles (from traditional to more “out” styles). If one simply ignored the melody and harmonic structure or distorted either such that they become completely unrecognizable, then clearly one has “gone astray.” Certainly, I am not suggesting that, but I am wondering whether the analogy might help us to conceive anew a more dynamic and historically “friendly” approach to interpreting and understanding creation, as well Scripture.

Regarding the latter, a reading of the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament indicates that both Jesus and the Apostle Paul were quite comfortable citing Greek translations of the Old Testament and in no way felt compelled to quote a pristine original. Here we might interject that perhaps the drive to get back to a “pure” and “untainted” text is connected with deeply modernist expectations and assumptions regarding history, the belief that diversity of text types are somehow inherently bad, and that moving closer to the original will necessarily bring greater clarity.[3] Rather than discuss each of these in detail, for brevity’s sake, I simply point out that with translations, of course, we do not have one-to-one exact replicas of the original; however, this does not mean that God’s word fails to be communicated. After all, translations such as the Septuagint(s) and others harmonize well with the mission of the Church to make disciples of all nations. Just as Christ came and incarnated Himself to save His people, so too the written word of God is incarnated via translations so as to be intelligible to numerous peoples of diverse languages and cultures. Becoming incarnate of course involves complications, inconveniences, ambiguities and various other distinctively human challenges, yet our Lord so valued humanity that He willingly took on flesh and not simply for His time on earth, but for eternity. In light of our Lord’s, as well as St. Paul’s contentment with what we might provocatively call “imperfect” yet incarnational translations, perhaps such examples teach us something of God’s comfort with the “messiness” of an historical revelation as well as pressing us to continually question and submit our expectations and presuppositions as to the nature of Scripture to Scripture itself.

In other words, what I suggest is that in jazz improvisation instead of seeking to replicate a piece in a univocal fashion, producing in a sense a “zerox” copy of the original within strict (literal) confines of the (human) author’s intention, we should instead become like jazz improvisers who creatively re-interpret the original melody such that it is clearly recognizable, yet it speaks to the culture of the day. Moreover, allowing for multi-layered, symbolic, re-creative interpretations that arise out of the Christian metanarrative of creation, fall, redemption in Christ, and final consummation in Christ, is yet another expression of a harmonious unity-and-diversity bringing forth a dynamically rich display of the infinitely diverse ways in which God can be imitated, participated and hence worshipped.

[1] The communal aspect of jazz performance is an important factor here as well. For example, if the pianist simply decides to play chords that have no relation whatsoever to the chord symbols, the rest of the group or ensemble will be affected (not to mention thoroughly frustrated) as their parts will not correlate at all with the random harmonic superimposition on the part of the pianist.
[2] One might argue that even with classical music where all the parts are strictly defined and written out, the same piece played by the same group or musician is strictly speaking never played the same way twice.
[3] On the contrary, what if moving closer to the original actually moves one more deeply into the realm of mystery and thus requires in a sense more “graced” faith (at least in this life)?

Part II: Benson on The Voice of the Other

Wanting to avoid a “logic of reciprocity” [echoing Levinas] in which a dialogue turns into a monologue, as when one party sets the terms of reciprocity, Benson turns to Gadamer in order to begin mapping out what a healthy dialogue might look like. According to Gadamer, “good will” toward the other, as opposed to “proving that you are right,” is crucial. Likewise, reciprocity begins “at home,” and involves vulnerability. “True reciprocity is only possible if I make the first move—without knowing that the other will reciprocate” (The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 168). Once this “move” is made, then what? Here Gadamer introduces the metaphor of a “fusion of horizons” (Horizontverschmelzung) to help explicate this relationship with the other. In terms of successful musical dialogue, we might say that “communication takes place when the ‘horizon’ (or perspective) of the listener ‘fuses’ (or, perhaps better, ‘connects’) with that of the performer, composer, and tradition. The score and/or composer has one sort of horizon (temporally, culturally, musically, and perhaps otherwise) and performers and listeners have yet other horizons. The goal, then, is a ‘fusion’ of these horizons to enable a genuine dialogue” (p. 168). However, the downside of this metaphor is that perhaps in the fusing of these horizons, “the ‘otherness’ of the other is lost,” and we are back to one voice (p. 169). Though it is the case, e.g., that in an orchestra the many voices must blend into one voice, we still desire a situation in which the individual voices or instruments retain their individuality. As Benson noted in a previous chapter, “it is all too easy to impose our own horizon and then proclaim it as the ‘authentic’ horizon of the past. To be honest, performers always face this reality. The goal of the composer, performer, and listener seeking a genuine dialogue, then, is both to be aware of this danger and to be creative in allowing each party to have a real voice” (p. 169). Yet, we might also point out that perhaps our situation is not as bad as it seems. After all “since my horizon is never truly ‘mine’ (given that I am part of a culture—both musically and in general—that I do not possess and cannot control), then ‘my’ horizon is always a shared horizon and is always affected by otherness” (p. 169).

If a true fusing of horizons takes place between the composer, the work, and the performer (as well as the audience), then in what sense is composer’s voice still heard? As Benson astutely observes, “music has no existence apart from the voices of the conversation” (p. 170). Though it has been common in the classical music tradition following the Werktrue model to attempt to let the music “speak for itself,” this is in reality impossible. The composer must allow the performer to be his/her representative, thus interpretation of the work by the performer (who is also part of a musical tradition) is inevitable. “A text can only mean by way of the act of interpretation and a score can only sound through a performance. […] But that in no way means that the interpreter simply (as Gadamer puts it in a later text) ‘disappears—and the text speaks.’ For, in speaking on behalf of the composer (and the musical tradition), the performer does not simply disappear” (p. 170). Here Benson introduces an interesting analogy to help us think through how we should understand the relationship between composer, work, and performer. Just as stringed instruments are tuned on the basis of tension, “so the relationship of musical partners depends on tension to be maintained. On the one hand, as composer or performer or listener I open myself to the other when I feel the pull of the other that demands my respect. On the other hand, my openness to the other cannot be simply a complete giving in to the other, for then I am no longer myself and am instead simply absorbed by the other. Thus, a dialogue can only be maintained if there is a pull exerted by both sides. The danger for genuine dialogue, then, is not the presence of tension but its loss or imbalance. A dialogue is only possible when each partner both holds the others in tension—that is, holds the other accountable—and feels the tension of accountability exerted by the other. As strange as that may sound, these ‘tensions’ actually make the ‘freedom’ of dialogue possible. Why that sounds strange is because we usually think of freedom as ‘negative freedom’—freedom from constraints. But what I have in mind here is ‘positive freedom’—freedom for genuine dialogue. Of course, in order to ‘feel that pull,’ one needs to be able to listen to the other” (pp. 170-171).

Performers and Composers as Co-creators

Bruce Ellis Benson in his book, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, argues that instead of choosing between Werktreu[1] or a kind of musical anarchy, we should look to the past where we find a way of conceiving music composition as an event in which the composer and performer become “co-creators.” Using Gadamar as a way to help us to begin thinking about models of music composition, Ellis writes, “Gadamer claims that an ideal dialogue has what he calls the ‘logical structure of openness.’ I think there are at least two aspects to this ‘openness.’ First, the conversation often brings something into the open: it sheds new light on what is being discussed and allows us to think about it (or, in this case, hear it) in a new way. Second, the dialogue is itself open, since it (to quote Gadamer) is in a ‘state of indeterminacy.’ In order for a genuine dialogue to take place, the outcome cannot be settled in advance. Without at least some ‘loose-play’ or uncertainty, true conversation is impossible” (p. 15). As Benson notes, Gadamar of course realizes that this is the “ideal” for conversations and that they do not always flesh out in this manner. Likewise, in stressing “openness,” Gadamer is not suggesting that dialogues are without rules. Rather, “the rules are what allow the conversation to take place at all. In effect, they open up a kind of space in which dialogue can be conducted” (p. 15). Though rules are essential for a dialogue to occur, they can be overly restrictive or more on the “open” and “flexible” side and “are themselves open to continuing modification” (p. 15). Though today we tend to think of classical music as not particularly open, Benson shows that historically this view is relatively new and in fact is only one way, not the way to view composition. For example, in the 1800s there were two characteristic ways of conceiving composition and these were exemplified by Beethoven and Rossini. Though no doubt these composers represent two different styles of music, the deeper significance lies in the differing ways that they understand the nature of musical compositions, the role of the performance in expressing them, and the relation between the artist and the community (p. 16). As Benson explains, “Beethoven saw his symphonies as ‘inviolable musical “texts” whose meaning is to be deciphered with ‘exegetical’ interpretations; a Rossini score, on the other hand, is a mere recipe for a performance’ (Carl Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, p. 9 [Benson, p. 16]. In other words, Beethoven’s view is the more recent, innovative view that has come to characterize how we think of classical music as Werktreu, whereas Rossini’s conception was significantly more flexible, allowing the performer to participate in the creative process. Moreover, for Rossini, “it was not the work that was given precedence; rather, the work (and thus the composer) was in effect a partner in dialogue with performers and listeners” (Ibid., pp. 16-17).

A number of interesting parallels might be drawn in relation to Biblical hermeneutics.

[1] A rather strict faithfulness first to the work and second to the composer.

Allowing the Diversity of Texts to Speak

In his fascinating book, Understanding Scholastic Thought With Foucault, Philipp W. Rosemann illustrates how even the “letter,” i.e. the textual base in medieval studies, is affected by paradigm changes. As Rosemann explains, the German philologist, Karl Lachmann, pioneered an editorial method that has by and large determined the form of ancient and medieval texts as found in contemporary editions. The goal of the Lachmannian method is to “eliminate all the mistakes that are inevitable in the transmission of handwritten texts as copies, and so on. What the Lachmannians are trying to do is establish families of shared mistakes in the manuscript tradition and thus, by identifying the genealogical order in this tradition of copies, return to the source” (p. 11). As Rosemann observes, the presuppositions behind this approach is that “what counts in the history of a text is just the original in its pure identity; the differentiation this textual identity necessarily undergoes is an history of errors that should be overcome” (p. 11). Interestingly, due to both practical and theoretical reasons, contemporary editors have altered the Lachmannian method. On the practical side, the difficulties in trying to establish precise family groups of textual errors is virtually impossible, as the family types tend to negatively influence and corrupt one another. Theoretically speaking, “the Lachmannian method is founded upon a quest for lost origins, a quest that contemporary philosophy would denounce as being vain and imaginary. Why attempt to surmount the historical multiplicity of different readings of an original text, different readings that, after all, testify to the historical life of the original? What are the advantages of re-establishing the flawless identity of a text that, in its authentic form, may have remained totally insignificant?” (pp. 11-12). In contrast, contemporary editorial practices allow the diversity of texts to speak by producing editions that present us (in so far as it is possible) with the original text and the text’s historical development. That is, “they attempt at once to reconstruct the original identity of the text, and to preserve the difference of its historical expressions” (p. 12). Thus, in contrast with the goal of the Lachmannian approach, which tries to get back to the “pure: and “untainted” original, contemporary editorial practices view the diversity of the texts in a positive light, which supports Rosemann’s thesis that paradigm shifts affect even the “letter.”

Augustine On Interpreting Scripture: Always a "Plus" of Meaning

As Michael Hanby notes, in the Confessions, Augustine teaches that there is a “plenitude of true meanings for a single text” […] The ontological warrant that underlies this insistence throughout the Augustinian corpus derives, in part, from the very nature of truth’s oneness, which defies its circumscription or possession” (Augustine and Modernity, p. 34). For example, in Confessions XII, Augustine writes:

“Having listened to all these divergent opinions and weighed them, I do not wish to bandy words, for that serves no purpose except to ruin those who listen. The law is an excellent thing for building us up provided we use it lawfully, because its object is to promote the charity which springs from a pure heart, a good conscience and unfeigned faith, and I know what were the twin precepts on which our Master made the whole law and prophets depend. If I confess this with burning love, O my God, O secret light of my eyes, what does it matter to me that various interpretations of those words are proffered, as long as they are true? I repeat, what does it matter to me if what I think the author thought is different from what someone else thinks he thought? All of us, his readers, are doing our utmost to search out and understand the writer’s intention, and since we believe him to be truthful, we do not presume to interpret him as making any statement that we either know or suppose to be false. Provided, therefore, that each person tries to ascertain in the holy scriptures the meaning the author intended, what harm is there if a reader holds an opinion which you, the light of all truthful minds, show to be true, even though it is not what was intended by the author, who himself meant something true, but not exactly that?” (Augustine’s Confess. XII.27, pp. 327-328, M. Boulding translation).

Maria Boulding (the translator) adds the following note in regard to the passage above, “Augustine’s recognition that meanings other than those intended by the writer can legitimately be discovered in the sacred text is grounded in his conviction that the God of truth who inspired the writer and guarantees the text abides in the minds of believing readers, and that though God makes use of human words, they are never adequate to fully express his mystery; there is always a ‘plus’ of meaning” (p. 323, note 71).

We definitely have something more than gramatico-historical hermeneutics in place here. (Anachronistically speaking, our apologies to Spinoza and company).