Per Caritatem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

[6] Ibid., 213.

[7] Ibid., 211.

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


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

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

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

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

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


[1] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 122.

[2] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 140.

[3] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 138.

[4] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 139.

[5] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 140.

[6] Ibid., 140.

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


Gadamer, of course, is not the first thinker to highlight play as basic to human experience. Johan Huizinga in his famous work, Homo Ludens, attempts to show how play permeates all aspects of culture: art, politics, religion, and even warfare.[1] Nietzsche, Hegel, and Heidegger also have much to say about play, art, and the significant of both to human life. Like Huizinga, Gadamer too understands play as fundamental to human experience and believes that a phenomenological examination of its structure will yield important insights into the nature of art as such and will thus likewise provide a way to better understand contemporary art and its relation to classical art. One key aspect of play is the back and forth of repeated movement. We observe this movement frequently in children’s games, such as when two children toss or bounce a ball back and forth. Here the movement to and fro is not coordinated for some further aim or goal. In contrast, the movement of my arm up and down when hammering a nail has the particular goal of bringing forth a bookshelf.Kasimir Malevich "Composition with the Mona Lisa"

In addition, the movement involves a certain flexibility and freedom, which Gadamer links to Aristotle’s discussion of self-movement. That is, for Aristotle self-movement is an essential characteristic of living beings. Extending Aristotle’s thoughts to the concept of play, Gadamer states that play as form of self-movement “does not pursue any particular end or purpose so much as movement as movement, exhibiting so to speak a phenomenon of excess, of living self-representation.”[2] Our play is a self-manifestation beyond the “necessary” of our aliveness! Of course, we encounter such playful, non-purposive movement in the animal world, whether in the to and fro flight patterns of butterflies or the back and forth playfulness of young puppies. However, in Gadamer’s view, human play involves the distinctively human capacity of reason, “which allows us to set ourselves aims and pursue them consciously, and to outplay this capacity for purposive rationality.”[3] In other words, human play is marked by our ability to create and stipulate rules and order our movements such that they are invested with our self-imposed aims and goals. For example, a child may challenge himself to see how many times in a row he can juggle three balls in a certain pattern before one falls to the ground. When the child beats his own record, he is pleased with himself; when he falls short of his own “top score,” he is disappointed and often repeats the activity until he is satisfied with his performance.

Gadamer further describes and clarifies the notion of nonpurposive rationality in human play as a form of self-representation.

The end pursued is certainly a nonpurposive activity, but this activity is itself intended. It is what the play intends. In this fashion we actually intend something with effort, ambition, and profound commitment. This is one step on the road to human communication; […] The function of the representation of play is ultimately to establish, not just any movement whatsoever, but rather the movement of play determined in a specific way. In the end, play is thus the self-representation of its own movement.[4]

But Gadamer is quick to add that his definition of the movement of play is not simply about self-representation or self-expression; play also involves a “playing along with” and thus a participation in the movement of play on the part of those observing. Whether this takes the form of a mother watching her children toss a ball back and forth or a baseball fan jumping out of his seat to see whether the batter’s hit cleared the outfield wall, there is genuine sense of “playing with” that occurs for those observing the game or playful activity. The audience member, in other words, is not a distanced spectator but an active participant, who takes part in the play of the game.

Of course, the play of art is more complex than the play of games; yet Gadamer sets the stage for connecting the two by highlighting an important common feature of play: “namely, the fact that something is intended as something, even if it is not something conceptual, useful, or purposive, but only the pure autonomous regulation of movement.”[5] Rather than conclude—as many aesthetic theorists and art critics have done—that in modern art what we have is a renunciation of the unity of the work, Gadamer affirms the work’s “hermeneutic identity,” which is an identity that necessarily involves difference and makes it possible for multiple variations of the work to be revealed over time. That is, for Gadamer, the being of a work of art is inseparable from its presentations, as the various presentations allow the identity of the work to come forth; it is part of the work’s being, as Gadamer says, “to be dependent on self-presentation.”[6] Thus, in every presentation of a work—even a distorted presentation—the identity of the work is not destroyed. In the case of a distorted work, we know it as the (malformed) structure of the work in view—even if we judge it a failed or poor presentation. Every presentation has a relation to the work’s structure and must “submit itself to the criterion of correctness that derives from it.”[7] Furthermore, even though the same work is repeated in each new presentation, the presentations are not a mere “copy” or strict reduplication of the so-called “original.” Here we have the phenomenon of repetition in presentation that, like the phenomenon of play, allows for flexibility and freedom that does not negate the work’s unity or identity but is instead an intrinsic feature of the work’s ontology.[8] The work comes to light, in other words, only in its presentations, performances, or interpretations.


[1] See, for example, Robert Anchor, “History and Play: Johan Huizinga and His Critics,” History and Theory 17 (1978): 63­–93.

[2] Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful, 23.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 24.

[6] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 122.

[7] Ibid., 122.

[8] See also, Donatella Di Cesare, Gadamer: A Philosophical Portrait, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013, esp. 59­–60. As Di Cesare explains, “[a]ny new identity that comes to light is an identity that forms itself only in difference. Thus difference becomes indispensable for identity” (60).


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.