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).

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).

Hearing Anew

In a section discussing the ever-so subjective topic of music “restoration,” in which among other preferences, one might focus more on the letter of the piece or on the spirit in trying to re-capture the more “authentic” Bach, Beethoven, or Chopin, Bruce Ellis Benson, writes,

“Following Hegel, Gadamer argues that an essential ingredient in having a genuine experience (Erfahrung) is the element of surprise: it is precisely when we do not expect something that it affects us the most, which means genuine experiences have the character of a reversal. As such, they cannot be repeated again and again. This reversal is precisely what early music performances[1] accomplish. They force us to listen, and it is in the act of truly listening that we have a genuine experience in which we make contact with what we hear. But, since a genuine experience is surprising and shocking, we cannot continue to experience a piece by having it performed repeatedly in the same way. It needs to be changed, not merely so that we can hear it anew but so that we can hear it at all” (The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 118).

[1] In brief, a movement that tries to recapture the “real” experience of, say, a Bach fugue by (as one example) not using modern pianos, and opting for instruments that were likely used (when possible) during the composer’s day. In so doing, promoters of this movement no doubt have their own assumptions and subjective inclinations as to what a more “authentic” performance is. This notwithstanding, hearing a piece played on a harpsichord that we are accustomed to hear played on a modern Steinway can cause one to listen anew, and thus, experience the same piece differently.