Book Plug: Unfinished Worlds: Hermeneutics, Aesthetics, and Gadamer by Nicholas Davey

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.]