“Hearing the Other’s Voice” in Otherness, Essays and Studies 4.1

For those interested, a revised version of my formerly (unpublished) essay on Gadamer has now been published in the open access journal, Otherness, Essays and Studies.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.

Part IV: Toward an Archaeologico-Hermeneutical Fusion

Like Foucault, Gadamer has developed his philosophy in critical conversation with the Western philosophical tradition. Among the many significant dialogue partners Gadamer has engaged, Plato stands out as one having captured Gadamer’s attention in a special way. For example, with respect to his corpus as a whole, Gadamer’s writings on Plato outnumber his writings on any other thinker in the tradition. Although his interpretations of Plato are controversial in some scholarly circles, his discussions of the later Plato have earned him respect among political philosophers and classicists alike. Below I provide a sketch of one aspect of Gadamer’s interpretation of Plato’s theory of the forms. Then I highlight certain overlaps between Gadamer’s view of mutable forms and Foucault’s notion of historical a prioris and argue for an archaeologico-hermeneutical fusion, using a few musical analogies along the way.Archeaological Dig

Gadamer approaches Plato’s corpus by first looking at his later works (for example, the Parmenides, Sophist, Statesman, and so forth) and then reading these as the fulfillments of what was presented in shadow-form in his early and middle dialogues. Not only does Gadamer find a great deal of continuity in Plato’s oeuvre, but his interpretation of a non-dualistic theory of the forms or ideas likewise makes Gadamer’s Plato resemble Aristotle in significant ways.  The ideas are not, according to Gadamer, the central focus of Plato’s philosophy.  Rather, the theory of forms or ideas is a presupposition Plato believes is required in our strivings for truth, understanding, and living well.  In a sense, the ideas or forms function in a way similar to Kant’s regulative ideas—as ideals toward which we must aim but never quite attain. However, as Brice R. Wachterhauser explains, Gadamer’s view goes beyond Kant’s regulative ideas and involves a metaphysical “thickness.” Gadamer holds that Platonic ideas “refer to the most basic structures or patterns of intelligible meaning that lend reality whatever intelligibility it has.”[1] In addition, he claims—both as an interpretation of Plato and as his own view—that we share a common world, although we no doubt interpret, decipher, linguistically approach, experience, and navigate that world differently and often in opposing and conflicting ways.

In short, Gadamer’s Plato is more like Aristotle in that both place the forms or metaphysical structures of things squarely in this world and not in some Platonic other-worldly world. These structures are logically distinct and can be distinguished mentally; however, they exist as an “a web of ideal relations, which are internally connected to each other in inseparable ways and at many different levels.”[2] Consequently, the ideas implicate one another and come as a “unified package”; for example, questions of justice will lead to questions of the good, truth, virtue, and so on. In order to attain a proper understanding of one notion, we must enter into the web as a whole.  However, our finitude, which as we have seen Gadamer wholeheartedly embraces, makes it such that we can only grasp (and partially at that), one strand or node at a time. We simply cannot know the web of ideas in its totality and all at once. To claim that we can is to claim that we know, as medieval thinkers put it, as God knows, namely, in uno intuitu. Moreover, when we focus on one strand or section of the web, we necessarily suppress or choose not to focus upon the other strands. Here Gadamer employs Heidegger’s notion of aletheia or truth as characterized by a dialectical movement between concealment and unconcealment.

If we connect Gadamer’s Platonic web of ideas and his more Aristotelian Plato, we can begin to see how a kind of movement (for us) in the structures or forms is possible.  Aristotle, of course, via his act/potency distinction was able to account for a teleological movement in plants, animals, humans and so forth.  According to Gadamer, Plato presented this same movement albeit mythically and literarily in his dialogues. Since the things of the world are themselves in motion given their movement from potency to act, could it be that metaphysical structures themselves are to some degree dynamic rather than rigidly static?  This is not to suggest a dynamism with no boundaries; instead, the notion is more of a structure that can flex, show itself differently in different historical periods, and yet retain a basic identity. In other words, if reality itself is constituted by a complex set of interconnected metaphysical structures capable of manifesting a flexible-multifaceted identity, then we ought to expect a multiplicity of subject constructions and textual interpretations across historical epochs (or in Foucauldian terms, across epistemai).

Wachterhauser refers to this flexible ontology as Gadamer’s “ontological perspectivism,” which claims that both things and texts “contain within themselves different ‘faces’ or ‘looks’ that present themselves in different historically mediated contexts in such a way that we can say that it is possible for one and the same reality to show itself in many ways.”[3] This brings us to what Gadamer sees as the crux of Plato’s philosophy—the relation of the one and the many. Gadamer states this explicitly in his essay, “Dialectic and Sophism in Plato’s Seventh Letter,”

[t]he assumption that there are ideas remains for Plato an inescapable conclusion to be drawn from the nature of discussion and the process of reaching an understanding of something. […] Far from being Plato’s philosophy itself, the assumption occasions his real philosophical endeavor.  As the Parmenides shows, a single idea by itself is not knowable at all, and here is the source of error which the young Socrates makes. In any insight an entire nexus or web of ideas is involved.[4]

Because each idea—justice, reason, virtue, and so forth—has its own distinct contours or unity (its oneness) and yet simultaneously is multiple as a result of its interrelation to other nodes in the web such as truth, equity, and decency, the notion of grasping an idea in isolation is a fiction. Thus, whenever we encounter the one, we also encounter the many, and with the presence of the (unveiled but in no way fully transparent) one there is also present even if absent the (hidden) many.[5]

Much more could be said with respect to Gadamer’s interpretation of Plato; however, from what I have sketched above, it is clear that the former’s recognition of our finitude, historical embeddedness, and epistemological limitations, in conjunction with his understanding of the metaphysical structures of reality as dynamic, function in a sense as correlates to his dialogical hermeneutics. That is, given our knowledge constraints and the dynamic-range built in to the ontology of things, subjects, texts, and works of art, we ought to expect multiple interpretations saturated with polysemous meanings— meanings whose flexible identity make possible a surplus of new meanings through interaction with diverse dialogue partners.

At this point, I want to turn to Foucault and his account of epistemai and historical a prioris.  For Foucault, each epistemai or distinct historical epoch has its own peculiar set of historically-formed and hence contingent conditioning principles, that is, his “historical a prioris.” These conditioning structures are dynamic, as are Gadamer’s structures; however, the former are dynamic in a much stronger sense than the latter. To be clear, I am in no way suggesting that Foucault’s historical a prioris are equivalent to Gadamer’s structures; however, given the shared interests of the two thinkers, a successful synthesis or fusion of their accounts would, I contend, produce a compelling philosophy yielding significant socio-political import.

Foucault’s conditioning rules are contingently formed rules or requirements stipulating what can appear as objects of knowledge, valid practices, and so forth. By contrast, Gadamer’s metaphysical structures are similar to Aristotlean forms;[6] however, Gadamer’s Platonic version of these forms allow for a kind of limited movement because the forms themselves are structured to allow the things they in-form to have diverse manifestations and appearances as they develop.  In addition, forms are not isolated but are part of a larger interconnected web, which, for finite historical beings like ourselves, cannot be known exhaustively or all at once. We know some aspects of some things discursively, and the movement and ongoing change in the things and in ourselves ought to compel us to a more humble epistemological ethos.

These differences notwithstanding, Gadamer’s web of ideas, particularly, his notion of transcendental ideas, play a more fundamental yet similar role to Foucault’s historical a prioris, which make possible the appearance and intelligibility of objects. As Wachterhauser explains, Gadamer distinguishes ontological differences among the ideas. That is, he recognizes ideas functioning like genera and species and those functioning as transcendentals. The latter, which, in Gadamer’s formulation, include being and non-being, one and many, identity and difference, goodness, truth, beauty, and even motion and rest, cut across or transcend the categories of genera and species. The transcendentals make it possible for identity, unity, differentiation, and the like to “show up” at all. Analogous to the way that vowels when properly combined with consonants allow us to recognize words as such, “the transcendental ‘elements’ of discourse make it possible for us to both group together things in terms of various unities and differentiate them by recognition of difference. In this sense, […] they make all speech possible.”[7]

Likewise, the transcendentals are syncategorematic, as they are always present with the other ideas. “Whenever we grasp a determinate something we have an understanding of its being, of what and how it is, as well as what it is not: we grasp it as a unity of properties and a ‘true’ instance of its kind” and similarly with the other transcendentals.[8] In addition, we do not know the transcendentals by way of genera or species, nor in some kind of direct vision; “rather, they are always already there whenever we become aware of our own thinking.”[9] They are grasped as present with or in combination with other ideas. Again, this is similar to the way that vowels are understood not in isolation but “in their function of combining letters.”[10] As simples or primitives always present in complexes, transcendentals are grasped intuitively and cannot be further divided (logically speaking). Lastly, to claim that we have an intuitive understanding of transcendentals is not to claim that we have complete transparent knowledge of them. Gadamer stresses this point with his recognition of the crucial role of non-being or negation in our thinking. As Wachterhauer explains, we come to understand something not only by what it is but by what it is not. Not only positive but negative predicates play a constitutive role in understanding whom or what a person or thing is. Because concepts, entities, and individuals stand in a complex interrelation with one another, they can be described from “nearly inexhaustible viewpoints.”[11] This complex interrelated net of relations into which all of reality is implicated gives rise to multiple perspectives and (legitimate) multiple and diverse meanings, whose accounts include both positive and negative descriptions of what things are and are not. Such an ontological vision is both hermeneutically rich and yet retains an epistemological humility, which both Gadamer and Foucault value.

Acknowledging these differences, might it be possible to harmonize Foucault’s episteme-specific conditioning principles and Gadamer’s metaphysical structures into a coherent and valuable socio-political philosophy furthering Foucault’s (and Gadamer’s for that matter) critical project? By incorporating Gadamer’s metaphysics and ontology into his account of epistemai and mutable historical a prioris, Foucault would have access to non-constructed shared structures, which because of their web-like interconnections and flexible boundaries, would be both amenable to his episteme-specific conditioning rules and would provide the present-yet-absent background “space” needed to fill the gaps between epistemai. In other words, these interconnected metaphysical structures, given their identity-range and ongoing concealment-unconcealment dialectic, would give Foucault a way to explain the transitional movements between epistemai and how elements from past epistemai can be taken up in subsequent historical periods, be reconfigured and yet still recognizable as echoes of something else, and come to play a completely different role in the new episteme. These common structural yet non-identical overlaps across epistemai, in which former discursive elements, concepts, and practices are reharmonized in a new episteme and inhabit an organization “place” along a continuum of central and peripheral roles, support and strengthen a view of epistemai with porous and permeable rather than rigidly fixed boundaries and internal rules.

Just as Foucault is reticent to speak of historical a prioris as metaphysical principles, he is also reticent to make explicit claims regarding transcultural structures or capacities possessed by all human beings—even though his account presupposes such structures. We have also seen that Foucault’s expansion of his methodology to an archaeology-plus-genealogy and his affirmation in later writings of our inability to step outside of the conditioning of our own episteme allow him to overcome deficiencies of his earlier formulations. Foucault’s methodological amendment and the accompanying implication that the archaeologist too is historically conditioned share family resemblances with Gadamer’s notion of our socio-cultural and linguistically shaped hermeneutical horizons. Because they both affirm the contingency of these socially-formed conditioning factors, neither thinker advocates a social determinism locking us into a particular horizon or prohibiting us access to other historical periods.

Like Foucault, Gadamer, as Taylor points out in his essay, presupposes some kind of common human nature or shared transhistorical metaphysical structures.[12] Unlike Foucault, Gadamer acknowledges and makes explicit his appropriations and reharmonizations of ancient metaphysics to support a historically-friendly view of shared human structures.  In light of the fact that Foucault’s notion of power relations, resistance possibilities, and his analyses of active subjects and self-transformative technologies presuppose common volitional and rational capacities among humans, he has much to gain from joining hands with Gadamer and making these metaphysical assumptions explicit. Given Foucault’s expanded archaeology and his affirmation of our finitude and interpretative constraints, my proposed archaeologico-hermeneutical fusion would, if my account is correct, allow him to retain his innovative insights and philosophical contributions in a fortified form. Not only would his account become more coherent, but the emancipatory aspects of his analyses would be redoubled and their viability amplified and available for application to current socio-political issues.


[1] Wachterhauser, Beyond Being, 66.

[2] Ibid., 67.  Wachterhauser adds that Plato himself employs the metaphor of a “woven fabric” in the Sophist, 260a (ibid.).

[3] Wachterhauser, Beyond Being, 7.

[4] Gadamer, “Dialectic and Sophism,” 119.

[5] See, for example, Gadamer, “Plato’s Unwritten Dialectic,” 136–37.

[6] Foucault, of course, in no way depicts the historical a prioris as metaphysical structures immanent in-forming the changing things of the world.

[7] Wachterhauser, Beyond Being, 85.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 86.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 87.

[12] See, Taylor, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” 140.

Part III: Toward an Archaeologico-Hermeneutical Fusion

In light of the kind of openness I have detailed in the previous two posts [part I, part II] with respect to Gadamer’s approach to texts, works of art, and coming to an understand with the other, I want to encourage contemporary thinkers to reconsider the fruitfulness of Gadamer’s historically-friendly hermeneutics. In particular, his notion of a fusion of horizons, his acknowledgment of our finitude and knowledge constraints, and his emphasis on our need to be always open to new ways of seeing the other have much to offer philosophers, theologians, cultural critics, as well as theorists of “race,” ethnicity, gender, and sexuality (and this list is by no means exhaustive).Archeaological Dig

Although, as Gadamer acknowledges, I can only go through my horizon to reach the other, I am neither imprisoned by my horizon nor must I imprison the other by forcing her to conform to my horizon. Because horizons are historically contingent, culturally constructed, they are always revisable so long as I am willing and receptive to such revisionary activity. As Taylor observes, “[t]he road to understanding others passes through the patient identification and undoing of those facets of our implicit understanding that distort the reality of the other.”[1] But in order for this to happen, I have take risks and allow the other to genuinely challenge me; I must be willing to be “interpellated by what is different in their lives.”[2] When this risk-taking is fruitful and I come to see the other by way of an expanded horizon, two related changes take place:  (1) I recognize that a facet of my former way of thinking is particular to me, my culture or group and is not a universalizable feature of the human condition as such; (2) I perceive the equivalent aspect of the other culture without forcing it to fit my preconceived grid of that in which the topic at hand should consist.[3]

Does this mean that I have arrived a flawless, bias-free interpretation in need of no further future revisions? Absolutely not. However, my understanding has been improved, and my horizon has been enriched or better “fused” as a result of listening to and being interpellated by the other’s horizon.  Undoubtedly, we will continually bump up against interpretative problems and places of, at least seeming if not actual, (partial) incommensurability; thus, there is always room for more horizon-fusing. “But we will have made a step toward a true understanding, and further progress along this road will consist of such painfully achieved particular steps.  There is no leap to a disengaged standpoint which can spare us this long march.”[4]

Thus far I have described the fusing of horizons as an expansion or enrichment of one’s former horizon. This is an accurate description; however, I want to offer a new descriptive metaphor, the improvisational attitude, to try and capture the permeability, as well as the semi-solid-(temporal)-stability characteristic of horizons. When a jazz small group—for example, a trio or a quartet—performs, each musician has an assigned part which contributes to the overall coherence of the group as a whole.  The drummer keeps the rhythm steady and solid. The bass player also has a key role in the rhythm section, working closely with the drummer and, in addition, providing the low-range contours of song’s harmony. The piano player fills in the harmonic details, providing a wide range of chordal textures and colorings, as well as harmonic extensions and superimpositions. The saxophonist interprets the melody, which, compared to the other parts, is what “connects” most easily with the audience.  When all of these parts come together well, a unified, not to mention aesthetically-pleasing whole results.  Each player does more than simply play his or her part as an atomized individual. Instead, the individual musicians must perform in a constant mode of attentive listening in order to play as a unified group.  If one player decides to stick rigidly to a rhythm pattern or a harmonic progression—both of which perhaps worked quite well the first and second times through the piece—while the other members have collectively developed new patterns, then the cohesion of the group is diminished.

Alternatively, the unity of the group is augmented when, for example, the saxophonist in a mode of attentive listening hears and responds to pianist’s altered, superimposed harmonies by adjusting her solo accordingly. That is, she does not simply continue to play melodic lines that fit the original, unaltered harmonic progression; instead, she changes her lines to harmonize with the pianist’s new chordal colorings. By listening carefully to the pianist (the other), the saxophonist does not continue with her previous, as it were, “way of understanding” the pianist’s horizon. Rather, she modifies her own horizon so that the pianist’s horizon is made intelligible and put in the best light. A genuine understanding has been achieved through a re-harmonization of horizons. The example speaks to the fluidity of horizons, but we should also recognize the ability of horizons to solidify through shared practices and customs. For example, the pianist’s harmonic superimposition may catch on and become a regular practice associated with a certain style of jazz. This temporary solidifying-ability in no way translates into a permanent immutability, and the same is true for horizons. Gadamer sums this up nicely,

“Just as the individual is never simply an individual because he is always in understanding with others, so too the closed horizon that is supposed to enclose a culture is an abstraction. The historical movement of human life consists in the fact that it is never absolutely bound to any one standpoint, and hence can never have a truly closed horizon. The horizon is, rather, something into which we move and that moves with us. Horizons change for a person who is moving. Thus the horizon of the past, out of which all human life lives and which exists in the form of tradition, is always in motion.”[5]

As contingently formed ways of seeing and engaging the world and others, horizons are neither closed nor are their boundaries opaque. Rather, they are mutable, porous, and capable of re-harmonization—that is, if one adopts an improvisational attitude and is willing to listen to and be changed by the other.

Another aspect of Gadamer’s hermeneutics that speaks against commonly held beliefs required for interpretative “objectivity” is his observation that our own pre-judgments and biases are made explicit in and through our hermeneutical struggles.  Our unreflective prejudices, in other words, often show up as such when they, recalling our musical example above, cannot be harmonized with the choral progressions (i.e., horizon) of the other. Stated slightly differently, we are not able hear our own assumptions and biases as dissonant until we risk “playing” them over the other’s harmony. So rather than abstract ourselves from the hermeneutical performance, we must remain engaged with prejudices, as it were, in full force. Rather than “disregard ourselves” as “historical objectivism” demands, we bring our pre-judgments to the hermeneutic table.[6] In so doing, we put our own prejudices and thus ourselves at risk. By allowing our prejudices “full play,” we are “able to experience the other’s claim to truth and make it possible for him to have full play himself.”[7]

Taylor’s essay also helps us to understand key aspects of Gadamer’s notion of a fusion of horizons. Though prior to the “fusion,” my horizon and that of the other are distinct ways of “understanding the human condition,” once the “fusion” occurs and “one (or both) undergo a shift; the horizon is extended so as to make room for the object that before did not fit within it.”[8] But as Taylor emphasizes, what has taken place is more than a mere extension of previous conceptual limits; it is better described as a “fusion” creating something new. For this reason, I have opted for the analogy of an improvisational attitude in which melodic lines and harmonies are constantly being re-harmonized in order to describe the act of ongoing horizon-fusing. It is not that the other’s melodic fragment or harmonic progression is completely foreign or unintelligible to me—otherwise, neither would show up as problems or puzzles.  Rather, they do not fit well within my present harmonic and melodic schema (i.e., my unchanged horizon). However, when a genuine fusion takes place, something has happened allowing me to, as Taylor puts it, “find a language” in which my understanding of the other has come about through an in-fusion of something of the other’s world in me. Mixing metaphors, my horizon has been reharmonized by the melodic lines of the other such that the other’s melody is heard undistortively in the new harmony. This is not to say that the other’s “melody” is heard exactly the same in my horizon as in her horizon. It is to say that the other’s voice has been preserved, neither muted nor silenced but continues to sound its melody within the new harmony.

On a related note, Taylor explains how Gadamer’s fusion of horizons avoids the “ethnocentric temptation.”[9] That is, because I attempt to interpret the other in the language we have created together (that is, my new horizon) rather than my prior un-fused language, I can avoid distorting the other by making him “intelligible” only if he passes through my Procrustean mold (my un-fused horizon). “[T]he problem is that the standing ethnocentric temptation is to make too quick sense of the stranger, i.e., sense in one’s own terms.”[10] An example of ethnocentric distortion would be to conclude that a people group with no written language and hence no written constitution must be, first of all, inferior intellectually to my group possessing both of the above, and, second, less able to transfer their traditions and to implement their laws. Here I have “made sense” of the other, but only by holding up my group’s practices as the standard. With this approach, whatever does not conform to my group’s way of doing things is a deviation. No fusion, expansion, or, using my metaphor, reharmonization of horizons has occurred. However, precisely what we need in order to avoid distorting the other, as Taylor puts it, is a “richer language,” a reharmonized horizon.[11]

As we move from our initial encounter wherein the other is strange and puzzling toward a fusion of horizons, we strive to locate “that facet of our lives that their strange customs interpellate, challenge, and offer a notional alternative to.”[12] To illustrate, Taylor gives an example of how a Gadamerian-reading of Aztec practices of human sacrifice might correspond to one’s own ritualistic practices such as the Catholic mass. Perhaps we will not be able to name what this common element between the two cultures is. We might be tempted to call it “religion,” as both practices involve a sacrifice of some sort and are ways of coming to terms with our common human condition.[13] However, here we must take care not to import unnecessary conceptual and other baggage from our horizon into the meaning of the term, lest we fall prey to the ethnocentric temptation. So we must “beware of labels”; yet, that the two sacrificial practices offer competing interpretations of some aspect “of the human condition for which we have no stable, culture-transcendent name, is a thought we cannot let go of, unless we want to relegate these people to the kind of unintelligibility that members of another species would have for us.”[14] Clearly, for Gadamer (and myself) the latter is not a viable option.

We have seen how our interpretation of the other’s practice and the other’s interpretation of her practice is not the same.  This is true even after a fusion of horizons has occurred because we both come to understand the practice under consideration through our original horizons, each of which involve different questions, struggles, cultural and institutional conditioning, and many other factors too numerous to list.  This non-identity of our common “object” of knowledge speaks to the party-dependence feature of Gadamer’s model of coming to an understanding with a dialogue partner. Our understandings of the other can and do improve, but their accuracy and correctness do not translate into an identical understanding that we now both possess. A corollary of coming to understand the other through a fusion of horizons is, of course, that we are changed. Genuine understanding of the other requires an “identity shift in us.”[15]

Then, by way of negation, Taylor spells out what Gadamer’s dialogical approach to understanding the other is not. First of all, it is not “[t]he kind of understanding that ruling groups have of the ruled, that conquerors have of the conquered,” which assumes that the terms for understanding the other are already present in the rulers’ vocabulary.[16] Moreover, the “perks” that come with ruling—the stolen goods, the exploitation and instrumentalization of the other, and the like “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 that the ruled have often painfully experienced.”[17]


[1] Taylor, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” 132.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 304.

[6] Ibid., 299.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Taylor, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” 133.

[9] Ibid., 138.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 139.

[13] Ibid., 140.

[14] Ibid.

[15] The full sentence (and then some) reads, “[r]eally 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” (ibid., 140–41).

[16] Ibid., 141.

[17] Ibid., 141.

Part II: Toward an Archaeologico-Hermeneutical Fusion

I ended my previous post with a discussion of Gadamer’s rejection of the notion that knowledge of “all things human” is attainable via a scientific model in which one’s aim is full intellectual control over the object of knowledge. Gadamer’s Hegel-inspired notion of “experience” helps us to get a better grasp both as to his criticism of scientific knowing applied to the human sciences and his own view of “knowledge” as coming to an understanding through a dialogic encounter. According to Gadamer, experience in general is a process which is essentially negative. By “negative,” he means that our expectations of what something is or means are regularly disappointed and disconfirmed.[1] As Gadamer explains, experience “cannot be described simply as the unbroken generation of typical universals. Rather, this generation takes place as false generalizations are continually refuted by experience and what was regarded as typical is shown not to be so.”[2] In other words, it is when we are surprised, see things from a new perspective and come to know them with more clarity that we experience what experience is. “Thus the negativity of experience has a curiously productive meaning.”[3] Here it is not merely that we correct our false beliefs—although that does occur–; rather, we gain a new, improved, and expanded understanding. We do not “have an experience of any object at random, but it must be of such a nature that we gain better knowledge through it, not only of itself, but of what we thought we knew before—i.e., of a universal.”[4]Archeaological Dig

Gadamer is not denying that our experience of history leads to (historical) knowledge. However, as Joel Weinsheimer observes (and Taylor echoes this thought in his essay), Gadamer’s account of experience as ongoing process challenges the typical conception of experience ending in (final) knowledge and thus emphasizing result, closure, and, effectively, the end of experience.[5] The theory of induction is an example of experience conceived as result. For example, I look for patterns in my experience that produce the same results.  When I do x, y results.  From various similar experiences, I abstract a general concept that now applies to all such experiences.  Thus, the need for further experiences of this kind is eliminated.  Weinsheimer puts it nicely,

[i]nductive experience is fulfilled in the knowledge of the concept—which, in both senses, is the end of experience. Thus, in the teleological view, experience finds its fulfillment in its extinction. The theory of induction implies that confirmation is the primary and most important aspect of experience. The process of experience is essentially an experience of repetition and the identity of experiences.[6]

Instead of an exclusive focus on confirmation as the key aspect of experience, Gadamer highlights the disappointments and disconfirmations of experience (which is not to exclude the role of confirmation) in order to foreground how “the negativity of experience has a curiously productive meaning.”[7] Appropriating Hegel’s insight, Gadamer views hermeneutical experience and experience generally speaking as dialectical, consisting of the working out and ongoing harmonization of identity-in-difference. Thus, experience involves an element of the new rather than a mere accumulation of past repetitions. For Hegel, experience is “skepticism in action,” as it has the potential alter “one’s whole knowledge.”[8] To be sure, confirmation is part of the nature of experience; thus, repetition is not disregarded completely. However, paradoxically, once repetition and confirmation occur, the experience is no longer new.[9] “We can now predict what was previously unexpected. The same thing cannot again become a new experience for us; only something different and unexpected can provide someone who has experience with a new one.”[10] Hegel identified this reversal of the experiencing consciousness as a dialectical structure in the nature of experience itself.  As Gadamer explains, when a person becomes “experienced,” he has “become of aware of his experience”; “[h]e has acquired a new horizon within which something can become an experience for him.”[11]

Up to this point, Gadamer agrees with Hegel’s account. However, he rejects emphatically Hegel’s idea that “conscious experience should lead to a self-knowledge that no longer has anything other than or alien to itself.”[12] For Hegel, the goal of experience is knowledge, and “his criterion of experience is self-knowledge.  That is why the dialectic of experience must end in that overcoming of all experience which is attained in absolute knowledge—i.e., in the complete identity of consciousness and object.”[13] In stark contrast, for Gadamer experience does not find its consummation in something that finalizes, overcomes, or annuls it. Consequently, Gadamer parts ways with Hegel’s account of history as a dialectical movement leading inevitably to the “absolute self-consciousness of philosophy,” and concludes that it “does not do justice to hermeneutical consciousness.”[14] Experience and knowledge-as-staticized-finality stand in opposition to one another. “The truth of experience always implies an orientation toward new experience.”[15] For Gadamer, then, the experienced person “has become so not only through experiences,” but because he has acquired the habit of continual openness to new experiences.[16] The perfection of experience, moreover,

does not consist in the fact that someone already knows everything and knows better than anyone else. Rather, the experienced person proves to be, on the contrary, someone who is radically undogmatic; who, because of the many experiences he has had and the knowledge he has drawn from them, is particularly well equipped to have new experiences and to learn from them.  The dialectic of experience has its proper fulfillment not in definitive knowledge but in the openness to experience that is made possible by experience itself.[17]

Gadamer is describing experience in general; he is telling us something about the structure of experience qua experience.  In addition, he wants to stress that experience as he has described it is connected intimately to what it means to be a historical, finite being.  None of us are exempt from experience; all of us must acquire experience, which involves necessarily having one’s expectations upset, overturned, unsettled.[18] Gadamer’s negative understanding of experience—as is hopefully clear by now—should not be interpreted as a pessimistic outlook on life; rather, he brings to our attention the fact that experience and growth by way of experience involves an openness to ongoing confrontations, challenges, and a genuine questioning of our own assumptions and beliefs. When confronted with new information about a person or event, or when we are able to genuinely “see” an issue or subject matter from a different perspective, we simultaneously put ourselves at risk.  That is, we allow questions to be put to us, questions that can expose our own false biases and misguided assumptions. Putting ourselves at risk in this way means that we are open to exposure, open to considering what it means, for example, that we characterize certain groups as more dangerous, deviant, or criminally disposed than others. The realization that we have been operating under counterfeit assumptions, and the uprooting and relinquishing of our former beliefs, is, though necessary, often unpleasant and painful.

Gadamer continues his discussion of experience through an interesting connection with Aeschylus. On Gadamer’s reading, with his phrase, pathei mathos (“learning through experience”) Aeschylus also recognized something essential about the structure of experience. Like Gadamer, Aeschylus does not claim merely that through suffering we learn to correct our misguided and false views. Rather, his insight is that through suffering we come to see “the limitations of humanity,” and begin to realize the “barrier that separates man from the divine. It is ultimately a religious insight.”[19] Thus, genuine experience as Gadamer conceives of it is experience of our finitude and historicity. The experienced person comes to see herself for what she is—limited, subject to time, subject to change, subject to uncertainty.  She has come to realize the wisdom in cultivating an attitude of openness to the other, which involves a willingness to listen to the other’s perspective not once but again and again. She also comes to see that being “perfectly experienced” in no way means

that experience has ceased and a higher form of knowledge is reached (Hegel), but that for the first time experience fully and truly is. In it all dogmatism, which proceeds from the soaring desires of the human heart, reaches an absolute barrier. Experience teaches us to acknowledge the real.[20]

For Gadamer, given his embrace of human finitude, the attempt to transcend human experience based on the scientific model of knowledge is simply not possible. Because we are historical, finite beings, we must, as Gadamer maintains, take seriously the role of culture in shaping and influencing human life and thought. Taylor helps us to grasp how Gadamer, who, unlike many modern and postmodern thinkers does not reject premodern views of metaphysics tout court, nor does he simply embrace them uncritically. Rather, he allows the premodern tradition to speak and appropriates those insights that still shine forth as true. Gadamer’s project might be characterized as a critically reharmonized Platonic-inspired metaphysics, whose ontology of the human person and of texts is amenable to cultural, socio-political, and historical concerns. Below I sketch the contours of what such a synthesis looks with respect to human being (identity) in all its diversity and ongoing improvisational manifestations (difference).

A Gadamerian identity-in-difference approach to human ontology affirms that there is some common, unchanging human nature or universally-shared, non-constructed metaphysical structures essential to humans qua humans; nonetheless, this nature or these structures are, as Taylor explains, “always and everywhere mediated in human life through culture, self-understanding, and language. These not only show an extraordinary variety in human history, but they are clearly fields of potentially endless innovation.”[21] In other words, it is possible, on the one hand, to argue for a universally-shared human nature or for common, non-constructed, transcultural, metaphysical structures, and, on the other hand, to affirm that our articulations and grasp of these structures are always mediated by our own cultural biases, discourses, preferred metaphors, and the knowledge “pools” from which we draw. Of course there have been many absurd and misguided philosophical and “scientific” narratives constructed over the course of history, claiming to have identified the essential nature of women, people of African descent, Jews, and homosexuals. Taking into account such narratives and the harm they have caused, one can understand why (post)moderns are by and large skeptical and suspicious of accounts appealing to universal metaphysical structures common to all humans.  However, if we adopt a Gadamerian-hermeneutical approach, we can (and should) acknowledge and reject the errors of these past constructions and yet not give up on the metaphysical project in toto. If we are able to finesse a mediating position (and I believe we can), the potential gains for defending human rights, social justice, and emancipatory struggles of all stripes ought to motivate us to rethink our own (post)modern prejudices and approach “the metaphysics question” anew with the openness of a truly experienced person.


[1] Joel Weinsheimer discusses Gadamer’s account of experience as negative, which he interprets as characterized by alternating cycles of hope and disappointment. As a result, experience should be understood as a process rather than a staticized end. As Weinsheimer explains, if we begin in hermeneutical openness with an expectation, a hope, then hope is always prior to experience and is its condition.  As we move through our hermeneutical disappointments, recover from our false and misguided assumptions, and struggle to understand the person or subject at hand, new expectations and hopes arise.  Thus, hope both precedes and follows disappointment and disconfirmation.  See, Weinsheimer, Gadamer’s Hermeneutics, 202.

[2] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 353.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Weinsheimer, Gadamer’s Hermeneutics, 202.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 353.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 354.

[12] Ibid., 355.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 356.

[19] Ibid., 357.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Taylor, “Gadamer on the Human Science,” 129.

Part I: Toward an Archaeologico-Hermeneutical Fusion

The socio-political consequences of embracing absolute incommensurability across historical epochs or what Foucault calls epistemai would be far worse than accepting a partial incommensurability in which we acknowledge our attempts to understand the other through our own conceptual, culturally-shaped grid.[1] Given what Foucault acknowledges in his essay “What is Enlightenment?” regarding our limited point of view and thus always partial rather than complete knowledge, we can—applying the principle of charity—assume that if Foucault did in fact claim that epistemai are incommensurable in toto, he without a doubt abandoned such a view and came to adopt a partial incommensurability position. It simply does not follow, as some critics claim, that adjustments to his earlier views, particularly those of his archaeological period, signal a fundamental rift or irresolvable incongruity with his later genealogical methodology and his emphasis on a more active subject in his ethico-aesthetic period.Archeaological Dig

With absolute incommensurability, the other is completely unintelligible, and consequently, I am forever hermetically sealed and unable to genuinely identify or sympathize with, much less learn from and attempt to understand him or her. Whereas in accepting partial incommensurability, although I must start with my own presuppositions, linguistic and cultural inheritances—or as Gadamer calls these various conditionings, “prejudices”—I am not trapped by the historically formed grid through which I see and engage the world.  Rather, to use Gadamer’s terminology, the horizon I bring to the text (or other) is permeable and mutable; through my engagement with the text, a fusion of horizons can occur, in which the horizon of the text calls me, the interpreter, into question with a possible outcome of reshaping and even fundamentally altering my horizon for the better. I shall take up this topic in more detail below; however, before discussing Gadamer’s notion of horizon-fusing, I want to begin with a brief discussion of several key aspects of his philosophical hermeneutics to prepare the way for my own archaeologico-hermeneutical fusion.

Gadamer finds the Enlightenment’s rejection of authority and tradition both impossible and undesirable. Although many key Enlightenment thinkers speak disparagingly of tradition, claiming it an impediment to the progress of true Enlightenment and riddled with unjustified prejudices,[2] Gadamer argues by way of reverse discourse that the Enlightenment’s prejudice against prejudice is itself held dogmatically. As he explains, the Enlightenment’s foregrounding of the negative aspect of the word, “prejudice,” has resulted in the shrouding of its positive meaning, “pre-judgment” (Vor-urteil). One can in fact—and here Gadamer appropriates insights from Aristotle—through proper upbringing, adopting ancestral and other customs, and embracing the teachings of one’s tradition, hold true “prejudices” and biases. Consequently, for Gadamer, just because one cannot justify or provide a syllogistic argument for one’s beliefs, it does not follow necessarily that these beliefs are false or misguided. Because of his positive view of tradition, some contemporary thinkers (for example, Jacques Derrida and John Caputo) have labeled Gadamer a “dogmatist”; however, others such as Charles Taylor have viewed Gadamer’s position more positively, emphasizing the historical and cultural benefits of his philosophical hermeneutics.

Taylor opens his essay, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” by highlighting the presumption that has characterized the West in its engagement with other cultures.  “The great challenge of the coming century, […] is that of understanding the other. The days are long gone when Europeans and other ‘Westerners’ could consider their experience and culture as the norm toward which the whole of humanity was headed.”[3] As the seeds of the (rationalistic) Enlightenment-model of knowledge were planted and continued to spread their roots and extend their branches, it became axiomatic that knowledge of science be characterized by “pure” objectivity and that it produce certainty in its possessors.  Yet, the twentieth century’s recognition of a “necessary modesty” in relation to its knowledge claims of the other seemed to land us in a no-win dilemma: either we accept ethnocentrism and remain cut off from the other, or we accept relativism and forfeit all objectivity.[4] Gadamer’s model, however, takes us through this seeming impasse and calls into question many of the Enlightenment-inspired notions that have shaped the epistemology of natural science and its attempt to colonize the social or human sciences.

In his magnum opus, Truth and Method, “Gadamer shows how understanding a text or event, which comes to us through our own history or horizon, ought to be construed, not on the model of the ‘scientific’ grasp of an object, but rather on that of speech-partners who come to an understanding (Verständigung).”[5] In light of Gadamer’s influence and the potential for further development of his project, Taylor devotes most of his article to explicating Gadamer’s model, which he describes as “coming to an understanding with an interlocutor,” vis-à-vis the scientific model of “knowing an object.”[6] In contrast with the latter method, Gadamer argues for coming to an understanding through a dialogic encounter where the modus operandi is question and answer (here Gadamer draws explicitly from Plato). As Taylor explains, Gadamer’s approach is characterized by three features: (1) bilateralism, (2) party-dependence, and (3) an openness to goal-revision.

First, the text or other is not a silent “object” to be mastered; hence, it is characterized by bilateralism as opposed to unilateralism. For example, in knowing a tree as object, I do not have to consider its view of me. The knowledge encounter is unilateral.  I dictate the rules of the knowing activity, and there is little to challenge me by way of a genuine other as to whether or not my understanding of it is distortive. Whereas in a bilateral exchange, both the text and other are given a voice; here the text “talks” back and can put the interpreter into question, thus challenging her prejudices and horizon and allowing for potential self-transformation.

Second, Gadamer’s view of coming to an understanding is party-dependent. Grasping this aspect of his model also helps us to see the different goals connected with the two approaches to knowing.  For example, in knowing an object, “I conceive the goal of knowledge as attaining some finally adequate explanatory language, which can make sense of the object, and will exclude all future surprises.”[7] In other words, the goal is to “attain full intellectual control over the object, such that it can no longer ‘talk back’ and surprise me.”[8] In contrast, when I come to an understanding of some text or some individual, this kind of supposed finality is not possible. For instance, when I understand something about Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” or Russian culture, these understandings are achieved through specific dialogue partners—as mentioned above, for Gadamer, texts are a kind of dialogue partner.  However, when I discuss Dr. King’s letter or enter a conversation about Russian culture with another dialogue partner or with different interpretative communities, new understandings surface given the fusion of my horizon with theirs. In addition, both my understandings and those of my various dialogue partners are in motion, ever-changing and expanding with each new dialogical engagement.  By entering these mutually reciprocal hermeneutical conversations, we allow our own understandings to be questioned and our most cherished beliefs to be challenged.[9]

Third, a key feature of Gadamer’s model is openness to goal-revision.  Because one’s prejudices and biases can be altered by a dialogic encounter with the text, one must be willing to modify, update, or even in certain cases relinquish his or her original objectives. In stark contrast with scientific knowing and its attendant goal of “attain[ing] full intellectual control over the object,” the goal of coming to an understanding is decidedly not control.[10] Rather, “[t]he end is being able in some way to function together with the partner, and this means listening as well as talking, and hence may require that I redefine what I am aiming at.”[11]

Gadamer’s dialogical model of understanding, of course, has been challenged by philosophers and those wanting to preserve the scientific model and its supposed “pure” objectivity. More specifically, the critics claim that the three features outlined above cannot be aspects of genuine science or knowledge.  If, for example, party-dependence and openness to goal-revision characterize our understandings, then “they represent something distinct from knowledge.”[12] As Taylor explains, Gadamer responds to his critics by rejecting the claim that knowledge of things human can be attained on the scientific model where the goal is full intellectual control over the object.


[1] Hans-Georg Gadamer and Charles Taylor argue for a variant of partial incommensurability.

[2] See, for example, Kant’s essay, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”

[3] Taylor, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” 126.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 127.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] In light of his claim that understandings are party-relative, some scholars have charged Gadamer with relativism and have classified him indiscriminately with philosophers such as Richard Rorty. Taylor, however, highlights the inaccuracies of such a move and addresses this issue in detail in his essay, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences.”

[10] Ibid., 127.

[11] Ibid., 128.

[12] Ibid.

Part I: An Introduction to Hans-Georg Gadamer

In his magnum opus, Truth and Method, Gadamer displays his knowledge not only of the modern tradition (Kant, Heidegger, Hegel, Schleiermacher) but likewise his knowledge of and interest in the ancient and medieval traditions (Plato, Aristotle, Neoplatonism, Augustine, Aquinas, Nicholas of Cusa).  Gadamer, unlike many moderns and postmoderns, believes that the ancient and medieval tradition still has something to teach us.  Yet, he also sees value in thinkers like Heidegger and Hegel.  Gadamer’s entire project might be understood as a “fusion of horizons” (to be explained later) between the ancient (and medieval) and the modern (and postmodern) traditions.  One might also rightly characterize his efforts in Truth and Method as the working out of the notion of identity-in-difference as manifest in hermeneutical experience.Gadamer Painting by Dora Mittenzwei

Rejection of the Enlightenment Prejudice Against Prejudice

Gadamer finds the Enlightenment’s rejection of authority and tradition an impossible and pointless path to trod.  According to Gadamer, though many key Enlightenment thinkers reject tradition, claiming it an impediment to the progress of true Enlightenment (e.g., Kant’s essay, “What is Enlightenment?”) and riddled with unjustified prejudices, Gadamer turns their critique back on them and shows that they in fact hold rather dogmatically to a “prejudice against prejudice.”  As Gadamer explains, the Enlightenment has so stressed the negative aspect of the word, “prejudice”, that its positive meaning, “pre-judgment” (Vor-urteil) has been lost.  One can in fact (and here Gadamer appropriates insights from Aristotle) by way of proper upbringing, customs and embracing one’s tradition, hold true “prejudices” and biases.  Thus, for Gadamer, just because one cannot justify (or as Aristotle might say, give the “why”) of one’s beliefs, it does not follow necessarily that these beliefs are wrong, false or misguided.   Because of his positive view of tradition, many contemporary thinkers (Derrida, Caputo) have labeled Gadamer a “dogmatist.” On this point, it seems that some postmoderns have not thrown off the prejudices of modernity either.

On a more positive note, Charles Taylor in his essay, “Gadamer and the Human Sciences,” highlights Gadamer’s rejection of key Enlightenment notions, particularly the desire to make knowledge conform to the image of science or what Taylor calls, “scientific knowledge of the object.”  In contrast to this model, Gadamer argues for “coming to an understanding” through a dialogic encounter where the modus operandi is question and answer (here Gadamer draws explicitly from Plato).  Gadamer’s model is characterized by the following three features:  (1) bilater-ality, (2) party-dependence, and (3) an openness to goal-revision.  Regarding (1) and (2) the text or Other is not a silent “object” to be mastered; rather, it “talks” back and can put the interpreter into question, thus challenging her “prejudices” and horizon and allowing for potential self-transformation.  Regarding (3), because one’s prejudices and biases can be altered (i.e., if one is open) by a dialogic encounter with the text (Gadamer views texts as a kind of dialogue partner), one must be willing to revision his or her objectives.

Fusion of Horizons

By “horizon” Gadamer does not mean that we are sealed off from others due to our cultural, historical and linguistic conditioning; rather, taking his cue from Husserl, upon whose concept of “horizon” he builds (see Walter Lammi, “Gadamer’s Notion of Horizon”), Gadamer understands horizons as fluid and ever open to new expansions.  Consequently, a dialogical encounter with a text, work of art, or an Other involves a “fusing of horizons,” as the text or Other is also constituted by a horizon.  Given the fluidity of horizons, Gadamer rejects the notion of radical incommensurabilty between communities of inquiry.   According to Gadamer, though “translation” between communities is often difficult, there is enough common ground to allow for a fusion to occur.  Thus, it is a mistake to label Gadamer a “strong” relativist and to group him with contemporary philosophers like Richard Rorty.

As we’ve seen, openness to goal-revision is part of a true hermeneutic experience, as horizons are characterized by fluidity.  On this point, as Joel Weinsheimer in his commentary on Truth and Method observes, we see Hegel’s influence on Gadamer.  That is, Gadamer follows Hegel’s understanding of experience as essentially negative.  As Gadamer puts it, “the experience of negation has a curiously productive function.”  By “negative” Gadamer draws our attention beyond the confirmation aspect of true experiences, which include hermeneutical experiences, and to the disconfirming aspect in which our expectations are often disappointed or shattered.  For example, we approach a text (or an Other) with a certain expectation of what the text means; yet, in the process of attempting to understand the text, we run into problems as our “projections” (as Heidegger would say) do not seem to match the text.   If we allow the text to speak to us and respect its alterity, we must revise our projected expectations.  This process of expectation, negation, and newly revised expectation characterizes our hermeneutic experience unless we grow “static” and become closed to new experiences.  The truly “experienced” person, according to Gadamer, is not a dogmatist who is unwilling to listen and be changed by the Other (which includes texts), but one who is open to the “event” of interpretation where surprise plays an essential but sometimes painful role.  (Perhaps one could appeal to the experience of the freed prisoner in Plato’s allegory of the cave as appropriate analogy here).