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.