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For those interested, a revised version of my formerly (unpublished) essay on Gadamer has now been published in the open access journal, Otherness, Essays and Studies.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