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.

Notes

[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 IV: An Introduction to Hans-Georg Gadamer

Walter Lammi, Kathleen Wright, Brice Wachterhauser and others have highlighted Heidegger’s influence on Gadamer.  Gadamer readily acknowledges his indebtedness to Heidegger, after all he was a student of Heidegger’s for many years.  In Truth and Method, Gadamer mentions his use of Heidegger’s “hermeneutical circle” (an on-going movement between whole and part and part and whole in our interpretative endeavors) and embraces Heidegger’s understanding of truth as aletheia (a dialectic of concealment and Gadamer Painting by Dora Mittenzweiunconcealment), yet Gadamer is also critical of Heidegger.  For example, Gadamer rejects Heidegger’s Seinsvergessenheit thesis (the “forgetfulness of being”) and denies that the Western metaphysical tradition necessarily culminates in nihilism.  In fact, Gadamer detects nihilistic tendencies in Heidegger’s views in the latter’s separation of questions of Being from questions of the human good.  According to Gadamer, Heidegger’s critique of the Western metaphysical tradition fails because he employs a univocal understanding of metaphysics.   Here Gadamer’s study of Plato, particularly the later dialogues causes him to reject Heidegger’s read of Plato as a “metaphysics of presence” advocate.  Gadamer sees the later Plato as endeavoring to work out an ontological vision that overcomes a certain misread of his theory of Ideas, viz. the interpretation that the Ideas constitute a separate realm (i.e. a view of the Ideas that suggests a strong dualism in Plato).   Instead, Gadamer interprets the later Plato as sharing similarities with Aristotle (non-dualistic) and developing what subsequent thinkers have called the “transcendentals” (good, true, unity, beauty etc.).   Gadamer argues that the center of Plato’s thought is not the theory of the Forms but rather the relationship of the One and the Many.  On Gadamer’s read, there is a kind of “movement” in the Forms in that when they reveal themselves they simultaneously conceal themselves (i.e., in their relation to the whole, that is, the other Forms and of course the ever-elusive Form of the Good).  Thus, for Gadamer, Plato does not promote a “metaphysics of presence” philosophy.  Rather, he acknowledges our finitude and our incomplete (yet real) grasp of the Forms.

Reappropriation of Platonic Insights:  “Metaphysics of Light”

At the end of Truth and Method, Gadamer turns explicitly to Plato’s view of beauty and self-validating truth.  Beauty is that which draws us to itself; it shines forth and presents itself as tangible in its visibility.   Truth likewise exhibits radiance and manifests itself in the beautiful, thus functioning as a “mediator” between the ideal and the real.  Given his rejection of the modern foundationalist project and its attempt to make knowledge completely transparent along with its search for a “method” to justify its every move, Gadamer suggests that an appropriation of this ancient version of self-validating truth, in which knowledge is not identified with certainty, is a possible way beyond the impasse of skepticism and the ruins of (modern) foundationalism.

In keeping with the overall vision of his dialogical, hermeneutical project, Gadamer continues his “fusion of horizons,” interacting with both ancient and modern thinkers and philosophical traditions and suggesting a way forward through an appropriation of the past and present so that the tradition can continue to speak, flourish and “surprise” us and generations to come.

Part III: An Introduction to Hans-Georg Gadamer

Another key aspect to Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics is his emphasis on human finitude.  Here Gadamer’s understanding of history and language comes into play, as these function as two conditions of our all our knowledge endeavors.  We cannot fully comprehend these conditions, as their origins stretch back into a past that escapes our complete grasp.  Yet, Gadamer believes firmly that we do in fact have some, though limited and partial, knowledge of these conditions even if we cannot make either fully transparent to ourselves.  In this vein, Gadamer speaks of Wirkungsgeschichte (“effective history”).  For example, we are not fully aware of the extent to which language shapes and “makes” us.  As Gadamer puts it, “Language is always out in front of us.”  The same is true of culture, tradition and customs.  (If you have ever spent any significant time outside of your own culture, this cultural “shaping” becomes readily evident).  Likewise, we see “effective history” in the various ways in which different communities of inquiry employ certain analogies, as well as choose (and reject) certain metaphors etc.  Language, in other words, is pregnant with tradition, culture and in fact opens up a world to us (Heidegger)—a world unlike the mere “environment” of non-rational animals who lack the kind of freedom we as linguistic, rational beings have.Gadamer Painting by Dora Mittenzwei

Here I should discuss Gadamer’s well-known but often misunderstood statement, “Being that can be understood is language.”  First, Gadamer does not mean that words create reality.  As Charles Taylor, B. Wachterhauser, Joel Weinsheimer and Robert Sokolowski argue, Gadamer is not a linguistic constructivist.  On Gadamer’s account, both language and reality “participate” in intelligibility.  The function of language (at least one function) is to enhance the intelligibility of the already intelligible world.  There is no re-doubling of the interpreter in the otherwise uninitelligible world in Gadamer’s account.  Rather, language functions as a lens that makes reality come into sharper focus than would be the case if language were absent.  Thus, language does not stand between us and reality, as a kind of shroud or hindrance.  Language functions instead as a “medium” through which we gain access to the world—it has a kind of “iconic” function.  I emphasize the world to highlight the fact that Gadamer is a realist (cf. Wachterhauser, Beyond BeingGadamer’s Post Platonic Ontology, and Robert Sokolowski, An Introduction to Phenomenology).  Though we no doubt have our horizons, are conditioned by culture, history and language, we are not trapped in our horizons or imprisoned by our prejudices and thus cut off from the things themselves.  Gadamer is adamant that as rational, linguistic beings, we are free to step back, reflect and allow the world (and texts) to disconfirm our “projections”.

In addition to the intelligibility of both language and reality, Gadamer emphasizes the Zugehorigkeit (“belongingness”) of language and thought.  What may come to as a surprise to many is Gadamer’s interaction and largely positive, though not uncritical, appropriation of both the ancient and medieval traditions.  In Truth and Method, Gadamer devotes significant space to a discussion of the “theology of the verbum,” interacting with Greek theories, as well as, the teachings of Augustine, Aquinas and Nicholas of Cusa.  Gadamer rejects the medieval view of a pure, mental language, as in his account we always think in a particular (natural) languages.  Yet, Gadamer employs the medieval, Christian teaching of the unity of the Father and the (pre-incarnate) Son, as well as St. Thomas’ discussion of the “processual” nature of this relationship in order to explicate his own theory of the “belongingness” of thought and language.  Just as the Father and the Son/Word share exhibit both a unity (in substance) and diversity (they are different Persons), thought and language share a similar unity or prior accord prior but are not reducible to each other.  As the Word “proceeds” from the Father (non-temporally), so thought unfolds “within” the mind (think of the way deductive reasoning unfolds) which is an image of the discursive nature of our thinking.  Yet, as noted above (and here the dis-anaologies enter), Gadamer rejects Augustine and Aquinas’ view of a pure, mental language, focusing instead of the various “incarnations” of natural languages (even prior to their utterances “outside” the mind).  Here Gadamer appeals to the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation in which Christ’s taking to Himself of human flesh (and one might add à la J. Kameron Carter, Christ’s particular Jewish flesh) in no way de-values his divinity.   Similarly, the incarnation of thought by particular natural languages does not hinder intelligibility; yet, given our finitude, each language opens up partial yet true views of the world.  (In this section and with regard to our finitude, Gadamer highlights the difference between the discursive nature of our knowledge and God’s knowing in one intuition).

Wachterhauser provides another way to understand Gadamer’s notion of the “belongingness” of thought and language and the “productive” function of language in connection with reality.  Gadamer speaks of language as symbol, that is, as a symbolon in the Greek sense.  In ancient Greece, a member of one family would break a piece of pottery into two halves, keeping one half and giving the second to the member of the other family.  The pieces were then handed down through the various generations of each respective family.  If a member of one family (born at a later date) presented his half of the broken piece of pottery to a member of the other family, the pieces would be re-united, showing the prior accord of their families.  The pottery functioned not as a mere empty sign but actually effected what it symbolized.  Similarly, language and thought exhibit a unity prior to the various (extramental) utterances and dialogical encounters with others in which language gives us access to and enhances (already intelligible) reality.

Wachterhauser then turns to Plato’s Symposium and Aristophanes’ myth of how humans have to come in their present state to further elucidate the unity of thought and language, as well as the “achievement” of language—here emphasizing its creative function as employed by free, rational beings.  As Aristophones explains, originally humans were spherical and needed no “other” to complete them sexually or otherwise.  However, due to their arrogance they upset the gods who then divided them and turned their sexual organs outward (as we find humans in their present form).  Given this “fall” and division, humans now seek an “other” for completion, and here the emphasis is on sexual completion.   Just as the two halves of the lovers share a prior unity, so too do thought and language.  Yet, the new completion for which the lovers seek is not predetermined or predestined.  That is, a kind of achievement or work of sorts must occur.   Here the analogy turns to the work required for true hermeneutical engagement and transformation.  In order for the interpreter to be transformed by the alterity of the text, s/he cannot exhibit the characteristics of a false lover.  A false lover is not interested in what the other has to say; rather, s/he simply re-creates her/himself in the other.  By contrast, a true lover allows the other to speak, to call her/him into question and thus is open to the “event” of understanding which exhibits a “surprise” character.

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).

Gadamer on the Self-Cancellation of the Heremeneutical Exchange

Gadamer Doing HermeneuticsAccording to Gadamer, we all come to the text with different horizons.  As we engage the text, our horizons, as well as our foremeanings are confirmed, altered, or perhaps a combination of both occurs.  Gadamer understands textual hermeneutics as analogous to a live conversation in which, when fruitful, we have attentive listening, respect for the alterity of the other, and an interplay of give and take.  Consider, for example, a conversation you’ve had in which you already anticipated ahead of time what a certain person was going to say.  You need an extension on your paper, but your professor has made it clear in the past that she rarely grants such extensions.  Here you approach the conversation with a fairly fixed idea of how the conversation will enfold.  After class you begin to make your case for an extension, explaining that your daughter has been ill quite a bit this month, and you’ve had to keep her at home.  Consequently, you were not able to complete your paper on time.  At first, the likelihood of an extension without penalty seems less than hopeful.  However, as the dialogue continues, your professor seems more open and in the end grants you an extension.  The banality of the example aside, it does provide a window into Gadamer’s understanding of the back and forth movement of our hermeneutical experience.  For example, as Gadamer explains,

A person who is trying to understand a text has to keep something at a distance-namely everything that suggests itself, on the basis of his own prejudices, as the meaning expected-as soon as it is rejected by the sense of the text itself.  Even the experience of reversal (which happens unceasingly in talking, and which is the real experience of dialectic) has its equivalent here.  Explicating the whole of meaning towards which understanding is directed forces us to make interpretative conjectures and to take them back again.  The self-cancellation of the interpretation is dialectical not primarily because the one-sidedness of every statement can be balanced by another side-this is, as we shall see, a secondary phenomenon in interpretation-but because the word that interpretatively fits the meaning of the text expresses the whole of this meaning-i.e., allows an infinity of meaning to be represented within it in a finite way (Truth and Method, p. 465).

The latter part of the passage introduces the idea of a “self-cancellation” involved in a hermeneutical exchange.  As Gadamer explains, the dialectic involved here is not simply an attempt to present the opposing viewpoint to balance out the perspective given.  Rather, (I think) he means something analogous to the following.  In a symphony, one has a meaningful whole, which consists of various particular parts organized in a very complex way.  Each instrument group (brass, strings, woodwinds etc.) plays a different melodic line (melodic lines are analogous to sentences).  These horizontal melodic lines, when considered vertically, constitute the various harmonies of the symphony (analogous to words).  If we zero in on one particular harmonic moment in say the third movement of the symphony, we might find, for example, a C major triad.  That C major triad can be abstracted and identified as a C major triad consisting of the notes C, E, G.  However, within the larger meaning of the symphony, that C major triad, because of its function at that particular place within the whole, cannot be understand as merely a C major triad (though technically it is that); rather, it must be seen as integrally connected with all the notes that precede it, as well as all the notes that follow it.  In a sense, the C major triad is both a one and a many-it is a C major triad and thus has an integral unity of meaning; yet, it is a many because of its intimate connection to and function within the symphony itself-that place where it lives and moves and has its being.  The dialectical self-cancelling movement occurs due to the fact that as the C major triad emerges from the background of the whole, it must “cancel” part of itself (the whole) in order to do so.  (This sounds very Heideggerian, which is no surprise given the latter’s influence on Gadamer).  Yet, to avoid mis-interpretation, it must not become completely severed from the whole, lest in a very real sense it die.  If this is a correct understanding of Gadamer on this point, there are some interesting Christian connections to be made.