Key Theories of Hans-Georg Gadamer

Hans-Georg Gadamer










The dream of recovering the complete or total meaning of a literary text, by re-imagining the author’s intentions, comes to an end with the work of Hans Georg Gadamer (1900–2002; instead of this hermeneutic or interpretive circle (circling back from the text to the author, and back again, closing off, or finishing the job of interpretation), Gadamer’s hermeneutical approach involves understanding the historical situations of text and reader, and the ways in which these interact to create a temporarily shared meaning. The mystical divination of a text is thus replaced by Heidegger’s notion that the hermeneutical circle is actually ‘part of the structure of understanding itself ’. Gadamer’s insights into a hermeneutics for the twentieth century thus draw not only from some of the great phenomenological thinkers such as Husserl and Heidegger, but also partake of the paradigm shift of the observer being part of the equation when it comes to measuring or assessing the observed, a shift that many thinkers argue paved the way for postmodernism. Gadamer was born in Marburg, Germany and was educated at Breslau University where he studied art and music history, German literature and neo-Kantian philosophy, receiving his doctorate for a thesis on Plato in 1922. An early publication called ‘On the Idea of System in Philosophy’ (1924) reveals the influence  of Martin Heidegger, with whom Gadamer had studied the previous year; Gadamer described the experience of first reading Heidegger as affecting him ‘like an electric shock’ and his lectures as revealing ‘the energy of a revolutionary thinker’. Heidegger continued to impact upon Gadamer throughout his early years as an academic, and this  can be seen in his first book, a phenomenological reading of Plato published in 1931. By that time Gadamer had passed his higher doctorate, called a habilitation (1928) and was lecturing at Marburg. During the early Nazi period, through which he lived, Gadamer turned his attentions to the study of mathematics, and published a book on Johann Gottfried Herder (1942). In 1937 Gadamer was promoted to the position of professor, followed by a professorship in classical philology at Halle, and then a professorship at Leipzig (1938–1947), where he became the rector. Gadamer returned to scholarship with a move to Frankfurt (1947–1949), being awarded in 1949 Karl Jaspers’ Chair at Heidelberg (1949–1968). It was during this period that Gadamer produced his major work Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik (1960) translated in 1975 (without the important subtitle) as Truth and Method.

How is the reader new to Gadamer going to approach the more than five hundred pages of critical and philosophical analysis of his Truth and Method? One of the leading commentators on Gadamer (and hermeneutics), Richard E. Palmer, suggests that a list of twenty key terms from Truth and Method are essential for understanding the relevance of Gadamer’s approach. Taking just five of these terms – understanding, play, event, experience and conversation – one can at least get a sense of the dynamic process that Gadamer advocates in releasing the reader from the traditional closed hermeneutic circle where a total or complete truth is to be recreated and recovered. For Gadamer, interpretation is fundamentally dialogic: the metaphor of an ongoing conversation is therefore extremely important. This dialogue or conversation also implies an openness to the text’s ‘alterity’ or otherness. How does the interpreter achieve this? Not through neutrality or effacing one’s own identity, but through foregrounding what one brings to the text, those attitudes that Heidegger, in section forty five of Being and Time calls the ‘fore-having’, ‘fore-sight’ and ‘foreconception of interpretation’. In other words, the recognition of the ‘prejudice’ that readers bring to the text, is also a way of clearing a space to recognize the otherness of the text, or, as Gadamer puts it, allowing the text to ‘assert its own truth’. The reader, however, is not an entirely autonomous agent: she is situated historically, which means that her identity has been formed in part by the tradition, and she carries on, in participation and understanding, to contribute to the production of the tradition. Gadamer thus argues that understanding is not something miraculous, but a ‘sharing in a common meaning’ between text and reader, tradition and interpreter. Where traditional hermeneutics regarded the interpretive act as a recovery of a text’s full meaning (an act of closure), Gadamer argues that the correct stance is one of a disrupted ‘fore-conception of completeness’ where we assume that a text is ‘full’ or complete in its meaning, but reality (the encounter with the object) reveals that this assumption is incorrect and the text is unintelligible. Gadamer distinguishes here between the attempt to understand the content of a text versus the attempt to recover another’s meaning embodied via the writing of a text. While there is a bond between the interpreter and the text as transmitted by tradition, it is not necessarily a mystical union between the two; rather, Gadamer suggests that hermeneutics is affected by the polarity of ‘familiarity and strangeness’. It is the play between the two, the crossing ‘between’ belonging and alienation, that is the space of hermeneutics. Temporal distance here is not a problem to be overcome, but a constitutive factor. In other words, the traditional hermeneutic approach whereby the past authorial position needed to be reproduced, crossing the vast gulf of time (transposing ‘ourselves into the spirit of the age’), is replaced by a notion of interpretive production, achieved through temporal distance, and the falling away of the cares and concerns of ‘the present’ in relation to the object in question. Poststructuralist theorists are deeply suspicious of this move, because it suggests that there is an underlying authenticity or universality that such hermeneutic inquiry uncovers, for example, that Shakespeare’s plays are expressive of aesthetic genius regardless of the age in which they are read or performed. In fact, the hermeneutics being described here would have to argue that it is only across time that such a recognition could occur, not in the sense of ‘historicism’ (the object is now isolated and stable because of the passing of time) but in the sense of ‘historicity’ (the foregrounding of the reader’s situated prejudices). The reader thus has an awareness of her hermeneutical situation, a limited standpoint which has a finite horizon, yet, and this is essential, Gadamer argues that human beings are never limited by a single horizon: horizons shift and change as life itself moves on. Further, understanding is the fusion of historical and present horizons, with the understanding that this is not a permanent arrival at truth. Again, we can see how this notion of understanding prefigures postmodernism, because here ‘the knower’s present situation loses its status as a privileged position and becomes instead a fluid and relative moment’.

As Palmer notes, since the publication of Truth and Method, everything in Gadamer’s life ‘has been a series of articulations, explanations, further developments, even changes, in this masterwork’. Published in 1960 at the age of sixty, Gadamer spent the next four decades exploring the implications of his work to an international audience. Why was there such an audience for Gadamer when high theory was taking over the academy, even given his importance for followers of a more specialist phenomenological hermeneutics? The clue lies in
the third section of Truth and Method, titled ‘The ontological shift of hermeneutics guided by language’. As the academy went through the linguistic turn, there was Gadamer’s outstanding critique of philosophy and interpretation making an analogous move:

only in the third part of Gadamer’s major work does it become clear that the deconstruction of all privileged positions is a bold and unconditioned move to language. Language is not a ‘tool’ that the privileged consciousness may use to ‘express’ its positions. It is rather a phenomenon that speaks us before we speak it, and this means that we can never step outside of it and stand
over against it.

It is worth considering how the horizon of poststructuralism here fuses with that of Gadamer’s hermeneutics.




Source: FIFTY KEY LITERARY THEORISTS by Richard J. Lane, Routledge Publication.

Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory

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4 replies

  1. Good to read, but some more paragraphs would have helped. That was tough to get through!


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