Article abstract: Gadamer framed a position that became known as philosophical hermeneutics, which stresses meaning and truth in a text and examines the relationship between the text’s tradition and its interpreter.
Hans-Georg Gadamer was born on February 11, 1900, in Marburg, Germany, home of the neo-Kantian philosophers Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp. His father, Johann Gadamer, was a professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at the local university. A bashful and immature young man, Gadamer began to study philosophy in 1918, against his father’s wishes. At Marburg University, he studied philosophy, German literature, art history, and classical philology.
After writing a doctoral thesis under Natorp in 1922, Gadamer became interested in the work of philosopher Martin Heidegger, who taught in Marburg from 1923 to 1927 and by whose personality and work Gadamer was spellbound. In 1928, he wrote his thesis for Heidegger on Greek philosopher Plato’s dialectical ethics.
Gadamer taught at Marburg University from 1923 to 1938, first as an assistant and then, from 1928, as a privatdocent, but, under the rising power of Adolf Hitler’s Nazism, he was denied a full professorship. Finally, he was given the professorship in 1937 and received an offer from the University of Leipzig a year later. He stayed in Leipzig until 1948. In 1946, Gadamer was appointed rector of the university and worked for its reconstruction after World War II, but he decided to leave Leipzig after becoming disillusioned by the interference of the East German Communist Party, which was seizing power in the Russian-occupied East German sector.
After a brief stint at the University of Frankfurt (from 1948 to 1949), Gadamer became Karl Jaspers’s successor as chair of the philosophy department at the University of Heidelberg, where he worked until his retirement in 1968. It was during his Heidelberg years that Gadamer completed Truth and Method. After retiring, he remained active in the scholarly world by participating in and presiding over various learned societies, writing, and teaching at Boston College, a task that Gadamer regarded as “like a second youth.” Among the many awards that Gadamer received are the Grand Federal Cross of Merit and Star and honorary doctorates from universities in Ottawa and Washington, D.C.
Gadamer’s primary legacy is philosophical hermeneutics, which analyzes the problems that arise when a reader tries to understand a text. The main questions with which Gadamer is concerned could be formulated as follows: How can one understand tradition as it is provided in texts? Is there such a thing as a truth that goes beyond the truth the “exact” sciences offer? How do the answers to these questions affect humanity’s understanding of itself?
The sciences, in Gadamer’s view, only provide an explanation (Erklärung) of the world, not an understanding (Verständnis—an opposition first used by philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey). Gadamer writes in Truth and Method that it is his intention “to seek that experience of truth that transcends the sphere of the control of scientific method wherever it is to be found and to inquire into its legitimacy.”
Gadamer wants to overcome the hubris of the natural sciences, which for him is the hubris of modern times—namely, that an objective, clear truth that is apparent to everyone can be assured by scientific methodology. His evaluation of the sciences does not acknowledge that a critique of the unquestioned obviousness of scientific methodology and its results was opened up in the 1920’s from within the sciences, and that since then every responsible scientist would admit that the scientific perspective is only one out of many possible outlooks. Gadamer attempts to hold up the notion that meaning and understanding—and ultimately truth—can be found only in the process of communication (Verständigung), either between individuals or, more important for hermeneutics, between a text and its reader. One of his strongest arguments is that each person is part of a tradition (and Gadamer means the philosophical tradition of the West) that is responsible for values and prejudices (Vorurteile) and therefore influences one’s understanding of texts and of the world in general.
In order to understand Gadamer’s position, one must consider the tradition of which Gadamer himself is a part: Platonic philosophy and the principles of hermeneutics, from Friedrich Schleiermacher and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel to Martin Heidegger. Scholarship on Plato up to the 1920’s had been mainly concerned with revealing a systematic philosophy in Plato’s dialogues, which were seen as containing a hidden truth beneath the Socratic method of dialogical questioning and answering. The scholars of that period took Plato’s ironic approach as a disguise for this truth. For this philosophical school, Aristotle’s ethical writings were the first major step toward an “empirical,” “objective” way of thinking.
Gadamer believes, on the contrary, that Plato’s dialogues constitute the paradigmatic hermeneutical attitude in which a human being seeks to understand the world, and that truth lies in the Platonic model itself. It must be stressed that Gadamer, rooted in this Platonic background and unlike his philosophical opponent Jacques Derrida, believes firmly in a truth that is present in the texts of the human tradition. Gadamer does not take part in “the great project of hermeneutic trouble-making,” instigated by philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard. He assumes that texts speak to their readers in a meaningful way about meaningful matters and that each reader has only to obey the hermeneutic rules of understanding in order to engage in a fruitful dialogue with these texts.
Yet what exactly is hermeneutics, and in which way does Gadamer further its theory and practice? The word “hermeneutics” was derived from the Greek god Hermes, who served as messenger for the other gods. Until the nineteenth century, hermeneutics was defined as the art of understanding and interpreting texts. In the Middle Ages, the preferred text for hermeneutic exercises was the Bible, and the hermeneut’s task was to restore the Bible’s original contents and intentions, thus reestablishing its normative authority for the pious reader. Hermeneutics basically dealt with erasing the uncertainties, inconsistencies, and ambiguities of a text. Understanding a text was understanding its contents, an...
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