The first section of Truth and Method examines the question of truth in terms of aesthetic consciousness. In it, Gadamer attempts to illuminate the phenomenon of understanding. The concept of aesthetic perception is a phenomenon of post-Cartesian (modern) philosophy, and it implies a subjective, nonempirical domain of experience that represents in the aesthetic image a transformation and revelation of the truth of human existence. Although different from the “knowing” of empirical sciences, art is to be acknowledged as a form of timeless knowledge, a mode by which humanity comes to understand itself. The work of art presents a form of dynamic play (Spiel) that is not a static and objective subject-object relationship but rather a dynamic and subjective event of consciousness that transforms the ontological status of both the viewer and the artwork. The meaning, or truth, of a work of art is not in the object itself but is established in the one who views it. The subjective self-understanding of human existence achieved in aesthetic perception—the hermeneutics of art—is a model for the nature of hermeneutics in general.
In the second section of his work, Gadamer discusses the nature of understanding in the humanities and social sciences. All forms of human understanding (and human existence) are temporal, finite, and therefore historical. That there is ultimately no objective or absolute vision of truth is fundamental to the existential view of the finitude and perspectivity of human existence and represents a major aspect of Heidegger’s thought. This idea is very different from the Enlightenment view of the primacy and universal validity of reason that structures the concepts of truth in most disciplines of science and the humanities. It also differs from the theories of previous hermeneutic thinkers, such as Dilthey, for whom the act of interpretation produces an objective sense of the meaning of a given thing.
Gadamer’s ideas suggest that every hermeneutic act is already structured by both conscious and unconscious preconceptions (Vorurteile) that determine the ways in which an object is seen. There is no completely objective view of an issue; a bias is always present in the viewer. A major form through which such preconceptions are transmitted is in language and the notion of “tradition,” itself primarily a construct of language. Tradition, a historical phenomenon, is the previously established (and institutionalized) mode of approaching an object—be it a work of art, a biblical passage, or a literary text. It follows that any attempt to understand an object or issue—to derive its meaning—must take into account the historicity of its own understanding. Every act of interpretation is structured by such preconceptions, or the already established “horizon of expectations” (Erwartungshorizont) that is held by the one who interprets. This idea also implies that there is not necessarily any correct interpretation. Meaning is not an objective property of the object but is relative to the point of view of the interpreter.
For Gadamer, the hermeneutic act involves coming to terms with the reality of tradition as a major factor in the process of interpretation. Understanding means that one must mediate between the past (tradition) and the present (the situation of the one who interprets). For Gadamer, the acknowledging of the weight of tradition does not imply, as it did for earlier hermeneutic philosophers such as Schleiermacher, the attempt to reconstruct the historical context out of which a work of art, for example, originates—that is, a re-creation of the original. Such a re-creation is impossible, because the act of understanding is inextricably tied to the present. Even if it were possible to rethink the situation of a prior time, the significance that...
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a work of art might assume is conceivably different in the past from what it would have been in the present.
Gadamer’s hermeneutics presupposes an issue of application in the act of understanding that must involve an objective and authentic awareness of the operation of tradition within the context of the present. The interpreter must develop a consciousness of the historical reception of the object as it influences its reception in the present (wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewusstsein). This consciousness is characterized by a relationship of openness to the “other” (the object of interpretation), a willingness to allow the Being of the other to affect the Being of the interpreter. This state of hermeneutic consciousness is again defined existentially, that is, in terms of the experiential, a receptiveness to experiencing as the other experiences.
Gadamer goes on in this section to elaborate on his notion of hermeneutic experience. He criticizes the theoretical stance of the sciences which holds that only verifiable data (rather than subjective experience) provide the source material for objective knowledge. Gadamer’s definition of experience is dialectical, although not in the Hegelian sense of the dialectical objectification of consciousness. It is rather a dialogue. For Gadamer, experience is an encounter with the other in which the existential finitude of the individual is revealed, a sometimes painful confrontation in which the historicity of the self in the world is experienced. This process is dialectical because expectations are often thwarted by what is experienced and the individual is compelled to synthesize a new understanding.
This dialectical process of understanding is structured as question and answer, an open hermeneutic dialogue between subject and object. Authentic questioning is characterized by openness to experience and the encounter with negativity, in the sense that a true question presupposes no answer. Although it assumes no answer, the open question does specify the domain to be examined. Thus it is always essential that the right question be asked. The subject does this by immersing himself in the object. The text or work of art to be understood can be regarded as an answer to a question posed by its context. Both the interpreter and the object of interpretation must, therefore, also be seen within the historical (and linguistic) context of tradition.
In the third and final section of Truth and Method, Gadamer discusses the nature of language as a determinant of the hermeneutic experience. He stands against much of modern linguistic (structuralist) theory, which regards language as a formal system of signs, mere symbolic forms or concepts that perform the function of designation. In accord with Heidegger’s earlier views, Gadamer stresses the suggestive, poetic power of words to evoke or reveal the mystery of the human experience of Being. Language is more than a system of formal relations. It is intimately tied to the existential nature of man’s subjectivity and thought. Language opens, or discloses, the world as a phenomenological construct of human experience (consciousness); it is in and through the medium of linguisticality that man exists.
Thus, understanding is an act mediated by language. The work of art or text to be interpreted resides within the context of tradition, and this heritage is transmitted (as well as concealed) by language. The common ground for an authentic historical awareness is the linguistic nature of both interpreter and tradition; man “belongs,” as Gadamer phrases it, to a “community” that is linguistically a “speaking.” In the dialogue between subject and object that is the hermeneutic act, one must learn with an attitude of openness to “hear” what tradition and the text speak.
Gadamer, like Heidegger, tends to privilege poetry as a special mode of “speaking.” Language is essentially speculative: That is, it never fully captures in words what it seeks to comprehend. In all statements, there is always a dimension of what is unsaid, ineffable. This speculative, or unspeakable, aspect of all language is, for Gadamer, the ground of Being in which all exist. Poetry, and all imaginative uses of language, is quintessentially speculative; it seeks to speak the unspeakable that is Being by creating new visions, new possibilities of existence.
At the conclusion of the volume, Gadamer makes a claim for the universality of his hermeneutic theory. He maintains that it is not limited to the humanities or aesthetic criticism but is a model for all modes of philosophical inquiry. The speculative nature of language characterizes the hermeneutic posture in general and is grounded in the experiential foundation of human existence. Thus, because he links his methodology to ontology, Gadamer can make his claim for the universal applicability of hermeneutics to all disciplines.