(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1375 words.)