Gadamer’s Truth and Method represents a major contribution to the field of hermeneutics in the humanities, and it expands the range of discussion far beyond that established by earlier thinkers such as Schleiermacher and Dilthey. Gadamer’s treatise also presents an extended commentary on and elaboration of certain central ideas concerning the ontological nature of understanding in the thought of Martin Heidegger.
Upon the original publication of Truth and Method in 1960, a controversy developed between Gadamer and the German social philosopher Jurgen Habermas. The debate centered on the definition of and role ascribed to language and tradition in Gadamer’s hermeneutics. Gadamer’s notion of these concepts is ontological, metaphysical, and, as some might add, quasi-mystical. Habermas, whose thinking comes from a Marxist orientation, suggested that language cannot be divorced from its social and political contexts and that Gadamer’s position of openness to tradition in the hermeneutic act does not adopt a sufficiently critical posture toward its subject. Language and tradition often serve as a means of social power and political hegemony that shapes and manipulates consciousness in at times rather subtle ways. They can function as a mode of legitimizing systems of social oppression and violence. Hermeneutics, Habermas maintained, must be transformed into an ideological criticism (Ideologiekritik) that examines the oppressive social and political implications of language and tradition.
Hermeneutics also shares with another major twentieth century philosophical movement, deconstruction, a debt to the ideas of both the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl and the ontological thinker Heidegger. Gadamer’s hermeneutics carries on the Husserlian-Heideggerian tradition and focuses on the act of interpretation and the establishment of meaning. Deconstruction—as expressed in the theories of Jacques Derrida, especially—emphasizes the indeterminacy of meaning and suggests a multiplicity of ways in which texts can be read. Whereas Gadamer regards language as an ontological revelation, or disclosure, of Being, Derrida sees the notion of Being as simply another kind of reading, a linguistic “myth of presence.” Derrida’s position presents a revision of Husserl and Heidegger in terms of subsequent developments in structuralism, semiology, and post-Freudian theory.
Such controversies notwithstanding, Gadamer’s Truth and Method has broadened and revitalized the field of hermeneutics. In the mid-twentieth century, critical theory has come to occupy a prominent position in many intellectual disciplines, and Gadamer’s work represents a significant contribution to the overall philosophical reflection upon the nature of understanding.