Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Truth and Method is a formal and difficult philosophical treatise. Its German subtitle, translated as “foundations of a philosophical hermeneutics,” indicates its focus on the topic of hermeneutics, or the philosophical study of the science of interpretation and analysis. The book is organized into three major sections: a discussion of the issue of truth/validity in the context of aesthetics, an expansion of this theme into the domain of the humanities and social sciences in general, and an examination of hermeneutics in terms of language. A number of discussions of related topics are appended.

Hermeneutics—the term derived from the Greek demigod Hermes, the messenger of the gods and inventor of language and writing—involves the study and analysis of the methodologies and theoretical approaches by which one arrives at the truth content of a particular object of inquiry (an art object, a text, or a historical epoch, for example). Hermeneutics has a long history in the fields of biblical and religious studies (interpretive commentaries on biblical passages) and legal studies (interpretive commentaries on the law). It becomes particularly significant in the modern age with respect to methodological questions in the social sciences (historiography) and the fine arts (literature).

A brief overview of the history of hermeneutic studies will be helpful in understanding the tradition from which Hans-Georg Gadamer’s work emerges....

(The entire section is 520 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method remains the premier work in the hermeneutic philosophy of the twentieth century. Following in the footsteps of philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger, Gadamer acknowledges the possibility of true or authentic experience but criticizes the methods of modern science and philosophy that seek to translate those experiences into universal norms. From Nietzsche, Gadamer takes the notion that all human understanding includes a perspective. Gadamer adopts Husserl’s discovery that all experience occurs within a given horizon that gives the experience context and meaning. From Heidegger, Gadamer learns that the essence of human being is understanding and that this understanding is constituted in language. Gadamer’s conclusion, the Linguistic Turn, holds that people’s experience of the world is trapped in language and that they have no direct, nonlinguistic access to the real world. Without direct access to the real world, the human sciences become a study of language.

Gadamer’s clear formulation of the Linguistic Turn and his open recognition of the relativity of human understanding pave the way for the postmodern philosophers of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The postmodernists argue that the Linguistic Turn undermines all philosophical positions, and therefore, they must abandon the notion of truth altogether. However, Gadamer was committed to finding the truth of human...

(The entire section is 420 words.)

Art and Understanding

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Gadamer begins his investigation of understanding with the development of the theory of aesthetic judgment. The question raised in the history of aesthetic theory asks, “How does one experience the truth of an art object?” What is it that works of art signify? Does understanding art require understanding the historical context of the work or the artist’s intentions? Here Gadamer makes the somewhat controversial assumption that there is a true experience of art, and he concludes that art presents itself.

To illustrate artistic self-presentation, Gadamer points out the possibility of aesthetic differentiation, the capacity to experience works of art outside their original context and function. Through aesthetic differentiation, the work becomes visible as a pure work of art, abstracted from all other significance. This abstracted experience allows the work to exist on its own. Because of the independence of the work of art, the aesthetic experience is not disappointed by any more genuine experience of reality. Seeing an apple, vase, and table does not decrease our appreciation of a still-life painting. Similarly, no scientific discovery can discredit our aesthetic experience. Hence, the truth of a work of art is located in neither another time nor another object. Art signifies itself, and we experience it as art when that experience is integrated into our own time and place in history.

Sciences and Texts

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Having revealed the true experience of art, Gadamer then questions the truth of the human sciences. Like the question of art, the truth of the human sciences involves understanding what historical texts signify. To uncover this truth, Gadamer carefully investigates the central figures in hermeneutics, including the Enlightenment period thinkers, the Romantic thinkers, the historical thinkers, and the phenomenological thinkers.

The Enlightenment technique for interpretation involved an effort to reveal the original meaning of texts, which was thought to have become alien or inaccessible. The texts that most concerned Enlightenment thinkers, the Bible and ancient Greek and Roman texts, were translated from foreign languages into the Latin of the Middle Ages. For Enlightenment thinkers such as Martin Luther, the literal meaning of the text is the original meaning. However, Scripture, which is not univocally intelligible from beginning to end, required a more sophisticated interpretive technique in order to achieve a consistent understanding of the text. Therefore, Luther and other Enlightenment thinkers adopted a technique from classical rhetoric that called for understanding the details of the text from the overall aim of the text. In this way, Enlightenment hermeneutics relied on the historical assumption that Scripture (and other texts) presented a unified purpose.

Under pressure to produce results that were equal in rigor to those in the natural sciences, the subsequent Romantic and historical thinkers offered revised methods of interpretation that focused historical research on deciphering texts, so as to neutralize the distance between the reader and the historical event. Consequently, the object of research in history became the text, which allowed researchers to study history in the same way a natural scientist studies objects. Gadamer points out that these efforts failed because the knowledge of the human sciences is...

(The entire section is 795 words.)

The Linguistic Turn

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Having shown that understanding in the human sciences remains trapped within a historical tradition, Gadamer then argues that that tradition is sustained by language. This position, called the Linguistic Turn, holds that the human experience of the world is completely mediated by language. To have an orientation toward the world requires us to maintain a certain freedom from the world so that we can represent the world to ourselves. Language provides the distance between the world and ourselves that allows us the freedom to communicate that world to other people. We are not trapped in the world of objects because language allows us to see and question that world. However, we are trapped in language. Our orientation toward the world is mediated by language, and the understanding we reach with other people always presupposes a shared linguistic perspective. Hence, the Linguistic Turn leads Gadamer to the position of linguistic idealism; we can understand neither the world nor ourselves except within the confines of our linguistic tradition.

Given this characterization of human understanding, Gadamer offers a description of the human sciences and a recommendation for improving understanding. Rather than to eliminate the prejudice of tradition, as per the natural sciences, the goal of the human sciences is to rehabilitate prejudice. Gadamer describes this rehabilitation as developing an “openness” to investigate the validity of the tradition. In this open...

(The entire section is 577 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Additional Reading

Hahn, Lewis Edwin, ed. The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer. Library of Living Philosophers, vol. 24. Chicago: Open Court Press, 1996. The series in which this volume appears is designed to create a context in which great living philosophers can respond to critical essays on their works. This volume contains twenty-nine essays by leading experts on a variety of aspects of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s works and his individual responses. Of particular interest to the general reader is the accompanying sixty-page philosophical autobiography, “Reflections on My Philosophical Journey.” The work also contains an excellent,...

(The entire section is 494 words.)