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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520

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.

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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. Individuals such as Johann Gottfried Herder, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Wilhelm Dilthey were leading eighteenth and nineteenth century critical thinkers who developed central concepts in the field of hermeneutics. Dilthey is particularly important because of his efforts in distinguishing the types of inquiries and methodologies unique to the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften) versus the humanities and social sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) and because of his theoretical model of the “hermeneutic circle.” According to Dilthey, the natural sciences “explain” (erklaren) phenomena of nature (as facts or hypotheses) whereas the humanities seek to “understand” (verstehen) the activity of the human spirit. Dilthey’s notion of the hermeneutic circle implied that understanding occurs through a structural-historical process involving part and whole (or subject and object) and is based on the phenomenon of subjective experience (Erlebnis) and the ability to feel empathetically the experiences of others (Einfuhlung). The mediation of subject and object in the hermeneutic circle results in an objective understanding of truth. Dilthey’s ideas were important for the development of later hermeneutic theories.

The work of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger was especially influential on the formulation of Gadamer’s thought. According to Heidegger’s ontological philosophy, understanding—and therefore hermeneutics—is not merely a cognitive faculty: It is the mode in which the human being exists. To be human means to seek understanding, to reveal or uncover the truth of Being. The communication of Being—the events of language, conversation, questioning, and answering—is the task of human existence. The work of art (especially literature) is a particularly significant mode of communication for Heidegger since the artist or writer seeks in essence to “speak” Being. All communication is grounded in human existence and is therefore temporal, intentional, and historical. These ideas played a major role in shaping Gadamer’s discussions of hermeneutics.

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 420

Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method remains the premier work in the hermeneutic philosophy of the twentieth century. Following in the footsteps of...

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