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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. 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.

Context

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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 understanding. He derives his conclusions from an exhaustive analysis of the history of hermeneutics that involves questioning the truth of aesthetic experience, the truth of understanding in the human sciences, and the linguistic boundaries of understanding. However, understanding itself remains the central issue, and Gadamer’s goal is to distinguish and thereby free the truth of human understanding from the methodologies of the natural sciences, which, he believes, dominate twentieth century thinking.

Although Gadamer claims that Truth and Method is intended as a study into how human understanding is possible and not as a methodological guide for the human sciences, he begins by pointing out that developing the human sciences along the model of the natural sciences has failed to serve the purpose of these sciences. Gadamer defines that purpose as the effort to understand how specific peoples, cultural objects, or institutions have come to be what they are. He distinguishes this purpose from the purpose of the natural sciences, which he describes as the effort to confirm and extend experiences in order to predict future experiences. The challenge then for the human sciences, and hermeneutics in general, is to understand the world as it truly is, not in order to control it.

Art and Understanding

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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

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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 different from the knowledge of the natural sciences. Even these improved interpretive methods functioned on the scientific notion that experience is self-evident, failing to recognize how history influences the way people experience and interpret the world.

It was the phenomenological approach that revealed the historical character of experience. In an effort to get to the “things themselves,” Husserl proposed to investigate the subjective modes of experience, to understand what it is that the individual experiences in perception. For Gadamer, Husserl’s most interesting discovery was the realization that all experience is given within the context of a horizon. The horizon provides a context such that all experience is understood in terms of the whole of experience. The horizon is defined by the historical tradition of which one is a part, and it prejudices the way one understands the past, present, and future. Gadamer accepts this notion of the horizon and the prejudices associated with it, but Husserl still hopes to provide a method for getting at the “things themselves,” and in this regard, he failed to free himself from the standards of the natural sciences.

It was Husserl’s student, Heidegger, who realized that understanding is not a mode of behavior; understanding is the character of human existence. People are temporal beings, beings that contemplate the past, present, and future. When Husserl showed that all understanding occurs out of a historical tradition, and that this tradition is continuously transformed by human understanding, it became clear to Heidegger that all understanding is self-understanding. If the historical tradition in which one lives defines the way one lives in the world and one’s understanding of that world, and the way one understands the world in turn alters the historical tradition in which one lives, then all understanding is about ourselves—the way we live in the world and understand it. For Gadamer, this was the ultimate discovery in hermeneutics, for it was this discovery that finally made sense of the human sciences. With the recognition that all human understanding is a historically conditioned self-understanding, the human sciences could finally shrug off the objective, ahistorical viewpoint sought in the natural sciences. There is no objective, ahistorical standpoint for interpreting and understanding history.

Gadamer’s analysis of art and the human sciences revealed that understanding is always personal and determined by the tradition of which one is a part. The tradition provides a way of looking at the world, which prejudices all standards of evaluation, making all interpretations relative to the tradition in which they occur. Gadamer is aware of the contradiction that relativism involves: To claim that it is unconditionally true that all interpretations are conditional is itself a contradiction. Gadamer makes the controversial claim that this contradiction only applies to objective assertions about particular things. While one cannot claim that Euclidian geometry proves that Euclidian geometry is false, what one says about oneself is not an objective assertion about a particular being, but a subjective assertion about human beings whose self-understanding is self-defining. Hence, the contradiction is irrelevant.

The Linguistic Turn

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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 investigation, the interpreter can neither follow the tradition blindly nor get outside the tradition in order to understand it in its entirety. Gadamer describes this as an investigation from within. This openness cannot be sustained methodologically because the methodology itself (as a product of its own tradition) would be subject to continual rehabilitation. Hence, the purpose of the human sciences is to raise the level of reflection on tradition itself.

Truth and Method was widely influential for philosophy and the human sciences in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Gadamer’s work transformed hermeneutics from a discipline associated with the interpretation of ancient texts into a study of human nature itself. This transformation showed that the truth of the human sciences could not be derived methodologically. It forced researchers in the human sciences to reconcile the objective claims of their work with the linguistic tradition in which they work. Gadamer’s linguistic ideals may also be seen as the last stage in modern philosophy, a philosophical position committed to the discovery of universal truth. Although Gadamer abandoned the notion of objective, ahistorical truth, he proposed a definition of human understanding that he believed to be universally true.

The postmodern philosophers of the 1970’s and 1980’s radicalized Gadamer’s linguistic idealism and suggested that once we have acknowledged that language mediates between the subject (individual) and the world, then all we can ever know is language. Hence, we must abandon all beliefs about the subject, the world, and the notion of truth, which connected human understanding to the world. As radical as Truth and Method was in 1965, postmodernism has declared an end of philosophy and moved the debate over the proper subject for philosophy and the human sciences beyond Gadamer’s linguistic idealism. Postmodernism declares that the proper object of study for the human sciences is language, and that the proper purpose is to identify institutions of power used for human oppression. However, Gadamer’s study of hermeneutics may ultimately offer a rational middle ground for the human sciences that acknowledges the historical character of human understanding without abandoning the notion of truth.

Bibliography

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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, comprehensive bibliography of Gadamer’s works.

Palmer, Richard. Hermeneutics. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1969. This book was instrumental in introducing hermeneutics to an American audience. The clarity of Palmer’s presentation makes this volume an excellent starting point for someone wanting to understand the basic elements of Gadamer’s theory of interpretation.

Risser, James. Hermeneutics and the Voice of the Other: Re-reading Gadamer’s Philosophical Hermeneutics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991. In this volume, Risser develops an insightful assessment of the single project reflected in the complexity of Gadamer’s thought: making sense of the act of understanding. This book will be most helpful to those readers who have already been introduced to Gadamer’s philosophy.

Smith, P. Christopher. Hermeneutics and Human Finitude: Toward a Theory of Ethical Understanding. New York: Fordham University Press, 1991. Taking the philosophical thought of Gadamer on art and the interpretation of texts as a foundation, Smith carefully develops its implications for understanding what ethical knowledge consists of, concluding that ethical choices are best made by interpreting the voice of tradition.

Warnke, Georgia. Gadamer: Hermeneutics, Tradition and Reason. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1987. A lucid study of how three important themes in Gadamer’s writings—art, history, and philosophy—are interrelated. Sympathetic to and yet critical of Gadamer’s views, Warnke argues that the key to understanding Gadamer is to see him as steering a middle course between endorsing the Enlightenment’s project of clarifying the rationality of our beliefs and accepting the view that this project is misguided.

Weinsheimer, Joel. Gadamer’s Hermeneutics: A Reading of “Truth and Method.” New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. One of the translators of Gadamer’s Truth and Method, Weinsheimer presents a well-written, in-depth analysis of Gadamer’s most significant work. This volume is a helpful guide for the general reader and scholar alike.

Wright, Kathleen, ed. Festivals of Interpretation: Essays on Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Work. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990. A collection of essays by some of the most renowned European and North American scholars of Gadamer, intended to celebrate the necessity of interpretation by examining a wide range of topics considered in Gadamer’s work, including the relation of hermeneutics to ethics and justice, the application of hermeneutical interpretation to the law, and the relation of poetry to politics. Readers with little or no familiarity with Gadamer’s work may still find this book rewarding.

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