First published Wed 9 Nov, 2005
The term hermeneutics covers both the first orderart and the second order theory of understanding and interpretation oflinguistic and non-linguistic expressions. As a theory of interpretation, thehermeneutic tradition stretches all the way back to ancient Greek philosophy.In the course of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, hermeneutics emerges as acrucial branch of Biblical studies. Later on, it comes to include the study ofancient and classic cultures.
With the emergence of German romanticism and idealism thestatus of hermeneutics changes. Hermeneutics turns philosophical. It is nolonger conceived as a methodological or didactic aid for other disciplines, butturns to the conditions of possibility for symbolic communication as such. Thequestion “Howto read?” is replaced by the question, “How do we communicate at all?”Without such ashift, initiated by Friedrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey, and others, itis impossible to envisage the ontological turn in hermeneutics that, in themid-1920s, was triggered by Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit and carriedon by his student Hans-Georg Gadamer. Now hermeneutics is not only aboutsymbolic communication. Its area is even more fundamental: that of human lifeand existence as such. It is in this form, as an interrogation into the deepestconditions for symbolic interaction and culture in general, that hermeneuticshas provided the critical horizon for many of the most intriguing discussionsof contemporary philosophy, both within an Anglo-American context (Rorty,McDowell, Davidson) and within a more Continental discourse (Habermas, Apel,Ricoeur, and Derrida).
1. The Beginnings of Hermeneutics
The term hermeneutics, a Latinized version of theGreek hermeneutice, has been part of common language from the beginningof the 17th century. Nevertheless, its history stretches back toancient philosophy. Addressing the understanding of religious intuitions, Platoused this term in a number of dialogues, contrasting hermeneutic knowledge tothat of sophia. Religious knowledge is a knowledge of what has beenrevealed or said and does not, like sophia, involve knowledge of thetruth-value of the utterance. Aristotle carried this use of the term a stepfurther, naming his work on logic and semantics Perihermeneias, whichwas later rendered as Deinterpretatione. Only with the Stoics, and theirreflections on the interpretation of myth, do we encounter something like amethodological awareness of the problems of textual understanding.
The Stoics, however, never developed a systematic theory ofinterpretation. Such a theory is only to be found in Philo of Alexandria, whosereflections on the allegorical meaning of the Old Testament anticipate the ideathat the literal meaning of a text may conceal a deeper non-literal meaningthat may only be uncovered through systematic interpretatory work. About 150years later, Origenes expounds on this view by claiming that the Scripture hasthree levels of meaning, corresponding to the triangle of body, soul, andspirit, each of which reflects a progressively more advanced stage of religiousunderstanding.
With Augustine we encounter a thinker whose influence onmodern hermeneutics has been profoundly acknowledged by Dilthey, Heidegger, andGadamer. According to Gadamer, it is Augustine who first introduces theuniversality-claim of hermeneutics. This claim arises from the connectionAugustine establishes between language and interpretation, but also from hisclaim that interpretation of Scripture involves a deeper, existential level ofself-understanding. The work of Thomas Aquinas, to which the young Heideggerpaid a great deal of attention, has also had an impact on the development ofmodern hermeneutics. Heidegger, however, was mainly interested in Aquinas’snotion of Being, and not in his engagement with specifically hermeneutic issuessuch as the proper authorship of certain pseudo-Aristotelian texts.Presupposing the relative unity of an author’s work, Aquinas questions theauthenticity of these texts by comparing them to the existing Aristoteliancorpus, thus anticipating a critical-philological procedure that would lateremerge as a crucial aspect of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s notion of grammaticalinterpretation. This, however, is not the only point of contact between medieval philosophy and modern hermeneutics. Another such junction is the wayin which medieval interpretations of Sacred texts, emphasizing theirallegorical nature rather than their historical roots, are mirrored inGadamer’s attempt to rehabilitate the hermeneutic relevance of the allegory.
In spite of these and similar points of dialogue, it is inthe wake of Martin Luther’s sola scriptura that we see the dawn of agenuinely modern hermeneutics. Following Luther’s emphasis on faith andinwardness, it was possible to question the authority of traditionalinterpretations of the Bible in order to emphasize the way in which each andevery reader faces the challenge of making the truths of the text her own. Ourunderstanding of a text does not consist in a faithful adoption of thepredominant or authorized readings of the time. It is up to the individual readerto stake out her own path to the potential meaning and truth of the text. Reading now becomes aproblem in a new way.
Coming from a very different tradition, Giambattisto Vico,the author of the Scienza nuova (1725), is another central figure in thedevelopment of early modern hermeneutics. Speaking out against the Cartesianismof his time, Vico argues that thinking is always rooted in a given culturalcontext. This context is historically developed, and, moreover, intrinsicallyrelated to ordinary language, evolving from the stage of myth and poetry to thelater phases of theoretical abstraction and technical vocabularies. Tounderstand oneself is thus to understand the genealogy of one’s ownintellectual horizon. This grants a new urgency to the historical sciences.Moreover, it offers a model of truth and objectivity that differs from thoseentertained by the natural sciences. The historian does not encounter a fieldof idealized and putatively subject-independent objects, but investigates aworld that is, fundamentally, her own. There is no clear distinction betweenthe scientist and the object of her studies. Understanding andself-understanding cannot be kept apart. Self-understanding does not culminatein law-like propositions. Appealing to tact and commonsense, it is orientedtowards who we are, living, as we do, within a given historical context ofpractice and understanding.
Another philosopher who came to influence the early stagesof modern hermeneutics is Benedict de Spinoza. In the seventh chapter of the Tractatustheologico-politicus (1670), Spinoza proposes that in order to understandthe most dense and difficult sections of the Holy Scriptures, one must keep inmind the historical horizon in which these texts were written, as well as themind by which they were produced. There is an analogy, Spinoza claims, betweenour understanding of nature and our understanding of the Scriptures. In bothcases, our understanding of the parts hinges on our understanding of a largerwhole, which, again, can only be understood on the basis of the parts. Seen ina larger perspective, this hermeneutic circle, the movement back andforth between the parts and the whole of the text, is an importanthermeneutical theme. What does not lend itself to immediate understanding canbe interpreted by means of philological work. The study of history becomes anindispensable tool in the process of unlocking hermetic meaning andlanguage-use.
Preoccupied respectively with subjective piety, with thenew science of man, and with the historical aspects of understanding, Luther,Vico, and Spinoza all shaped and gave direction to modern hermeneutics. Yetnone of these thinkers developed anything like an explicit philosophical theoryof understanding, let alone a method or a set of normatively binding rules bymeans of which the process of interpretation should proceed. Such a theory wasfirst formulated by Johann Martin Chladenius.
In his Einleitung zur richtigen Auslegung vernünftigerRedenund Schriften (1742), Chladenius distinguishes hermeneutics fromlogic, but also elaborates a typology of points of view. Attesting tothe legacy of Leibniz and Wolf, the so-called School Philosophy, the focus onthe different points of view enables Chladenius to explain how variations inour perception of phenomena and problems may cause difficulties in ourunderstanding of other people’s texts and statements. At stake is not really ahistorical methodology in the modern meaning of the term, but a didactic andcognitively oriented procedure of interpretation. In order to understand what,at first, might look strange or obscure—and Chladenius outlines a whole catalogue ofdifferent obscurities—one ought to take into accountthe tacit and pre-reflective assumptions characterizing the point of view fromwhich the problematic text or statement was brought forth. Only thus may wereach a true or objective understanding of the subject matter. Hermeneutics, atthis point, goes hand in hand with epistemology. With his coupling of thesearch for truth and the search for understanding, Chladenius anticipates animportant orientation in20th century hermeneutics.
Georg Friedrich Meier is another hermeneutically mindedphilosopher within the Leibniz-Wolffian paradigm. Whereas Chladenius had beenconcerned with speech and writing, Meier’s hermeneutics is geared towards signsas such—thatis, every type of sign, including non-verbal or natural signs. In Versucheiner Allgemeinen Auslegungskunst (1757), Meier argues that signs do notstand for or refer to a specific non-semiotic meaning or intention, but gaintheir meaning through their location within a larger, linguistic whole. Whatdetermines the meaning of a sign is its relation to other signs. Meier’scontribution to hermeneutics is to argue for the interdependence ofhermeneutics and language, introducing a semantic holism in which linguisticobscurities are detangled by reference to language itself, not by reference toextra-linguistic elements such as the intention of the author.
Considering the early beginning of the modern hermeneutictradition, two more names must be mentioned: Friedrich Ast and Friedrich AugustWolf.
Ast published his Grundlinien der Grammatik, HermeneutikundKritik in 1808. An accomplished classicists and a student of FriedrichSchelling, his aim was to provide a methodology through which the whole ofworld-historical spirit could be retrieved. Individual utterances are neitherto be understood with reference to their author, nor with reference to theirplace within the semiotic system, but according to their location withinworld-history. This, Ast thought, was possible through the combination of asynthetic and an analytic approach, the former focusing on the whole, thelatter on the particular parts of which this whole consists. Ast therebyextends the scope of the hermeneutic circle. Originally conceived in terms ofthe relationship between the parts and the whole of the text, the hermeneuticcircle now includes the text’s relationship to historical tradition and cultureat large.
Like Ast, Wolf was trained in Classical studies. Both his MuseumderAltertumswissenschaft(1807) and his Vorlesungen uber die Enzyklopädie der Altertumswissenschaft(1831) address the epistemic,that is, the philosophical, aspects of classical philology. Classical studies,Wolf claims, aims at a total knowledge of its object, but should also reflecton the relevance of such knowledge as well as the method through which it isreached. However, dealing with ancient texts, hermeneutic knowledge presupposesnot only a general study of culture, but also a certain sensitivity to theindividuality of its author. By establishing philology as a methodologicaldiscipline reflecting both the shared, cultural framework and the dimension ofindividuality, Wolf came to mark his place as one of the most importantprecursors of romantic hermeneutics.
2. Romantic Continuations
On the one hand, there is an interest in the human sciencesand a willingness to defend the integrity of these sciences as distinct fromthe natural sciences. On the other hand, there is a deep concern with theproblem of making sense of the texts handed over to us from the past. These arethe twin pillars on which modern hermeneutics is built. For, strictly speaking,it is only at the point where these two orientations merge and mutually informone another that we encounter the first attempts at articulating a genuinelyphilosophical hermeneutics. This happens in the period of German romanticismand idealism. Herder, the Schlegel brothers, and Novalis are all important inthis context. So, too, is the philosophical background provided by Kant andHegel. Yet it is Friedrich Schleiermacher who first manages to pull togetherthe intellectual currents of the time so as to articulate a coherent conceptionof a universal hermeneutics, a hermeneutics that does not relate to oneparticular kind of textual material (such as the Bible or ancient texts), butto linguistic meaning in general.
Schleiermacher taught hermeneutics from 1805 onwards at theuniversities of Halle and Berlin. Although schooled in Kantianphilosophy, Schleiermacher was never a full-fledged Kantian. He drew onthe resources of Leibniz’s monadology, Schelling’s philosophy of identity, aswell as the teachings of British empiricism. Yet the (Kantian) question oflegitimacy remains at the center of his hermeneutics.
According to Schleiermacher, understanding other culturesis not something we can take for granted. Understanding others involves anopenness towards the fact that what seems rational, true, or coherent may coversomething deeply unfamiliar. This openness is only possible in so far as wesystematically scrutinize our own hermeneutic prejudices. Schleiermacher speaksof this as a stricter, as opposed toa laxer hermeneutic practice. Yet a stricthermeneutic practice, Schleiermacher repeatedly emphasizes, cannot, assuch, guarantee a just or fully adequate understanding. Nevertheless, it is, hethinks, an indispensable aid. It is something that may help the hermeneuticiannot to fall pray to the tendency to filter another’s speech or writing throughone’s own cultural, theological, or philosophical frame of mind.
The point applies not only to our understanding of othercultures. For, according to Schleiermacher, all use of language is locatedsomewhere between radical individuality and radical universality. Neither ofthese exists in an entirely purified form. All language-use is referred togrammar and a common symbolic vocabulary, yet we use these shared resources inmore or less individual ways—more individual in the case of, say, poetry, less individual in,say, scientific discourse or conversations about the weather. However, theindividuality of language-use does not refer to an inner, inaccessible layer ofthe mind. It refers to something like the style, the voice, or theparticularity of the language as used or applied.
In order to grasp the meaning of another person’s speech ortexts, one ought to focus on both aspects of her language-use, the sharedresources or grammar and syntax as well as individual application.Schleiermacher addresses this as the task of combining grammatical andtechnical interpretation. There is, however, no rule for this combination.Instead one must compare the text with other texts from the same period, fromthe same writer even, while continuously keeping in sight the uniqueness of theparticular work. Schleiermacher, like Schlegel and other philosophers of thetime, speaks of this as the capacity for divination: the ability to move fromthe particular to the universal without the aid of general rules or doctrines.Only by combining a comparative approach with creative hypothesis-making may abetter understanding be obtained.
Understanding better, however, implies no promise of afully adequate understanding. For although the risk of misunderstanding doesnot imply a state of total alienation—we do, after all, successfully communicate mostof the time—it does mean that understanding is neverfinal. There will always be an indivisible remainder that pushes theinterpreter forwards to explore hermeneutic vistas that have so far been leftoutside the pale of understanding.
It is precisely the idea of a critical turn in hermeneuticscombined with the focus on the individuality of language-use that made Schleiermachersuch an important figure for the next generation of hermeneuticians, concernedas they were with the methodology of the human sciences, or, as they understoodit, with the critique, in the Kantian meaning of the term, of historicalreason.
3. Critique of HistoricalReason
After Schleiermacher’s death in 1834, hermeneutics wascarried forward by Alexander von Humboldt, Chajim Steinthal, and Friedrich Carlvon Savigny. In this period, however, historians, theologians and jurists werelargely concerned with the application of hermeneutics within their specialdisciplines, and not with the conditions of possibility for understanding andcommunication as such. Three thinkers nevertheless stand out as exceptions tothis tendency. They are Johann Gustav Droysen, Leopold von Ranke, and, mostimportantly, Wilhelm Dilthey. In different ways, Droysen, von Ranke, andDilthey represent a return to Vico’s old problem, namely how one canphilosophically justify and account for the particular kind of objectivitypertaining to the study of man. Yet whereas Vico had been interested in cultureand history at large, the task is now more specific: How to justify thehumanities within a university system that is based upon the Enlightenmentideals of critical reason and rationality, and no longer on authority,tradition, and theological canon?
The structure of history, Ranke argues, echoes thestructure of a text in so far as it consists of a particular kind ofco-dependence between parts and whole. Like reading, understanding historymeans moving along the paths of the hermeneutic circle, from part to whole andback again. Because the historical mind is itself situated in history, thereis, however, no end to this circular movement. History cannot, as the Hegelianshad been arguing, be conceptualized, once and for all, by speculativephilosophy. Understanding history is an ongoing activity. This, however, doesnot make it superfluous as a science. In our effort to understand history,historical life is brought to consciousness about itself. Doing historical workmeans actively participating in the cultural tradition that is beinginvestigated; it means being historical in the most emphatic way.
Like Ranke, Droysen is interested in the methodology of thehistorical sciences. Trying to break free from the idealistic tradition towhich Ranke still adhered, Droysen makes the case for a theory of history that,like the methodology of the natural sciences, has less to do with the object ofstudy (history or nature) than with the manner in which the study is carriedout. The natural sciences uncover universal natural laws. The historicalsciences are sciences of understanding. Unlike the scientist of nature, thehistorian is separated from the object of study by the ever-renewed andself-renewing tradition. Her object is always mediated. Yet in understandinghistory the researcher also understands something that is ultimately her own,the outcome of human freedom, goals, and desires. At the end of the day, itapplies even for Droysen that history is intelligible and meaningful—that the study of itpermits a kind of objectivity that is different from but still comparable tothe one at stake in the natural sciences.
With Dilthey, the search for a philosophical legitimationof the human sciences is brought a significant step further. The author of avast monograph on Schleiermacher and his time, Dilthey responds to thequestions raised by Droysen and Ranke by retrieving the resources of romantichermeneutics. Scientific explanation of nature, Dilthey argues, must becompleted with a theory of how the world is given to us through symbolicallymediated practices. To provide such a theory is the aim of the humanities, orrather the aim of the philosophy of the humanities, the area to which Diltheydedicated his entire academic career.
The concepts of Erlebnis (lived experience) and Verstehen(understanding) play a crucial role within Dilthey’s endeavors to liberate themethodology of the humanities from that of the natural sciences. In his earlywritings, Dilthey made little effort to distinguish between these terms. Lateron, however, Erlebnis is connected with the process ofself-understanding, whereas Verstehen relates to our understanding ofothers. Dilthey’s important point is that, as such, Erlebnis, does notprovide self-understanding. Self-understanding is obtained only to the extentthat the self relates to itself as it relates to others, i.e., in a mediatedway. Yet Erlebnis, synthesizing and active, remains the psychologicalsource of all experience, the experiential potential that is articulated andconceptualized in understanding.
Turning to the level of historical research, thehermeneutically oriented scientist must respond to this situation by combininga more intuitive hypothesis-formation (aiming at the lived experience at stake)and a comparative method that would revise and secure the objectivity of thisprocess. This is Dilthey’s critical adaptation of Schleiermacher’s romantichermeneutics: a theory that replaces the romantic vocabulary of divination,congeniality, and comparison with one of an initial inductivehypothesis-formation leading up to a process of critical, empiricalinvestigation and historical comparison aiming at revision or improvement ofthe initial hypothesis. Dilthey’s most important contribution to hermeneuticsmight be said to rest in the fact that he is the first to ground hermeneuticsin a general theory of human life and existence. In this sense, Dilthey’sphilosophy paves the way for what we have later come to recognize as the turnto ontology.
4. The Ontological Turn
Informed by his reading of Schleiermacher, Droysen, andDilthey, Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (1927) completely transformedthe discipline of hermeneutics. In Heidegger’s view, hermeneutics is not amatter of understanding linguistic communication. Nor is it about providing amethodological basis for the human sciences. As far as Heidegger is concerned,hermeneutics is ontology; it is about the most fundamental conditions of man’sbeing in the world. Yet Heidegger’s turn to ontology is not completelyseparated from earlier hermeneutic philosophies. Just as Vico had started outwith a critique of the Cartesian notion of certainty, so Heidegger sets out tooverthrow what he takes to be the Cartesian trajectory of modern philosophicalreason.
For Descartes, Heidegger argues, the task of philosophy isto show how the subject can rationally establish the norms of epistemiccertainty whereby a given representation is judged to be true or false. Fromsuch a position, he continues, the way is not long to a conception of truth interms of the methods provided by the natural sciences alone. Such a model,however, tends to forget the most fundamental, pre-scientific aspects of our beingin the world. This is the area of Heidegger’s hermeneutics. As such,hermeneutics no longer emerges as one of several philosophical possibilities.Rather, hermeneutics—the hermeneutics of facticity, as Heidegger calls it—is what philosophy is all about in the first place.
This reflects back on Heidegger’s definition of terms suchas understanding, interpretation, and assertion. Understanding, in Heidegger’saccount, is neither a method of reading nor the outcome of a willed andcarefully conducted procedure of critical reflection. It is not something weconsciously do or fail to do, but something we are. Understanding is a mode ofbeing, and as such it is characteristic of human being, of Dasein. Thepre-reflective way in which Dasein inhabits the world is itself of ahermeneutic nature. Our understanding of the world presupposes a kind ofpragmatic know-how that is revealed through the way in which we, withouttheoretical considerations, orient ourselves in the world. We open the doorwithout objectifying or conceptually determining the nature of the door-handleor the doorframe. The world is familiar to us in a basic, intuitive way. Mostoriginally, Heidegger argues, we do not understand the world by gathering acollection of neutral facts by which we may reach a set of universalpropositions, laws, or judgments that, to a greater or lesser extent,corresponds to the world as it is. The world is tacitly intelligible to us.
The fundamental familiarity with the world is brought toreflective consciousness through the work of interpretation. Interpretation,however, does not have to be of a propositional nature. At stake is theexplicit fore grounding of a given object, as in the experience of thedysfunctional hammer all of a sudden materializing in all its lack ofhammer-usefulness. At this point, we are forced to stop hammering. As ifawakened to a new level of alertness, the tacit activity of hammering isreplaced by the sudden awareness of what a hammer is for. Interpretation makesthings, objects, the fabric of the world, appear as something, asHeidegger puts it. Still, this as is only possible on the background ofthe world as a totality of practices and inter subjective encounters, of theworld that is opened up by Dasein‘s being understandingly there.
At this point, we have still not reached the level at whichwe, according to Heidegger, would locate the idea of truth as agreement betweenjudgment and world. Yet a truth it is nonetheless—the truth of world-disclosure. Throughthe synthesizing activity of understanding, the world is disclosed as atotality of meaning, a space in which Dasein is at home.
Only through assertion is the synthesizing activity ofunderstanding and interpretation brought to language. In disclosing theas-structure of a thing, the hammer as a hammer, interpretation discloses itsmeaning. Assertion, then, pins this meaning down linguistically. Thelinguistic identification of a thing is, in other words, not original but ispredicated on the world-disclosive synthesis of understanding andinterpretation. This also applies with regard to the truth-value of theassertion. The world-disclosive truth of understanding is more fundamental thanthe truth presented through the propositional structure “s is p,” and prior, also, to the reflectively grounded certainty maintainedby the Cartesian philosopher.
This Heideggerian reformulation of the problem of truthgives rise to a new conception of the hermeneutic circle. In Spinoza, Ast, andSchleiermacher, the hermeneutic circle was conceived in terms of the mutualrelationship between the text as a whole and its individual parts, or in termsof the relation between text and tradition. With Heidegger, however, thehermeneutic circle refers to something completely different: the interplay betweenour self-understanding and our understanding the world. The hermeneutic circleis no longer perceived as a helpful philological tool, but entails anexistential task with which each of us is confronted.
According to Heidegger, Dasein is distinguished byits self-interpretatory endeavors. Dasein is a being whose being appearsas an issue. However, because Dasein is fundamentally embedded in theworld, we simply cannot understand ourselves without the detour through theworld, and the world cannot be understood without reference to Dasein’s way oflife. This, however, is a perpetual process. Hence, what is precarious here isnot, as in the earlier hermeneutic tradition, the moment when we are able toleave the hermeneutic circle, where our interpretative endeavors culminate in alucid, clear, and indubitable grasp of the meaning of the text. What matters,Heidegger claims, is the attempt to enter the circle in the right way, with awillingness to realize that the investigation into the ontological conditionsof my life ought to work back on the way in which my life is led.
With this turn towards ontology, the problems of philologybecome secondary. Hermeneutics now deals with the meaning—or lack of meaning—of human life: it is turned into an existential task.
5. Hermeneutic Humanism
After the publication of Being and Time, Heideggerstops engaging with explicit hermeneutic issues (as well as the terminology ofunderstanding, interpretation, and the hermeneutic circle). This aspect of histhinking, however, is taken up by his student, Hans-Georg Gadamer.
Gadamer works within the Heideggerian paradigm to theextent that he fully accepts the ontological turn in hermeneutics. Yet he wantsto explore the consequences of such a turn for our understanding of the humansciences. This, Gadamer thinks, can only be done if we leave behind theframework of romantic hermeneutics, both in its Schleiermacherian and inits Diltheyan versions. Going back to Vico and the neo-Aristotelian strands ofearly modern humanism, Gadamer wants to combine the Heideggerian notion of theworld-disclosive synthesis of understanding with the idea of Bildung, ofeducation in culture. This, by and large, is the project of Wahrheit undMethode (1960), a work that Gadamer spent more than 30 years completing.
Human being, Gadamer argues, is a being in language. It isthrough language that the world is opened up for us. We learn to know the worldby learning to master a language. Hence we cannot really understand ourselvesunless we understand ourselves as situated in a linguistically mediated,historical culture. Language is our second nature
This has consequences for our understanding of art,culture, and historical texts—i.e., on the subject area of the human sciences. Being a part of ourown tradition, historical works do not primarily present themselves to us asneutral and value-free objects of scientific investigation. They are part ofthe horizon in which we live and through which our world-view gets shaped. Weare, in other words, formed by these great works before we get the chance toapproach them with an objectivizing gaze.
Gadamer argues that we never know a historical work as itoriginally appeared to its contemporaries. We have no access to its originalcontext of production or to the intentions of its author. Tradition is alwaysalive. It is not passive and stifling, but productive and in constantdevelopment. Trying, as the earlier hermeneuticians did, to locate the(scientific) value of the humanities in their capacity for objectivereconstruction is bound to be a wasted effort. The past is handed over to usthrough the complex and ever-changing fabric of interpretations, which getsricher and more complex as decades and centuries pass. History, as Gadamer putsit, is always effective history. This, however, is not a deficiency. It is,rather, a unique possibility, a possibility that involves the particular kindof truth-claim that Gadamer ascribes to the human sciences: the truth ofself-understanding.
At the end of the day, Gadamer claims, it is not really wewho address the texts of tradition, but the canonic texts that address us.Having traveled through decades and centuries, the classic works of art,literature, science, and philosophy question us and our way of life. Ourprejudices, whatever aspects of our cultural horizon that we take for granted,are brought into the open in the encounter with the past. As a part of thetradition in which we stand, historical text shave an authority that precedesour own. Yet this authority is kept alive only to the extent that it isrecognized by the present. Were cognize the authority of a text (or a work ofart) by engaging with it in textual explication and interpretation, by enteringinto a dialogical relationship with the past. It is this movement ofunderstanding that Gadamer refers to as the fusion of horizons. As wecome, through the work of interpretation, to understand what at first appearsalien, we participate in the production of a richer, more encompassing contextof meaning—wegain a better and more profound understanding not only of the text but also ofourselves. In the fusion of horizons, the initial appearance of distance andalienness does itself emerge as a function of the limitations of our owninitial point of departure.
Obtaining a fusion of horizons requires us to engage withthe text Ina productive way. This, however, is not something we can learn bycoming to master a certain doctrine, method, or theory. It is more like a tacitcapacity, which we acquire by following the example of others. The knowledge atstake is like a practical know-how; it resembles the Aristotelian phronesis.It is a knowledge that can neither be deduced theoretically, nor be fullyarticulated, but that rests on a kind of tact or sensitivity that is onlyexhibited in the form of exemplary judgments and interpretations.
This co-determination of text and reader is Gadamer’sversion of the
hermeneutic circle. As important as the interplay betweenthe parts and the whole of a text is the way in which our reading contributesto its effective history, adding to the complexity and depth of itsmeaning. The meaning of the text is not something we can grasp once andfor all. It is something that exists in the complex dialogical interplay betweenpast and present. Just as we can never master the texts of the past, so do wefail—necessarilyand constitutively—to obtain conclusiveself-knowledge. Gaining knowledge of tradition and knowing ourselves areboth interminable processes; they are tasks without determinate end-points.This is the philosophical gist of Gadamer’s humanistic ontology: that ourbeing, historically conditioned as it is, is always more being (Sein)than conscious being (Bewusstsein).
6. Objectivity and Relativism
The force with which Truth and Method came to shapethe conjunctures of contemporary hermeneutics can only be envisaged by takinginto account how, over the past 40 years, the discussion of philosophicalhermeneutics has, by and large, been a discussion of Gadamer’s work.
One example is Emilio Betti. Publishing his Teoria dellainterpretatione in 1964, Betti approaches hermeneutics fromanon-ontological point of view, explicitly connecting himself to the legacy ofSchleiermacher and Dilthey. Hermeneutics, for Betti, should confine itself tothe epistemological problems of interpretation, and not try to engage with thedeepest conditions of human existence. Speech and texts, Betti argues, areobjectified representations of human intentions. To interpret their meaning isto breathe life into these symbolically mediated intentions. This is possiblebecause although the interpreter’s individuality and the individualityexpressed in the text are constitutively different, the interpreter mayovercome her own point of view in order to get a grasp on the meaning of thetext. At issue is an attempt to re-create the original process of creation: notin order to reach the psychological state or content of the author, but to getat the true and only meaning of the text.
Similar aspirations lie behind the criticism launched byEric D. Hirsch in the second half of the 1960s. Hirsch’s major work, Validityin Interpretation (1967), attempts to refute the central Gadamerian notionof the fusion of horizons. Like Betti, Hirsch takes this idea to invoke aproblematic epistemic relativism. Without a concept of validation, he argues,no interpretation would be more plausible than any other. Knowledge andobjectivity would be impossible in the domain of hermeneutics. But knowledgeand objectivity, Hirsch thinks, is precisely what defines the human sciences,even though these sciences are based upon interpretation rather thanexplanation.
It is illuminating, in this context, to compare Betti’s andHirsch’s objections, to the criticism directed against Truth and Methodfrom another point of view, namely that of the Frankfurt School.Represented by Jürgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel, this criticism is alsodriven by a worry about the potential relativism of an ontologically informedhermeneutics. Nonetheless, according to Habermas and Apel, this problem is byno means sufficiently resolved by Betti and Hirsch.
7. Critique of Ideology
In a number of articles, Habermas draws attention to whathe takes to be the political naivet of Gadamer’s hermeneutics. InHabermas’s view, Gadamer places too much emphasis on the authority oftradition, leaving no room for critical judgment and reflection. Reason isdenied the power of a critical, distanced judgment. What is needed is thereforenot just an analysis of the way in which we de facto are conditioned by historybut a set of quasi-transcendental principles of validity in terms of which theclaims of the tradition may be subjected to evaluation. Hermeneutics, Habermasargues, must be completed by a critical theory of society.
It is important to realize how Habermas’s objections differfrom those brought forth by Betti and Hirsch. As opposed to Betti and Hirsch,Habermas does not claim that Gadamer’s approach to hermeneutics is completelymistaken. He argues, rather, that Gadamer ascribes to hermeneutics anillegitimate kind of universality. Hence, the fundamental problem withGadamer’s hermeneutics would not be solved by calling for a hermeneutic method.The idea of a formal method is indeed convincingly criticized by Gadamer.Instead, what is needed is an effort to work out an adequate standard ofvalidity, or what Habermas refers to as the quasi-transcendental principles ofcommunicative reason. Only thus may hermeneutics, guided by the social sciences,serve the purpose of emancipation and social liberation.
Apel, by and large, shares Habermas worries, but approachesthe field of hermeneutics from a slightly different angle. Like Gadamer, Apelwas a student of Heidegger. Apel wants to show that Gadamer misunderstood histeacher. Towards the 1960s, Apel claims, the Heideggerian conception of truthundergoes a significant alteration. Although Apel grants that Heidegger stillfinds world-disclosive understanding a necessary condition for truth, he claimsthat Heidegger no longer thinks it is a sufficient one. This is the point thatGadamer misses, according to Apel. Gadamer does not see how the later Heideggerholds that the ontological level of understanding must be completed by anappeal to a trans-historical dimension of validity, not unlike the ones thatwere later to be proposed by Apel and Habermas.
These strands of criticisms—here represented by Betti, Hirsch,Habermas, and Apel—have not been left unanswered. Againand again, Gadamer emphasizes that his aim was never to dispense with everyappeal to validity, objectivity, and method in understanding. This is simply amisreading, he claims. Along the paths staked out by Kant’s critical turn, hesought, rather, to investigate the conditions of possibility for understandingas such. These conditions are not something that can be removed or bracketed byappealing to a hermeneutic method. Furthermore, it is not the case that oursituatedness within history is a limiting condition only: rather, as the spaceof human experience and reason, it opens up the world to us in the first place.
Whichever line of argument one finds more convincing, it ishard not to agree that both Gadamer and his critics have gained from the seencounters. And it is, it seems, the concessions and the criticisms, thespecifications and the revisions, that have made it possible for a philosophersuch as Paul Ricoeur to propose something like a third way in hermeneutics, analternative to both a merely epistemic orientation in hermeneutics and toGadamer’s ontological questioning of the distinction between facticity andvalidity in interpretation.
8. Semiotics andPost-Structuralism
Indebted to psychoanalysis as well as to the tradition ofFrench semiotics, Ricoeur sets out to demonstrate that there is no unbridgeablegap between ontological and critical hermeneutics. Although the differencesbetween the two are genuine, he proposes an alternative that aims at unifyingthe most convincing aspects of them both. Ricoeur agrees with Habermas and Apelthat the hermeneutic act must always be accompanied by critical reflection. Yethe does not find that this requires a leaving behind of the field of traditionand historical texts. Thus Ricoeur emphasizes how the text itself may open up aspace of existential and political possibilities. This dynamic, productivepower of the text undermines the idea of reality as a fixed, unyielding networkof authoritative patterns of interpretations.
Jacques Derrida also approaches the field of hermeneuticsfrom the background of post-structuralist theory. Like Apel, he claims thatGadamer misreads Heidegger. But whereas Apel fears that the lack ofaquasi-transcendental criterion of validity may lead to a situation where aworld-disclosive tradition is given too much authorityvis-à-vis the criticallyreflecting and judging subject, Derrida’s worry is that Gadamer remains withina tradition that, since Plato, has understood truth, logos, and rationality interms of metaphysics of presence. The divergence between Derrida and Gadamer—their interpretations ofHeidegger as well as their general theories of truth and meaning—were explicitly brought to the fore in a famous meeting between thetwo philosophers in Paris in1981.
Here Derrida questioned the idea of a continuouslyunfolding continuity of understanding. Meaning, he insisted, is not based onthe will to dialogue alone. Most fundamentally, it is made possible by absence,by the relations of a word to other words within the ever-evasive network ofstructures that language ultimately is. Our relation to the speech of others,or to the texts of the past, is not one of mutual respect and interaction. Itis a relationship in which we have to fight against misunderstanding anddissemination, one in which the focus on communality in language provides but aharmful illusion. The ethics of hermeneutics, consisting in the recognition ofthe possible truth of the other’s point of view, tends to cover up the way inwhich the other escapes me, the way in which the I always fails torecognize the thou in its constitutive difference.
Gadamer, on the other hand, argues that Derrida’s position—his rejection of everycontinuum of meaning, of an orientation towards truth, and of a genuinecommunication—potentially harbors in difference andthat the focus on discontinuity and fragmentation resembles the kind ofthinking that he criticized, in the first part of Truth and Method, asaesthetic consciousness. Precisely by emphasizing how the subject may reachbeyond herself in dialogical encounters with others does the term Bildung,in Gadamer’s view, allow for an ethical aspect of hermeneutics, for ahermeneutics that may contribute to a political, rather than an aesthetichumanism.
9. Hermeneutics andPragmatism
The ethical significance of hermeneutics, particularly itsresources for handling relativist challenges, has been an important issue inthe reception and exploration of hermeneutic thought in Anglo-Americanphilosophy. However, the main impetus for appropriation and integration ofhermeneutics with elements of the analytical tradition has beenmeta-philosophical. The most influential exponent of this development isRichard Rorty.
Filtering Heidegger’s ontological hermeneutics through hisdistinction between constructive and therapeutic philosophy, Rorty reads Beingand Time as an anti-Kantian, anti-representationalist antidote to thefoundationalistepistemological project of Western Philosophy. Heidegger’semphasis on the temporality and incompleteness of all understanding, on Dasein‘sinextricable, dynamic and never fully articulated involvement with the world,makes him, in Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), a hero(along with Dewey and Wittgenstein) of therapeutic, anti-metaphysicalpragmatist thinking. In time, however, Rorty comes to see Heidegger as unableto escape the metaphysics of representation; in Heidegger’s philosophy ofBeing, Rorty finds another version of the Ground of All Right Thinking. To Rorty’s mind, Heidegger fails to heed his own advice, to overcomemetaphysics, we must leave metaphysics alone. Continuing his own turn away frommetaphysics, Rorty after Philosophy and the Mirror of Natureincreasingly looks to literature, and to the relation between philosophy andliterature. As he explores the idea of Philosophy as a kind of writing, Rortyseeks to align philosophical thought and insight with, to put it in his ownterms, poetry rather than physics. Developing the ramifications of thiscontrast, Rorty articulates in a more fundamental way than in Philosophy andthe Mirror of Nature his opposition to the alignment and as similation ofphilosophical knowledge with scientific knowledge. This development of Rorty’sthought, which eventually leads him away from Heidegger, is not, however, aturning away from hermeneutic philosophy. On the contrary, it brings tothe fore a deep affinity with the hermeneutic humanism of Gadamer.
Gadamer is a lesser, but perhaps more enduring, hero ofRorty’s attempt to deconstruct the representationalist paradigm in philosophyfrom within. As Rorty articulates his conversational, non-representationalist,anti-methodological view of philosophy after epistemology, he turnsprecisely to Gadamer’s account of understanding. Philosophical conversationshould not be a search for commensuration; it should be, rather, hermeneutical.In relying on this term, Rorty intends to appropriate Gadamer’s description ofunderstanding as a fusion of horizons, as an event in which the subject isaltered, rather than a process over which she exerts methodological control.
Rorty’s application of Gadamer for his pragmatist,anti-ontological purposes, is, however, quite selective. For instance, whileGadamer finds in Kant an essential source of liberating anti-scientisticinsight, Rorty unequivocally casts Kant as the arch villain ofrepresentationalism and institutor of the scheme-content distinction. Anothermeasure of the distance between them is the difference between Rorty’s avowedlyethnocentric defense of liberal ideals, and Gadamer’s notion of theappropriation of tradition as away of being responsive to reason. Nevertheless,the contact points between Rorty pragmatism and hermeneutics are real andsignificant, not least expressed in the commitment to the idea of philosophy asintellectual activity in the humanistic tradition.
This affinity is attested to also by the work ofphilosophers who draw significantly on both Rorty and Gadamer. Some of Rorty’sreaders have been influenced by his critical exposition of the assumptions ofrepresentationalist metaphysics and his anti-rationalistic emphasis on thecontingency of human thought. Yet they find untenable Rorty’s attempt to turnthe issue of the legitimacy of ethical and epistemic norms into a matter ofsociology. For readers in this predicament, Gadamer’s elaboration of thehistorical nature of reason and, indeed, his own exegetical, discursivedialogical practice may provide important resources. The most notable exampleof such a philosopher is John McDowell.
McDowell’s appropriation of Gadamer in Mind and World(1994) undoubtedly owes something to Rorty’s use of Gadamerian ideas in hismodulation of pragmatism. However, while Rorty uses hermeneutics to label aposition that stands opposed to epistemology-based philosophy, past andpresent, McDowell’s appropriation of hermeneutics consists in part of aconciliatory reading of the past, in particular, of Kant. This conciliationrests on a central component in Gadamer’s attempt to give a non-relativist viewof a fully historicized reason, namely, a Hegel-inspired idea of dialogue.Dialogue is the mode of progress of understanding, and dialogue, according toboth McDowell and Gadamer, presupposes a willingness to submit, at leasttemporarily, to the claims of another. Submission here should not betakento imply blind acceptance, rather it is a matter of maintaining discursiveopenness by not insisting on the pre-eminence of ones own ways of putting thesubject at issue. Maintaining this openness of vocabulary, this tentativenessof phrase and of re-phrasing, is from a hermeneutic perspective a guiding normof any genuine dialogue. The reason is that only in such openness are newtruths able to emerge, truths that are not simply a yielding of one position toanother, but a genuine preservation of the insight contained in either.
This dynamic, practical, educational aspect of dialogue isan essential element of ontological hermeneutics, and McDowell draws explicitlyon it. McDowell aims to conceive of persons as biologically embodied temporalcreatures immersed in a shared world, yet capable by nature of being responsiveto reason and thus of becoming free subjects. Thus he addresses, among otherthings, a central problematic of much Anglophone philosophy of mind. A criticalingredient in McDowell’s project, however, is the idea of second nature.In virtue of their natural capacities, creatures like us are potentiallydialogical, that is, responsive to reason. The development of second nature isprecisely the realization of this potential. McDowell, drawing on explicitlyAristotelian elements in Gadamer’s notion of reason, provides an originalperspective on the requirements of naturalism as he works out the nature ofthis transformation into second nature in hermeneutical terms. McDowell focusesin particular on the dialectical, organic relation between tradition and thesubject who comes at the same to understand, to continue, and to renew thattradition. This process can be regarded as an opening up of the space ofreason. It is, simultaneously, a realization of the subject’s autonomy as athinker and an affirmation of the authority and openness of tradition. InMcDowell’s conception, it provides a tool for understanding sensitivity toreason as a realization of a potential inherent in biological nature.
The orientation of McDowell’s philosophical project is moreclosely aligned with Gadamer’s dialogical reading of past thinkers than isRorty’s more sweepingly critical style of historical narrative. It isinteresting to note, therefore, that both Rorty and McDowell draw extensivelyon the thought of Donald Davidson, and both emphasize intersections betweenDavidson’s philosophy and Gadamerian hermeneutics. It seems clear that therehas been no significant mutual influence between Davidson and Gadamer. As well,the former’s explicit philosophical concerns—how to articulate a non-reductive monism, toprovide the form of a theory of meaning, to uncover the social conditions ofpropositional content—are very different from those ofGadamer. Yet innovative philosophers like McDowell and Rorty who are inspiredby Davidson, appear to have been, among Anglophone theorists, particularlyreceptive to hermeneutic thought. Conversely, philosophers with a deep interestin the hermeneutic stream of Continental philosophy have shown an affinity forDavidsonian thinking. It is worthwhile, therefore, to look for convergences.
Three common points of emphasis are immediately salient: ona tight connection between understanding and truth; secondly, on theinterpenetration of our grasp of linguistic meaning and of objective reality;and, thirdly, on the social nature of meaning and thought. With regard to thefirst point, Davidsons approach to the nature of linguistic competence hasemphasized the constitutive role of the so-called principle of charity in allinterpretation. This principle has it that we understand each other as speakersand agents principally and fundamentally in so far as we take each other asrational agents, as, in McDowell’s phrase, responsive to norms of reason. ForDavidson this means, among other things, that we take each others sincereutterances on the whole as true. This is an inevitable outcome of what it is,as Davidson conceives it, to understand the language of another. While Davidsonis concerned to give an account of the nature of linguistic competence thatlets us specify the form of a semantic theory for a speaker, Gadamer seeks toilluminate how it is that a concrete, temporally immersed and spatially locatedindividual may be open to, and understand, a point of view different from herown. For Gadamer, as we have seen, this implies some kind of change ormovement, and here, too, in the fusion of horizons, the individuals grasp oftruth as something over and above her own particular perspective, turns out tobe the critical lever. For both Davidson and Gadamer, in spite of theirdifferent theoretical interests, communication depends on our ability to seethe truth conveyed in the articulated point of view of another.
For both, this idea leads naturally into the second andthird points above. Regarding a relation to truth as constitutive of dialogicalmeaning, Gadamer, following Heidegger, refuses to allow any fundamentaldichotomy between what a subject represents as true and how the world actually,objectively, is. To be sure, he does not deny the possibility of error orignorance. However, for Gadamer, our particular orientation toward the world,though necessarily limiting what we are able to grasp, is always also a mannerof being open precisely to the world. The notion of objective reality can haveno other content for Gadamer than this openness that the very perspectivalnature of our understanding provides. That we are open to objective realityshows itself in our ability to rearticulate our view of the world in rationaldialogue. Dialogue, however, is exactly openness to others; for Gadamer, to beepistemically open to the world and to be open to the points of view of othersare, in the end, inseparable capacities. Both, for Gadamer, are essentiallycapacities of language. Here Gadamer explicitly echoes Heidegger’s dictum thatlanguage is the house of being. We understand language in so far as we are withothers in a common and commonly known objective world.
In making this claim, Gadamer is joined by Davidson.Davidson holds that we understand others most basically by relating their wordsto the world around them, in what he terms Radical Interpretation.Moreover, the contents of our own thoughts, and so of our very recognition ofthe words of others and the objects and events to which they refer, themselvesdepend on our sharing with others a pattern of interaction with the world.Davidson refers to this as triangulation.
From different theoretical and philosophical perspectives,then, Gadamer and Davidson both take positions that break dramatically with thesubjectivist tradition in modern philosophy, a mode of thinking that, followingDescartes, ascribes a deep epistemic and ontological significance to thefirst-person perspective, the reflecting I. Undoubtedly this is a keyreason for their common relevance to philosophers who are struggling to breakaway from traditional modern approaches to the problems of validity, ofknowledge and of mind-world relations.
In the hands of Rorty, McDowell and an increasing number ofother contemporary thinkers, the resources of philosophical hermeneutics aredeployed in an effort to break out of the epistemic, dualistic paradigms ofmodern philosophy, and to open new philosophical ground no longer haunted bythe specters of relativism and skepticism, nor by the dream of foundationaljustification. Now, it may seem paradoxical that a mode of thought thatemphasizes exactly our beholdenness to tradition should be instrumental in whatis often presented as a deliberate break with tradition. However, thisimpression of paradox ought to be fleeting. One of the lessons of philosophicalhermeneutics is exactly that intellectual innovation of this sort depends on—indeed, is amanifestation of—the self-renewing power of tradition,of its dynamism, and its interpretability and reinterpretability. The currentappropriation of hermeneutics for revisionist philosophical purposesillustrates the hermeneutic notion of effective history. While transcendinganything the early interpretation-theorists could ever have imagined, thedeployment of Gadamerian thought to break with subjectivism would not have beenpossible without them. This effective-history, moreover, is dialectical—our reading of the early hermeneuticians, our understanding of thepotential inherent in their thought, is shaped essentially by this veryeffective-history, which both separates us from them and makes themunderstandable to us. Appreciating hermeneutics as a living tradition isnot, in the end, a matter of identifying a theory or a family of theories. Itis fundamentally a matter of perceiving a moving horizon, engaging a strand ofdialogue that is an on-going re-articulation of the dynamically historicalnature of all human thought.