Roma, Saturday, March 16, 2002
Hans Georg Gadamer (b. 1900) who died Thursday (March 14) in Heidelberg at age 102, was the father of modern hermeneutics. Even though he leaves behind a considerable bibliography (which apparently runs over 300 pages), Gadamer published his first major and most well-known book, Truth and Method (1960), when he was sixty and close to retirement. Prior to that he had submitted his minor thesis in 1922 on the essence of pleasure in Plato, and up to 1931, when he submitted a second dissertation on Plato, he still had no major opus as such. Both were, however, left unpublished, which left Gadamer practically unknown, even in Germany, until Truth and Method finally materialized. Up to the Second World War, Continental European philosophy was by and large under the dominance of the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, and in the social sciences the phenomenological current was best represented by Georg Simmel (known mostly for his Philosophy of Money), while the sociology of Max Weber had taken another turn by focusing on "social action" and its meaning as the basis of our knowledge of social entities. It was, indeed, only with the late Pierre Bourdieu that both currents --the phenomenology of symbolic meanings and social practice-- have merged into one coherent theory (as exemplified in Outline of a Theory of Practice).
Husserl's phenomenology, and later Heidegger's, were obviously both rooted in the Kantian Aufklärung. In Kant's terminology, the human mind has only a perception and knowledge of the phenomena of nature, while the things-in-themselves remain inaccessible to us. This division between phenomena and things-in-themselves, which still dominates the bulk of European philosophy, has led Kant to formulate the objective conditions of knowledge. Thus, if our knowledge of man, nature, and society is mostly the outcome of daily experience --meaning it is a posteriori-- what makes such a knowledge possible and objectively acknowledged as such are its a priori modes, or what was there beforehand prior to experience. Thus, to Kant not only experience would not have been possible per se without the categories of understanding, but space and time operate like a priori spectacles that give shape to the flux of perceptions-as-phenomena. Kant's Copernican revolution, which shifted the Cartesian paradigms in another direction, has triggered a liberation from the old Aristotelian and medieval systems of cognition. Thus, the phenomena are not part anymore of some kind of preordained order, be it religious, political, or even metaphysical. Only the human mind is capable of placing some order in the chaotic perception of all those phenomena which are perceived in every fraction of a second. Man suddenly becomes the center of the universe. Two centuries later, the existentialists will only radicalize the Kantian assertions: existence precedes essence, or as Sartre would say, man simply exists, without any prior motive or essence --and that's precisely the existential problem.
To be sure, Kantism has renovated itself throughout the twentieth century, but in different directions. Thus, while Husserl went ahead with a general phenomenological theory, one that also encompasses the foundations of mathematics and geometry, Heidegger was more concerned with what he saw as Kant's metaphysical problem: If metaphysics, pace Kant's phenomena, is no more possible, then what is it then that philosophy can still do? Is it an acknowledgement to the end of philosophy as we've known it since the pre-Socratics? As is well known, Heidegger will work his way out in terms of a philosophy of existence through a notion of being-in-time (Dasein), which in itself can neither be reduced to an object of knowledge nor to a pure phenomenon since it stems from the lebenswelt as such. To the young Gadamer, Heidegger's Being and Time (1927) acted as a revelation, to the point that it took him a long time to find his own way. Indeed, and in response to the long delays in publishing his magnum opus, Gadamer said that he had always felt that Heidegger "was over his shoulder watching him incessantly." But another reason for that notorious delay could well be Gadamer's own method of work and his desire to formulate his lifetime preoccupations no matter how long it takes. (But did he know that he would live that long, so as to begin publishing once he retired with a vengeance?) He also stressed the communicative nature of his enterprise, and Truth and Method was the outcome of long conversations with students: Gadamer typically preferred ordinary laymen to specialists when discussing philosophy. That worked well for a generation of students who liked to listen and argue rather than be spoon-fed.
Gadamer thought that both Husserl's phenomenology, in its incessant preoccupation with the objective possibilities of knowledge, and Heidegger's existentialism, with its notion of a Dasein rooted in the being-there-and-now and confronted with death, left behind the whole area of understanding based on interpretation, which Gadamer looked upon as a global activity, and which as individuals we routinely undertake in our daily lives, and hence is not limited to particular fields of knowledge. Eventually, what Gadamer was interested in was not a method of interpretation --since there must be several of them, depending on one's preoccupations-- but rather in the general practice of understanding through interpretation. Indeed, our understanding of beings is not to be limited to the objective conditions that make knowledge possible as Kant thought (and later Husserl), but mostly, if not predominantly, in a long process of interpretation, which in itself is neither subjective nor objective since it involves an interaction between both the individual (subject) and the object to be interpreted (text, image, ritual, etc.). The notion of interpretation as a fundamental tool for understanding (verstehen, comprendre) probably originates with Dilthey (1833-1911), but even with Heidegger language becomes central to Dasein's existence: language is the house of being. However, with Gadamer everything becomes open to interpretation, be it the babbles of a newborn, my morning newspaper or a neighbor's phone call, a ritual, Newton's laws of motion, the Bible or The Critique of Pure Reason. In that "game" of interpretation language acquires a central role, but with no set of "rules" that would establish once and for all the objective criteria of understanding. Here Gadamer is probably close to the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations, which postulated that the language-games achieve their moment of "truth" --or recognition-- through custom and habit. Even the abstract and universal propositions of mathematics carry no meaning as such, but only through their customary acknowledgment. Indeed, Gadamer's hermeneutics, which originally targeted the positivism that was rampant in the 1960s does not provide the natural sciences with any special epistemological privileges since they, in turn, are not immune from the language games of interpretation.
If everything could be subject to interpretation, and there is no absolute objective truth as such, texts, among others, become the de facto subject of layers upon layers of interpretation with no end in sight --the famous "hermeneutic circle." An interpretation thus becomes "validated" within a certain "community" through "consensus," while remaining open to other possible interpretations. In the long debate that opposed Gadamer to Habermas, the latter looked upon interpretation as dictated by socio-historical normative rules, so that everything becomes relative to a society and period, while Gadamer insisted on a more "universal" perception of the difficulties of understanding through interpretation.
Be that as it may, "the hermeneutic circle" has since then found its way in the social sciences, and the problem has become in being able to describe what that "circle" implies for a particular discipline. Thus, for example, students of the American common law who reject the old notion of "a natural law" (which would provide anything from an absolute right to property and the duty to punish a criminal), or who refuse the primacy of the US Constitution, are necessarily, though by no means always, driven towards Gadamer's "hermeneutic circle," which serves as a leeway to interpret texts, precedents, codes and statutes, and in organizing them within their socio-historical underpinnings (à la Habermas). Hermeneutics, however, has not witnessed much popularity in the fortress of the natural sciences, considering that such an approach would de facto be looked upon as relativistic, hence undermining the universal claims of those sciences.
Despite such successes (or acts of resistance), Gadamer's work remains poorly known in the Anglo-American literature which tends to work for universal criteria of truth, thus ignoring that the alleged objectivity in both the natural and social sciences, and in the arts and humanities as well, is only valid as such within consciously or unconsciously bargained hermeneutical criteria. Without that Gadamerian reminder our teaching and writing would only slump into dogmatic habits which regrettably fit all too well within a bureaucratized academia.