Perhaps my first true love for philosophy came from the work of the German hermeneutic philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer. Granted, he was not the first philosopher I read carefully and critically, nor was he the first that stirred up my intellectual affections (that belongs to Sören Kierkegaard), but he was the first I discovered was saying everything I wished I knew how to say.
So, who was Hans-Georg Gadamer?
Gadamer was born on February 11, 1900, to Emma Karoline Johanna Gewiese (b. July 30, 1869; d. May 24, 1904) and Johannes Gadamer (b. 1867; d. 1928) in Marburg Germany. He would lose his mother at a young age to diabetes. Gadamer’s biographer, Jean Grondin, notes that all of Gadamer’s memories of his mother involved her illness. His father was a strong and often stern figure who tried to steer Hans-Georg to study the natural sciences, though he would eventually focus his career in the humanities, namely, philosophy.
Gadamer studied at both the University of Breslau and the University of Marburg. He began studying classics at Breslau before returning to Marburg where he studied under the likes of Paul Natorp and Max Scheler. He defended his dissertation, “The Essence of Pleasure in Plato’s Dialogues,” in 1922.
Gadamer was influenced by a number of philosophers throughout his education and teaching years. He lists Paul Natorp, Max Scheler, Martin Heidegger, Rudolf Bultmann, Gerhard Krüger, Richard Kroner, Hans Lipps, Karl Reinhardt, Karl Jaspers, and Karl Löwith as his main influences. Most scholars note the influence of Bultmann and especially Heidegger on Gadamer.
Gadamer is most famous for his contributions and developments in what is called philosophical hermeneutics, or perhaps better, hermeneutic philosophy. Up until the time of Friederich Schleiermacher, hermeneutics had been understood as the science of interpreting written texts, primarily aimed at interpreting the Bible and legal documents. Hermeneutics underwent its first Copernican Revolution with Schleiermacher, who redefined it as the art of human understanding. Hermeneutics then became concerned with the interpretation of all texts, and texts were then understood to be more than written words on a page.
Hermeneutics began its second Copernican Revolution in the work of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who brought hermeneutics into conversation with ontology, anthropology, and existentialism in his most famous work Being and Time, before climaxing in the work of Gadamer. Beginning with Heidegger and climaxing with Gadamer, hermeneutics became a sort of philosophical anthropology in which understanding was the primary mode of being for individuals. With Heidegger and, especially, Gadamer, hermeneutics became an interdisciplinary philosophical discipline that would have implications for ontology and metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, ethics, and philosophy of science.
Whereas before hermeneutics had been concerned with how to interpret written texts, Gadamer pushed hermeneutics to more universal concerns. As he famously wrote,
Philosophical hermeneutics takes as its task the opening up of the hermeneutical dimension in its full scope, showing its fundamental significance for our entire understanding of the world and thus for all the various forms in which this understanding manifests itself: from interhuman communication to manipulation of society; from personal experience by the individual in society to the way in which he encounters society; and from the tradition as it is built of religion and law, art and philosophy, to the revolutionary consciousness that unhinges the tradition through emancipatory reflection.(1)
Hermeneutics is concerned with all human understanding, and there is not existing in this world without understanding. Hermeneutics thus has a universal scope, and philosophical hermeneutics aims at offering an explanation to the what and how of human understanding.
Gadamer provides the most thorough articulation of his hermeneutic philosophy in his magnum opus, Truth and Method. He begins by discussing his disdain with the Enlightenment and the destruction its wrought on philosophy, science, and education. More specifically, he found grotesque the Enlightenment’s quest for epistemic certainty, i.e. knowledge of something that could not be doubted whatsoever. This quest for epistemic certainty found its way into both the natural and human sciences, and resulted in the developments of methods for obtaining said certainty. Hence, Gadamer’s title, Truth and Method, is a sort of juxtaposition between truth and method.
For the remainder of this article, I will discuss what I see to be the major components of Gadamer’s hermeneutics: his rejection of the Enlightenment quest for certainty, and his concepts of play, the hermeneutic circle, effective history and historically-effected consciousness, the fusion of horizons, application, and language as the basis of the universal hermeneutic problem.
Gadamer found this quest and its implementation of methods to be absurd. He was not convinced that one could just conjure up methods that are guaranteed to result in absolute certainty regarding any object of inquiry. Not all understanding could be relegated to epistemology, i.e. the study of knowledge, though it was related. Gadamer saw something in the Enlightenment’s blind spot, namely the historical conditionedness, i.e. the way one’s place in history has conditioned her thinking and understanding about everything, not only of the individual, but of the methods themselves. True understanding could only be found in the dialectic between the self and the other.
Though Gadamer rejected the Enlightenment and its quest to objectify all dimensions of human knowing and understanding, he did not reject the notion of objectivity all together. Hence, he explained the task of interpretation with his analogy of play. Consider the game of soccer. There are objective rules that guide the players and the process of the game. However, these rules do not explain how each and every player plays every aspect of the game. Each player brings her own sort of flavor to the game. Hence, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney do not play the game or their respective positions in the same way that everyone else does. There are objective guidelines that govern interpretation, but there is no set method to play, i.e. read the text, itself.
Gadamer’s next major concept is the hermeneutic circle. Following Heidegger, he understood the hermeneutic circle to be the never-ending dialectic between the self and the other. Both the self and the other exist within and have their own horizons of understanding. A horizon is the farthest extent that one can see, and everything within a horizon belongs to the seeing subject as her horizon. A horizon of understanding includes all perspectives and understandings of an individual. Horizons grow as the individual moves about. As she continues to dialogue with the other, her horizons are formed more and more. As she comes to better understand the other she comes to better understand herself; as she better understands herself she better understands the other, and so on ad infinitum.
What makes up one’s horizon of understanding is what Gadamer refers to as prejudices, and these prejudices are provided by tradition. Gadamer, unlike the Enlightenment thinkers, did not have a negative view of prejudice, perhaps better understood as pre-understanding. Rather, pre-understandings are what make understanding possible. We all have a perspective on the world, and these perspectives are heavily influenced by the traditions into which we are born. These pre-understandings are not static, however, they are always capable of undergoing change.
Suppose you and I have a disagreement over something. Whenever there is disagreement it is because we understand something differently, and these differences in understanding, as we possess them prior to our disagreement, are pre-understandings. Suppose after our disagreement I concede my position and come to agree with you: my understanding has changed. I have a new understanding. However, this understanding would not have been possible had I not already had a pre-understanding concerning what we were disagreeing. Pre-understandings, or prejudices, further enable genuine understanding.
The next major concepts for Gadamer are those of effective history and the historically-effected consciousness. Effective history (Wirkungsgeschichte) is a broad idea that encapsulates a lot of other ideas, namely those I discussed earlier. Effective history is the idea that one’s place in history has effected her, namely, that her existence in her particular location in the meta-narrative of history determines how she understands and interprets the world around her. When she was born, she was born into a certain place and a certain time in history, born into certain traditions and inheriting certain prejudices. As a result, history has been effective of her understanding. One might understand this as being historically conditioned.
The historically-effected consciousness (wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein) is simply awareness of the effects that history has had on oneself. Once we become aware that our place in history has conditioned us to see everything in a certain light, we are then able to question whether or not we see everything as it is or only according to our conditionedness.
Becoming aware of the history of effects allows us to begin genuinely listening to the other.
The historically-effected consciousness thus enables understanding to take place. Upon genuinely listening to the other we better understand ourselves, thus better understanding the other, i.e. the hermeneutical circle. Ideally, at some point, understanding takes place, and Gadamer refers to this as the fusion of horizons (Horizontverschmelzung). Understanding happens when the horizon of the self comes together with the fusion of the other. Understanding is never the assimilation of one horizon into another; rather, it is always a fusion of these horizons, which results in something new. Consider two circles, one yellow and the other red. The yellow represents the horizon of the other and the red represents the horizon of the self. When understanding between the self and the other occurs, the red does not assimilate into the yellow thus becoming yellow. Rather, both fuses together thus resulting in orange. All understanding is orange, at least in this example.
Connected to the fusion of horizons is Gadamer’s understanding of application. He points out that we have wrongly understood hermeneutics as a process, namely interpretation, then understanding, then application. According to Gadamer, all three of these occur simultaneously, necessarily. One always understands when she interprets, regardless of whether or not her understanding is correct. One always applies understanding, because she immediately begins making sense of what she understands and seeing things in a new light as a result of it.
Consider the hermeneutics of conversion to the Christian faith. Person A presents the Gospel to Person B. B interprets what A says, thus resulting in understanding. Simultaneous to B’s understanding of A’s presentation is her application of it, namely, she sees everything else in her world in light of A’s message. Interpretation, understanding, and application always occur together. One simply does not interpret and understand, and then try to figure out how to apply it. Application is always simultaneous to the interpretation and understanding events and is a necessary component to the hermeneutic process.
The final component of Gadamer’s hermeneutics I feel the need to discuss is his understanding of language in the hermeneutic task. Language is why the hermeneutic scope and task is universal. All understanding occurs through the medium of language. We process all of reality through our languages, yet we do not choose our language, i.e. the medium of the hermeneutic event. We are born into the languages in which we speak and think. Languages are the product of tradition and thus the source of all our prejudices. We pre-understand that our language rightly relates to the world in which we live. Becoming aware of this is part of the historically-effected consciousness. Once we are aware of how deep our prejudices run, even to the depths of the very medium through which all our understanding and interpretation occur, we become even more sensitive to the other.
Well, there you have it: the philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer! Gadamer has been indispensable for my own formation as a theologian and philosopher. He has made me more critically aware of myself as I seek to understand God’s revelation in Jesus as attested to in Scripture by the inspiration of the Spirit. Not only am I more aware of my own finitude in the hermeneutic process, but I am also more away of my dispositions towards the biblical text. To some extent, Gadamer, along with Paul Ricoeur, the other hermeneutic giant of the 20th century, has moved me to, at times, become suspicious of myself when interpreting Scripture. “Am I interpreting this with an agenda of which I am conscious?”
Gadamer has helped me not only to be a more careful reader of Scripture, but he has helped me to see that all theologizing and development of doctrine is a hermeneutical phenomenon. More specifically, I think doctrinal development and theologizing are instances of Gadamer’s application. The doctrine of the Trinity is an application of the what the Bible says concerning the Father, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Holy Spirit.
I hope you readers find Gadamer intriguing enough to look into him for yourselves! I recommend starting with some brief introductions to his though, namely those by Jean Grondin and Anthony Thiselton. Jean Grondin has also written a fantastic companion to Gadamer’s philosophy: The Philosophy of Gadamer. Concerning the primary sources, Gadamer’s magnum opus, Truth and Method, is the obvious place to start. I also recommend his collection of essays I cited earlier, Philosophical Hermeneutics. If you are interested in how his hermeneutics has influenced his understanding of other topics, such as religion and ethics, you should look into his collection of essays Hermeneutics, Religion, and Ethics.
Gadamer has been indispensable for me, and I hope you might find the interest to look into his work for yourselves. Happy studies!
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 1976. Philosophical Hermeneutics, translated and edited by David E. Linge (University of California Press).
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 1987. Philosophical Apprenticeships, translated by Robert R. Sullivan (MIT Press).
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 2004. Truth and Method. 2nd ed., translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (Continuum).
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 2011. Hermeneutics, Religion, and Ethics, translated by Joel Weinsheimer (Yale University Press).
Grondin, Jean. 1997. Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics, translated by Joel Weinsheimer (Yale University Press).
Grondin, Jean. 2003. Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography, translated by Joel Weinsheimer (Yale University Press).
Grondin, Jean. 2003. The Philosophy of Gadamer, translated by Kathryn Plant (McGill-Queen’s University Press).
Thiselton, Anthony C. 1980. Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description (Eerdmans).
Thiselton, Anthony C. 2009. Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Eerdmans).
(1) Hans-Georg Gadamer, “On the Scope and Function of Hermeneutical Reflection,” Philosophical Hermeneutics, translated and edited by David E. Linge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), p. 18.