Hans-Georg Gadamer (February 11, 1900 – March 13, 2002) was a German philosopher best known for his 1960 magnum opus, Truth and Method (Wahrheit und Methode). In this work, Gadamer developed his theory of philosophical hermeneutics, which argued that all human understanding involves interpretation and that such interpretation is itself historically conditioned by particular cultures and languages. For this reason, dialogue and openness to others are essential to any living philosophy. Gadamer put this theory into practice in his public debates with Jürgen Habermas (1929- ) and Jacques Derrida (1930-2004).
Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics emphasized the humanities over science and so he was critical of a modern scientific view of the human being that reduced one’s knowledge of the world and human beings to an objective or methodical knowledge. Influenced by Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Gadamer came to view truth as not an objective statement about facts but rather as an event or disclosure that happens in language, which itself is historically conditioned; thus, is all human truth likewise conditioned. This meant that all truth is finite and can never attain some objectively absolute view. Critics, therefore, accused Gadamer of falling into relativism]. Nevertheless, he remained optimistic regarding the capacity to experience truth and so be transformed by this experience. Truth, for Gadamer, was a kind of process of self-understanding and transformation as well as ongoing discovery of the world which happens in dialogue with others, or a “fusion of horizons.”
The hermeneutics of Gadamer laid out a profound situation in which one's recognition of the finitude of one's perspective in dialogue paradoxically makes one capable of experiencing the truth of "a higher universality." Although it deliberately avoided referring to God objectively, it actually echoes a similar dialogical approach of the "I-Thou" relation by Jewish existentialist Martin Buber (1878-1965), which brought in an experiential grasp of God.
Gadamer was born in Marburg, Germany, as the son of a pharmaceutical chemist who also served as rector at the local university. Gadamer resisted his father's urging to take up the natural sciences and instead was drawn to the humanities. He studied in Breslau under Hönigswald, but soon moved back to Marburg to study with the neo-Kantian philosophers Paul Natorp (1854-1924) and Nicolai Hartmann (1982-1950). Gadamer defended his dissertation in 1922.
Shortly thereafter, Gadamer visited Freiburg and began studying with Martin Heidegger, who was then a promising young scholar who had not yet received a professorship. Gadamer thus became one of a group of students who studied with Heidegger such as Leo Strauss (1899-1973), Karl Löwith (1897-1973), and Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). Gadamer and Heidegger became close, and when Heidegger received a position at Marburg, Gadamer followed him there. It was Heidegger's influence that gave Gadamer's thought its distinctive cast and led him away from the earlier neo-Kantian influences of Natorp and Hartmann. While Heidegger’s work was often very obscure, however, Gadamer is known for making Heidegger’s thought more accessible by bringing some of Heidegger’s basic insights and approach into dialogue with other philosophers and philosophies and thereby bringing out the social dimension of philosophy which Heidegger’s thought is frequently accused of ignoring.
Gadamer habilitated in 1929, and spent most of the early 1930s lecturing in Marburg. Unlike Heidegger, Gadamer was strongly anti-Nazi, although he was not politically active during the Third Reich. He did not receive a paid position during the Nazi years and never entered the Party; but he did receive an appointment at Leipzig near the end of the war. In 1946, he was vindicated of Nazism by the American occupation forces and named rector of the university. Later, Gadamer accepted a position in Frankfurt am Main and then succeeded Karl Jaspers (1883-1965) in Heidelberg in 1949. Gadamer remained in this position, later as emeritus, until his death in 2002.
In 1960, Gadamer completed his magnum opus, Truth and Method, in which he developed his philosophical hermeneutics that focused on dialogue as the keystone of philosophy. This theory was put into practice in his famous debate with Jürgen Habermas where the two thinkers argued over the possibility of transcending history and culture in order to find a truly objective position from which to criticize society. The debate was inconclusive but marked the beginning of warm relations between the two men. Gadamer later secured Habermas's first professorship in Heidelberg. Another attempt to engage a fellow philosopher in public debate occurred when Gadamer debated Jacques Derrida. Unfortunately this conversation proved less enlightening since the two thinkers had so little in common. After Gadamer's death, Derrida called their failure to find common ground one of the worst disappointments of his life. Nevertheless, in the main obituary for Gadamer, Derrida expressed his great personal and philosophical respect.
Gadamer's philosophical project was to develop the "philosophical hermeneutics," which had been inspired and initiated by Heidegger. Traditionally, hermeneutics was focused on the interpretation of written texts, particularly sacred texts such as the Bible. In the nineteenth century, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) applied a hermeneutic method to the study of the humanities. Later, Heidegger and his followers, who had also been influenced by the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), expanded hermeneutic theory so that it involved the entire human understanding of the world. Or, to put it simply, all human understandings involve some degree of interpretation.
In his major work Truth and Method Gadamer further explored and developed this notion of the nature of human understanding. Truth and Method was not meant to be a programmatic statement about a new "hermeneutic" method of interpreting texts. Instead he intended the work to be a description of what people always do when they understand and interpret things (even if they are not aware of it). In particular, Gadamer emphasized the relation of human understanding and interpretation to history and language.
Gadamer argued that "truth" and "method" were fundamentally at odds with each other. For human understanding in being, a form of play is more of an art than a science. Following Heidegger, Gadamer claimed that truth in its essence is not a correct proposition that adequately represents a certain factual state of affairs (for example, the statement “the dog is brown” adequately representing the real dog as being really brown). Rather truth is better understood as an event. The event is a disclosure which happens both in a concrete historical context and through the medium of language. One saying “the dog is brown” is the disclosure of an experience of the brownness of the dog. Even if people do not say the words out loud, they must, in some sense, "speak to ourselves" in the revelation of this truth.
Given this view of truth, Gadamer was critical of much of modern philosophy, which tried to employ the rigorous methods of the natural sciences to defend or secure its "objective truth." For Gadamer, however, there is no bird’s eye view or "view from nowhere" where one can observe and so understand the world objectively in its being or as it really is. Rather, all human understanding is conditioned by the historical, cultural, and linguistic context of the viewer. For this reason, Gadamer criticized the Enlightenment’s “prejudice against prejudice.” We are all prejudiced in the sense that we all have “pre-judgments” which influence our understanding and perspective of the world. But these prejudices or pre-judgments are not always negative. A Christian, a Buddhist, or a materialist looks at the world with Christian, Buddhist, or materialist eyes. In the horizon of each individual there is a complex nexus of pre-judgments that are embedded in the individual’s history. This history, both from the personal cultural level, affects the individual’s understanding of the world. Gadamer called this phenomenon an “historically effected consciousness” (wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein) where individuals are unavoidably embedded in the particular history and culture that shaped them.
Although the historical factors, which very much influence each person’s individual understanding as well as each culture’s collective understanding, are often hidden, this does not mean these factors cannot be disclosed. Rather for Gadamer the disclosure of truth is not only a process of coming to a better understanding of the world but also a process of coming to a better understanding of the self, or an increasing self-knowledge. Moreover, such truth can only be further developed and enlarged by engaging in the world and with others. Gadamer called this a “fusion of horizons” where different views merge together and so enlarge and transform the view of the individual. Ultimately such a fusion of horizons is ‘objectively’ secured via tradition, where tradition is understood as the collective thought communicated in various works both written and artistic. This view led him to lay stress on the classics, which must continually be revisited and appropriated according to the particular age and individual.
Gadamer then employed this hermeneutic notion of the fusion of horizons to his theory of the reading of historical texts. As opposed to Wilhelm Dilthey, Gadamer argued that a reader could never get into the mind of the author so as to discover the author’s true intentions. Rather the reader can only meet the author in the subject matter that is being discussed. The reader is better served, then, not by trying to discover the author’s true intentions but by understanding the subject matter from one’s own standpoint and with the help of the author.
This view led Gadamer to a kind of finite "perspectival" view of truth (often known as “the hermeneutics of finitude”) in which the most one can do is develop one’s own perspective and self-knowledge while being open to the views of others. Critics often claim that this view leads Gadamer down the wayward path of relativism. Gadamer defends his position by arguing that the recognition of historically conditioned perspectives does not cancel any notion of truth but simply denies that any perspective is absolute. One is able to grasp the truth, according to Gadamer, not by trying to transcend or rise above one’s historical context, culture, and tradition but by becoming more self-aware of one’s context, culture, and tradition. Gadamer's position would be able to be better appreciated, if we could see a profound paradox in it: That if one is humbly aware of how finite and limited one's own horizon is, one can find it to continually grow in the fusion of horizons, thus being able to grasp the truth better, even "rising to a higher universality that overcomes not only our own particularity but also that of the other." This, in spite of its no explicit reference to God, seems to be akin to what Martin Buber calls the "I-Thou" relation, where partners of dialogue can have a glimpse into God.
Truth and Method was published twice in English, and the revised edition is now considered authoritative. The German-language edition of Gadamer's Collected Works includes a volume in which Gadamer elaborates his argument and discusses the critical response to the book. Finally, Gadamer's essay on Paul Celan (entitled "Who Am I and Who Are You?") is considered by many—including Heidegger and Gadamer himself—as a "second volume" or continuation of the argument in Truth and Method.
In addition to his work in hermeneutics, Gadamer is also well known for a long list of publications on Greek philosophy. Indeed, while Truth and Method became central to his later career, much of Gadamer's early life centered around his study of the classics. His work on Plato, for instance, is considered by some to be as important as his work on hermeneutics. Moreover, Gadamer wrote extensively on literature and art, both classical and modern. In his practical theory he turned particularly to Aristotle’s idea of phronesis from which he developed his own hermeneutic view of practical action.
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