This paper offers a critical appraisal of Gadamer’s dialogical philosophy of the self-other relationship within the context of interpretation and historical consciousness. According to Gadamer hermeneutics is a theory of interpretation or, rather, the art of interpretation. The task of philosophical hermeneutics is to narrate an ontology of human understanding with the ethical intent of restoring to interpretation a greater sense of “integrity.” The “hermeneutic universe” belongs to the individual worldviews whose structure and content are constructed on the basis of historical precedents. Gadamer situates these precedents in historicity and the tradition of culture, which are resources for their unique interpretations. Gadamer claims that interpretative understanding encounters the other in the dialogical “play” (Spiel) of an ever-unfinished event. The self and the other belong to the horizon of historical consciousness, and it is through this common horizon that the alterity of the other comes into expression.
According to Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), hermeneutics is the study of the universal phenomenon of human understanding or, in his own words, the “classical discipline concerned with the art of understanding texts is hermeneutics.”1 At first glance, we must say that interpretation here is neither an art nor a science, but our basic way of being in the world. It should be noted that the “universal” claim of hermeneutics – the assertion that all access to meaning of any sort is interpretative – must bring language at the forefront of any phenomenological enquiry. It is in the play of language that one finds in the horizon for a universal theory of interpretative understanding. In interpreting a text, a reader glimpses into the dialogical movement of all human thought. The individuality of a text/other is to be preserved by hearing it as a “voice” in the dialogue/conversation of tradition. Gadamer claims that interpretative understanding encounters the other in the dialogical “play” (Spiel) of an ever-unfinished event. The self and the other belong to the horizon of historical consciousness, and it is through this common horizon that the alterity of the other comes into expression.
Method, History and Experience
While developing the universal claim of his theory of hermeneutics, Gadamer raises an argument that is particularly pertinent to contemporary discussion of the methodology of the human sciences. This argument is historically oriented. He argues that the principal error of contemporary philosophy can be traced back to the Enlightenment whose fundamental mistake was to identify truth with “objective knowledge” produced by the scientific method. Enlightened thinkers in general, and Immanuel Kant in particular, were the first to clearly articulate “objective knowledge” as epistemological model, which subsequently became the hallmark of philosophical thought. Susan Hekman argues that “[t]his model excludes from the realm of ‘truth’ all human experience not produced through adherence to the scientific method.”2
Gadamer’s identification of the central error of Enlightenment thought is crucial not only to the definition of his project, but also to an understanding of his departure from the 19th century tradition of hermeneutics and the humanist tradition that arises subsequently as a response to the Enlightenment. Gadamer’s main argument is that both hermeneutic and humanist traditions accept the validity of the epistemological model of “objective knowledge.” Positivist accounts of epistemic experience overlook its social dimension as well as its radical temporality and historicity. According to Gadamer, this has led to an epistemic schematization, and the main lacuna of such theories of experience has been their radical orientation towards science; they take “no account of the inner historicity of experience.”3 Even more, the “aim of science is so to objectify experience that it no longer contains any historical element. The scientific experience does this by its methodical procedure.”4 As such, the objectifying methodological procedure ensures that these basic experiences can be repeated by anyone. This is required because in the natural sciences experiments must be verifiable, and in human sciences the whole process of investigation must be capable of being checked by others. Hence, no room can be left for the historicity of experience in science.
Now, in order to overcome the subjectivity of the transcendental ego, Kant himself in his Critique of Judgment refers to the Lebensgefühl (feeling of life).5 In post-Kantian German thought the Kantian notion of Lebensgefühl transforms into Erlebnis (lived experience) as distinguished from Erfahrung (communal historical experience).6 Erlebnis is used to discuss the idea of immediate experience of isolated individuals. In contrast, Erfahrung is used to indicate the collective historical on-going and cumulative experience of a community. The word Erlebnis is derived from the word Erleben, which, for Gadamer,
means primarily ‘to be still alive when something happens’. From this the word has a note of the immediacy with which something real is grasped-unlike something of which one presumes to know, but the confirmation of which through one’s own experience is lacking, whether it is taken over from others or comes from hearsay, or whether it is worked out, surmised or imagined. What is experienced is always that one has experienced oneself.7
However, Erlebnis for Wilhelm Dilthey is used to a particular end. Gadamer points to the pantheistic background of Dilthey’s usage of the word for “[e]very act, as an element of life, remains connected with the infinity of life that manifests itself in it. Everything finite is an expression, a representation of the infinite.”8 Moreover, “Dilthey’s concept of Erlebnis clearly contains two elements, the pantheistic and positivist, the experience (Erlebnis) and still more its result (Erlebnis).”9 In other words, by adopting an intermediate position between speculation and empiricism, Dilthey tries to give an epistemological justification for the work of the human sciences and hence ascribes to the concept of Erlebnis an epistemological function. Gadamer argues that both Dilthey and Friedrich Schleiermacher, because they implicitly accept the Kantian epistemological model that takes Lebensgefühl into account, necessarily conceive of the method of the human sciences in opposition to that of the natural sciences. This explains why they strive to “fit” the human sciences into the epistemological model provided by the scientific method. It is for this reason, Gadamer argues, that the 19th century debate over method is too narrowly conceived and therefore doomed to failure.10
Gadamer’s critical discussion of the concept of Erlebnis is, at the same time, part of his great project to distance himself from modern subjectivism, which emerged partly from Romantic concerns. What he proposes is a “communal ontology” in which understanding is always achieved through “dialogue.” Gadamer argues for Erlebnis (a personal life experience) to be substituted for Erfahrung11 (the experience of social interactions) so that Romantic subjectivism gives way to hermeneutic understanding.
Again, for Gadamer such a “communal ontology” should be distinguished from the scientific method. In aesthetic experience, for example, the knower is revealed as an active participant in the process. By contrast, the scientific model that seeks objectivity portrays the knower as a passive recipient of knowledge thus removed from its object. For Gadamer, truth has an ontological dimension; knowledge involves the grasping of an object that is simultaneously revealing itself to the knower. This is why Gadamer argues that ontology precedes epistemology, and the act of knowing entails that being is revealed.
What is fundamental to Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics is its emphasis on understanding and interpretation. Gadamer’s conception of textual interpretation is greatly influenced by Heidegger, in particular his treatment in Being and Time of terms such as understanding, interpretation and application.12 These terms are closely connected to the dialogical view that Gadamer uses to describe all hermeneutical practices.13 Moreover, Gadamer argues that in interpreting a text, a reader glimpses into the dialogical movement of all human thought. The individuality of a text is to be preserved by hearing it as a “voice” in the dialogue/conversation of tradition. Gadamer says,
Understanding, then, is … a matter of placing a given text in the context of the history of language, literary form, style, and so on, and thus ultimately mediating it with the whole context of historical life.14
Gadamer affirms that for understanding to occur, neither participant must dominate the dialogue; rather, both must allow the other to speak. From this perspective, establishing the text “in itself” is at best a preliminary to philological understanding, the truth of which depends upon the interpreter’s confrontation with the “matter” or “issue” (die Sache) from the original text.15 A text may be considered as a dialogical partner because both spoken and written forms of discourse are governed by the “ideality of the word,” that is, they are to be understood finally not as “expressions of life” but as truth claims that derive their sense from what is spoken or written about.
Dialogue and Tradition
Steven Crowell points out that in Gadamer interpretative understanding must encounter two definitive forms in which language operates, namely written as in the experience of reading and spoken as in the experience of hearing.16 According to Crowell, “[t]hese two forms of linguistic experience have yielded two distinct metaphors for approaching the general question of the understanding of meaning-the metaphor of the text and the metaphor of the dialogue.”17 Both belong to the scope of a general hermeneutics. Gadamer also emphasizes that reading is a particular form of dialogue or conversation. Though he finds face-to-face dialogue as the source from which the reading activity emerges, he is clear that texts speak differently from face-to-face participants in conversation. Gadamer notes,
The mode of being of a text has something unique and incomparable about it. It presents a specific problem of translation to the understanding. Nothing is so strange, and at the same time so demanding, as the written word.18
The problem is how the two are to be co-ordinated. Gadamer’s attempt to resolve textual interpretation into dialogical hermeneutics is by way of ontological consideration, whereby dialogue emerges from a philological motive, which ultimately means a concern with the interpretation of texts. Gadamer argues that this motive is about self-understanding through explicit appropriation of the text’s tradition prior to any scientific thematization.
The text is not primarily an object for reconstruction; its individuality is to be preserved by hearing it as a “voice” in the conversation of traditions of both the interpreter and the text. A text may be treated as a dialogical partner because both spoken and written forms of discourse repose in and are governed by the “ideality of the word.”19 That is, both are to be understood finally not as “expressions of life” but as “truth claims” that derive their sense from what is spoken or written about. Interpreting text can be dialogical because dialogue itself is founded in the ideality of the referential intention. Though both spoken and written discourses depend upon the “ideality of the word,” dialogue prevails as the “original phenomenon of language.” The reason is that the ideality of the word is simply an indication that language is being conceived from the perspective of truth, that is, from the ontological perspective of an openness to the “world”; the Sache, which any given instance of discourse, spoken or written, can address, designate, “disclose,” or “conceal” but which can never be dispensed with. Because dialogue appears to express most clearly this ontological function of language, or this openness to what is, Gadamer uses the term as a metaphor for all interpretation.
Preserving the truth claim of the text therefore means inserting it as a partner into the form of the dialogical I-Thou relation.20 But it is an I-Thou relation of a particular sort: one whose ground lies in the search for truth. That the text, unlike the reader, is not free to raise questions to an “other” – or that the Thou, unlike the text, can change the subject or refuse to speak – is an obvious difficulty with any dialogical construal of the hermeneutics of texts. Gadamer seeks to overcome such a problem by treating the text as an answer to a question:
We must attempt to reconstruct the question to which the transmitted text is the answer … The reconstruction of the question to which the text is presumed to be answer takes place itself within a process of questioning through which we seek the answer to the question that the text asks us … [T]he reconstruction of the question, from which the meaning of a text is to be understood as an answer, passes into our own questioning.21
Since the question precedes the text, the issue of “freedom” is not at stake. Both question and text are equally addressed, thus preserving dialogical symmetry. This means, however, that in Gadamer the ontological ground of dialogue, die Sache, asserts its priority over the ethical, I-Thou encounter, in other words, the freedom involved in the face-to-face orality of dialogue.22 Since dialogue is said to consist in the symmetrical movement toward a fusion of horizons between reciprocally self-effacing participants who “risk” inherited prejudices within a common interrogative orientation toward truth, we do not so much conduct a conversation as we are conducted by it; by the momentum of a disclosure that does not pertain to the freedom of the “participants.” But this assumes a particular resolution in the struggle involved: to subordinate the ethical moments experienced in the I-Thou relationship to an ontological dimension conceived in its ideality as the “common concern” among participants.23
Interpretative understanding, according to Gadamer, is not so much a methodology as a happening or temporal event – a happening with potential transformative consequences for the interpreter. The reader does not approach the text with a blank slate (tabula rasa), which would permit passive appropriation; rather, to gain entry, the reader has to apply to the text a tentative frame of reference; what Heidegger calls “pre-understanding” or “projected meaning,”24 Gadamer describes the process as follows:
A person who is trying to understand a text is always projecting. He projects a meaning for the text as a whole as soon as some initial meaning emerges in the text. Again, the initial meaning emerges only because he is reading the text with particular expectations in regard to a certain meaning.25
At the outset, Gadamer identifies prejudice as an integral part of his definition of hermeneutics. As he points out,
This recognition that all understanding inevitably involves some prejudice gives the hermeneutic problem its real thrust.26
But this necessity of prejudice, which is in fact for Gadamer a condition for the possibility of any experience, is not to be viewed negatively; nor is it to be avoided at all costs. On the contrary, Gadamer contends that hermeneutics must show how prejudice is effectively and positively used in order to create meaning and achieve understanding.27 He goes on to argue that the Enlightenment did not grasp the process of human understanding because it failed to understand the nature of prejudice: “The fundamental prejudice of the enlightenment is the prejudice against prejudice itself.”28 For him, the opposition between reason and prejudice that led the Enlightenment to reject prejudice is itself erroneous. For the Enlightenment reason represents the universal, whereas prejudice represents the local and the particular. By contrast, Gadamer argues that both reason and prejudice are historically grounded:
Reason exists for us only in concrete, historical terms – i.e. it is not its own master but remains constantly dependent on the given circumstances in which it operates.29
Further, Gadamer also distances his views from his 19th century predecessors Schleiermacher and Dilthey. Both tend to define the ultimate aim of interpretation as the reconstruction of the psychic state or world-view of the author of the text. For Gadamer, this has the effect of reducing the text to a mere expression of the inner life of its author rather than a claim to truth, which addresses itself to the interpreter in the present. Gadamer wants to show that the genuine object of interpretation is the meaning of the text itself (or of the historical event), and that interpretation involves not the reconstruction of psychic states but the integration of the object into a totality that also contains the interpreter and its relevance to the present.
Interpretation and History
Interpretation, on Gadamer’s account, is “the interplay of the movement of tradition and the movement of the interpreter.”30 Interpretation is, in other words, a dialectical process. He compares this process to the dialectics of question and answer and asserts that there are no pre-constituted “objects” in the human sciences. Rather, the objects of the human sciences emerge through the juxtaposition of the question posed by the inquirer and the answer anticipated in the text. As he puts it,
That a historical text is made the object of interpretation means that it puts a question to the interpreter. Thus interpretation always involves a relation to the question that is asked of the interpreter. To understand a text means to understand this question.”31
But every question solicits a response and thus makes one to be in the thick of the dialogical process. A genuine dialogue, Gadamer observes, has necessarily the “structure of question and response.” To conduct such a dialogue requires that the participants are “attentive to each other” and do not “talk past each other.” Above all, the dialogue demands a certain modesty and non-aggressiveness assertiveness, a willingness to listen and a refusal to try to “overpower the other partner.”32 This point leads Gadamer to formulate the relation between dialogue and hermeneutics in a particular way; a formulation that is at the core of his entire approach:
What characterizes a dialogue … is precisely this: that in dialogue spoken language˗ in the process of question and answer, giving and talking, talking at cross purposes and seeing each other’s point – performs that communication of meaning that, with respect to the written tradition, is the task of hermeneutics. Hence, it is more than a metaphor: it is a memory of what originally was the case, to describe the task of hermeneutics as entering into dialogue with the text.33
One’s interpretation of a particular subject matter occurs within a tradition of previous interpretations of such a subject matter. The totality of such “effects” – and ultimately the whole historical process linking subject and object – constitutes the whole hermeneutical situation of the knower. Effective history is the chain of past interpretations through which the pre-understanding of the interpreter is already linked to his or her object. Gadamer demands that the historical embedded-ness of the knower be made conscious through “effective historical consciousness.” Thus,
… the true historical object is not an object at all, but the unity of the one and the other (the text and the interpreter), a relationship in which exist both the reality of history and the reality of historical understanding.34
It is the play between strangeness and familiarity, between a distantiated object of history and belonging to a living tradition. The task of interpretation is not simply to reconstruct the distant horizon out of which the text speaks, but to attain “a higher universality that overcomes not only our own particularity but also that of the other.”35 In other words, interpretation must involve the grasping of an historical totality that embraces both the text as well as its effective-history in which the knower is embedded. Subject and object together constitute the one great horizon – the nexus of tradition. The assimilation of this totality in effective historical consciousness allows us to see the present within the right circumstances, thereby allowing us to listen to the past in a way that makes its own meaning being heard. What occurs in the process of understanding, then, can most accurately be described as a “fusing” of two “horizons” – that of the interpreter and that of the text. Gadamer speaks about the “fusion of horizon” (Horizontverschmelzung) and the “historically effected consciousness” (wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein) as follows:
Projecting a historical horizon, then, is only one phase in the process of understanding: it does not become solidified into the self-alienation of a past consciousness, but is overtaken by our own present horizon of understanding. In the process of understanding, a real fusing of horizons occurs ˗which means that as the historical horizon is projected it is simultaneously superseded. To bring about this fusion in a regulated way is the task of what we called historically effected consciousness.36
However, the problem remains that interpretation does not stop with the achievement of awareness of effective-history. Indeed, effective history is only the framework within which the interpretation of the text itself takes place. What does this interpretation consist of if not a mere reconstruction of the author’s intentions? What happens to the meaning of the text when it is integrated by “historically effected consciousness” into an objective totality? What does it mean to fuse the past with the present? For Gadamer, this leads to the “fundamental hermeneutic problem” – the problem of “application.”37
Gadamer argues that understanding always involves the application of the text to the present situation of the interpreter. The interpreter must understand the text in a new and different way in order to apply what is understood to the concrete present situation. The past must be conveyed into the present. Here the practical meaning of verstehen becomes apparent. Because it is immanently linked to application, Verstehen is itself a moment in the historical process which serves to mediate tradition, i.e., to preserve and transform it. Interpretation is a moment in the life of effective-history. Our current horizon is constantly being formed through fusions in which our prejudices are confirmed, concretized and altered. They are fused into as shared meaning within which both the text and the interpreter are situated.
Hermeneutics is closely linked with lived experience and human conduct. This linkage has been intensified in recent times with the shift from methodology to ontology, when understanding comes to be seen as part and parcel of our living and being-in the world. This is obvious particularly in our era of globalisation; when different societies and cultures are pushed closer and closer together, hermeneutical understanding is bound to transcend local contexts and acquire a cross-cultural or transnational significance. Gadamer has been keenly attentive to these cultural issues in some of his later writings, especially in a text on the “Legacy of Europe” and the ongoing process of European unification.38 Fred Dallmayr points out that,
Just as in the case of hermeneutical dialogue, the point of inter-cultural encounter is not to reach a bland consensus or uniformity of beliefs but to foster a progressive learning process involving possible transformation.39
Participants in cross-cultural encounter are expected neither to expunge themselves nor to appropriate and subjugate the other’s difference; rather, the point is to achieve a shared appreciation and recognition of differences.
Within this more universal horizon, the interpreter and the interpretant project their respective horizons of understanding, preserving thereby a form of self-aware alterity – what Gadamer calls the effective-historical-consciousness, which is an essential moment in the process of understanding. But these historically conditioned projections, though discrete, are but temporal-regional frames of a much larger picture. Gadamer points out that in the attainment of understanding, there takes place a genuine fusion of horizons, for as soon as particular historical horizons are projected they are taken up into something higher (Aufhebung). Though the Hegelian undercurrents are here obvious, it bears repeating that the overcoming of otherness as it takes place in the “fusion of horizons” is not an absolute process for Gadamer: “the other must be experienced not as the other of myself grasped by pure self-consciousness, but as a Thou.”40
In Guise of a Conclusion
Gadamer seeks to find out in all forms of understanding a dialogical interpretation of the self-other relationship. He thinks that hermeneutics is an interpretive dialogue where two different frameworks, that of the interpreter and the text, meet, disagree, or agree, leading to something new. The text is an other, an alien, and the foreign element in the dialogue. Dialogical interpretation operates within the effective history of encountering distance. The interpreter comes into contact with the text as the other, for the text is situated in another epoch or culture from that of the interpreter. Both reside in the horizons that are open-ended and fluid. As a result, the confrontation between the interpreter and the text’s alien dimension sets off a process of understanding as a tension and fusion of horizons. Interpretation, therefore, is a complex inter-subjective process.
The “experience of dialogue” is not limited to the sphere of giving reasons and counter reasons whereby the meaning of every conflict can find its end through exchange and unification. Rather, there is “still something else” found in such an experience; a potentiality for being-other that lies over and beyond any coming to terms by way of what is in common. This potentiality for being other that transcends my/our immanence belongs to die Sache. Moreover, dialogical openness toward die Sache beyond the closure of argumentative agreement appears to preserve the totalizing power of truth – above all, its power to establish a non-violent relation between the self and the other – without making appeal to it as a speculatively given principle.
Arup Jyoti Sarma teaches in the Department of Philosophy at Tripura University, India. He obtained his Ph.D. degree from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, in 2010 with a thesis entitled “A Critical Exposition of the Ethical Systems of Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel Concerning ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’ Dichotomy.” His areas of interests are ethics and Western socio-political philosophy. His recent book Kant and Hegel on Is-Ought Dichotomy was published in 2014 by Progressive Publishers, Kolkata.
Hans Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, (London and New York: Continuum, 2006), 157.
Susan Hekman, “From Epistemology to Ontology: Gadamer’s Hermeneutics and Wittgensteinian Social Science,” in Human Studies, Vol. 6, No. 3, (Jul.-Sept., 1983), 207.
Gadamer, Truth and Method, 342.
Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, trans. James Creed Meredith, (London: Clarendon Press, 1978).
Gadamer, Truth and Method, translators Preface, xiii.
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, (London: Basil Blackwell, 1962).
Peter Sotirou, “Articulating a Hermeneutic Pedagogy: The Philosophy of Interpretation,” in Journal of Advanced Composition, Vol. 13, No. 12 (Fall 1993), 368.
Gadamer, Truth and Method, 346.
Steven G. Crowell, “Dialogue and Text: Re-marking the difference,” in The Interpretation of Dialogue, ed. Tullio Maranhão, (London: The University of Chicago Press, 1990), 342.
Gadamer, Truth and Method, 156.
Crowell, “Dialogue and Text: Re-marking the difference,” in The Interpretation of Dialogue, 345.
Fred Dallmayr, “Hermeneutics and Inter-Cultural Dialogue: Linking Theory and Practice,” in Ethics and Global Politics, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2009, 26.
Gadamer, Truth and Method, 269.
Marcelo Dascal, “Hermeneutic Interpretation and Pragmatic Interpretation,” in Philosophy and Rhetoric, Vol. 22, No. 4 (1989), 245-46.
Gadamer, Truth and Method, 273.
Fred Dallmayr, “Hermeneutics and Inter-Cultural Dialogue: Linking Theory and Practice,” in Ethics and Global Politics, 27.
Gadamer, Truth and Method, 361-62.
Fred Dallmayr, “Hermeneutics and Inter-Cultural Dialogue: Linking Theory and Practice,” in Ethics and Global Politics, 31.
Gadamer, Truth and Method, 338-39.