Hermeneutics is widely celebrated as a call for “conversation”—that is, a manner of inquiry characterized by humility and openness to the other that eschews the pretenses of calculative rationality and resists all finality of conclusions. In this, conversation takes shape in efforts to understand and interpret that always unfold in the transmission of meaning historically in language. Yet, the celebration of hermeneutics for humility and openness appears, at least, to risk embarrassment in light of claims found in Heidegger and Gadamer that conversation is always contingent on “prior accord.” Critics of hermeneutics have, for some decades, interpreted this claim of prior accord to refer to a common tradition, so that the understanding achieved in conversation is restricted to those who belong to the same heritage. In this essay, the author argues that although Heidegger and Gadamer often suggest this prior accord is a matter of common tradition, crucial threads of Gadamer’s thought, in particular, recommend a different view. Gadamer, in these threads, offers that “prior accord” concerns not a common tradition, but, on the contrary, the call to participate in hermeneutic transmission as such, even—and no doubt especially—when those in conversation are not familiar with the tradition or language of the other. With this, we are called to converse not first by what the other says, but by the fact that we do not yet understand, that we have already misunderstood, and that we perhaps cannot understand.
1 Are we a Conversation?1
Not only within professional philosophy but also with emphasis in several disciplines across the academy, the name “hermeneutics” has become all but the motto for the pursuit of a distinctive kind of intelligibility. Discerned first of all in our experience of the arts and humanities and in the intimacy of our relations to one another, this intelligibility takes shape in understanding and, with this, in the further refinement of understanding in interpretation. In the context of hermeneutics, understanding is taken not only to differ from but also to encompass and to be more original than the explanatory knowledge purported within the natural sciences and in much of the quantitative research conducted in contemporary social science. Although philosophical hermeneutics has developed in important new directions in the last several decades, the focus on understanding may be said to originate as a critique of pivotal ideals of the European Enlightenment—and also the by now global encroachment of the consequences of these ideals on what early twentieth century philosophers first described as the life-world. Gadamer, for example, disavows as hubris all Enlightenment pretenses to establish eternal verities through method, the implementation of norms of inquiry that are set up in advance and adhere to the demands of calculative rationality. In contrast with such Enlightenment pretenses, Gadamer characterizes understanding as a finite form of intelligibility, one that remains conditioned by the historicality (Geschichtlichkeit) that characterizes factical existence, and, accordingly, the historical transmission of meaningfulness in and through language.
To many in philosophy and across the academy today, “hermeneutics” thus stands for an experience of intelligibility that is characterized at once by humility and openness: humility, because every understanding is always conditioned by historicality, remaining always without methodological guarantee, ultimate foundation, completeness, or exactitude; and, in turn, openness, because every effort to understand may again bring into question anything that appears in familiar obviousness as well as any presumed final word. In view of this humility and openness, the experience of understanding resists every closure; we are called always to understand again and anew. In sum, the experience of understanding thus always calls for and takes shape in “conversation” that can itself never be brought to completion or conclusion.
How, though, are we to grasp the stakes of the call for such conversation now, in a historical moment that has become suspicious of much more than the ideals of European Enlightenment and their encroachment on the life-world? What do we make of the call for such conversation in a historical moment that has moreover become suspicious of the disastrous effects of the deployment of these ideals—not to mention the deployment of ideals of humanism and other European traditions—by Europeans in the period of European imperialism and colonialism? How are we to take the call for unending conversation in a historical moment that now reels from legacies of violence and subjugation that excluded innumerable multitudes from any and all conversation about their own fate, that continues to exclude from conversation too much of the memory of these legacies, and, moreover, that continues to exclude from conversation too many still today?
Given the celebrated reputation of hermeneutics for humility and openness, the response to this line of questions found within hermeneutics raises the specter of a philosophical embarrassment. The concern that hermeneutics may be implicated in such an embarrassment may be discerned from two references to conversation made, one each, by two of the figures of the twentieth century most associated with hermeneutics, Heidegger and Gadamer. Together, these references not only indicate that conversation is definitive of our shared lives together; more than this, and more to the issue, these references indicate that conversation is always predicated on and made possible by a certain prior accord.
Heidegger. Heidegger’s reference to conversation appears in “Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry” in his treatment of a line from an untitled poem by Hölderlin, which reads, “Since we have been a conversation….” Heidegger writes:
We—human beings—are a conversation. Man’s being is grounded in language [Sprache]; but this actually occurs only in conversation [Gespräch]. Conversation, however, is not only a way in which language takes place, but rather language is essential only as conversation. But now what is meant by ‘conversation’? Obviously the act of speaking with someone about something…. We are a conversation, that always also signifies that we are one conversation. The unity of a conversation consists in the fact that in the essential word there is always manifest that one and the same on which we agree, on the basis of which we are united and so are authentically ourselves. Conversation and its unity support our existence…. Without this relation [to the one and the same on which we agree] even a quarrel would not be possible.2
The sweep of Heidegger’s concerns in “Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry” is, we recall, grand. He takes up the relation of being and the poetic word, the significance of the poetic word for shared life, as well as for the foundation and destiny of a people; he moreover considers the significance of Hölderlin’s poetry for the German people, and for “poetic dwelling.”
Heidegger’s elucidation of the phenomenon of conversation is nevertheless distinctive. Heidegger elucidates the phenomenon in a decidedly ontological register. In rejection of the assumptions of Western metaphysics, Heidegger characterizes conversation not in terms of subjects who, in their subjectivity have or engage in a conversation with one another. Rather, Heidegger, with Hölderlin, maintains that we are a conversation. By this, Heidegger means that to be human is to participate in an event that is defined by the enactment of language in conversation. Human beings, as Dasein, are defined by the disclosednsess that is made possible through language and that is always and again enacted only in such conversations. But Heidegger does not stop with this. He not only maintains that to be human is bound up with conversation; he moreover argues that such conversation is possible only if we are part of a single conversation. That is, for Heidegger, our enactment of language in conversation is only possible because language grants us access to a prior common accord—“that one and the same on which we agree”—that “supports” and “grounds” our existence. Indeed, as Heidegger indicates to clarify that this prior common accord is what makes conversation possible as such, this prior common accord is what allows us not only to come into agreement about any specific matter or other but even what allows us to fall into dispute about any matter in the first place.
Gadamer. Gadamer’s reference to conversation appears in “The Universality of the Hermeneutic Problem” in a brief but important elucidation of the everyday phenomena of misunderstanding and disagreement.3 Gadamer writes,
I am trying to call attention to a common experience. We say, for instance, that understanding takes place [in conversation] between I and thou. But the formulation ‘I and thou’ already betrays an enormous alienation. There is nothing like an I and a thou as isolated, substantial realities. I may say ‘thou’ and I may refer to myself over and against a thou, but a common understanding [Verständigung] always precedes these situations. We all know that to say ‘thou’ presupposes a deep common accord [Einverständnis]. Something enduring is already present when this word is spoken. When we try to reach agreement over a matter on which we have different opinions, this deeper factor always comes into play, even if we are seldom aware of it….[this deeper factor suggests] a comprehensive life phenomenon that constitutes the ‘we’ that we all are.4
Gadamer’s reference to conversation differs from Heidegger’s in several regards. In contrast with the grand sweep of Heidegger’s considerations, for example, Gadamer makes only a more modest attempt to describe what he sees as a prevalent occurrence in our everyday experience of conversation. Yet, notwithstanding this and other differences, Gadamer’s elucidation of the phenomenon of conversation follows Heidegger’s suit. Gadamer, following Heidegger’s rejection of the metaphysics of subjectivity, rejects as an “enormous alienation” the belief that conversation can be grasped in terms of an “I” and “thou” as “isolated, substantial realities.” And, without explicit mention of Heidegger’s concern for the relation between “man’s being” and conversation, Gadamer nevertheless also asserts that conversation is made possible by prior accord. For Gadamer, conversation is always already preceded by “deep common accord”; this prior accord is always already at play, whether we are aware of it or not, not only when we are in agreement about something but also when we have “different opinions.”
So what then are we to make out of the name “hermeneutics,” and, above all, the idea that our experiences of understanding call for and take shape as conversation without completion or conclusion? On the one hand, hermeneutics is celebrated because it brings into focus a form of intelligibility that eschews Enlightenment pretenses—understanding, which calls for and takes shape as unending conversation because it is always bound up with the historicality of factical existence, and so also with the historical transmission of meaningfulness in and through language. Yet, on the other hand, this celebration is nevertheless also haunted by the concern that hermeneutics is implicated in a philosophical embarrassment. The specter of this embarrassment is raised by Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s assertions that conversation, unending though it may be, is only made possible by prior accord. Critics of hermeneutics have, for some decades, interpreted this prior accord to refer to a homogeneous, selfsame context of meaning, a common tradition as this is historically transmitted in and through an autochthonous language.5 If we accept the terms of such a critique, this means that conversation is only possible for—and thus also available only to—those who belong to such a common tradition.
This would comprise a philosophical embarrassment for several reasons, but, perhaps foremost among them, because it would altogether fail to describe our actual hermeneutical experience of conversation. In our actual experience of conversation, understanding, and, with it, our participation in the transmission of meaningfulness in and through language rarely, if ever, requires or depends on the prior accord of a common tradition. Quite to the contrary, conversation characteristically takes shape in the transmission of traditions that are contested, fractured, crisscrossed; in histories that are told in divergent and conflicted registers; in languages that may purport to be a mother tongue but that are perhaps rather Creole, or perhaps interlaced with foreign and colonial influences, whether such influence derives from the European period of expansionism or from some time long before this. Conversation is, therefore, also characterized always and again by misapprehension and even delusion. Whenever we participate in conversation, we recognize that we are in conversation, though we typically, or at least often, miss whom we participate in conversation with and, moreover, what we converse about. Even if, in fits and spurts, we understand something about something, not-understanding and misunderstanding are a common experience. If the critics’ interpretation of Heidegger and Gadamer holds—that is, if conversation really is only made possible by the prior accord provided by a common tradition—then Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s elucidation of conversation would be an embarrassment first of all because it would not account for even the smallest portion of our actual hermeneutical experience of conversation. If the critics’ interpretation holds, then hermeneutics could not, for the most part, account for even the fact that we recognize we are in conversation, much less that we have not understood, have yet to understand, or have understood something at all.
There cannot be a question about whether finally to put to rest the specter that hermeneutics is implicated in the embarrassment that critics suggest. This is not only because the critics I allude to belong to a by now venerable discourse of concerns about the limits and dangers of hermeneutical elucidations of understanding. More than this, much of Heidegger’s and perhaps especially Gadamer’s argumentation appears to confirm and even expand on the claim that conversation is made possible by the prior accord granted a common tradition.
Nevertheless, in what follows I wish to trace other threads of Gadamer’s elucidation of hermeneutical experience that suggest conversation is made possible by a very different sense of prior accord. These threads, as I wish to show, are traced out by Gadamer’s hermeneutical considerations of the theme of life. With this theme, Gadamer indicates that the hermeneutical experience of conversation belongs most originally not to a common tradition, but, rather, to the context of factical existence and, therefore, to a context that is larger than that of tradition, at once more encompassing than and sustaining of any specific common tradition. From this standpoint, conversation is made possible not exclusively or even foremost by prior accord in the sense of a common tradition, but, more originally, the prior accord of our shared hermeneutical participation in life—that is, the very movement of historical transmission as such. In this shared hermeneutical participation in life, conversation is characterized always and again by the exteriority of what I shall call displacement, a confrontation with the ambiguous interplay of the familiar and the foreign. But, understood from out of the context of life, this confrontation involves not simply an already given, common tradition, but the shared task of transmission itself, of participating in the transmission of whatever admits of transmissibility, no matter whether this involves a common tradition or a context of meaning as contested as it may be crisscrossed or foreign, and, in particular, no matter how much it is characterized by not understanding, misunderstanding, and other hermeneutic failures.
2 Life, or Displacement
How, then, are we to grasp the hermeneutical experience of conversation on the basis of Gadamer’s hermeneutical considerations of the theme of life? Before we turn to these other threads of Gadamer’s treatment of the theme of life, it should not be left without comment that several philosophers on the forefront of current debate have also sought to turn to the notion of life in order to reconsider hermeneutical experience from out of a context larger than that of tradition. Three philosophers, in particular, open up an important field of interpretations of this larger context and the experience of exteriority that it involves. First, James Risser stresses that in the life of hermeneutical experience, we experience exteriority always and again in relation of memory to the past that, however, can never be recovered in full presence. To capture this, Risser characterizes life as a form of convalescence that, however, remains always without a cure. Donatella di Cesare, for her part, suggests that in the life of hermeneutical experience we experience exteriority first of all in reference to a future that can never be reached; or, as she describes life, it is oriented always and again by a utopianism without utopia. Finally, Günter Figal suggests that in the life of hermeneutical experience we experience exteriority in an excess or effulgence of meaningfulness that cannot ever be completely reduced to presence. In this, he suggests that life is oriented by a relation of objectivity that can never master any object.
One of the most significant Anglophone contributions to recent discussion is James Risser’s The Life of Understanding: A Contemporary Hermeneutics. Risser, in this work, develops what he calls a “contemporary hermeneutics after Gadamer” on the basis of the “hermeneutical insight … that understanding is inseparably tied to the life situation.”6 Risser stresses that the life lived hermeneutically—what he calls the life of understanding—is oriented crucially by our relation to a past that can never be made present. He argues that the life of understanding, as a life of continual hermeneutical experiences, is conditioned by memory, which he defines as the recovery of meaning from tradition, and language, which he identifies as the weaving, albeit the threadbare weaving, of such meaning. He claims that the life of understanding is a form of convalescence with reference to the dependence of understanding on memory in particular. In this, he argues that the life of understanding is a form of convalescence because, in its dependence on memory, such life is not homeostatic but rather chronically in need of the recovery of meaning from tradition, as such meaning has either been forgotten or become hidden in its very familiarity and obviousness. Yet, in the life of understanding, this chronic need of recovery comprises a form of exteriority that it can never overcome; thus life, as a form of convalescence, admits of no cure.
Donatella di Cesare
Donatella di Cesare, in her Utopia of Understanding: Between Babel and Auschwitz, stresses, by contrast, that the life of hermeneutical experience is oriented by a future that can never be reached.7 In this, she suggests that hermeneutical experience involves a utopian impulse. Despite the impression that her use of the term “utopia” may leave, however, she does not mean by this that hermeneutical experience arrives at an absolute horizon of understanding to supersede all horizons. Rather, her notion of “utopia” hews closely to the etymological sense of the word as “not a place” or a “no place” at which, as she maintains, we are never able to arrive. In this, she suggests that hermeneutical experience is utopian in the sense that our pursuit of understanding never results in the completion of actual understanding but, rather, remains always only possible as still to come. Thus, she suggests that life, insofar as it is lived hermeneutically, turns on a form of exteriority, by which hermeneutical experience is guided by an aim—the completion of actual understanding—that such experience is nevertheless, in principle, unable to reach. For di Cesare, the definitive role played in our lives by such exteriority means that life bears a fractured, even exilic relation to tradition and language.
The hermeneutical theme of life, and the hermeneutical displacement that characterizes this life, is treated by Günter Figal in his recent Objectivity: The Hermeneutical and Philosophy, as an effulgence of meaningfulness that can never be reduced to presence. He maintains that human life, as hermeneutical, is indexed to objectivity. By this, Figal does not mean, however, that human life is to be guided by the methods and standard practices of the modern natural sciences that we have come to associate with the notion of objectivity. Rather, as connotations of the German word translated here as “objectivity,” namely, Gegenständlichkeit, suggest, Figal means that human life is oriented by the exteriority of “something that one himself is not,” by “something that stands over against [entgegen steht] and, because of this, places a demand.”8 Yet, as Figal argues, the objectivity of whatever we encounter as objective is inexhaustive; thus, on his view, we find ourselves always and again oriented toward the objectivity of something which, however, we can never reduce to a fully comprehended and masterable object. Thus, Figal’s approach suggests that the life of hermeneutical experience takes shape in the unending effort to relate to, adjust to, and deal with the displacements brought about by our encounters with what is not our own.
If scholars on the forefront of current debate, such as Risser, di Cesare, and Figal have laid open a field of interpretations of the larger context of life and the exteriority that this context involves, though, the gesture toward such a larger context may already be discerned in threads of Gadamer’s considerations that concern the theme of hermeneutical life as well. Gadamer’s considerations stress that although hermeneutical experience is oriented toward understanding of ourselves, the world, and the other persons and texts that comprise that world, hermeneutical experience leads always and again to the experience of exteriority in our displacement from every such understanding. Gadamer’s considerations of the hermeneutical significance of life may be discerned perhaps above all from his appropriation of motifs from Heidegger’s hermeneutics of facticity. Gadamer argues that Heidegger, like Dilthey, von Yorck, and Husserl, takes not the interests of modern science but rather concern for the context of life as the impetus for his consideration of understanding. Gadamer writes,
The tendency which Dilthey and Yorck formulated as common to them, of “understanding in terms of life,” and which was expressed in Husserl’s going back behind the objectivity of science to the life-world, was characteristic of Heidegger’s own first approach.9
If, as Gadamer claims, Heidegger’s project is shaped by a concern for life that is shared by many of his contemporaries, however, Heidegger’s pursuit of this concern through his analysis of existence comprises a decisive contrast with Dilthey and Husserl.10 Whereas Dilthey’s and Husserl’s concerns for the theme of life leads them, each in distinctive manners, to elucidate understanding on the basis of epistemological considerations of the self-awareness of the subject, Heidegger’s concern for life leads him, by contrast, to argue that understanding be grasped in ontological terms as the characteristic disclosedness or accessibility of our existence to the being of ourselves, others, and things.
Gadamer observes that Heidegger, with this ontological turn, brings into focus that understanding takes shape as a concern for self-understanding that is bound up with facticity. Heidegger, we recall, maintains in Being and Time that the human being, insofar as it is Dasein, is the being for whom, in its being, this very being is an issue.11 Accordingly, our understanding is always guided by concern for our own being, whether our understanding is directed expressly toward ourselves, or toward our involvements with others and things. Yet our concern for self-understanding can never be put to rest because understanding is at the same time bound up in facticity. Dasein always finds herself already involved, or as Heidegger also puts this in Being and Time, thrown, geworfen, into relations with the being of the beings she is amidst. In this, Dasein finds herself involved in relations to being, which she has neither chosen nor can fully control or comprehend. Thus, whenever we pursue self-understanding, by the time we attempt to understand, we find ourselves already confronted with an excess of being, a density or opacity of being, that we cannot make transparent. “This,” as Gadamer observes in a later essay, “means that Dasein has to take itself up in a manner that is never penetrable to itself.”12 Because our existence is bound up with facticity, we always arrive too late, with too little resource, to grasp who we ourselves are and whatever else is at stake in the situations into which we have been cast. In this same essay, Gadamer further clarifies facticity with an analogy he draws between the facticity of existence and the condition of a litter of newborn kittens. This analogy suggests itself no doubt in part because, in German, the word that Heidegger associated with facticity, namely, thrownness (Geworfenheit) is echoed in the word for litter (Wurf), which in literal translation, means “throw.” Gadamer writes, “one is thrown into the ‘there’ just as kittens from a cat … In such a ‘litter’ [i.e., ‘Wurf ,’ or, ‘throw’] we are not even this single thing and we do not even know ‘who’ we are….”13 If as Gadamer suggests, it is Heidegger’s larger concern for life that guides his analysis of existence, then, this context of life brings into focus that understanding is always indexed to facticity, and, thereby, to what is not and can never be made fully our own.
Gadamer’s approach to hermeneutical experience builds from here. Gadamer recognizes that Heidegger, for his part, argues that although understanding takes shape as self-understanding, it is never autonomous, it is never freely pursued in a manner that is without interest and without prior tacit expectations. Rather, understanding remains conditioned factically by such interests and tacit expectations as what may be characterized as fore-structures of understanding. Gadamer recalls that, in Being and Time, Heidegger elucidates such fore-structures in terms of what he calls fore-having, foresight or fore-seeing, and fore-grasping.14
Gadamer, in his elucidation of hermeneutical experience, characterizes the fore-structures of understanding not with Heidegger’s terms from his analysis of existence, however, but as a matter of prejudice (Vorurteil). Gadamer, to be sure, retains from Heidegger’s idea that the fore-structure of understanding is to be grasped only secondarily as an epistemic condition of understanding and is, more originally, constitutive of the being of human beings in their facticity. Gadamer asserts, “the prejudices of the individual, far more than his judgments, constitute the historical reality of his being;”15 or, again, as he puts the point in perhaps even plainer terms elsewhere: “it is not so much our judgments as it is our prejudices that constitute our being.”16 In consequence of the fore-structure of prejudice, understanding is made possible and limited by what Gadamer calls the “principle” of the “effectiveness of history.”17 This means that hermeneutical experience, because conditioned by the fore-structure of prejudice, is never freed from historically inherited meaning, but, instead, remains always an effect of such inheritance. As such, he maintains, the prejudices, which we have inherited and adopted historically through language determine “in advance what appears to us as worthy of questioning and as an object of investigation.”18 As a fore-structure of understanding, prejudice always makes possible as well as limits every effort to understand. There is, moreover, no bottom to our prejudice; even if our hermeneutical experience makes us aware of one of our prejudices or another, indeed, no matter how many of our prejudices we make transparent to ourselves, we nevertheless always again find that our further efforts to understand are made possible and limited by still other preliminary judgments. Thus, our concern for self-understanding never results in a universal perspective that overcomes all prejudices we have inherited historically through language; rather, the concern for self-understanding poses an unending task, one that unfolds as an interminable struggle against our prejudices in order to “remain open to the meaning of the other person or text.”19
Gadamer maintains that hermeneutical experience of conversation always and again begins and returns to an experience of displacement. Gadamer, in this, suggests that when conversation succeeds, it takes shape in a movement (itself in principle unending) of events of understanding that can be described in terms of a certain logic of dialectic. Gadamer, in this, maintains that conversation always and again begins, first, on the basis of an initial phase, in which the accessibility of a matter, characteristically another person, or text, is shaped by the authority of the fore-structure of prejudice. In this initial phase, we begin with tacit trust in the authority of our prejudices, which we thus expect will allow the matter to be disclosed in its being as what it is. To be sure, often our hermeneutical encounters stop here. Often, we simply adhere to our prejudices, either turning away from or simply missing that our prejudices fail to allow a matter to appear as what it is. When, however, conversation takes place, an intermediary phase follows, in which the authority of the fore-structure of prejudice undergoes a reversal. In this, we are confronted with the fact that the purported authority of our prejudices is unwarranted as we become aware that our prejudices do not disclose the matter fully in its being but rather only in an incomplete and distorted manner, only as it were through a glass darkly. This intermediary phase is characterized by hermeneutical displacement because, in this phase, the otherwise steady surety of our hermeneutical involvements—whether with another person or text—is interrupted, and we find ourselves without obvious resource to understand, to grasp and deal with the matter. Of course, our hermeneutical encounters may stop here, too, whether we turn away from this experience of displacement out of fear, cowardice or some other impulse. When we do not turn away, however, conversation has the possibility to lead to a third phase, in which understanding comes to be renewed. Should this happen, it results from a process of mediation, by which we work through our prejudices, that is, by which we reflect on our prejudices, deepen our understanding of their meaning, and reconsider their appropriateness to the matter under consideration.
Here, he argues, our renewed understanding is transformative. For Gadamer, “understanding is not, in fact, understanding better,” in the sense of the mere accretion of our knowledge or awareness of something; rather, as he puts it, “It is enough to say that we understand in a different way, if we understand at all.”20 It is true that the renewed understanding, which results in this third phase, is not wholly other than the accessibility granted initially by the fore-structure of prejudice. No understanding arrives ex nihilo, completely unprepared, as if it were a flash of inspiration or epiphany; even when understanding is achieved through the disavowal of an initial prejudice, it remains dependent not only on that prejudice via negativa, but on other, as yet unrevealed prejudices. He nevertheless maintains that the renewed understanding, though, is genuinely different from the access granted by our initial prejudices. In this, the renewed understanding involves, first, a transformation of our initial prejudices about the matter, from which we had been hermeneutically displaced. Second, he argues that this renewed understanding of a matter is indexed to a transformation in our understanding of ourselves. In this claim, it becomes evident just how much Gadamer’s approach to understanding is guided by concern for the hermeneutics of facticity. For, as he suggests, the process of mediation, by which we attempt to grasp a matter, not only reminds us that we are constituted more by our prejudices than by our judgments but also leads us to reflect on how specific prejudices thus determine who we are, as well as to reconsider whether our concern for our being is exhausted by such a determination of ourselves.
Conversation, then, whenever it takes shape, always takes shape—or, at least, can always take shape—as an unending effort to understand. Conversation is unending in this sense, however, precisely because it is constituted, always and again, by the experience of displacement. In this, conversation is defined by displacement, first of all, as a confrontation with our limits that is elicited by an excess of the exteriority that attends factical existence. Conversation is always conditioned by the fore-structure of prejudice, every effort to converse begins in an authority of prejudices that, in an intermediary phase, turns out to be invalid. Moreover, conversation is defined by displacement because such confrontation with our limits at the same time grants the possibility for us to pursue renewed understanding. In conversation, however, even when such pursuits succeed, hermeneutical experience continues to be driven by displacement; for, renewed understanding is never complete and, thus, really above all else the impetus for further displacement. Displacement is the alpha and omega of conversation. All conversation circulates within such displacement: in conversation, every confrontation with limits can open up possibility; every opened possibility can lead to the confrontation with our limits.
Gadamer’s threads on the theme of life suggest that conversation—and, with it, our unending return to the experience of displacement—belongs to a context larger but also more amorphous and ambiguous than that of a common tradition. As we have seen, Gadamer, in a claim that appears to follow a claim in Heidegger, asserts that conversation is conditioned by a prior accord that makes not only agreement but even disagreement possible. Critics have argued that, by this, Gadamer means that conversation is only possible on the basis of a homogenous, selfsame context of meaning—a common tradition. On these critics’ views, it follows that in conversation, our unending return to the experience of displacement remains circumscribed by the common tradition to which we belong; conversation may be driven by displacement, but displacement remains always only displacement within a common tradition. Grasped on the basis of the threads of Gadamer’s elucidation that are concerned with the theme of life, however, conversation looks very different. Based on these threads, and in contrast with critics’ views, conversation is made possible by the prior accord of the larger context of life, or, factical existence. From this concern for life it follows that, in conversation, our unending return to the experience of displacement does not remain circumscribed by a common tradition but, more originally, to the accessibility of our existence to the being of ourselves, others, and things as such. Here, the alpha and omega of conversation, the experience of displacement, is not circumscribed by limits and possibilities made available thanks to a common tradition, but, circulates within the more encompassing and more sustaining limits and possibilities of factical existence in general.
What, then, if we are a conversation? If conversation is grasped from out of the larger context of life, then, to be a conversation cannot be reduced to participation in a common tradition. In view of this, the hermeneutical experience of conversation need not be shunned as a philosophical embarrassment at all but, on the contrary, is a novel and subtle description of factical existence itself. For us to be a conversation from out of the larger context of life therefore may be said at once to require that we have much less in common than a common tradition and, precisely for this reason, to demand much more of us.
Such conversation requires, first, that we have much less in common than those critical of Gadamer’s hermeneutics would have presumed. Conversation, as a matter not of tradition but rather merely of life, does not require a prior accord of a homogeneous, self-same context of meaning to begin, to lead to our displacement. Rather, conversation circulates in the experience of displacement whenever someone has said something at all; in conversation, anything that is hermeneutically accessible at all, anything familiar enough to appear as an occurrence of saying and of something said—to wit, das Vertraute überhaupt—can be the impetus for the displacement of our prejudices that initiates conversation. Here, we are perhaps tempted to imagine a spectrum of impetuses for displacement, ranging from the familiar to the foreign, say, from our experience of words from a close friend or passages from a celebrated text in our own heritage, to political discourses of those with very different political orientations than our own, to our experience of other persons and texts in contested or fractured traditions, or to our experience of words of a stranger or passages from texts of a foreign tradition, which are perhaps all but unintelligible yet just intelligible enough to bring the authority of our own prejudices into question.
But, that anything familiar to us as another person or text can displace us becomes apparent precisely at the boundaries of our hermeneutical experience, in our encounters with other persons and texts from a linguistic tradition that is unknown to us. For, as much as this is an experience of the foreign, the experience is still familiar to us as an experience of language itself. Even the experience of a passage from a text in a language unknown to us, or in the words of a stranger in a foreign tongue, is familiar to us in that we can understand that something has been said about something. Precisely because our recognition that someone has said something is all we find familiar, we are, even with a minimum of practical experience, able to anticipate that whatever has been said is based on prejudices different from our own—and, therefore, that whatever has been said has the potential to bring our prejudices into question. Conversation, grasped from out of the context of life, circulates in a sense of displacement so encompassing and sustaining that it can be brought about by anything familiar to us at all as another person or text.
Yet, even as conversation that is grasped from out of the context of life requires that we have much less in common than a common tradition, such conversation is, for that reason, all the more demanding. Because such conversation is possible whenever and wherever we encounter meaningfulness, we find ourselves always in jeopardy of failures of understanding. This jeopardy is at issue in all hermeneutical experience, even in our encounters with a familiar text or an old friend. But, the possibilities not to understand, to misunderstand, to distort or betray whatever has been said, and, at the limit, even to neglect that something has been said at all, become only heightened in our encounters with what is more foreign. The demands placed on us by conversation, by the jeopardy of our hermeneutical encounters, are perhaps best to be grasped ethically. Of course, here “the ethical” does not refer to a response to these demands in the form of a moral theory, principles, or any juridical concepts. Rather, the response to these demands that is meant is better described as an ethical sensibility, one that attends to the specialness and inscrutability of every hermeneutical encounter, that is cultivated as character through expansive and varied experiences, and that turns much more on judgment, imagination, and the kind of wisdom that is born of humility and familiarity with failure, than on any form of calculative rationality.21 While perhaps no phrase, however well turned, can name this sensibility completely enough, it may be what Gadamer had in mind, in a later public lecture, when he called for the cultivation of what he referred to as “the aptitude for conversation.”22
3 Participation, or Stammering
Our elucidation of conversation allows us to reconsider Gadamer’s concern for what he refers to in the title of his celebrated essay “the Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem.” Of course, with this turn of phrase, Gadamer does not mean to characterize hermeneutical experience as the essence of all human beings or all human experience. Rather, Gadamer’s principal concern is to remind us that, in our times, we have become alienated from the ubiquitousness of the call for us to participate in the hermeneutical experiences of understanding and interpretation—or, as we have treated these matters in the current presentation, the ubiquitousness of the call to participate in conversation, the unending confrontation with hermeneutical displacement, with the limits and possibilities of understanding. Gadamer indicates that his reminder of the ubiquitousness of this call to participate in conversation is urgent now because of the increasing condition of “alienation” that pervades our lives.23 Influenced by both Heidegger’s concern for the “enframing” of modern technology and further concerns in phenomenology and existentialism for the life-world, Gadamer suggests that the condition of alienation in our times has resulted from the rise and spread of calculative rationality and, in turn, utilizations of this calculative rationality that encroach on our factical existence. Gadamer maintains that the condition of alienation from the ubiquitousness of the call to conversation is felt most consequentially in forms of consciousness that detach us from experiences of beauty and history (aesthetic and historical consciousness, respectively). But, in his considerations of the universality of the hermeneutical problem, his chief concern is to remind us that, notwithstanding the pretenses of calculative rationality that increasingly crowd in around us, the possibility of hermeneutical displacement remains always and again available and pressing.
Because conversation circulates in the ether of displacement, Gadamer’s reminder of our alienation from the ubiquitousness of the possibility of hermeneutical displacement is more comprehensive than anything that concerns a common tradition. Rather, such a reminder of our alienation concerns possibilities for conversation, for hermeneutical displacement, without limitation by any specific, homogeneous context of meaning, and, thus, this reminder takes on genuinely global proportions. Gadamer’s belief that resistance to the logics of calculative rationality may be pursued through a return to conversation is not a call to retreat from Enlightenment back into an indigenous tradition. Quite to the contrary, conversation, grasped as a matter of life, may contribute to the resistance of calculative rationality because it comprises a call to hew more closely to the course of factical existence—our experience of displacement, regardless of whether this displacement comes at the hands of the familiar or all but completely foreign. In this, resistance to calculative rationality through conversation is made possible not by the prior accord of a common tradition, but rather by participation in transmission as such. In the name of such resistance, what counts is participation in the very movement of transmission whenever and however something is transmittable.
By focusing on the role in conversation of displacement, finally, some of the stakes of Gadamer’s call for resistance through conversation can also receive renewed purchase. Conversation, as we have developed it here, can contribute to our resistance to not only the encroachment of calculative rationality generally but also to many of the legacies of alienation and subjugation that have been left to us by the period of European imperialism and colonialism. Today, many of the most urgent calls to resist such legacies have expanded beyond concerns for the encroachment of calculative rationality into our factical existence.24 But, calls to resist have come to focus on myriad global consequences for us today not only of the European Enlightenment but also of humanism, Christianity, globalization, and any number of other European legacies. With this shift and expansion of concerns, there has also come a range of critical approaches, methods, and renewed focus on intellectual resources from outside the European tradition.
How can we understand the stakes of Gadamer’s call for resistance through conversation within this context of these expanding concerns? If this call for resistance through conversation is based on a notion of conversation made possible by the prior accord of a common tradition, then the stakes are few or perhaps none at all. It is difficult to imagine how a call for resistance could be answered by a sense of conversation that requires us to retreat from the global context into the possibilities and limits of a homogeneous, selfsame context of meaning. But, if this call to resistance through conversation turns on a sense of conversation made possible by the prior accord of life, then the stakes may, instead, be crucial.
Conversation, as we have developed it in reference to life, to factical existence, and to displacement, may contribute to our efforts to address our current context of expanding concerns—and this, by way of preliminary suggestion, in perhaps two manners. The first of these manners concerns a potential role of conversation to provide a hermeneutical supplement to current critical debates, including those about the legacies and disastrous effects of the age of European imperialism and colonialism; the second of these manners concerns some of the ethical implications of such conversation in light of these legacies. In both cases, however, the hermeneutical concern for conversation is not the assertion of a position, but rather the call for an openness that allows us to make a certain pivot, a readiness always and again for displacement.
Conversation as Hermeneutical Supplement
First, because conversation requires no prior accord other than the shared effort to participate in transmission, such conversation can supplement current critical discussions that are informed by multiple approaches and methods. Current debate is oriented by critical approaches and methods that often diverge, yielding prescient but sometimes also incompatible results. Conversation can supplement current debate as a pivot that mediates among incompatible approaches and, in this, increases the effectiveness of such approaches.
Conversation as Ethical
Second, such conversation can also allow us, in our factical existence, to cut across the grain not only of the encroachment of Enlightenment rationality, but, moreover, the encroachment of many legacies of European imperialism and colonialism that pervade our current experiences. For, if we are a conversation—one that is keyed not to a common tradition but to life, to the movement of transmission itself—then we may, if we wish, be able to pursue possibilities of shared life even amidst the legacies of the deepest alienations, violence, and subjugation.
But, perhaps above all, Gadamer’s elucidation suggests that conversation, because it circulates in the ether of displacement, remains always halting. Conversation, always and again, turns on displacements of our prejudices, and, in this, takes shape in failures to understand what someone has said about something: to not understanding, to misunderstanding, to contested or fractured understanding, and to every kind of distortion of understanding. In this, conversation should be grasped not in reference to the calculated sureness of so much current discourse, whether in the sciences, in politics, or in interpersonal relations. Instead, the character of conversation is perhaps better grasped by a very different experience of speech—one that Gadamer, for his part, evokes to describe the experience of attempting to communicate in a foreign tongue. This is the experience of stammering (Stammeln)—the experience of breakdown in our attempts to converse, an interruption of our abilities to find the right word. Taking his orientation from the ineptness we feel when we struggle to speak in a foreign tongue, Gadamer writes of such speech:
It is nevertheless already speaking, even if perhaps a stammering speaking, that, like all genuine stammering, is the obstruction of the desire to speak and is thus opened into the infinite realm of possible expression.25
In conversation, as Gadamer elucidates it, our words do not stand as calculated and purportedly justified positions against one another, like entrenched soldiers in a gratuitous stalemate. Quite to the contrary, in conversation—that is, in conversation, at least, that is worthy of the name—we find ourselves always and again at a loss for words, in a search for the word that might allow us to reach one another in a novel manner, for the first time.
This article is based on the André Schuwer Lecture at the 55th annual meeting of the Society for Philosophy and Existential Philosophy. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Simon Silverman Phenomenology Center, Duquesne University, for the invitation to deliver this André Schuwer Lecture.
Martin Heidegger, “Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry,” in Martin Heidegger, Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry, trans. Keith Hoeller (New York: Humanities Books, 2000), 57.
Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Universality of the Hermeneutic Problem,” in Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Gadamer Reader: A Bouquet of Later Writings, trans. and ed. Richard Palmer (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2007), 81.
Really, criticisms of this kind of Heidegger and Gadamer have by now become commonplace. An important impetus for such criticisms from a deconstructive perspective may be found in John D. Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction, and the Hermeneutic Project (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998). A criticism from a related but different perspective may be found in Axel Honneth, “On the Destructive Power of the Third: Gadamer and Heidegger’s Doctrine of Intersubjectivity,” Philosophy and Social Criticism Vol. 29, No. 1 (2003): 5–21.
James Risser, The Life of Understanding: A Contemporary Hermeneutics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012), 1.
Donatella di Cesera, Utopia of Understanding: Between Babel and Auschwitz, Chapter 7, “Utopia of Understanding,” trans. Niall Keane (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012).
Günter Figal, Objectivity: The Hermeneutical and Philosophy, trans. Theodore D. George (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010), 2.
Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. and rev. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Continuum, 2003), 254.
Gadamer, in this idiosyncratic, believes that von Yorck anticipates Heidegger’s contrast with Dilthey and Husserl. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 242, ff.
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Stambaugh, rev. Dennis Schmidt (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010), 11.
Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Subjektivität und Intersubjektivität, Subjekt und Person,” in Gesammelte Werke, vol. 10 (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1995), 97.
See Dennis Schmidt, “Hermeneutics as Original Ethics” in Difficulties of Ethical Life, Shannon Sullivan and Dennis Schmidt, eds. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011), 35–47.
Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Die Unfähigkeit zum Gespräch,” in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Gesammelte Werke, Vol. 2 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999), 214.
Significantly, figures, such as Jean-Luc Nancy, have recently drawn attention to the by now global reach of and evolving character of the encroachment of such calculative rationality in our times.