Gadamer, Hans-Georg (1900–2002)

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Hans-Georg Gadamer, a Heidelberg philosopher and student of Martin Heidegger, is best known for his hermeneutic philosophy put forward in his Wahrheit und Methode (Truth and Method, 1960). Widely regarded as the most significant German philosopher after Heidegger, Gadamer wrote on Plato, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Heidegger, Aristotle's practical philosophy, reason in an age of science, aesthetics, poetics, Paul Celan, and other topics.


Gadamer was born in Marburg and grew up in Breslau. His mother died when he was four. His father was a well-known university research scientist in pharmacological chemistry. In 1919 Gadamer's father was called from the University of Breslau to a research chair at the University of Marburg. Gadamer entered Marburg as a second-year student with interests in literature, art history, and classical philology. But he was soon drawn to the great neo-Kantian philosopher and Platonist, Paul Natorp, under whom he completed his doctoral dissertation in 1922 on pleasure in the Platonic dialogues. In 1923 Gadamer journeyed for the summer semester to Freiburg to hear Heidegger, who was offering bold new interpretations of Aristotle and other philosophers. When Heidegger moved to Marburg in the fall of that year, Gadamer became his assistant and he remained so until 1928. During this time Gadamer also studied with Nicolai Hartmann, took seminars in classical philology under Paul Friedländer and others, and in 1927 was certified in classical philology. In 1928 he completed his habilitation under Heidegger on "Plato's dialectical ethics," based on the Philebus.

Gadamer remained another ten years in Marburg waiting for a call to a full-time teaching appointment. After 1933 his chances for a call were practically blotted out by his not being in good standing with the Nazis. But he remained active in the academic life at Marburg, which boasted some of Germany's leading intellectualsRudolf Bultmann in theology; Hartmann; Stefan George, the charismatic poet; Richard Hamann, the iconoclastic art historian; and finally, Friedländer and others, who represented the great philological tradition of Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff.

In 1938 Gadamer was finally called to a chair in philosophy at Leipzig, where he was able to survive through the war years as a politically unthreatening classical humanist. Because of his political integrity he was elected rector at Leipzig after the war. In 1947 he managed to escape the stultifying atmosphere of the new communist regime by being called to a position at Frankfurt University. He was at Frankfurt but two years when in 1949 he was called to fill Karl Jaspers's chair at the University of Heidelberg.

Gadamer remained in Heidelberg as chair in philosophy until his retirement in 1968. A gifted lecturer, he concentrated in the 1950s on topics that later became part of Truth and Method. At the same time, he worked to revive Hegel studies in Germany, and rebuilt a warshattered department into one of the strongest in Germany. In 1952, along with Helmut Kuhn, he founded the Philosophische Rundschau, a journal dedicated to reviewing current books and discussing major issues in philosophy.

After 1968 Gadamer continued to lecture and offer seminars in Heidelberg as an honored emeritus professor, but now he allowed himself to accept invitations to speak in other countries and to serve as a guest professor at various universities, especially in the United States and Canada. This fed a growing interest in hermeneutics in the United States, an interest manifested in the number of dissertations and books being written on the subject. English translations of Gadamer's works began to appear: Truth and Method (1975), Philosophical Hermeneutics (1976), and Hegel's Dialectic (1976) being among the first.


In Truth and Method Gadamer's concepts can be logically divided into those within Truth and Method and those in the shorter writings after it. The latter category includes further writings defending and defining hermeneutics, writings in modern and ancient philosophy, and in aesthetics and poetics.

In Truth and Method Gadamer articulated the most detailed and nuanced account of the "event of understanding" in the history of philosophy. He based much of his thinking on Heidegger, Hegel, and Plato. From Heidegger's Origin of a Work of Art he drew strength for a powerful reassertion of the "truth" of art, and from Heidegger's Being and Time and later writings he drew concepts that called into question the goal of objectivity in interpretation. From Hegel and Plato he drew emphases on tradition, history, and dialogue. From Wilhelm Dilthey and Heidegger he drew an emphasis on the horizonal character of consciousness and the operativeness of history in all understanding. Understanding, he argues, takes place in a consciousness in which historythat is, traditionis always already at work, shaping, predisposing, predefining what the process of understanding involves. His term for this is wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein, "effective historical consciousness," and the encounter with the other, as person or as text, is a matter of Horizontverschmelzung.

In Truth and Method Gadamer shows the development after Kant of fateful conceptual turns in the course of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophy, philology, and hermeneutics that have led to present presuppositions about understanding and the conditions for its possibility. He traces the dream of scientific objectivity in humanistic and social scientific knowledge in the nineteenth century, especially in Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher and Dilthey, and the promising philosophical transformation of this "problematic" of understanding through Heidegger's phenomenological analysis of existential temporality and the historical situatedness of and the participation of history in understanding. He accepts Heidegger's description of the "forestructure" of understanding, adding to it his concept of an "anticipation of completeness" in all understanding. He argues that the process of understanding has the structure of a dialogue and can be likened to a game in that it follows rules and operates in a language that transcends it; thus, he emphasizes the "linguisticality" (Sprachlichkeit ) of understanding and even ultimately its ontological character: "Being that can be understood is language," he asserted (Truth and Method, p. 432). Finally, one of the most distinctive and important of the contributions of Truth and Method is its insistence on a moment of "application" in all understanding.

The book's overarching goal, however, was to cause the artwork to be seen in a new way. While the title might lead one to expect it to be concerned with methods in the Geisteswissenschaften, Gadamer's professed aim is to defend the claim of artworks to be "true." In Gadamer's view the experience of encountering truth in great works of art demonstrates the limits of a science-oriented concept of understanding; the meaning and power of such artworks elude scientific modes of understanding. Gadamer wrote a good deal in explanation and defense of Truth and Method. These writings are now collected in volume two of his collected works.

Gadamer's writings on modern philosophy range through the Continental tradition since Kant and are influenced principally by Plato, who casts a shadow even over his modern writings; by Heidegger, about whom he wrote more than about any other modern philosopher; by Hegel, whose importance in modern philosophy Gadamer repeatedly defended; and by Edmund Husserl whose phenomenology Gadamer used and treated as a major element in his thought. Most of his essays on ancient philosophy are directly or indirectly connected with Plato. From Plato he draws his model of dialogue, in which partners participate in quest of a truth that transcends the individual seeker. Gadamer's ethical thinking as well as his dialectical hermeneutics go back to Plato's "dialectical ethics" of respect for the other person, of openness, of seeking to strengthen the partner's case in order not merely to win a debate to one's own satisfaction but to move together toward truth, a result that benefits both sides and that both sides affirm.

Art and poetry were a major theme in Gadamer's writings throughout his career. In 1934 Gadamer wrote on "Plato and the Poets," and in the 1940s he was writing essays on Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Karl Leberecht Immerman, and Rainer Maria Rilke. His articles after Truth and Method tend to select more sober and difficult poets such as Stefan George, Gottfried Benn, and Paul Celan. His essays on aesthetics and poetics continue to emphasize the truth of art, the need for dialogical openness, and the priority of the artwork's character of play. At the same time, another issue arises: What about basically nonrepresentational poetry? What about the "no longer beautiful" poetry of the modern (or postmodern) dark lyric? After a number of writings that struggle successfully with the dark lyric, such as Wer bin ich und wer bist du? (Who am I and who are you?; 1973), on poet Paul Celan, Gadamer poses the problem in somewhat different terms. For Gadamer it is a "task of philosophy" to develop a context within which one can still recognize and deal withor "understand"modern and postmodern art.

Gadamer's essay "The Relevance of the Beautiful" presents a twentieth-century defense of such art. In this essay experience becomes the reference point, even group experiences as one finds them in the historical record. Gadamer includes, not just experiences recorded in artworks or great poetry, which would create a circular argument, but in anthropological records of such things as (1) the role of play in human life, (2) the high experiences of festiveness in our own and other cultures, and (3) the power of participation in symbolic religious rites. In groping for an explanation of the power of art and a defense of its legitimacy, Gadamer offers an analysis of three categoriesplay, symbol, and festival.

In his essay "The Truth of the Artwork" (1960), Gadamer pointed to a threefold insufficiency of scientific thinking: (1) the insufficiency of scientific thinking, by itself and without recourse to standards outside itself, to grapple with ethical problems such as human rights, abortion, ecology, or planning the future; (2) its incapacity to account for the experience of beauty in art and poetry or to lay down principles for its creation; and (3) its insufficiency to meet, or even account for, the spiritual needs of human beings. All these suggest that a recourse to the absolute priority of scientific presuppositions cannot serve us well in dealing with the encounter with ethical problems, artworks, or the divine. Art, like ethics and the divine, seems to move beyond the competence of the categories of scientific thinking. And they can claim to be "true." This is a major theme both in Truth and Method and in later writings.

In "Wort und Bild" (Word and image; 1992) Gadamer takes the final step and attempts to articulate aesthetic categories that apply both to plastic/pictorial arts and arts of the word. Among the several concepts to which he turns are the Greek concept of the fine (kalon ) and to our experience of the rightness and absoluteness of art.

See also Aristotle; Benn, Gottfried; Bultmann, Rudolf; Dilthey, Wilhelm; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Hartmann, Nicolai; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Heidegger, Martin; Hermeneutics; Hölderlin, Johann Christian Friedrich; Husserl, Edmund; Jaspers, Karl; Kant, Immanuel; Natorp, Paul; Plato; Rilke, Rainer Maria (René); Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst.


major works by gadamer

Platos dialektische Ethik: Phänomenologische Interpretationen zum "Philebos." 3rd ed. Leipzig: Meiner, 1931. Translated by R. M. Wallace as Plato's Dialectical Ethics: Phenomenological Interpretations Relating to the "Philebus." New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.

Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik. Tübingen: Mohr, 1960. Translated as Truth and Method, edited by G. Barden and J. Cumming. New York: Seabury Press, 1975; rev. ed., 1989.

Hegels Dialektik: Fünf hermeneutische Studien. Tübingen: Mohr, 1971. Translated by P. C. Smith as Hegel's Dialectic: Five Hermeneutical Studies. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1976.

Wer bin ich und wer bist du?: Ein Kommentar zu Paul Celans Gedichtfolge "Atemkristall." Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1973.

Vernunft im Zeitalter der Wissenschaft: Aufsätze. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1976. Translated as Reason in the Age of Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981.

Die Aktualität des Schönen: Kunst als Spiel, Symbol, und Fest. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1977. Translated by N. Walker as "The Relevance of the Beautiful." In The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, edited by R. Bernasconi. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Die Idee des Guten zwischen Plato und Aristoteles. Heidelberg: Winter, 1978. Translated as The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.

Heideggers Wege. Tübingen: Mohr, 1983. Translated as Heidegger's Ways. Albany: State University of New York, 1994.

Gessamelte Werke. 10 vols. Tübingen: Mohr, 1985. Contains all of the above works.

collections of gadamer's works in english

Philosophical Hermeneutics. Edited and translated by D. E. Linge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Dialogue and Dialectic: Eight Hermeneutical Studies on Plato. Translated by P. C. Smith. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980.

The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays. Edited by R. Bernasconi. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Dialogue and Deconstruction: The Gadamer-Derrida Encounter. Edited by D. Michelfelder and R. E. Palmer. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. Includes five essays by Gadamer.

Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry, and History. Edited by Dieter Misgeld and G. Nicholson. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Literature and Philosophy in Dialogue: Essays in German Literary Theory. Translated by R. H. Paslick. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

works on gadamer

Hoy, D. C. The Critical Circle: Literature, History, and Philosophical Hermeneutics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

Schmidt, L. K. The Epistemology of Hans-Georg Gadamer. New York: P. Lang, 1985.

Warnke, G. Gadamer: Hermeneutics, Tradition, and Reason. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987.

Weinsheimer, J. C. Gadamer's Hermeneutics: A Reading of "Truth and Method." New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.

Wright, K., ed. Festivals of Interpretation: Essays on Hans-Georg Gadamer's Work. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.

Richard E. Palmer (1996)

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