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Hans-Georg Gadamer

Hans-Georg Gadamer

German philosopher, classicist, and interpretation theorist Hans-Georg Gadamer (born 1900) was the leading exponent of a comprehensive view of human beings as dialogue-partners with each other.

Gadamer was born in Marburg, Germany, son of a well-known professor of chemistry. His university studies at Breslau, Marburg, and Munich included ancient and modern languages and literature, history, art history, and philosophy. Further studies with Martin Heidegger led to the publication of his Habilitation in 1929, qualifying him to teach at a university. He taught at the Universities of Marburg, Kiel, Leipzig (where he was Rektor in 1946-1947), Frankfurt, and Heidelberg (where he succeeded Karl Jaspers in 1949 and was professor of philosophy until formal retirement in 1968). He married Kaete Lekebusch in 1950, and they had one daughter.

From his work as a teacher, his many writings, and his appearances and teaching abroad, Gadamer acquired a world reputation. His major work, Wahrheit und Methode (1960; translated as Truth and Method, 1975), was prepared for publication at the urging of students who first encountered his ideas in classes and seminars.

One of the few major German intellectuals to remain in Germany during the Hitler period and yet keep his distance from the Nazis, Gadamer represents the continuity of a European tradition linking the intellectual excitement of the 1920s to the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Heidegger, Gadamer's teacher in the 1920s, was the greatest figure in existential philosophy, and Gadamer was closely associated with others who were to shape the course of theological, literary, and philosophical studies for decades to come. For today's students, Gadamer is a living witness of the vitality of the great teachers of his youth, as seen in his essays in Part II of Philosophical Hermeneutics (1976) and Philosophical Apprenticeships (1985).

Beginning in the 1950s, Gadamer himself represented a major position in philosophy of the humanities, counterposed to Marxists such as Jürgen Habermas, radically antimethodical interpreters such as Jacques Derrida, and the viewpoint represented by E.D. Hirsch that the meaning of a text is just what the author intended. Gadamer was the spokesperson for philosophical hermeneutics. The word "hermeneutics" has a long history in theology, literature, and the law. There it most frequently indicated an art of interpretation which could wrest secrets from difficult texts originally addressed to a past audience, such as the Bible. Following Heidegger's lead, Gadamer gave hermeneutics a broader meaning; it is a theory of human existence arising from study of the events of understanding and interpretation in which human beings are always involved.

Gadamer challenged the "scientific" view of the humanities which assumed that their task was to exploit methods, inspired by natural scientific method, to generate a single correct interpretation for every work. For Gadamer, the primary purpose of humanistic studies was deepening insight for the reader, viewer, or hearer. He focused on the dynamic by which the message of a work addresses its audience in his or her situation. The reader, he argued, never receives the message in precisely the same sense as the speaker's or author's intention, but always understands in ways shaped by prejudgments arising out of one's own experience and language-learning. Thus, nobody reads a text in precisely the same way as someone else. Differences will be especially significant when interpreters belong to different periods, since they will bring different questions and human interests to bear. The product will be the result of the "fusion of the horizons (or perspectives)" of the text and the interpreter.

But Gadamer did not propose an "anything goes" approach. Meaningful interpretation is limited by the fact that understanding always belongs to a tradition. The way conductors present a classical piece to contemporary audiences will be shaped not only by their perception of the audience's expectations, but also by inherited ways of interpreting the work and sets of assumptions, insights, and methods enriched, impoverished, and modified over the years. No one, Gadamer insisted, is immune to such an influence from the past. But a fresh interpretation becomes possible when an interpreter discovers some unexamined prejudgment at work, decides that it deserves to be challenged, and produces a new way of presenting the work. Moreover, the origin of the challenge may be the work itself. For Gadamer, a seminal work was a conversation-partner, a "Thou," addressing the self and calling its illegitimate biases into question.

Beginning in the 1970s Gadamer regularly taught part of the year in North America. He continued to pursue research, especially in classical Greek philosophy. He found that Plato's use of the dialogue form and Aristotle's description of moral insight suggest a viable alternative to the model of reason developed by uncritical admirers of the sciences of prediction and control. Some of his later work is available in Dialogue and Dialectic (1980), The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy (1986), and Reason in the Age of Science (1981).

Further Reading

There are no biographies of Gadamer. Richard Palmer, Hermeneutics (1969), places Gadamer's ideas in the German tradition of interpretation theory. David C. Hoy, The Critical Circle (1982), treats Gadamer against the background of contemporary literary theory. Richard Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism (1983), connects Gadamer's hermeneutics to contemporary theory of knowledge. Gadamer's Truth and Method (1989, 1993) and introductions by David E. Linge and Frederick Lawrence to Gadamer's Philosophical Hermeneutics (1976) and Reason in the Age of Science (1981), respectively, can also orient readers to Gadamer's thought. □

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Gadamer, Hans-Georg

Hans-Georg Gadamer (häns´ gā´ôrk gă´dəmər), 1900–2002, German philosopher, b. Marburg. He taught at Kiel (1934–37), Marburg (1937–39), Leipzig (1939–74), and Frankfurt (1947–49) before becoming a professor at the Univ. of Heidelberg (1949–68). Influenced by his teacher Martin Heidegger, he made a major contribution to hermeneutics. In his most influential work, Truth and Method (1960, tr. 1975), Gadamer argued that a historian's own situation plays a role in determining the content of his or her interpretation of a historical event, i.e., a historian's own "prejudices" constitute necessary conditions for historical understanding. Gadamer envisaged a task of hermeneutics to be analysis of such prejudices—how they are constituted through language and how they evolve. His other works include Plato's Dialectical Ethics (1931, tr. 1991) and Philosophical Hermeneutics (3 vol., 1967–72, tr. 1976).

See Philosophical Apprenticeships (1977, tr. 1985), his autobiography; G. Warnke, Gadamer (1987).

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Gadamer, H.-G.

Gadamer, H.-G. (philosopher): see HERMENEUTICS.

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Gadamer, Hans-Georg

GADAMER, HANS-GEORG

Philosopher; b. Marburg, Germany, Feb. 11, 1900;d. March 14, 2002. The son of a pharmaceutical chemist, as a student in the classical gymnasium and at the University of Breslau, Gadamer was steeped in the study of the Greek and Latin classics and modern languages. He did his doctoral studies in philosophy at the University of Marburg under the neo-Kantian Paul Natorp. After completing his dissertation on Plato at the age of 22, Gadamer came under the spell of young Martin heidegger, newly arrived from Freiburg, who exercised a decisive influence on this thought.

During the almost 20 years he spent at Marburg as an assistant and Privatdozent (until 1938), Gadamer pursued the study of Plato and Aristotle, and began a study contrasting Sophistic and Platonic doctrine of the polis which led to the publication of "Plato and the Poets"(1934) and "Plato's Educational State" (1942). In those years Rudolf bultmann held Thursday evening Graeca sessions in his home where Gadamer came to know Heinrich Schlier, Günther Bornkamm, Gerhard von Rad and Erich Dinkler. It was also at Marburg that he collaborated in the preparation of Jacob Klein's masterwork Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra (1936), and came into contact with the circle surrounding the poet Stefan George. It was the George circle which produced the revolutionary, non-academic and political readings of Plato by Kurt Singer, Heinrich Friedemann and Kurt Hildebrandt. These influences, combined with the paramount role of Heidegger, are evident in Gadamer's Habilitationsschrift Plato's Dialectical Ethics.

In 1938 Gadamer began a distinguished career as Ordinary Professor of Philosophy at Leipzig where he became dean of the philosophical faculty and rector of the university in the immediate postWorld War II years (194547) under the communist regime. In 1949 he succeeded Karl jaspers at the University of Heidelberg. Named professor emeritus in 1968, Gadamer continued to write and lecture. He undertook an edition of his collected works (Tubingen: Mohr/Siebeck Verlag), and accepted appointments as visiting lecturer at The Catholic University of America in Washington, McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and Boston College.

Thought. Gadamer's entire career was devoted to redefining the understanding of Wissenschaft, and the overcoming of defects in the Enlightenment notion of science and technology. Having been warned off Nietzsche by his father, young Gadamer while still in his teens was spurred to read a volume by the great philosopher from the paternal library. It was Nietzsche's anti-Platonic polemics that caused him to become intrigued with Plato. His youthful encounter with Nietzsche, moreover, coincided with the deep confusion wrought on the German scene by World War I. The crisis of the West, first proclaimed by Nietzsche and echoed by writers Oswald Spengler, Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, marked the end of the age of liberalism with its faith in progress. In seeking a new orientation and basis for cultural traditions, Gadamer turned to philosophy, while never relinquishing his predilection for literature, the arts and philology.

The Heideggerian Revolution. The prevalent philosophic approaches to which Gadamer was attracted before his encounter with Heidegger were: Paul Natorp's transcendental idealist approximations toward constructing comprehensive systems, bolstered by the Neo Kantian conception of the history of supra-temporal problems that supposedly recur "eternally" within novel systematic contextwhat Gadamer called "systemsgames" that lack evidential warrants from historicalcritical method; Nikolai Hartmann's attempt to transform such systems-games into an open system of problems, categories, and values by means of an analysis of categories grounded in both a phenomenological investigation of essences and an idealistically tinged history of problems.

In stark contrast, in Heidegger's philosophizing "the thought-formations of the philosophic tradition came alive, because they were understood as answers to real questions." As Gadamer later realized, Heidegger confirmed the rightness of abandoning eternally identical problems constructed with utter naivete out of the elements of idealist and Neo-Kantian philosophy for the alternative of using historical thinking to retrieve the questions of the tradition in such a way that the old questions became so intelligible and vivid as to become one's own. Gadamer described the pivotal hermeneutical experience as follows: "The disclosure of these questions' historical motivation lends them something of inevitability. Questions as understood cannot just be treated as information. They become one's own questions." Once he appropriated such experiences, Gadamer became a lifelong opponent of any scholasticismwhether ancient, medieval, modern, or contemporarywhose characteristic bent from terminological fixity seeks to preserve traditional answers or positions without paying careful historical attention to the questions out of which they arise.

Heidegger, Plato, Aristotle. Heidegger undertook to criticize the metaphysical tradition dominant in Western philosophy and theology. For him both the premodern metaphysics of substance and the modern metaphysics of subject amount to a forgetfulness of being. In order to lay bare the questionable presuppositions of such metaphysics Heidegger returned to Plato and Aristotle. Even though Plato and Aristotle were more foils than exemplars for him, Heidegger nevertheless sought access to them in their originality beneath the encrustations of scholastic traditions. In this way Heidegger enabled Gadamer to recover what he called "the mystery of the Platonic dialogue," namely, that philosophy's task of "giving an account" is not a matter of pursuing the guiding ideal behind the post-Cartesian notion of system to attain an ultimate foundation in some supreme principle or proposition; rather it is the dialogical task of trying to think through to the end the conceptual and perceptual force of the language in which we dwell by means of a repeated and further thinking through of our primordial experience of the world.

This opposition to the logical ideal of systematic grounding is central to Gadamer's hermeneutical resistance to the primacy of ancient episteme or of modern science, which he understood as approximating techne in Aristotle's sense. In the Phaedo the Platonic Socrates had argued that resistance to Sophism and the possibility of attaining a right orientation towards the whole resides not in a science of nature but in the "flight into the logoi, " or dialectic. Gadamer maintained that dialectical conversation lets something we hold in common come to light even through breakdowns in communication, misunderstandings, and the famed Socratic discovery that we do not know what is highest and best or the whole. But this sought-after commonality regarding our life-orientationwhat the Platonic dialogues portray as the One, the Being, the Good at the basis of the order of the soul, of the city's regime, and of the cosmosdid not for Gadamer take the form of a logically established principle or of scientific or technical knowledge. Hence, the point of his hermeneutic philosophy was to make convincing in our time the Socratic legacy of "human wisdom" that, in comparison to the virtually godlike infallibility vulgarly ascribed to scientific knowledge, is nescience.

Gadamer's esteem for Platonic dialectic opened up for him by Heidegger led him to conclude that Aristotle is the first and perhaps the greatest Platonist. Under Heidegger's lead Gadamer grasped that Aristotle's analysis of practical knowing (phronesis ) offers the model for linking the Socratic "human wisdom" (docta ignorantia ) to the foundational problematic of the interpretative (verstehende ) human sciences. Perhaps because he was less concerned than Heidegger to dismantle Plato and Aristotle as originators of Western metaphysics, Gadamer could see just how Being and Time 's analysis of the facticity of Dasein by way of disengaging the conditionedness of Verstehen (human understanding and interpretation) was dependent upon the earlier Aristotelian account of phronesis. Aristotle had shown how practical insight and practical reasonableness have little or nothing to do with the teachability of science's generalizations; and how they are made possible instead by practice itself in its concrete and indissoluble nexus with one's ethos. Thus, Gadamer's hermeneutical philosophy turns out to be a renewal of practical, social, and political rationality.

Gadamer's Dialectical Alternative. Gadamer spelled out his opposition to the knowingness of science specifically in terms of a rejection of idealism with its Romantic underpinnings in both aesthetic and historical consciousness. The incapacity of aesthetic consciousness to do justice to the truthfulness of art Gadamer exposed as merely the opposite side of the coin which degrades the existential value of the artistic, the mythic, and the poetic in the name of a mistaken overestimation of logic, conceptual rigor, and proof on the one hand, and of technical expertise on the other. Similarly, the dispassionate remoteness of the cultivated bourgeois consciousness that incarnates historical consciousness cannot do justice to the primordiality of our historical being. Both aesthetic and historical conceptions are based ultimately on the illusions of idealist conceptions of consciousness. Gadamer's antidote to these misconceptions was "effective historical consciousness." He elaborated this wirkungsgeschichliches Bewusstsein phenomenologically in his explication of the game or play (Spiel ). And about it he made his famous claim that it is "more being than consciousness."

To counter the conceptualist hubris of idealist consciousness Gadamer underlined the primal significance of conversation. Against the conceptualist tendencies of the Greeks, against German idealism's metaphysics of the will, and against the methodologism of the neokantians and the Neo-Positivists, he pointed insistently toward our attempts at mutual understanding by which we are engaged in an unending conversation, a logic of question and answer in which no person will have the last word. To underscore this dialogical dimension Gadamer invoked the European traditions of rhetoric (Vico) and hermeneutics (schleiermacher, dilthey) by way of reinforcing the truth of Plato's dialectic and of Aristotle's practical and political philosophy. At the heart of each of these is an art of holding a conversation, which entails holding this conversation with oneself and pursuing an internal harmony with oneself.

According to Gadamer's hermeneutic philosophy, focusing upon the experience of talking-to-each-other and listening-to-one-another means concentrating upon the linguisticality of human experience. Language, or better, language-in-use, has the signal advantage of highlighting the preschematization of our possible experience. In our use of language it becomes plain that human experience is enacted in a constant communicative buildup of our knowledge of the world. The linguistic entwinement of world-as-word and word-as-worlded also serves to decenter all subjectivistic illusions about consciousness; and it let Gadamer thematize the empirically verifiable reflective interiortry (which Bernard lonergan helpfully called "consciousness as experience"). This awareness is prior to and irreducible to the mythic and exaggerated kind of awareness sponsored by Cartesian and Kantian idealism (which Lonergan identified as "consciousness as perception"). Moreover, language as dialogical also makes clear the difference between advancing, enhancing, and illuminating the horizon of mutual understanding and the limited validity of the ideal of objective determinacy and its concern for logical consistency and univocity.

Hermeneutical philosophy teaches that linguisticality does not head towards the finality of propositional statements, of objective validity-claims, or towards totality as the to-be-completely-determined object. Rather it points in the direction of a mysterious and allencompassing world-horizon in which we live and move and have our being. For Gadamer human language is not oriented towards a humanly inaccessible truth as "full disclosure, whose ideal of fulfillment is ultimately the self-presence of the absolute spirit." This is why he repudiated "any 'theoria ' whose ontological legitimation could only be found in an intellectus infinitus about which human experience unsupported by any revelation knows nothing." Gadamer tried to demonstrate that the finality warranted by language which is genuinely carried out in the infinite dialogue of the soul with itself is "not to be characterized as the determination of an objective world to be known, either in the Neo-Kantian sense of an infinite task, or in the dialectical sense of transcending any given limit through thinking." For him what is expressed is not everything; and hermeneutical philosophy is out to help us acknowledge that what is unsaid "first lets what is said become word and reach us." Thus, the infinity proper to dialogue has a finality consonant with the normative attainment of experience in human living: "A plenitude of experiences, encounters, teachings, and disappointments culminate not in one's finally knowing everything, but in one's knowing something and in one's having learned modesty." In conversation we try to enter into the language of anyone who is thinking along with or thinking things out further than we are. In sum:

"Hermeneutical" philosophy understands itself not as an 'absolute' position, but as a way of experience. It insists that there is no higher principle than this: to open oneself up for conversation. But that constantly means acknowledging beforehand the possible correctness, and indeed the superiority of one's conversation partner. Is that too little? This seems to me the only kind of intellectual probity one can require of a professor of philosophybut which one also ought to demand.

In articulating his hermeneutic philosophy in Truth and Method (1960), Gadamer gave a theoretical account of the style of his study, of his teaching in seminar and lecture hall, and of his personal hand in forming generations of Germany's leading teachers in philosophy. His published works stand as a witness to his teacher's efforts to establish sustained conditions for teaching and learning that embody the classic ideals of the German university and Western culture.

Bibliography: e. makita, Gadamer-Bibliographie: 1922-1994 (New York 1994). h.-g. gadamer, The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer (Chicago 1997). Works. h.-g. gadamer, Gesammelte Werke (Tübingen 1985-); Kleine Schriften (Tübingen 1967-1972); Philosophical Hermeneutics, tr. and ed. d. e. linge (Berkeley 1976); Dialektik und Sophistik im siebenten platonischen Brief (Heidelberg 1964); The Relevance of the Beautiful, tr. n. walker, ed. and intro. r. bernasconi (Cambridge 1986); Hegel's Dialectic, tr. and intro. r. c. smith (New Haven 1976); Hermeneutik und Dialektik, r. bubner, ed. (Tübingen 1970); The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelean Philosophy, tr. and intro. p. c. smith (New Haven 1986); Idee und Wirklichkeit in Platos Timaios (Heidelberg 1974); Metaphysie XII: Übersetzung und Kommentar von Hans-Georg Gadamer (Frankfurt am Main 1970); Platos dialektische Ethik und andere Studien zur platonischen Philosophie (Hamburg 1968); Reason in the Age of Science, tr. f. g. lawrence (Cambridge, Mass. 1982); Vernunft im Zeitalter der Wissenschaft: Aufsätze (Frankfurt am Main 1976); Truth and Method, trs. g. barden and j. cumming (New York 1975); The Beginning of Knowledge, tr. r. coltman (New York 2001); The Beginning of Philosophy, tr. r. coltman (New York 1998); Hermeneutics, Religion, and Ethics, tr. j. weinsheimer (New Haven 1999); Praise of Theory: Speeches and Essays, tr. c. dawson (New Haven 1998); Gadamer on Celan: "Who Am I and Who Are You" and Other Essays, tr. r. heinemann and b. krajewski (Albany, N.Y. 1997); The Enigma of Health: The Art of Healing in a Scientific Age, tr. n. walker and j. geiger (Stanford 1996); Heidegger's Ways, tr. j. w. stanley (Albany, N.Y. 1994). Literature. j. grondin, Hans-Georg Gadamer: Eine Biographie (Tübingen 1999). j. weinsheimer, Gadamer's Hermeneutics: A Reading of Truth and Method (New Haven 1985). h. dieter, et al., eds., Die Gegenwart der Griechen im neueren Denken: Festschrift für Hans-Georg Gadamer zum 60 (Tübingen 1960). d. c. hoy, The Critical Circle: Literature, History and Philosophical Hermeneutics (Berkeley 1978). j. vandenbulcke cke, Hans-Georg Gadamer. Een filosofie van het interpreteren (Utrecht 1973). l. k. schmidt, The Epistemology of Hans-Georg Gadamer. An Analysis of the Legitimization of Vorurteile (New York 1985). m. r. foster, Gadamer and Practical Philosophy: The Hermeneutics of Moral Confidence (Atlanta 1991). t. k. carr, Newman and Gadamer: Toward a Hermeneutics of Religious Knowledge (Atlanta 1996). Dialogue and Deconstruction: The Gadamer-Derrida Encounter, tr. d. p. michelfelder and r. e. palmer (Albany, N.Y. 1989).

[f. g. lawrence]

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