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Hans-Georg Gadamer was born on February 11, 1900, the same year that Friedrich Nietzsche died and 250 years (to the day) after the death of René Descartes. Gadamer’s father, Johannes, was a prominent German chemist, suspicious of the supposedly frivolous questions that guided the study of the humanities. In 1922, Johannes Gadamer became the rector of the University of Marburg, where his son would pursue his education. Ironically, Marburg was an institution steeped in the classics of the Western tradition, and it was also the home of the celebrated young professor Martin Heidegger. Captivated by Heidegger’s charisma and genius, the younger Gadamer was persuaded to take up philosophy against his father’s wishes. In 1927, Johannes fell ill, and was mostly resigned to his sickbed for the last year of his life. Near the very end, he made a heartfelt attempt to look out for Hans-Georg’s future, calling on Heidegger to come to his bedside.
As Gadamer’s biographer Jean Grondin recounts, upon request Heidegger immediately made his way to the hospital. When he arrived he asked what he could do for the dying man. “I’m worried about my son,” he said. “Why so?” Heidegger asked. “He is doing very well. Of that I am fully confident … one year away from his Habilitation.” Johannes acknowledged as much. But with a sigh he asked, “Do you really believe that philosophy is enough of a vocation to occupy one’s life?”
Before his death in 2002, Gadamer had achieved a measure of international acclaim for his approach to philosophical hermeneutics. Derived from the Greek hermeneuia, the term has its root in the mythical actions of Hermes, the Olympic messenger god. As a philosophical methodology, hermeneutics addresses an activity that individuals (knowingly or otherwise) participate in every day: the act of interpretation. At first glance, it might appear there isn’t much to say about that activity, but as Augustine said of our experience of time, interpretation only seems unremarkable until we’re asked to describe it.
As was the case for many of Gadamer’s peers, who would become the intellectual vanguard of a generation (Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, Hans Jonas, Herbert Marcuse and Emmanuel Levinas among them), it was an apprenticeship with the son of a rural church sexton that set him on his philosophical journey. Heidegger’s own development under the influence of Edmund Husserl, provided him with a deep appreciation of medieval scholasticism, Cartesian logic and linguistic intentionality. But Heidegger would diverge from Husserl’s focus on the task of objectively accounting for cognition and sense perception, placing at the center of his work the question of being itself.
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To do so he wrestled with the titans of Greek and German thought. According to the reports of his students, Heidegger’s grappling sessions with Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Hegel were not to be missed. “It is impossible to exaggerate the drama of Heidegger’s appearance in Marburg,” Gadamer wrote, “the unique thing about his person and his teaching lay in the fact that he identified himself fully with his work and radiated from that work. Because of him the lecture format became something totally new.” This was not the posture of a career academic, but rather of a thinker at one with the task itself. “In Heidegger’s lectures,” Gadamer continued, “we were often so personally touched that we no longer knew whether he was speaking of his own concern or that of Aristotle.” Indeed, Heidegger often gave the impression he could understand the thinkers with whom he engaged better than they understood themselves.
While a charismatic teacher can be an aid to philosophical growth, the enthusiasm of some of Heidegger’s students threatened to mutate into dogmatism. As Gadamer reported, “We were an arrogant little in-group and easily let our pride in our teacher and his manner of working go to our heads.” Looking back, Gadamer said that one could “easily imagine what was happening with the second- or third-rate Heideggerians, those whose scholarly talent or education was not fully developed. Heidegger worked like a narcotic on them. This whirl of radical questions into which Heidegger pulled us became caricatured in the mouths of the imitators.” The result was a combination of moral certainty and intellectual instability. As profound as some of Gadamer’s peers may have felt in Heidegger’s company, the “demanding tone” of their “‘radical’ questions” often concealed a “substantive emptiness.” Not everyone, he wrote, had the strength “to do serious work” or to liberate themselves from the influence of their tutor.
By admission Gadamer was a part of an arrogant little in-group. By choice he traveled a less arrogant path than the one he saw some of his fellow students take. Heidegger was determined to reorient philosophy in a pre-Socratic context, though his path to get there passed (at great length) through Plato and Aristotle. As a young scholar, Gadamer came to believe that the territory Heidegger was passing through was in fact “solid ground” for him to anchor his own philosophy in. Most important to Gadamer was the connection in Plato and Aristotle between the cultivation of wisdom and the method of “dialectic”—the attempt to ascertain the truth by scrutinizing and mediating between differing opinions and perspectives. Whereas some of Heidegger’s students saw the question of being (Dasein) as throwing us back upon existential uncertainty and solitude, Gadamer picked up on the strand in Heidegger’s thinking that portrayed it as the precondition for better understanding what it means to be with (Mitsein) one another.
But in emphasizing how philosophy could better inform our confrontation with “the Thou,” as he called it, Gadamer was not just advancing platitudes about the importance of empathy or mutual respect: for him, the dialogue between I and Thou was the only route to certain forms of wisdom or truth. The goal of engaging with others—whether in the present or the past, whether in person or through artworks and philosophical writings—was to glimpse “the truth of what the Thou says to us.” “I mean specifically the truth that becomes visible to me only through the Thou,” Gadamer wrote in the forward to the second edition of his masterwork, Truth and Method, “and only by letting myself be told something by it.”
Embedded in Gadamer’s emphasis on dialogue was a belief in the importance of philosophy not as an obscure academic discipline but as a way of life. To that end, he sought to make clear that the study of historical, philosophical and cultural interpretation was not just “a specialized and occasional field of application.” Rather, hermeneutics is an inescapable feature of daily life that organically places us (whether or not we recognize it) within “the vast field of philosophic questioning.”
In his first book—Plato’s Dialectical Ethics—Gadamer showed how the dialectical structure of Plato’s thinking could provide a path for pursuing the philosophical life. Plato’s dialogues, Gadamer argued, should be approached not merely as texts that offered a collection of categorical principles or arguments to be plucked up for contemporary use. Instead they should be viewed as philosophical dramas, portraying the act of interpretation as a living phenomenon or activity that strives to reach “a shared understanding of the matter in question through conversation,” which is “aimed at knowledge.” In a later essay he said that the phenomenon of dialectic and interpretation is “not so much something that one talks about,” but rather “something that one has to practice and to acquire as a skill.”