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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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Read more essays like this in our
“What are intellectuals for?” symposium,
such as “On Being an Arsehole” by Jonny Thakkar
and “Tired of Winning” by Jon Baskin.
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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.”
In placing such an emphasis on the formation of interpretive habits, Gadamer sought to reacquaint his contemporaries—many on a path they hoped would lead to epistemic certainty—with the perennial problem of establishing the right means to pursue the best ends. Throughout his career he argued that only a deep appreciation for our historical situation and traditional inheritance could guard philosophy against the ever-present dangers of sophistry, aided in the twentieth century by a multiplicity of advances in technology and media. For Gadamer, the danger was far from academic: it was connected to the lure of political tyranny that Plato had warned against in ancient Athens, and that Gadamer had seen emerge in the Germany of his youth. In Truth and Method, published in 1960, he wrote:
The hermeneutic consciousness, which must be awakened and kept awake, recognizes that in the age of science philosophy’s claim to superiority has something chimerical and unreal about it. But though the will of man is more than ever intensifying its criticism of what has gone before to the point of becoming a utopian or eschatological consciousness, the hermeneutic consciousness seeks to confront that will with something of the truth of remembrance: with what is still and ever again real.
Philosophy’s responsibility to this “truth of remembrance” simultaneously required an act of remembrance: specifically, the modern philosopher would need to recover the art of conversation as modeled by Socrates. Much more than a rhetorical or literary device, Gadamer believed the dialogues offered the best structure for the process of understanding the things themselves. Since they draw us into the contested realm of public expression, conversation partners help us practice “the exercise of thinking in opposites, on the one hand, and the differentiation of concepts, on the other hand.” At a deeper level, Gadamer argued, Plato’s dialogues also modeled a discipline that could be practiced and improved upon, incrementally sharpening our ability to gain knowledge. When, in Book 1 of the Republic, Socrates is confronted by Thrasymachus’s belief that justice is “nothing other than the advantage of the stronger,” he does not simply accept or refute his definition but uses it as the starting point for a joint investigation. By asking for clarification, drawing out consequences through illustration, and considering a variety of alternatives, Socrates carefully challenges a privately held certainty, which is a necessary step on the road to genuine insight about justice.
In this sense, Aristotle was able to carry forward the art of dialectic even though he did not write in dialogues. What was essential for Gadamer was the visible application of the method, which Aristotle performed by placing his own argument—whether about metaphysics, politics or the inner lives of animals—in conversation with past and present interlocutors. For example, in the opening stages of Aristotle’s Physics, he marks out a dialectical path by rehearsing the arguments of Parmenides, Melissus, Democritus and Heraclitus, among others, to establish the framework for his own account of the natural world. In Truth and Method Gadamer did the same, probing the strengths and weaknesses of arguments made by Hume, Dilthey, Schleiermacher and Hegel, then offering contemporary objections, challenges and insights in view of an ever-changing historical horizon. Whether the dialectical ethic is applied to a textual or interpersonal encounter, the goal is not “putting oneself forward and successfully asserting one’s own point of view,” but rather to allow oneself to be “transformed into a communion in which we do not remain what we were.”
Of course, attempting to establish communion with others (past or present) hardly guarantees philosophical or political harmony. Friendships, families and political regimes can rise and fall on disagreements about the use of words like “friendship,” “family” and “politics,” no less than “freedom,” “equality,” “opportunity,” “civility” and “citizenship.” In the wake of the 2016 election, we’ve heard a great deal about the dangers of a post-truth era. But we’ve heard much less about how we might establish a framework for telling the difference between truth and falsehood in a cultural landscape where an individual’s claim to their truth is often considered a sufficient basis for action.
Simply because someone makes a particular claim about something they suppose is true about love, goodness or justice doesn’t make it so. For Gadamer, a responsible dialectical method could help open us up to the potential wisdom in what may at first appear “alien or unintelligible to us.” But not at the expense of accommodating the claims of radical subjectivity, the whimsical inclinations of mass movements or the lure of expedient rhetorical devices. Language has to be shared, but to share it well it also has to be contested.
At the center of Gadamer’s project lay an invitation to a way of knowing and being that required the cultivation of intellectual humility—a virtue as foreign to academic philosophy as it is to most commentators who thrive on social media. But this humility did not signal a lowering of expectations with regard to discovering the truth. The mark, he wrote, of the “true dialectician” is precisely that he “does not allow himself to be artfully misled past the truth.” The true test happens in conversation, where we create space for what he called the event of truth and understanding. In this sense, the dialectical method is as available to us in everyday exchanges as it is to the philosopher in her study: when we say we’ve just had a good conversation, we may very well be referring to qualities prominent in Plato’s dialectics, whether we recognize it or not. Among these is what Gadamer called Socrates’s great innovation: to patiently ask “what something is.” Instead of simply accepting the other’s position, seriously asking what something is demonstrates that we care enough to scrutinize it.
According to the philosopher and intellectual historian Charles Taylor, Gadamer’s great contribution was to show what philosophy had to offer in an age of cultural upheaval, when “understanding the other” would be essential to keeping communities from losing their way in the moral vacuums of tribalism or relativism—both of which threaten to undermine the “very ideal of truth in human affairs.” Only by cultivating the hermeneutic arts, Gadamer taught, could we “avoid being talked out of the fact that there is such a thing as the Just, Beautiful, and the Good.” Only by carefully asking what things are, and by submitting to the “discipline of questioning and inquiring,” could we partake in “a discipline that guarantees truth.” Could there be a better way to occupy a life?
Art credit: Germaine Kruip