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The Library of Living Philosophers

Hans-Georg Gadamer

by Kai Hammermeister

Hans-Georg Gadamer (b 1900) is best known for his path-breaking work in philosophical hermeneutics, most prominently advanced in his book Truth and Method of 1960. Traditionally, hermeneutics (from the Greek word hermeneuein, ‘to comprehend’) meant the correct interpretation and understanding of texts, usually those either of ancient authors or of the Bible. Gadamer, taking up clues from Martin Heidegger, turned understanding from a reading skill into a characteristic of human existence that demanded philosophical investigation. Hermeneutics as the theory of understanding was promoted to the status of a fundamental philosophical discipline.

Understanding for Gadamer means to regard oneself as embedded in a tradition and in a community. These naturally precede us, but they address us nevertheless, so that understanding comes to denote not so much comprehension, but rather communication and agreement. This is why Gadamer wants to overcome the Enlightenment’s negative valuation of prejudices. It is not only impossible to ever move beyond prejudices, it is also not desirable, because prejudices transmit to us the attitudes and values of the society we live in. For Gadamer, the self is always secondary to the encompassing forces of history. But unlike the poststructuralist thinkers or his teacher Heidegger, he does not advocate the disappearance of the subject and instead holds fast to the humanist tradition.

Apart from his writings on philosophical hermeneutics, Gadamer has published extensively on the history of philosophy, especially ancient authors, German idealism and phenomenology, but also on art, literature, music, medicine, politics, ethics, anthropology, and so on. Art occupies a central place in his philosophy, because he claims that technologized science can only advance very limited truth claims, whereas art is able to disclose to us much more fundamental truths of our existence. To understand a work of art means to engage in a dialogue with it that both brings back to life the work of art and changes the viewer or reader in the course of the encounter. Against technology’s project to render the world both predictable and controllable, Gadamer pits the wisdom of antiquity. Ancient philosophy can teach us that the Cartesian subject-object duality is nothing final, but can be corrected through an active and reflecting embededness in the world that characterized the thinking of old.

Gadamer’s hermeneutics greatly influenced the methodological self-reflection of a wide variety of disciplines, like theology, jurisprudence, sociology and literature. Outside of Germany, his influence was particularly strong in Italy, France, Japan and the United States. At times the reception of his theories was rather controversial. J. Habermas and K.-O. Apel attacked him for uncritically defending tradition and the status quo. The deconstructionist J. Derrida declared that the emphasis on understanding destroys the right of the communication partner to remain different and unreconciled. With both camps Gadamer engaged in long debates in which he came to emphasize more the critical potential of his theory of understanding. After the publication of his Collected Works (1985-1995), a renewal of interest in Gadamer’s philosophical writings occurred both in Europe and the United States. His writings on art, ethics, politics and philosophical history still await complete translation and the reception they merit.

© Kai Hammermeister 1999

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