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Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002)

by Anja Steinbauer

Gadamer, the man who lived history – the whole twentieth century and into the early years of the new millennium – accorded great importance to the study of it. Learning from history is important for all of us but entering into a critical dialogue with the thinkers of the past is crucial for doing philosophy. To him, the history of philosophy was not just an academic pursuit next to the activity of philosophising but constituted an important part of philosophy itself: the way we relate to our tradition matters.

Gadamer was born on 11 February 1900 in Marburg. His father was a professor of pharmaceutical chemistry in Breslau, where Gadamer grew up. Gadamer studied philosophy, German, history and history of art at the universities of Breslau, Marburg and Munich. As well as attending Edmund Husserl’s lectures, his most important teachers included Paul Natrop, Nicolai Hartmann and above all Martin Heidegger. His PhD thesis was on Plato. He taught as a professor of philosophy at the universities of Marburg, Leipzig, Frankfurt and Heidelberg, from where he retired in 1968. He lived in Heidelberg until the end of his life, taking a keen interest in current affairs and discussing them as well as philosophy with his peers and students until only a few days before his death.

Gadamer did not write his Truth and Method, the book which brought him worldwide fame, until he was sixty. This work is an attempt at a philosophical hermeneutics, i.e. treating the problem of hermeneutics, of understanding and interpretation, from a philosophical perspective. Though a phenomenon which concerns all areas of human life, ‘understanding’ is difficult to account for. Gadamer saw himself as continuing the project of hermeneutics as initiated by Schleiermacher and Dilthey and, importantly, as developed by the young Heidegger. Hermeneutics before Schleiermacher and Dilthey had been concerned with techniques of interpreting the Bible as well as legal texts. Schleiermacher took hermeneutics out of the confines of theology and philology to make it the enquiry into our understanding of texts in general, of other people or historic events. Gadamer follows this step but differs from Schleiermacher and Dilthey by rejecting their assumption that in order to understand a text you must understand its author. Gadamer, like Husserl and Heidegger, believes texts to be more than expressions of subjective lives. Texts must be understood to involve much more since they also involve a claim to truth. Instead of purely reflecting manifestations of person’s psychology or history, the use of language in texts serves to express something that is perceived to be valid beyond the merely subjective. To understand what is being said means to take seriously and understand the truth claim involved. However, a text can only express truth if it does not involve any internal contradictions and if the whole coheres with its parts. What we are therefore trying to do when we try to understand a text is to grasp its completeness. This preconception of completeness entails a certain bias, which causes us to avoid interpreting the text in a way in which it appears false or contradictory.

Gadamer follows Heidegger’s idea of the human being as being in the world and being able to deal and interact with her environment. We constantly make decisions about what is meaningful in the world, which course of action makes sense, which choices add up to a useful result – in other words, we form an opinion. On the basis of our opinions we interpret our own experience of the world and in the world. Gadamer therefore believes that our experience is of a linguistic nature and can thus be encapsulated in a text. Such a text will make claims by posing relevant questions and answering them. We then try to understand a text, i.e. take its truth claims seriously, by asking the questions posed in the text and discussing the answers it suggests.

A particular difficulty presents itself when we are confronted with texts from cultures or historical periods other than our own. Our own historicity becomes painfully apparent as does the historicity of the text. The two are thus set into a shared context, and thereby relate to each other. This “fusion of horizons” makes it possible to understand the text. Since Gadamer assumes that such a fusion of horizons must take place, there can never be a conclusive interpretation of a text. Every generation has to effect its own fusions of horizons. People come and go, but history does not stop.

Death fascinated Gadamer due to the way in which we relate to it. Gadamer quotes Parmenides’ dictum “even when absent, firmly present in spirit” in his writing on ephemerality, to illustrate that our mortality is an important part of what we are. Yet we try to resist it: “Even in times at which wealth and growth promise something like a comfortable happiness, in our existential feeling the knowledge of finitude is always alert. …And so we might ask ourselves whether it may in the end not be both, the knowledge of our death and resistance to death, which have made human beings human.”

Gadamer died on 13 March in a hospital in Heidelberg. He had received honorary doctorates from several universities, and won numerous honours and awards. A chair in philosophy was named after him at the University of Heidelberg.

© Anja Steinbauer 2002

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