The Magazine

The Method of Truth

Hans-Georg Gadamer, 1900-2002.

Apr 8, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 29 • By WALLER R. NEWELL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

HANS-GEORG GADAMER, one of the most important and influential European philosophers of the twentieth century, died on March 13 at the age of 102. The author of dozens of books and articles, he was the principal founder of hermeneutics, an approach to textual interpretation now widely practiced at American universities. His magnum opus, "Truth and Method," first published in Germany in 1960, propelled him to international fame with its translation into English in 1975.

Born in 1900, only a generation or two removed from figures as towering as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Dilthey, Gadamer was the last living link with the vanished world of high German civilization--the civilization of Kant, Goethe, and Beethoven, the civilization swept away by two world wars in a conflagration not unrelated to its own darker philosophical currents. Living through the disaster of the Third Reich, Gadamer sought consistently to rescue German philosophy from the apocalyptic and millenarian extremism that had led his mentor, Martin Heidegger, to place his prestige as Germany's leading philosopher at the service of a tyrant as he extolled "the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism."

As an undergraduate, I spent several evenings in Gadamer's company. At that time, in the mid-1970s, he had retired from his academic career in Germany and taken a position as an emeritus professor at McMaster University in Canada. That's when Allan Bloom was teaching at the University of Toronto, where I was one of his students. One evening Bloom summoned a few of us to his apartment and solemnly informed us that we were going to meet one of the most important scholars in the world. We were strictly admonished to show him the utmost respect.

Bloom always had a reverential attitude toward Gadamer, knowing how highly his own teacher Leo Strauss had regarded Gadamer. Indeed, Strauss had told Bloom not long before he died that his "last serious conversation" had been with Gadamer. At the meetings at Bloom's apartment, Gadamer would read one of his papers, to be followed by discussion. He seemed like the professor from a story book. Already an elderly man--although he would prove to have more than a quarter century remaining to him--he was benign and crinkly eyed, with a thatch of snowy hair and pink baby skin. He read his papers in a lilting German accent, and when a student questioned him, he would look back with his big, slightly sad eyes and respond without the slightest hint of condescension. It was as if we had been transported back to Weimar and Marburg, back to the days when philosophy was still beautiful, before the terrors of the century rolled in. Bloom, who was normally as voluble as Gadamer was restrained, on these occasions was almost entirely silent, watching the proceedings from a little outside the circle with a smile.

This was just before "Truth and Method" was translated into English. At that time, Gadamer was, for the most part, known only to devotees of Continental philosophy specializing in the thinkers he wrote about--chiefly the ancients, particularly Plato and Aristotle, and the modern German thought of Goethe, Hegel, and Nietzsche. All that changed when the translation came out in 1975. At Yale in the late 1970s, my wife and I saw a poster advertising a talk by Gadamer, so we decided to go and reintroduce ourselves and say hello. We didn't bother to come early, expecting to find ten or fifteen people in a seminar room. When we arrived, we found an audience of several hundred, pressing around Gadamer like a celebrity. We couldn't get near him. After a lifetime of scholarship, he became famous as an old man--and then had the good luck to enjoy that fame for another twenty-five years, through a continuous stream of books and a ceaseless round of classes. Recognized at last as he deserved to be, he enjoyed an array of endowed lectures and visiting professorships at America's leading universities.

ACCORDING TO Gadamer's theory of hermeneutics, the interpretation of texts never takes place in a vacuum. It always draws upon a shared communal understanding of cultural and linguistic traditions. In contrast to Kant's view of people as autonomous individuals able to strive against nature and history in the exercise of free will, Gadamer maintained that we are always already immersed in civic, historical, and aesthetic contexts. Kant severed moral autonomy from aesthetic and cultural fulfillment, but, for Gadamer, the communal context presupposes their intermingling.