The Magazine

The Method of Truth

Hans-Georg Gadamer, 1900-2002.

Apr 8, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 29 • By WALLER R. NEWELL
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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.

Gadamer's supplementing of Kant with the communal contexts of tradition led to his long-standing debate with Jurgen Habermas, the chief heir of the social theorists known as the Frankfurt School. In Habermas's view, the Kantian ideal of free speech as a formal, universally valid, and logically necessary structure of communication is threatened by exactly the communal context Gadamer extolled--for that context is characterized by socioeconomic inequality and the monopolization of power.

But, for Gadamer, this was to miss the point. Since we are always already involved in a communal heritage, we can clarify our communication with one another only within that communal heritage's dense web of associations. In contrast to the Kantian formalism of Habermas, Gadamer invokes Aristotle's vision of a deliberative community guided by prudence, common sense, and precedent.

THE MASSIVE shadow of Martin Heidegger looms over all twentieth-century philosophy, but Gadamer's approach to hermeneutics provided a way to argue against his teacher. Beginning in "Being and Time," Heidegger had called for the "deconstruction" of the entire Western tradition of philosophy, which had culminated in "the forgetfulness of Being." In Heidegger's view, philosophical rationalism, beginning with Plato's Theory of Ideas, had imposed an iron cage of logical determinism and managerial expertise on the richness and mystery of life. The worst excesses of modern global technology--its advanced weaponry, its ravaging of the environment, its vulgar and philistine consumer culture spearheaded by the two modernist superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union--were not uniquely modern. They were the culmination of an attempt to subjugate Being and "the earth" to the arid determinism of "metaphysics" going all the way back to Plato. Indeed, the fate of the earth in the twentieth century could be summed up as "metaphysics working itself out as technology."

In order to shatter this iron cage of rationality, the entire Western canon had to be uprooted and the sovereignty of metaphysics dissolved. Only by returning to the mythopoeic and tragic reasoning of Heraclitus and the other pre-Socratics could we return to the crossroads at the origins of the West and this time take the right fork. That fork led away from the elevation of stability and permanence as the hallmark of truth--the metaphysical project begun by Plato and responsible for the woes of the modern world--and down the other path not taken, Heraclitus' identification of Being with flux and indeterminacy, a mysterious genesis out of which things emerge and into which they must pass away.

These teachings had a great impact on Gadamer. He did not dispute Heidegger's belief that modernity had reached a crisis point in the twentieth century, and that global technology summed up many of its most dangerous and culturally corrosive tendencies. Recalling his student days in Marburg and Freiburg, he identified the 1920s as "the end of the age of liberalism with its belief in progress based on science." But he firmly rejected Heidegger's contention that the crisis was set in motion by Plato and the ancients.

"Where I otherwise still appeal to Heidegger," he wrote to Strauss in 1961, "my point of departure is not the complete forgetfulness of Being, but rather . . . the unreality of such an assertion." Far from being the problem, the ancient thinkers, Gadamer believed, were our chief sources for counteracting the worst tendencies of modernity. The Western canon contained "restorative possibilities" for enriching the present.

When one interprets a text, Gadamer argued, there is a mutual encounter in which both reader and text are transformed: a "fusion of horizons" between past and present. The interpreter always brings certain interests to his reading--personal concerns as well as the broader cultural dilemmas of his age. Hence, it is not possible to achieve a strictly neutral or objective interpretation. When we read Plato on justice, for example, what we derive from Plato's reasoning will inevitably be shaped by our own quandaries about justice in the present. Reading the "Republic" in one country and era will be a different experience from reading it in another.

This does not mean, however, that we just "make up" the meaning of the text for ourselves. Gadamer was not a relativist. The meaning of the text is objectively real. But it is ambiguous and multi-layered, and we will light up different aspects of it depending on the path we take.

ON THIS ISSUE, Gadamer differed from Strauss, a friendly disagreement summarized in "Truth and Method" and continued in correspondence over the decades. Unlike Strauss, Gadamer did not believe it was possible to understand the author as he understood himself. If, for example, we were to find in reading Aristotle that he was "more correct" than "the corresponding modern theories," then wouldn't we have to conclude that "Aristotle could not understand himself in the way that we understand him," since he was not conscious of the modern theories? This is the "fusion of horizons": The very conclusion that ancient thought is superior to modern thought transforms the meaning of ancient thought.

THE PROPONENTS of hermeneutics who came after Gadamer haven't always been as sensible--often regarding themselves as free to deconstruct texts in whatever showy and extravagant manner seized them. Sometimes this has taken the overtly politicized form of "action research," in which deconstruction is seen as an ally in dismantling oppressive power structures. Sometimes it has taken an apolitical bent, in which the critic fancies himself to be superior to the author he is interpreting. Because of his limitless freedom to reshape a text's meaning, it's the literature professor who turns out to be the creative genius, not Jane Austen, Rousseau, or the other authors being deconstructed.

Gadamer himself stands head and shoulders above these abuses of the hermeneutical movement to which he made such a huge contribution. Throughout his life, he was a tireless champion of liberal education. He believed that reading the Great Books was not only intellectually illuminating, but character-building. The patience, moderation, reverence, and perseverance needed to interpret a great work of philosophy or literature were the same virtues of character that every young person needs to acquire. In this respect, he belongs to a tradition that stretches from Plato to the Renaissance humanists: Philosophy is therapeutic, and it is also civic-spirited, because the virtues it fosters are the same ones we need in order to be good.

Hans-Georg Gadamer's reputation has suffered some attacks in recent years. In 2000, for example, Richard Wolin, the author of "Heidegger's Children," published a curious magazine essay called "Untruth and Method" that read Gadamer's 1934 essay "Plato and the Poets" and 1941 lecture "Volk and History in Herder's Thought" as somehow fraught with the dark currents of Nazism. Remaining in Germany throughout the Nazis' reign, Gadamer was perhaps not among the most heroic. But he never remotely tainted himself with the kind of overt collaboration shown by Heidegger, whose public pronouncements in favor of the regime were organically intertwined with his philosophy and its call for "the people's return to Being."

Moreover, Gadamer did not just lie low and teach his courses, as did many passive non-collaborators. One of his female students, who later became his assistant, was involved in the White Rose movement, that brief, doomed student protest against the Nazi regime which was the only act of open civil disobedience while Hitler was in power. Because of their friendship--she became his wife after the war--Gadamer fell under suspicion as the movement was crushed by the Gestapo. Especially after the von Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler, when suspected White Rose sympathizers were rounded up, Gadamer and his assistant had to go into hiding. She was about to be arrested when the Soviet armies arrived.

IN "Literature and Philosophy in Dialogue," Gadamer recalls the era of Schiller, Goethe, and Hegel--the early period of German Idealism when its values were at their most liberal, in both the educational and the political senses of the word. These thinkers were not unabashed admirers of liberalism; they worried about its excesses of materialism and vulgarity. But, instead of turning their backs on liberalism, they wanted to help it. Schiller, in particular, firmly believed that "aesthetic education" could ennoble modern liberalism by giving it a high cultural mission and transmitting the riches of the Western tradition to the young. Education shows us how to arrive at freedom--the supreme value of the modern age--"through beauty."

That optimistic and benevolent spirit did not always win out in subsequent German culture. The twin dangers that Schiller and his contemporaries worried about--Jacobin fanaticism on the left and blood-and-soil tribalism on the right--gained adherents as the nineteenth century unfolded into the twentieth, culminating in Heidegger's identification of the Nazi "revolution" with the German people's return to its "destiny." But in Gadamer, that earlier hopeful strain in German philosophy lived on, never losing faith in the supreme value of learning and liberal studies. He embodied scholarship and higher education at their most inspiring.

Waller R. Newell is professor of political science and philosophy at Carleton University in Ottawa.