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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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.