The Method of Truth
Hans-Georg Gadamer, 1900-2002.
Apr 8, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 29 • By WALLER R. NEWELL
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.