Rehabilitating Gadamer

Listen, I’m not under any false illusions that Hans-Georg Gadamer needs my help, but I was a little rough on him in a previous post as being the quintessence of philosophical abstruseness. In fact, Gadamer is an incredibly important figure in 20th century philosophy, so all four of you who read this should have a better appreciation of him.

In the post-Kantian turn in philosophy, F. Schleiermacher and W. Dilthey emphasized that for a human being to understand a text, one must interpret it. They are (in)famous for stating that I, as a reader, can actually know what’s going on in a text better than the author himself knew. They then developed a methodology for interpreting texts.

Gadamer, however, disagreed that a method can be developed; that is still too a part of the Enlightenment project (i.e., you can step outside of interpretation and develop a method, then step back into the interpretation). Gadamer said that all we do is interpret, and he used art as an example: most of us would say a painting or work of music conveys “truth,” but it’s not in the same way that a written text does. Since a painting does not use words, but we think in words, we have to translate or interpret what the painting is “saying.” In other words, we interpret all the time — interpretation is the human condition.

So here’s a more helpful quote from Truth and Method:

“The hermeneutical situation is not a regrettable distortion that affects the purity of understanding, but the condition of its possibility. Only because between the text and its interpreter there is no automatic accord can a hermeneutica experience make us share in the text. Only because a text has to be brought out of its alienness and assimilated is there anything for the person to understand it to say”(472).

  • Jon

    tony do you think the author has any role in the interpretation of a text? or does the interpretation only happen when someone is on the receiving end of the text? i’ve been really struggling with this in light of so much of communication happening over the internet. does the person communicating through a text have a responsibility in the interpretative process? or does the communicator simply “speak” without any regard for the potential “receiver?” obviously the ability of a communicator to interpret a potential audience is limited and over a long enough timeline would be impossible. i’m not sure this makes sense yet in my mind so it may not make sense to you or anyone else either. if it doesn’t just assume i’m on drugs and forget this ever happened.the only thing i can think of now is, i think it was wittgenstein who talked about using language games. according to him, we all play games with language and thus communicators must speak/write carefully so that hearers/readers can understand.

  • Anastasia

    Language is a game. It has rules and conventions and that is how we are able to make sense of one another. There is always negotiation.For my part, I think interpretation is about the hearer/reader. The author may or may not have an audience in mind, but, ultimately, she cannot control how she will be interpreted by her readers.

  • James

    Since a painting does not use words, but we think in words, we have to translate or interpret what the painting is “saying.” I think this is very interesting – perhaps a good application of this notion to human life would be to have a retreat, where people communnicated through arts – no words – just draw what you mean, or sing, without words, it would be interesting.Can humans get away from using words? Those tribes in the jungles that simply make clicking noises…is that words?And how does the presntation of the Christ in John 1 being called the word affect language? Does salvation come in the context of words?

  • Jeff

    We’ve been talking about Gadamer, Schleiermacher, Dilthey and Saussere in my Intermediate Hermeneutics class, but I’ve been spared from actually having to read them. It seems to be that all language is metaphorical – that words only have meaning in how they are interpreted by the reader/hearer. The author/speaker may have an intention, but has no influence on how s/he is interpreted.(Tony – are you doing the “Congregational Mission & Leadership” (or whatever its called at Princeton) Phd? I just started looking into the one at Luther with Van Gelder. I’d love to talk with you about it sometime. I’m a friend of Doug’s; we met briefly at the EC Nashville).

  • Anonymous

    I know nothing of Gadamer….but I just heard you aren’t coming to either EC(s)this year…is this true?????

  • tony

    Nope, my PhD will be in practical theology. As far as I know, there isn’t one in congregational leadership here. I’ve heard good things about the one at Luther.And, no, I won’t be at the emergent conventions this year. I’ll be studying for and taking the first three of my comprehensive exams. As Andy Root said to me a month ago after he finished his fifth comp and oral defense, “Welcome to hell.”

  • Anastasia

    o to be back in the midst of comps and not in midst of writing a proposal! But good luck. Comps do suck.they are discussing but aren’t making you read people like Gadamer in a hermeneutics class? disgraceful.

  • Anastasia

    I just read my own comment and I hope you realize I’m being fecetious…..

  • clave

    I think it’s pretty interesting that the topic of the author/receiver communication of a text would come up on a blog. A blog as a mode of communication has a unique set of rules in many ways. All the nuances and subtleties of non-verbal and verbal communication are obviously lost and the extra effort an author (or their editor) would normally make to assure their point is clear is lost as well. Heck, most bloggers don’t even capitalize or punctuate!! (Tony, you’re an exeption to what is becoming an internet rule….er, lack of rule.)Take the example above. The writer had to clarify facetiousness. Being that blogs are “dialogues” a different set of rules apply still over your typical author/receiver arguments.What was everyone talking about again?


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