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Continental Philosophy


Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002), Heidegger's student, who taught at many German and American universities after World War II, is the father of contemporary ontological hermeneutics. His great work, Wahrheit und Methode (1960; Truth and Method), points to the problem underlying all modern philosophy (epistemology) from Descartes to Husserl, namely, the relationship between the original "truth" of human understanding within the "life world" and historical "traditions" on the one hand, and the "methods" of the sciences on the other. Inspired by Heidegger and influenced by Hegel and German Romanticism, Gadamer transformed the method of hermeneutical understanding (Verstehen) in the human sciences, history, law, arts, and theology into a "universal" ontological hermeneutics. He went beyond the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) and Dilthey, who had introduced the "hermeneutical circle" as the relationship of the parts to the whole, and the "implicit" to the "explicit," out of the correspondence of the knower to the known in any interpretation. Gadamer rejected natural sciences' explanations (Eklaren) as the only way of understanding reality.

Gadamer maintained that as the art of interpretation, hermeneutics is based upon the human, linguistically constituted "life world," the living conversation and dialogue between people that is the horizon of all human experience and knowledge. Hermeneutics aims at mutual understanding between an historically situated "author" of a text and an historically situated "reader" or interpreter. Gadamer called the hermeneutical encounter between an author and a reader the "fusion of horizons." As such, in historical events, literature, or works of art, hermeneutics is always the relationship between two horizons of understanding and interpretation within a tradition, and it has the prospective goal of "consensus."

Criticizing Enlightenment for its ahistorical perspectives and denying that the methods of the natural sciences are the only means to "objective knowledge," Gadamer emphasized the deeper truth in historical understanding, which passes from generation to generation through written texts, which are—contrary to Derrida's primacy of "writing"—always rooted in the living language. As texts are interpreted and reinterpreted throughout history, they produce a "history of effect" (Wirkungsgeschichte), which shape and influence our present and future understanding of reality. Since there are hidden presuppositions and cultural "prejudices" in each interpretation, Gadamer sees that hermeneutics does not focus on the isolated "true meaning" of a text or on the author's intention. Rather, universal Hermeneutics focuses on the different suppositions and presuppositions of all interpretations in both the human and natural sciences. After the failed attempt for a fruitful encounter between Gadamer's "phalogical" hermeneuticy and Derrida's "Deconstruction" in the 1980s, which both originated in Heidegger's work, hermeneutics and Deconstruction remain two as yet unreconciled paradigms in contemporary philosophy. The third paradigm is Habermas's "critique of ideology," which rejects Gadamer's positive evaluation of tradition, consensus, authority, and "prejudice," as the continual "distortion of communication" by masked social and political interest. Thus, the special, yet unacknowledged interest of modern bourgeois, capitalist society disrupts and disguises understanding and communication in a worldwide global consumer society.

Paul Ricoeur (b. 1913), the proponent of a phenomenological hermeneutics, is focused on narrative, symbol, metaphor, dreams, and ideologies as the means by which our experience of the world is interpreted. Opposed to postmodernism's abolition of the "subject," he elaborates a notion of "subject" stripped of modern subjectivism. In contrast to Gadamer, Ricoeur does not concede a dualism between "truth" (philosophy) and "method" (science) but bridges them by his interest in the methodological "validation" of interpretation by the methods of the human sciences. He calls the critical point of hermeneutics "the hermeneutics of suspicion" as it reveals the hidden, ideological meaning of texts, events, and social practice. For Ricoeur, the great "masters of suspicion" are Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Condensation to CoshContinental Philosophy - Wittgenstein And Analytic Philosophy, Freud And The Unconscious, Phenomenology Of Consciousness, Heidegger And The Phenomenology Of Being