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Gadamer's Hermeneutics Of The Event Of Understanding

Hans-Georg Gadamer's project is strongly influenced by Heidegger, but in his masterpiece Truth and Method (1960) his starting point is undoubtedly provided by Dilthey's hermeneutical inquiry on the methodology of the human sciences. While taking anew the dialogue with the human sciences and the open question of their claim to truth, Gadamer calls into question Dilthey's premise according to which the experience of truth in the humanities depends on method. In seeking a methodological foundation that alone could guarantee their scientific or objective status, Dilthey sought to keep the humanities to the model of the exact sciences and would thus have forfeited the specificity of the humanities, where the involvement of the interpreter whose understanding is constitutive of the experience of meaning: the texts that we interpret are texts that say something to us and that are always understood in some way out of our questions and "prejudices." The implication of the interpreter in the "event" of meaning, as Gadamer likes to put it, can only be deemed detrimental from the model of objectivity heralded by the natural sciences. Instead of this outdated notion of objectivity, the human sciences would do well to understand their contribution to knowledge out of the somewhat forgotten tradition of humanism and the importance it bestowed upon the notion of Bildung (formation and education). The humanities do not seek to master an object that stands at a distance (as with the exact sciences), but their aim is rather to develop and form the human spirit. The truth one experiences in the encounter with major texts and history is one that transforms us, taking us up in the event of meaning itself.

Gadamer finds the most revealing model for this type of understanding in the experience of art since we are always involved by the presentation of an art work, which Gadamer understands as the revelation of the truth or the essence of something, so that a play reveals something about the meaning of existence, just as a portrait reveals the true essence of someone. Yet it is a truth-experience in which we partake in that it can only unfold through a process of interpretation. For Gadamer hermeneutics is to be understood, first and foremost, out of the arts we call the "arts of interpretation" or the "performative arts": just as a piece of music must be interpreted by the violinist (that is, never arbitrarily, but with a leeway that has to be filled by the virtuosity of interpretation), a drama by the actors or the ballet by the dancers, a book must be interpreted through the process of reading and a picture must be contemplated by the eye of the beholder. It is only in this presentation (Darstellung or Vollzug) of a meaning to someone, a performance which is always an interpretation, that meaning comes to be realized. One notices here that "interpretation" refers both to the interpretation of a work of art by the performers and to the "spectators" who attend the performance and must also "interpret" the piece.

The difference between the two forms of interpretation is less important for Gadamer than the fact that the experience of meaning, and the truth experience it brings out, essentially requires the productive implication of the interpreter. The same holds for the interpretation of a text or a historical event, even in the scientific context of the human sciences. The point is that interpretation is not the simple recreation of a meaning that always remains the same and can be methodically verified, nor, for that matter, the subjective, and potentially relativistic, bestowing of meaning upon an objective reality (because the reality to be understood can only be reached through a renewed attempt of understanding). In other words, to claim that interpretation is relativistic on the grounds that it implies the subjectivity of the interpreter is to miss the point of what the humanities and the experience of meaning are all about.

The objectivistic model of the exact sciences is ill-equipped to do justice to this experience of meaning. Distance, methodical verification, and independence from the observer, Gadamer concludes, are not the sole conditions of knowledge. When we understand, we do not only follow a methodical procedure but we are "taken up" as the art experience illustrates, by the meaning that "seizes" us, as it were. The instrumental sounding idea of procedure is somewhat suspect for Gadamer, for understanding is more of an event than a procedure. "Understanding and Event" is indeed one of the original titles Gadamer thought about for his major work, before settling on "Truth and Method," which underlines the very same point that truth is not only a matter of method and can never be entirely detached from our concerns.

But these concerns come to us from a tradition and a history that are more often than not opaque to consciousness. Every understanding stands in the stream of a Wirkungsgeschichte or "effective history," in which the horizons of the past and the present coalesce. Understanding thus entails a "fusion of horizons" between the past and the present, that is, between the interpreter, with all the history silently at work in his understanding, and his or her object. This fusion is not to be viewed as an autonomous operation of subjectivity but as an event of tradition (Überlieferungsgeschehen) in the course of which a meaning from the past is somehow applied to the present.

This leads Truth and Method to suggest that the best model for the humanities was perhaps offered by disciplines that had been traditionally preoccupied with the questions of interpretation such as juridical and theological hermeneutics, insofar as the meaning that is to be understood in these fields is one that has to be applied to a given situation. In the same way a judge has to creatively apply a text of law to a particular case and a preacher has to apply a text of Scripture to the situation of his or her congregation, every act of understanding involves an effort of "application" of what is understood to the present. Gadamer does not mean by this that one first has to understand a meaning, of a text or a historical event and then apply it to a given situation by bestowing new "relevance" upon it. His idea is rather that every understanding is at its root an application of meaning, where our experience and background are brought to bear. This "application" is, by no means, a conscious procedure. It always happens in the course of understanding to the extent that interpretation brings into play the situation and "prejudices" of the interpreter that are less "his" or "hers" than the ones carved by the effective history in which we all stand.

Gadamer expands on this idea by comparing understanding to a process of translation. "I understand something" means that I can translate it into my own words, thus applying it to my situation. Any meaning I can relate to is one that is translated into a meaning I can articulate. It is not only important to underline the obvious fact that translation always implies an act of interpretation (a translator is also called in English an interpreter) but even more to stress that this interpretation is by no means arbitrary: it is bound by the meaning it seeks to render, but it can only do so by translating it into a language where it can speak anew. What occurs in the process of translation is thus a fusion of horizons between the foreign meaning and its interpretation-translation in a new language, horizon, and situation, where the meaning resonates.

Truth and Method draws on this insight to highlight the fundamentally linguistic nature of understanding. Understanding is always an act of developing something into words, and I only understand to the extent that I seek (and find) words to express this understanding. Understanding is not a process that could be separated from its linguistic unfolding: to think, to understand, is to seek words for that which strives to be understood. There is a crucial fusion between the process of interpretation and its linguistic formulation. It will not be the only fusion of horizons that will interest Gadamer in his hermeneutics of language. His thesis goes even further: not only is the process (Vollzug) of interpreting (interpretare) linguistically oriented, what it seeks to understand (the interpretandum) is also language. Language also determines the object (Gegenstand) of understanding itself. In the end there occurs a fusion between the "process" of understanding and its "object" in the sense that no object (Gegenstand) can be separated from the attempt (Vollzug) to understand it. Gadamer's famous phrase to express this fusion between the object and the process of understanding itself is: "Being that can be understood is language." This simple, yet enigmatic dictum can be read in two quite different directions: it can mean that every experience of Being is mediated by language, and thus by a historical and cultural horizon (negatively put: "there is no experience of Being without an historical understanding or language"). This would seem to draw Gadamer into the "relativistic camp." It is striking to note, however, that Gadamer always resisted this merely relativistic appropriation of his thought. This has been overlooked by postmodern readers of Gadamer, but in his dictum "Being that can be understood is language," the stress can also be put on Being itself. What Gadamer hopes to say by this is that the effort of understanding is in a way ordained to the language of the things themselves. A difficult and unpalatable notion for postmodernism, to be sure, but one that is essential to Gadamer's hermeneutics: language is not only the subjective, say, contingent translation of meaning, it is also the event by which Being itself comes to light. Our language is not only "our" language, it is also the language of Being itself, the way in which Being presents itself in our understanding. This is why, when one speaks and interprets, one cannot say everything one fancies. One is bound by something like the language of the thing. What is this language? Difficult to say since we can only approach it through our language, and the language of tradition, but it is nevertheless the instance that resists too unilateral or too violent readings of this Being. It is this language of Being that I seek to understand, and to the extent that understanding succeeds, a fusion of horizons has happened, a fusion between Being and understanding, an event I do not master, but in which I partake.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Habit memory: to HeterodontHermeneutics - The Art Of Interpretation Of Sacred Texts, Hermeneutics As The Methodological Basis Of The Human Sciences