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Gadamer And His Critics

The history of hermeneutics after Gadamer can be read as a history of the debates provoked by Truth and Method. Some of the first responses to Gadamer were sparked by the methodological notion of hermeneutics that prevailed in the tradition of Dilthey. After all, it had been the dominant conception of hermeneutics until Gadamer (with the sole, albeit very peculiar, exception of Heidegger's "hermeneutics of existence" that had left behind the older hermeneutic tradition which had been concerned with text interpretation and the human sciences). Since Gadamer, in spite of his Heideggerian roots, took his starting point in Dilthey's inquiry on the truth claim of the humanities, he was often seen and criticized from this tradition. Emilio Betti, the Italian jurist who had published a voluminous General Theory of Interpretation (in Italian) in 1955, which was intended as a methodical foundation of the humanities in the Dilthey tradition, vigorously criticized Gadamer's seeming rejection of the methodological paradigm. If Gadamer's own "method" for the humanities consisted in saying that one just has to follow one's own prejudices, it had to be condemned as a perversion of the very idea of hermeneutics. Betti, who was followed in this regard by E. D. Hirsch in America, opposed the relativistic idea that interpretation always entails an essential element of application to the present. Surely, texts do acquire different meanings or relevance in the course of their reception, but one has to distinguish the actuality or significance (Bedeutsamkeit) thus garnered from the original meaning (Bedeutung) of the texts, that is, the meaning of the text in the mind of its author (mens auctoris), which remains the focus of hermeneutics.

Coming from the Frankfurt School, Jürgen Habermas hailed, for his part, this element of application in understanding, claiming that knowledge is always guided by some interests. This hermeneutical insight, he believed, could help free the social sciences, spearheaded by psychoanalysis and the critique of ideology, from an all too objectivistic understanding of knowledge and science. Hermeneutics teaches us that our understanding and practices are always motivated and linguistically articulated. It is Gadamer's too strong reliance on tradition and the importance of authority in understanding that Habermas opposed. He faulted it for being "conservative"; but Habermas's lasting point, that language can also transcend its own limits, followed an idea that he discovered in Gadamer but turned against him. When Gadamer said that our experience of the world was linguistical, he also stressed, for Habermas, that it is open to self-correction, that is, that it could, to some extent, overcome its own limitations by seeking better expressions or dissolving its own rigidity and was thus open to any meaning that could be understood. Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel drew from this self-transcendence of language the important notion of a linguistic or communicative rationality, which is laden with universalistic assumptions that can form the basis of an ethical theory.

Paul Ricoeur tried to build a bridge—a most hermeneutical task and virtue in itself—between Habermas and Gadamer, by claiming both authors had stressed different but complementary elements in the tension that is inherent to understanding: whereas Gadamer underlined the belongingness of the interpreter to his object and his tradition, Habermas took heed of the reflective distance toward it. Understanding, viewed as application, does not only have to appropriate naively its subject matter, it can stand at a critical distance from it—a distance that is already given by the fact that the interpretandum is an objectified text. This notion of a hermeneutics that seeks to decipher objectivations came mainly from Dilthey, but Ricoeur used it in a productive manner in his decisive confrontations with psychoanalysis (Sigmund Freud) and structuralism (Claude Lévi-Strauss). He linked them to a "hermeneutics of suspicion" that is most useful in that it can help us get rid of superstition and false understanding. But such a hermeneutics can only be conducted in the hope of a better and more critical understanding of understanding. A "hermeneutics of trust" thus remains the ultimate focus of his work: the meaning we seek to understand is one that helps us better understand our world and ourselves. We interpret because we are open to the truths that can be gained from the objectivations of meaning in the grand myths, texts, and narratives of mankind, in which the temporal and tragic aspects of our human condition are expressed. Ricoeur drew far-reaching ethical conclusions from this hermeneutics of trust that has learned from the school of suspicion.

Betti, Hirsch, Habermas (and, to a certain extent, Ricoeur) all faulted Gadamer and hermeneutics for being too "relativistic" (i.e., too reliant on tradition). Postmodernism went, to some degree, in an opposite direction: it welcomed Gadamer's alleged "relativism" but only believed it did not go far enough. Gadamer would have been somewhat inconsequential in not acknowledging fully the relativistic consequences of his hermeneutics. To understand this shift in the hermeneutical debates, it is important to observe that authors such as Heidegger (especially the later Heidegger) and Nietzsche play a paramount role for post-modernist thinkers. One thinks, in this regard, of the Nietzsche who said that there are no facts, only interpretations, or of the Heidegger who claimed that our understanding was framed by the history of Being. The postmodernists lumped this Nietzschean-Heideggerian outlook together with Gadamer's seeming critique of scientific objectivity, his stress on the prejudices of interpretation, and his insistence on the linguistic nature of understanding. Stressing these elements, hermeneutics, they believed, jettisoned the idea of an objective truth. There is no such thing given the interpretatory and linguistic nature of our experience. This lead Gianni Vattimo to "nihilistic" consequences and Richard Rorty to a renewed form of pragmatism: some interpretations are more useful or amenable than others, but none can per se be claimed to be "closer" to the Truth. In the name of tolerance and mutual understanding, one has to accept the plurality of interpretations; it is only the notion that there is only one valid one that is harmful.

Jacques Derrida can also be seen in the "postmodern" tradition, since he too depends heavily on the later Heidegger and Nietzsche, stresses the linguistical nature of our experience, and also urges a "deconstructive" attitude toward the tradition of metaphysics that governs our thinking, an attitude that Paul Ricoeur would classify in the "hermeneutics of suspicion." But his deconstruction does not directly take the direction of the pragmatist tradition of Rorty or the nihilism of Vattimo. Despite the Heideggerian origins of his notion of deconstruction and his pan-linguisticism, Derrida does not identify himself with the tradition of hermeneutics. His "deconstruction" is indeed distrustful of any form of hermeneutics: every understanding, he contends, would involve or hide a form of "appropriation" of the other and its otherness. In his discussion with Gadamer in 1981, he challenged Gadamer's rather commonplace assumption that understanding implies the goodwill to understand the other. What about this will? asked Derrida. Is it not chained to the will to dominate that is emblematic of our metaphysical and Western philosophical tradition? Hence Derrida's mistrust of the hermeneutical drive to understand the other and of the hermeneutic claim to universality. Gadamer was touched by this criticism to the extent that he claimed that understanding implied some form of application, which can indeed be read as a form of appropriation. This is perhaps the reason why, in his later writings, he more readily underlined the open nature of the hermeneutical experience. "The soul of hermeneutics," he then said, "is that the other can be right."


Bernstein, Richard J. Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983. Sees in the hermeneutical rehabilitation of common sense a parallel to pragmatism and a corrective to the bugbear of relativism.

Betti, Emilio. "Hermeneutics as the General Methodology of the Geisteswissenschaften." 1962. Reprinted in Contemporary Hermeneutics: Hermeneutics as Method, Philosophy, and Critique, edited by Josef Bleicher. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980. Polemical defense of a methodology of interpretation against Gadamer.

Bleicher, Josef, ed. Contemporary Hermeneutics: Hermeneutics as Method, Philosophy and Critique. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980. Best collection of essays by Betti, Gadamer, Habermas, Apel.

Caputo, John D. Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction and the Hermeneutic Project. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Postmodern, Derridian reading and critique of hermeneutics.

Dilthey, Wilhelm. "The Rise of Hermeneutics." In his Hermeneutics and the Study of History, edited by Rudolf A. Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi, 235–258. Vol. 4. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. Seminal study on the significance of hermeneutics for Dilthey.

Dostal, Robert J., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Authoritative collection of essays on Gadamer, with good biographical and bibliographical material.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Philosophical Hermeneutics. Translated by David E. Linge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. Studies that complete Gadamer's opus magnum.

——. Truth and Method. Translation revised by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York: Crossroad, 1989. The bible of contemporary hermeneutics.

Grondin, Jean. Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994. History of the hermeneutic tradition from antiquity to the present from the vantage point of the inner word.

——. Le tournant herméneutique de la phénoménologie. Paris: PUF, 2003. A study of the different conceptions of hermeneutics espoused by Heidegger, Gadamer and Derrida.

Habermas, Jürgen. "The Hermeneutic Claim to Universality." In Contemporary Hermeneutics: Hermeneutics as Method, Philosophy, and Critique, edited by Josef Bleicher. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980. A famous critique of Gadamer inspired by ideology critique and psychoanalysis.

——. "A Review of Gadamer's Truth and Method". In Understanding and Social Inquiry, edited and translated by Fred R. Dallmayr and Thomas A. McCarthy. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper, 1962. Heidegger's main work, based on a hermeneutics of existence.

——. Ontology: The Hermeneutics of Facticity. 1923. Translated by John van Buren. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. Seminal text of Heidegger's early hermeneutic conception.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. Validity in Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967. Defends a methodical conception of hermeneutics against Gadamer.

Michelfelder, Diane P., and Richard E. Palmer, eds. Dialogue and Deconstruction. The Gadamer-Derrida Encounter. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. Contains the basic texts of the famous encounter between Derrida and Gadamer.

Palmer, Richard E. Hermeneutics. Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1969. Ground-breaking and clear presentation of the major figures of the hermeneutic tradition.

Ricoeur, Paul. Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action, and Interpretation, edited and translated by John B. Thomson. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

——. From Text to Action. Essays in Hermeneutics. Translated by Kathleen Blamey and John B. Thompson. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1991. Both books document the hermeneutic itinerary of a major hermeneutic thinker of our time.

Rorty, Richard. "Being That Can Be Understood Is Language." London Review of Books, 16 March 2000, 23–25. A tribute to Gadamer's alleged linguistic relativism.

——. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979. Hermeneutics presented as the outcome of philosophy, out of the tradition of American pragmatism.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. Hemeneutics and Criticism and Other Writings. Edited and translated by Andrew Bowie. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Classical texts of the founder of modern-day hermeneutics.

Vattimo, Gianni. Beyond Interpretation: The Meaning of Hermeneutics for Philosophy. Translated by David Webb. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Polity Press, 1997.

——. The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Post-modern Culture. Translated by Jon R. Snyder. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1988. Both volumes testify to the postmodern appropriation of hermeneutics.

Jean Grondin

Additional topics

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