Lecture on Hans-Georg Gadamer

HANS-GEORG GADAMER (1900-2002)

The recognition that all understanding inevitably involves some prejudice gives the hermeneutical problem its real thrust. In light of this insight it appears thathistoricism, despite its critique of rationalism and of natural Enlightenment law philosophy, is based on the modern Enlightenment and unwittingly shares its prejudices. And there is one prejudice of the Enlightenment that is its essence: the fundamental prejudice of the Enlightenment is the prejudice against prejudice itself, which denies tradition its power.


Hans-Georg Gadamer is best celebrated for his classic work, Truth and Method. He develops a hermeneutic of understanding through a discourse ethics in which tradition, authority, and prejudice play a prominent role. We find ourselves in a place and time in the universe which is not of our own making. Understanding cannot be grounded by reason alone. Hence, there are no first principles for a metaphysics of understanding. Understanding finds itself in the individual only partly oriented by rational insight from the natural sciences. Much of what we know about ourselves comes from an intuitive self that has inherited a fore-having of knowledge through tradition and prejudice. That is the starting point for the individual in his journey toward truth. But truth is at hand already when we are born into a position in the family, society, and state which bequests to us the wisdom of the ages and allows us not to have to begin all over again but to initiate practical actions from the legacy of the past. We approach horizons of collective self-understanding that leads to a dialogical ethics that can never be consummated for we are in discussion with the players of all ages in which most of what we know of understanding the world already has been rendered. Hence, we can only enlarge the sphere of consciousness by taking the ideal of Enlightenment progress and the perfection of reason itself as a deep prejudice of modern times. The perfectibility of man itself is a prejudice. Whatever we do to attain that receding goal will be overcome by contingencies that can never be programmed into our praxis. There is always more left over in approaching horizons of self-actualization of the human project, defined by what is incomprehensible and that can never be managed by any practical program of the forces of organized reason.

Not only can we not know the other; we do not even know ourselves and hence we are subject to endless errors in our practical judgment. Much of what we do in our everyday lives is ritual that is stereotypical behaviors that have no basis in rationality per se. That is we act out parts that have already been scripted for us by destiny or fate. The influence of Heidegger is evident as his foremost teacher. Gadamer has a conservative view of reason as inherently riddled by aporias. Pure or even practical reason can never be a basis for emancipation by discursive will formation that Habermas elected to pursue as his academic project. The exercise of pure reason results in nihilism and terror precisely because it is not grounded in the lessons of historicity. Historicity is the world view that the cultural sciences can never have a measurable basis like the natural or experimental sciences. The Geisteswissenschaften endow us with the tentative wisdom of experiences that might not be repeated in the future, although that prudence makes us better in judging our actions in a more mature fashion when new events challenge us to develop a praxis to meet these crises. Even the natural sciences evolve through hermeneutics and the interpretation of prevailing paradigms of domains of knowledge. Phenomenology can be a science of both the cultural and the natural worlds in one field of endeavor. However, it cannot be defined by predictability and the attainment of a final end where the Absolute has been dialectically consummated. The hermeneutics generated by phenomenology illustrates that we cannot not only not know ourselves as individuals, and often living under illusions and delusions of grandeur, but that in the final analysis we are stuck in the faith that only with hope can the future offer better possibilities for the human condition. There is no God in Gadamer’s system of thought. He is not within the realm of dialogical ethics. Too, he generously conceded that the other’s system of thought could be correct and that the interrogator wrong. Individuals had to let themselves be left open to the possibility that their world views had to be adjusted not only to changing circumstances, reevaluations of the past, but through the superior knowledge of the other person in conversation. Whole realms of knowledge might be destroyed by war; that is why he was a pacifist. Gadamer had many Jewish friends in academic circles; he acknowledged that their expulsion served no legitimate war aims and also capriciously deprived them of their lives and liberties. That is why he affirmed so strongly the power of the state to enforce a consensus to which all could adhere. You needed law as a guideline to make authoritative judgments that were prudent and not anomic. He believed in conserving the useful part of tradition, not myths that divided peoples in a war of each against all. He thought of all persons as equally accessible to a public where they could express themselves and hence deepen the meanings of language in finding ourselves with each other.

What we cannot know will prevail and force us to take a more modest perspective on the human condition. There actually is at work an inverted or negative dialectics in which the more we learn about each other and the world we live in the more we realize that relatively speaking we cannot master our destiny. In Heidgerrian terminology, the world worlds and as knowledge grows the world recedes from our will to power as evidenced in two world wars that eclipsed reason and compelled man to take a more restrained stance toward his possibilities for the wish to be immortal by attaining the unattainable, namely perfect knowledge and scientific control through instrumentalized reason or technology. Gadamer said that leaves us with only the will to hope for a coming toward us of an imminent force in nature or the Geist of history to redeem our pathetic situation in which we all come to terms with death as annihilating everything achieved. What is left is a historicism for future generations that survives the futility of individual existences. Nonetheless, Gadamer thought that there would be a unified field theory of knowledge, embracing both the natural and social sciences, into a holistic domain of the immanent and concrete that all could share in solidarity at every level of epistemology and lived life.