In this section, Gadamer attempts to undermine Romantic hermeneutics; to do so, he will retrace Wilhelm Dilthey’s steps with different goals than the ones that Dilthey had.
Hermeneutics develops in two parallel tracks: theological and philological. Both of them conceive of their work as “a rediscovery of something that was not absolutely unknown, but whose meaning had become alien and inaccessible” (174): namely, the Bible and classical literature, respectively. Both deal with works written in a language outside the mainstream of their societies. And both sought—and claimed to receive—the original meaning of the texts in question.
The two streams of hermeneutics essentially come together in the Reformation, especially in Luther’s work. For Luther claims that “Scripture has a univocal sense that can be derived from the text: the sensus literalis” (175). He therefore discards the fourfold method that dominated medieval hermeneutics. The problem, of course, is that this sensus literalis is more evident in some places in Scripture than in others; thus, Luther claims that every passage in the Bible must be interpreted in light of the whole—which is of course constructed of smaller passages that must be interpreted in its light.
Reformation hermeneutics thus assume the unity of Scripture in a way that became difficult for later readers and thinkers. But beyond this, it is inconsistent because it insists on its own tradition as the correct guidelines of interpretation: the Protestant creeds become the guardrails that keep interpreters of Scripture from sliding into heresy. At least this is the way that post-Reformation critics see it. For Dilthey and the other nineteenth-century theorists, “Hermeneutics had to rid itself one day of all its dogmatic limitations and become free to be itself, so that it could rise to the significance of a universal historical organon” (176). We shall see if this purgation was ultimately possible, or if another unspoken dogma guides their own interpretation.
Post-Reformation critics tended to agree with Luther that every text in Scripture must be interpreted in the light of a larger whole; their disagreement was over what this whole entailed. For Luther, the whole was the entirety of Scripture; for the post-Reformation critics, the whole was the larger history to which the writing of Scripture belonged. In this, they combined secular and sacred hermeneutics into one master art of interpretation.
Schleiermacher is the greatest exponent of this brand of hermeneutics, and he conceives of hermeneutics as the study of the understanding. Hermeneutics begins, for Schleiermacher, precisely where the reader finds himself a stranger in a strange land, amidst unfamiliar terrain that he does not understand. Romantic hermeneutics thus begins with alienation. This conception radically redefines our connection to shared tradition; it rejects most of the major premises of Enlightenment anthropology.
For Schleiermacher—and oddly, this idea utterly disappears from the history of hermeneutics after Schleiermacher—interpretation is about people coming to an understanding about something. Thus, for much of human life, interpretation is unnecessary. Interpretation becomes necessary when I cannot understand how you came to have a certain opinion. This roughly parallels Spinoza’s treatment of biblical hermeneutics, wherein interpretation is necessary only because there are incomprehensible things in the Bible. Historical understanding becomes necessary when the sensus literalis fails us.
Schleiermacher thinks of hermeneutics as a method of avoiding misunderstanding in reading. The process involves “going back to the origin of thought” (186)—it involves reconstructing the original construction of the text. It is thus characteristically psychological; an interpreter must insert herself into the author’s psyche and understand the work from the inside out, as it were.
In turn, Schleiermacher thinks of the work of art as a unit of the artist’s life that has exploded with pleasure; it thus belongs wholly to the artist’s life and not, say, to the culture around him or to whatever shared dogmas he holds. Art is therefore a free construct that must be treated as such if it is to be rightly understood, at least as Schleiermacher sees it. Genius is the ur-example, for it is not just creative of an individual work but of an entire framework for later creation.
Schleiermacher also claims, as did Luther, that hermeneutics is fundamentally circular, in that the part cannot be understood without the whole and the whole cannot be understood without the part. The interpreter is thus going to move around in an endless loop, moving from one to the other and back. And because Schleiermacher largely accepts the Hegelian view of the individual as receiving its ultimate meaning from its participation in the whole, every hermeneutic is going to move outwards as it loops around, incorporating more and more into its conception of the whole.
Ultimately, the interpreter of a work of art has an audacious task before him: “to understand a writer better than he understood himself” (192). The writer may have been unaware of what he was doing in writing, at least to some degree, but the interpreter is able to turn what is unconscious into what is conscious in his act of re-creation. The artist is thus one interpreter among many rather than occupying a privileged hermeneutic space.
Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics were very influential on the next generation of philosophers and philologists, but they did have one major limitation; they were set up for the understanding of individual texts. The writers who followed in his wake would have to expand this conception of hermeneutics. Gadamer examines what he calls the historical school in particular—represented by Wilhelm Dilthey and those associated with him.
For the members of this school, the work of history is not concerned with the individual text for its own sake; rather, what is at stake in any particular text is always its relation to the whole of human history. This would seem to pit historicism against hermeneutics, but as it turns out, the historical worldview, as represented by Dilthey and others, was based heavily on romantic hermeneutics, especially on the romantic conception of individuality. Dilthey thus accepts Schleiermacher’s notion that the part can be understood only in the context of the larger whole and that the whole can be understood only in the context of its constituent parts. Romantic hermeneutics has in a sense been transferred to the sphere of history.
The historical school is marked by its rejection of both a telos for history and an eternal truth that stands outside of history. Here again we see a connection to Romantic hermeneutics, the claim “that the meaning of a text can be understood from itself” (199). History becomes a very large text to be interpreted the way that literary texts are interpreted. But here we have a problem. I can stand outside of Hamlet and interpret it, but how can I stand outside of universal history? The interpretation of history is a bit like Rosencrantz’s attempting to tell us what the play Hamlet means. The work of the historical school is to some extent an attempt to resolve this problem.
The historical school tends to define itself over and against the Hegelian notion of history, claiming “that not speculative philosophy but only historical research can lead to a universal view of history” (200). This begins with the German Romantic Johann Gottfried Herder, who pits the universal historical worldview against Enlightenment teleology. We can no longer, then, think in terms of either progress or decline; we have to admit that every historical period has its own perfection within itself.
The representatives of the historical school tend to think of this attitude as detached and scientific; in fact, however, Gadamer suggests that they have more metaphysical assumptions than they believe themselves to. They assume, first of all, that there is an idea that history cannot adequately express—but they also assume a criterion of validity for historical eras and cultures.
The historical school must thus posit that the continuity of life endures the vicissitudes of history—that, in fact, it is these very vicissitudes and ephemerality that create the value of life itself. There is a teleology to history in the historical school, then, even if its advocates are not aware of it.
This teleology is not the teleology of Hegelianism, of course; it emphasizes human freedom in a way that Hegel cannot. Accordingly, it emphasizes “epoch-making moments or crises” (204), the events that literally make history and the people who make these events. Ultimately, then, the historical school focuses its energy on the examination of power, and history is the interplay of powers.
The problem before the representatives of the historical school, then, is how the universal history that they affirm can arise out of an interplay of forces without a given teleology. They will not allow any a priori assumptions about the nature or significance of history, and because of this they cannot see their own a priori assumption, which is that Western civilization ties world history together. The historian becomes like God in seeing the entirety from a distance. And once this becomes clear, it also becomes clear how much of Hegelian idealism the historical school maintained in its rejection of Hegel.