Blogging through Truth and Method post 9: The Elevation of the Historicity of Understanding (265-307)

With the brief history of hermeneutical thinking in the book, Gadamer turns in this section of Truth and Method to constructing a hermeneutics that takes seriously the thrown-and-projected nature of Dasein that he finds to familiar in Heidegger.

How Dasein Does Hermeneutics

In Being and Time, Heidegger re-imagines time not as something through which beings pass or along which beings travel but inherently constitutive of Dasein, the specifically human mode of existence.  In an analogous move, Gadamer writes about the revision and rethinking of interpretation not as something posterior to interpretation itself but constitutive of the phenomenon.  (This writing teacher was quite pleased.)  Revision, in this account of things, is a process that’s dialectical and inescapable, and it happens in a recursive manner:

  1. As the interpretation progresses, at any given moment the reader has formed a “fore-meaning” (267)of the whole.
  2. At any given moment something in the reader is “pulled up short” (268) and must form a new “fore-meaning” for the entire work.
  3. During the process, a skillful interpreter must always remain open to the next moment of revision.

Note that Gadamer is not recommending a process of interpretation to get better, more truthful, more scientific, or more faithful results: he’s simply noting that, when interpretation happens, it happens like this.

Biblical Hermeneutics as the Roots of the Science

Such a process of perpetual revision runs counter to Enlightenment conceptions of thought, in which any “prejudiced” interpretation is marked by superstition and tradition and thus inferior (270).  Such conceptions have their roots in eithteenth- and nineteenth-century writings on Biblical interpretation, in which dogmatic and other traditionalist readings of the Bible become “prejudiced” as a sort of polemical term (272–certainly the disputes in my seminary days and beyond between those who claimed to read the Bible “as it is” and those who had more of a postmodern, hermeneutical-perspectival approach come to my memory as I read this).  As a response to the Enlightenment suspicion of all things traditional, Continental Romanticism comes to champion the traditional, largely on grounds that it’s old (273).  In this matrix of preferences for the new or for the old, Gadamer maintains, both sides of the conflict share a common assumption, namely that poetry and art do not come to human beings as “true” in the way that science and philosophy do but stand in the system of human utterance as the product of an unfettered creative spirit (274).  That move makes sure that both strains of nineteenth-century thought are going to read literary texts “historically,” as addressed to someone other than the reader (275), and thus in ways that will not let art be truth in the ways that science is truth.

Thus regarding “prejudice” as something that literature exhibits but which the interpreter must not itself becomes a prejudice (275), a stance towards a text that cuts off interpretive possibilities and can itself be overcome, if it’s recognized as a stage in a process of revision that results in more historically-aware interpretation.  But in order to do so, the interpreter must recognize that any reader’s thrown-ness (think Heidegger) is prior to any possibility for reflection on one’s own reading processes.

Two Cheers for Authority

Gadamer does pause in his criticism of the Enlightenment’s prejudice against prejudice to note that, among Enlightenment writers, some distinctions among prejudices did arise.  Beginning with Descartes, skeptics distinguished the vicious prejudices that come from loyalty to tradition to the benign prejudices that come from simple hastiness (277).  But even that distinction assumes that, ultimately, reason, as practiced by the current generation, has the resources and the right to override what any previous generations, as articulated in traditional materials, might have to say about things.  Again, to turn to twenty-first century realities, such is the state of many positions of “progressive” political figures: they might excuse the ignorant savages of Indiana and Arkansas for holding “retrograde” positions for a season, but if they persist in supporting the views of previous generations, they must not have the “intelligence” to grasp what “reason” holds.  (It’s a strange time to live, when a popular revival of scientism makes postmodern reserve seem behind-the-curve.)

Gadamer suggests that part of the problem lies in conceptions of authority.  Kant and other Enlightenment figures render authority-versus-reason as a pitched battle in which one “side” may hold more of the field in any given moment in the conversation but in which one cannot win unless the other loses.  The actual phenomenology of authority, Gadamer asserts, is a mode of reasoning.  To the extent that authority functions within a community, the living are exercising “acknowledgment and knowledge” of previous generations’ accumulated experience and deliberation (279).  Such authority earns its place precisely because of the historical awareness of the living and the acknowledgment that any given generation’s reasoning can become thrall to the bad ideas of a historical moment.

Morality in particular is a mode of reasoning that relies on traditional authority, Gadamer writes (280), and attempting to go beyond a bare-bones Kantian “one ought not to destroy one’s self” is usually going to show signs of previous generations’ teachings, whether those teachings are founded on reasoned arguments or not.  Thus Gadamer wants to encompass the radical Enlightenment and the reactionary Romantic by situating both tradition and innovation as two modes of one larger constellation of phenomena called “reason” (281).  Gadamer shows that all human investigations, whether historical or scientific, whether jurisprudential or theological, are at the same time innovative and traditional, and those modes of reasoning within those disciplines, as Heidegger helps us to see, are functions of the thrown and the projected character of existence.  In other words, because we are temporal beings, so will our sciences be functions of temporality.

What Classical Means

As David Grubbs so rightly pointed out in our episode on Classical music, the community that uses categories to classify orchestral music uses “classical” to name a body of work that does not usually include Bach on one end or Chopin on the other but occupies much of the space between those two.  But that chronological space does not do anything to make sense of why “classical” literature and sculpture are usually Greek or Roman or why “classic” movies often come from the nineteen thirties or why “classic” video games often come from the nineteen eighties.  Gadamer starts his discussion of the “classical” by noting two things about the “classical”:

  1. The classic persists as a work that speaks to the audience, even as historical criticism attempts to historicize and relativize it (287).
  2. The classic stands as a normative concept for an artistic genre and always brings with it a sense that the genre built up to the “classical” period and has declined since (288).

Continuing with his phenomenological reading, Gadamer notes that the Classical, largely an invention of the Renaissance, reminds us that, like theological and legal hermeneutics, philological hermeneutics always involves the interpreter in a complex history.  Whether to read such texts as mainly “classical” and thus binding on the soul or as mainly “historical” and thus for someone else, in another historical moment, all interpretation of texts at one point regarded as “Classical” involves the interpreter, making the interpretation itself part of the history-of-effect (290).  Thus any hermeneutics that takes on Biblical or Classical texts, or texts that have come to function in analogous matters, itself becomes part of the tradition, and the “method” of hermeneutics never remains neutral but always involves the interpreter in the ontological “life” of the Classical works (293).  Whether or not an interpreter can get at the “authorial intent” behind a text is ultimately secondary to the meaning of the meaning of the work, the complex of reception/interpretation/revision/conservation that follows every text through its history and encompasses every act of interpretation (295).  What marks a true classic in Gadamer’s mind is the continuing ability of a well-wrought text to present itself as strange, challenging readers in spite of long histories of familiarity (295).

Such realities make specifically historical research an especially strange animal.  A historian can never overcome the hermeneutical process and its incorporation of prejudice, but Gadamer holds that a historian can foreground her own prejudices in order to be more truthful about the complexity of the act (299).  In such a relationship the historical interpreter is thrown-and-projecting just as much as the historical artifact, and there is no reconstruction of history that is not this historian’s reconstruction, conditioned by the complex idiosyncrasies of personality that include conformity with and resistance to the larger atmosphere of the moment.  The awareness of one’s historical moment is a secondary element to the investigation of the object,  but it’s nonetheless part of a wholly-truthful investigation (300).  Ultimately, Gadamer compares pretenses of historical objectivity to the presentation of statistics in public policy debates: both acts present answers without exploring the quality of the questions, and neither one acknonwledges just how much the questions at hand fore-determine what kinds of answers are even possible (301).

Gadamer finishes this section with a discussion of “horizon” as a metaphor for knowledge.  The intellectual horizon of the interpreter/historian/scientists/preacher is always part of the picture, and so is the horizon of the tradition/world/object.  When those horizons fuse together, the result is never “the past” without the taint of “the present,” and such things never escape the reality that both object and interpreter are operating with their own horizons of futurity, but the image of the merging horizons does stand as a more promising metaphor than the alternatives that Gadamer mapped out in previous chapters (306).

From temporality Gadamer will turn to application as a necessary element of all interpretation, but for that I’ll trust Michial to be your guide.

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