The problem with which the previous section (307-341) of Truth and Method ends is truly compelling, if one breaks down the problem as a (simplified) syllogism:

  1. Hermeneutics, as a practice, involves the dialectic of interpreting the whole text in terms of any given part and interpreting any given part in light of the whole text.
  2. Historical consciousness, the logical result of Heidegger’s insights into Dasein existence, is a hermeneutical reality from top to bottom, taking all of world history as its text.
  3. Therefore an intellectual grasp of all of history is required in order to speak any truth.

Reflecting on historical consciousness, then, seems to throw one inevitably back to Hegel: all true reflection must not be the reflection of an individual as such but universal reflection, the Geist reflecting upon itself, with the individual knower merely acting as instrument of Geist (342).  Try as the historicists (Schleirmacher and Dilthey are Gadamer’s usual examples) to surmount this philosophical dilemma with a focus on the individual, rigorous thought on the question seems always to return to Hegel’s universal reflection.  Gadamer thus sets forth not to overcome Hegel but to incorporate Hegel’s universal hermeneutics within Heidegger’s phenomenological approach, linking the unavoidably complex individual to the unavoidably comprehensive world.

Experience, Experiment, and Dialectic

Modern science sometimes imagines itself as removing historical contingency from human knowledge entirely, using methods of formally reported observation and repeated experiment to remove the “subjective” from the knowledge it produces (346).  Francis Bacon in particular makes moves to replace experience, with its reported character, with experiment, which transcends reportage, as the grounds of true (technological) knowledge (348).  Ultimately Gadamer does not deny that science differs from hermeneutical experience; he simply makes the Heideggerian move to note that scientific knowledge, while not identical to in-the-world experience, is posterior to such experience.  In other words, experience is the ground which makes scientific knowledge possible, so science, while useful, never stops relying on interpreted and intepreting experience (350).  Knowledge always seeks to transcend the individual’s impression, but only individuals, with their impressions, can seek such knowledge.

Gadamer reaches back to Aristotle to start theorizing this sort of knowledge.  Knowledge, in Aristotle’s words, is like a fleeing army.  To look at a broken infantry unit is not to see an organized whole, all at once, but it’s always to extrapolate a prior phalanx which must have been whole before broken (352).  And although Aristotle provides the evocative image of knowledge, it’s Hegel once again who provides the theoretical structure to make sense of it.  In terms of the dialectic that Gadamer discussed at the outset of the chapter, history is a process of ongoing skepticism 353), one in which Mind encounters World, conceives of the universal whole, and in successive moments revises.  With each World-encounter that catches the knower short, Mind re-casts the picture of the whole, and with each such reversal, one notion of the whole falls away and another rises to prominence (354).

Gadamer here, though, departs a bit from Hegel’s cosmic picture of the world-Mind, noting that experience conceived of as reversal and revision does not ultimately yield to absolute knowledge.  Instead, each such experience sets up conditions that make possible another experience, another revision.  There might be teleology to human knowing, and any given reversal/revision might discolse what the previous totality concealed, but to approach the absolute is not within the grasp of the finite power of human knowledge in the face of infinite possibilities for knowing (357).  Experience leads not to the absolute but to more experience.

Gadamer takes this occasion to point to the foolishness of cutting one’s self off from the tradition as embodied in the literature and art of previous generations.  Taking on Martin Buber’s concept of an I-Thou relationship between the self and the tradition, Gadamer calls death a stance towards a tradition that will not be addressed as a Thou by that tradition (360).  Here Gadamer’s traditionalism shows through: given the dialectical nature of experience and knowledge, to regard the tradition as incapable or unworthy of addressing one’s self is to render dead entire horizons of possible life-experiences.  To live fully within the conditions of human experience means to stand open to the possibility that the tradition, as a Thou, has something to say to me (361).  I cannot, at this point, help but celebrate this argument, which articulates philosophically a hunch I’ve had for some years about the value of reading carefully and teaching responsibly those texts that the fashionable among academics seem so ready to dismiss, misread, and otherwise abuse.  Gadamer has given me an argument about the value of old books that before stood mainly as a sentiment.

Dialogues, Questions, Writing

The nature of such dialectic encounters with one’s moment, given that such moments always contain the content of the tradition, is that of the question.  And the master of the question, for Gadamer, is Socrates as presented in Plato’s dialogues.  (He really is a kindred spirit for the Christian Humanist, no?)  Socrates discloses the structure of experience in his persistent questioning and, more particularly, in his demonstration that questions are more difficult, ultimately, than answers (362).  A question is not simply a refusal to assert but something limited, something posed (363).  Its ability to disclose truth lies in a careful relationship with the assertions that are available to the participants in a dialogue, and the closer the fit between assertion and question, the more the dialogue discloses the contours of reality in the moment.  Given the ways that dialectic stands as a model for inquiry, Gadamer asserts with some confidence that “knowledge is dialectical from the ground up” (365).  No matter how far, and in what direction, one pushes, the horizon of the question awaits, and in the course of a dialogue, the possibility also awaits that the truly skilled practitioner of dialogue may himself “lose” to the truth disclosed in the course of things (367).

In light of the pervasive character of dialogue, Gadamer re-frames the place of the individuals involved in the encounter.  The true dialectic encounter always involves interlocutors, but what emerges in the course of the dialogue transcends the opinions that the interlocutors bring to the dialogue in the first place, going places not anticipated in the participants’ prior positions (368).  The inherent openness of the philosophical question, for Gadamer, becomes the engine that drives forward the generation of knowledge, and scientific experiment is not a way to escape such dialogue but one species of the same.

Given the centrality of dialogue for disclosing the structure of knowledge, Gadamer turns to acknowledge Plato’s concerns in the Phaedrus about the dangers of written text.  Because a written text cannot continue the dialogue in the same way that a human interlocutor can, Plato fears that dialogue will give way to the abuses of a single interpreter, in whose face the text tends to become silent (369-70).

Readers in 2013 can’t help but read Gadamer’s comments on Plato here in light of Derrida’s arguments that text is just as dialectical as speech is.  Certainly, doing his work before Derrida’s On Grammatology and Writing and Difference, Gadamer fails to anticipate the force of Derrida’s leveling of speech and writing.  Derrida has convincingly, as far as I’m concerned, demonstrated that the metaphysical assumptions that would make text a dead medium rely on philosophical assumptions that fall apart under their own weight.  That said, the fact that the decades after Gadamer saw new questions arise points, if anything, back to his primacy of the question and the danger of regarding any knowledge as immune to revision.  For Gadamer, philosophy always happens in-the-process (373), so Derrida’s contributions, not anticipated in Gadamer, celebrate rather than demolish Gadamer’s homage to the question.

Gadamer wraps up the section with a critique of some conceptions of liberal education, those which seek to expose students to the “perennial questions” of the human condition.  In Gadamer’s scheme, such a way of formulating the purpose of education ignores the historical character of all human knowing.  There are no “perennial questions” that remain unchanged from generation to generation (376).  Instead, because dialogue always transforms the interlocutors in the dialogue (379), true dialogue will always arise in the moment, and the best dialogue will include not only those living but also those texts that constitute the tradition, not as a “democracy of the dead” in which all parties get to “vote” in one intelligible polis but in which the particular Thou-character of tradition and the particular I-character of the knowers come together to unfold, moment by moment and without any pretensions to achieving the absolute.  The ongoing dialogue, whether textual/verbal or otherwise, is ultimately the structure of knowledge.



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