Blogging through Truth and Method post 12: Language as the Medium of Hermeneutic Experience (383-405)

Conversation is a funny thing; though we sometimes speak of the participants in a conversation “directing it,” in fact the conversation seems to direct itself, seems to be something experienced rather than controlled by the participants. Something emerges in a conversation that did not exist beforehand but which exists afterwards.

Language, then, is the place where understanding takes place—but as anyone who has tried to have a conversation in a language they don’t think in knows, language must be consciously created to be such a medium. Hermeneutics is at its heart a kind of conversation, but one in which the participants must find a common language in which to speak to each other.

Tradition is primarily mediated through language—which means that Gadamer is getting close to tying all this book’s various strings together at last. Writing is the ultimate expression of tradition, and it bridges the gap between past and present nicely. To read closely is to have the historical consciousness that Gadamer talked about in an earlier section—but it is not to surrender yourself to the past. Understanding, after all, involves application, and the written tradition applies the past to the present.

That being said, writing is in some ways weaker than speech. Plato recognized this when he opposed it to dialectic—writing cannot clarify what it meant, after all. And yet Gadamer believes that there is a sort of writing that lends itself to dialectic, a sort of writing that fosters understanding. This is writing that stimulates the thought of the reader and asks him to argue with it: “Thus, precisely because it entirely detaches the sense of what is said from the person saying it, the written word makes the understanding reader the arbiter of its claim to truth” (394). If the reader is vigilant, then, writing need not be opposed to dialectic. But this means that we cannot bind interpretation to either authorial intent or to the needs of the original audience. The tradition carries further than these.

But it’s not just that tradition is verbal; understanding itself is bound up in language—any explanation of a text, even a silent and internal explanation, is a translation into other language. This means that an attempt to escape your own stance in interpretation is bound to be wrongheaded:

To think historically always involves mediating between those ideas and one’s own thinking. To try to escape from one’s own concepts in interpretation is not only impossible but manifestly absurd. To interpret means precisely to bring one’s own preconceptions into play so that the text’s meaning can really be made to speak for us. (397)

Interpretation is about finding the right language for understanding; this means that interpretation is always subjective and that there is never one single “correct” interpretation. Even so, all good interpretations lead back to the text. All interpretation builds on understanding; to put it succinctly, interpretation is about making understanding “explicit” (398). We don’t understand as we interpret; we understand, then we interpret.

As Gadamer suggested much earlier in the book, interpretation applies not only to the sorts of things literary critics do but to performances and reproductions. He says here what I kept waiting for him to say earlier, that “there is no essential difference between the interpretation that a work undergoes in being performed and that which the scholar produces” (399). This not only turns performance into interpretation; it turns literary criticism into a type of performance. Oscar Wilde, who wrote a famous essay arguing that the critic, too, is a kind of artist, would be pleased.

Language is central to all of these processes, and this is true even though, in the face of a great work of art (especially a visual or musical work), language appears to be a weak and paltry thing. Even so, it’s central—our understanding takes the form of language, and our complaints about the inability of language to express what is most important can be expressed only in language.

Even so, Gadamer does not consider his work to be linguistic in the sense of modern “scientific” linguistics, which, as he sees it, is overly concerned with the form of individual languages and not interested in language itself as a superformal artifact. Linguistics, in other words, is not interested enough in understanding, which must go beyond mere linguistic form.

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