Hans-Georg Gadamer was born in 1900 and died in 2002. One could say that he was truly a man of the 20th century. This is fitting since his life and work demonstrated the transitional nature of the 20th century as the academic disciplines made a turn from Enlightenment thinking to a postmodern sensibility. Gadamer’s presentation of philosophical hermeneutics was one of the pivotal contributions that brought about that turn.
His Life and Work
A Biographical Sketch
Gadamer spent his early years in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) which was one of the biggest cities in Germany. ((Robert J. Dostal, The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer, Cambridge Companions to Philosophy (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 14.)) World War I raged around him during his adolescence, but he lived far from the fronts and was physically removed from the worst of it. ((Patricia Altenbernd Johnson, On Gadamer, Wadsworth Philosophers Series (Australia; Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thompson Learning, 2000), 2.)) He did not know the physical trauma of war firsthand, but, at age 18, during the final year of the Great War, he encountered the shattered world of German idealism. He graduated from the Holy Spirit Gymnasium in Breslau and enrolled in the Breslau University. ((Hans-Georg Gadamer and Lewis Edwin Hahn, The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Library of Living Philosophers (Chicago, IL: Open Court, 1997), 3.)) His father, Johannes, was a prominent chemistry professor and in 1919 accepted an appointment at Marburg University. Hans-Georg followed his father to Marburg and settled in on a philosophy major, much to his father’s chagrin. ((Dostal, 15.))
Gadamer was a young student surrounded by many new voices that sought to make sense of a world shattered by war. He was influenced by teachers like Paul Natorp, Max Scheler, and Nicolai Hartmann. The intellectuals at Marburg “lived in the expectation of a new philosophical orientation, which was particularly tied to the dark, magical word, ‘phenomenology.’ ((Gadamer and Hahn, 7.)) The intellectual world was buzzing with new voices like Barth in theology, Freud in psychology, Marx and Weber in sociology, and Nietzche in philosophy. It was only when Martin Heidegger stepped into the picture that Gadamer was able to start making sense of things. Heidegger realized that it was necessary to abandon the neo-Kantians with their concept of self-consciousness, and the Hegelians with their need to create a unifying system, and see things in light of the historicity of human knowledge. Gadamer would become a student of Heidegger for many years.
It is interesting to note that Gadamer began his academic career as a philologist. His doctoral dissertation was titled Das Wesen der Lust nach den platonischen Dialogen (The Essence of Pleasure in the dialogues of Plato). He received his doctorate in 1922—but felt he was far too young to have earned it—and spent much of his career studying Greek thought and culture. Gadamer worked as a dozent (similar to an assistant professor in the United States) with Heidegger at Marburg from 1924-1938. The rise of the Third Reich in 1933 disrupted Gadamer’s career development. It became difficult for him to work at Marburg with the rising pressure to capitulate to Hitler. He did not want to be a martyr and he did not want to leave Germany. Gadamer learned to play the political game and walk a thin line that kept him alive. He was able get a faculty position at Leipzig.
The years at Leipzig saw the fall of the Third Reich, an American Occupation, and the subsequent Russian occupation. He was able to avoid ties to the Nazis, and because of this, became the Rector of Leipzig under the American occupation. The Russians were distrustful of most people and Gadamer had to learn how to be play their political game. He helped many people leave Leipzig and find positions that would ensure their freedom. Eventually he was able to convince the Russians to let him go to Frankfurt to pursue his love of his country’s literature. ((Johnson, 7.))
He spent two years in Frankfurt and then assumed Karl Jasper’s chair at Heidelberg in 1949. Gadamer felt that this post at Heidelberg marked the beginning of his truly academic life. He was able to untangle himself from the mess of politics both outside and inside the university and focus on his own plans of work. It is not surprising that Gadamer’s philosophy included the ability to accommodate multiple perspectives in humble dialogue. His experience prepared him and framed his perspective for this important philosophical move. This process reached its first conclusion with the publication of Truth and Method in 1960. ((Gadamer and Hahn, 16.))
It is important to pause this chronological account at this point and make an observation. Gadamer was sixty years old when he published Truth and Method. It could be stated that this monograph is the single most important contribution that he made to the field of hermeneutics—perhaps even the catalyst for the hermeneutical turn itself. And yet, it came just eight years before his retirement from the academy. The fact of this delayed contribution is indicative of Gadamer’s philosophy and style. He states, regarding this,
“In fact, the rise of my ‘hermeneutical philosophy’ must be traced back to nothing more pretentious than my effort to be theoretically accountable for the style of my studies and my teaching. Practice came first. For as long ago as I can remember, I have been concerned not to say too much and not to lose myself in theoretical constructions which were not fully made good by experience.” ((Ibid., 16.))
Despite his monumental contribution to the field of hermeneutics, Gadamer was first and foremost a teacher. He never traveled much while he was teaching, and turned down numerous invitations to travel abroad as a guest lecturer, because he felt too responsible to his students to be gone from class. ((Ibid., 18.))
Gadamer retired from full-time teaching in 1968 and began a whole new life. His retirement afforded him the opportunity to accept invitations to lecture in the United States. The opportunity to grow and interact in the English language—heretofore only experienced in written form—helped Gadamer grow in the practical experience of his own theory that truth and meaning are found in the process of the interaction of language. Gadamer was as active as a scholar during the thirty years of his retirement as he was when teaching. Now he was free to travel, write, and engage in dialogue with the ever- growing number of post modern thinkers that emerged in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
A Conceptual Lineage
Patricia Johnson traces a brief and helpful conceptual lineage that links Gadamer’s philosophy to that of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey, and Martin Heidegger. ((Johnson, 9-15.)) A brief synopsis of each of these thinkers will help to build a conceptual frame for understanding Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics.
Schleiermacher (1768-1834) believed that there was a general hermeneutic that was based in the universal ability of humans to learn and understand language. He distinguishes two types of understanding that form the basis of his hermeneutics. The first is the grammatical. Human beings learn language and come to understand the meaning of words. The second is psychological. Schleiermacher used a divinatory method in which one individual is able to get inside the perspective of another individual based upon the common elements of humanity shared by all individuals. Gadamer gleaned the idea of the universality of hermeneutics from Schleiermacher’s legacy.
Dilthey (1833-1911) was also deeply influenced by Schleiermacher. However, Dilthey rejects Schleiermacher’s reliance on intuition and feeling as the mean to access the inner aspects of life and proposes the historicality of human life instead. Human beings live in temporal space and create expressions of their lived experiences. The best way to understand the inner human life is to engage in the object of human creation, such as a work of art. Gadamer built heavily upon Dilthey’s notion of historicality.
Heidegger (1889-1976) was Gadamer’s teacher and mentor for many years. Heidegger believed that understanding was ontological. It is the way that humans exist in the world. It is not the understanding of another’s mind, like Schleiermacher supposed, rather it is the understanding of self and grasping the possibilities of becoming what we are. Gadamer took Heidegger’s recognition of self-understanding to be the basic starting place for the entire process of understanding.
Summary of Gadamer’s Contribution to the Field of Hermeneutics
Hermeneutics as an identified discipline is relatively new in the philosophic discussion. However, it has truly been at the core of the philosophy since Plato and Aristotle. The archetypal debate has revolved around the locus of meaning. Is meaning externally located in a universal reality, as Plato believed? Or, is meaning formulated internally within the experience of the observer, as Aristotle postulated?
The debate has taken on many flavors throughout its various historical iterations, but has essentially fluctuated between these two poles. Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics finds its place in the tension between them. He—being a student of Plato and sympathetic to the romantic deconstruction of German Idealism—held to the intuition that there is an external reality. However, he recognized the limitation of human finitude and built his hermeneutic on the idea that all understanding begins within the dialogue between the human and the world.
It will be helpful to decipher Gadamer’s philosophy by defining two key terms: horizons and linguisticality.
Gadamer introduces the concept of horizons:
“Every finite present has its limitations. We define the concept of ‘situation’ by saying that it represents a standpoint that limits the possibility of vision. Hence an essential part of the concept of situation is the concept of ‘horizon.’ The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point…. A person who has no horizon is a man who does not see far enough and hence overvalues what is nearest to him. Contrariwise, to have an horizon means not to be limited to what is nearest, but to be able to see beyond it. A person who has an horizon knows the relative significance of everything within this horizon, as near or far, great or small. Similarly, the working out of the hermeneutical situation means the achievement of the right horizon of enquiry for the questions evoked by the encounter with tradition.” ((Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Sheed & Ward, 1975), 269.))
The fact that each human being is limited to a unique horizon leads to the second term. Linguisticality is the idea that humanity is limited within the horizon of language. Language sits at the core of Gadamer’s hermeneutic. Human beings cannot understand the world without the use of language, and yet, language itself is limited. “All human speaking is finite in such a way that there is within it an infinity of meaning to be elaborated and interpreted. That is why the hermeneutical phenomenon also can be illuminated only in the light of this fundamental finitude of being, which is wholly linguistic in character.” ((Ibid., 416.))
Here we see the conceptual lineage of Gadamer’s thought listed above come together. The human attempt to understand both the outer world of the object and the inner world of the subject meets in the expandable limitation of language.
…it is the context of problems surrounding the indissoluble connection between thinking and speaking which compels hermeneutics to become philosophy. One must always think in a language, even if one does not always have to think in the same language. Hermeneutics cannot evade claiming universality because language as linguisticality—Sprachlichkeit—constitutes a human capacity inseparably linked with rationality as such. ((Gadamer and Hahn, The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer, 25.))
What is hermeneutics, then? If the human is bound by limited horizons within the confines of language, how does one come to understanding? Gadamer explains,
The hermeneutical task becomes automatically a questioning of things and is always in part determined by this. This places hermeneutical work on a firm basis. If a person is trying to understand something, he will not be able to rely from the start on his own chance previous ideas, missing as logically and stubbornly as possible the actual meaning of the text until the latter becomes so persistently audible that it breaks through the imagined understanding of it. Rather, a person trying to understand a text is prepared for it to tell him something. That is why a hermeneutically trained mind must be, from the start, sensitive to the text’s quality of newness. But this kind of sensitivity involves neither ‘neutrality’ in the matter of the object nor the extinction of one’s self, but the conscious assimilation of one’s own fore-meanings and prejudices. The important thing is to be aware of one’s own bias, so that the text may present itself in all its newness and thus be able to assert its own truth against one’s own fore-meanings.” ((Gadamer, Truth and Method, 238.))
One of the most common examples that Gadamer uses to demonstrate his hermeneutic is in the field of art. When a piece of art is created, be it visual or linguistic art, the piece has a reality—a horizon—of its own. The viewer of the art has her own horizon. She brings to the art her language, experience, and expectation of the piece. As the viewer addresses the art, the two horizons come together. The art informs the viewer, but the viewer also informs the art. Here we find the most well-known expression of Gadamer’s philosophy. When the art and the viewer meet there is a fusion of horizons. It is impossible for the viewer to interpret the meaning of the art that is latent in the art itself. Gadamer says this is true because “in my analysis of the universal linguisticality of man’s relation to the world, the limitations of the fields of experience from which the investigation took its start should unwittingly predetermine the result.” ((Hans Georg Gadamer, “On the Scope and Function of Hermeneutical Reflection,” Continuum (Chicago, IL) 8, no. 1-2 (1970): 78.))
The fusion of horizons happens in every aspect of life as we attempt to interpret everything around us. It is true for art, science, and even biblical literature. Gadamer refers to the interpretation of historical texts (including scripture),
It is true that the historical ‘worlds’ that succeed one another in the course of history are different from one another and from the world of today; but it is always, in whatever tradition we consider it, a human, ie a linguistically constituted world that presents itself to us. Every such world, as linguistically constituted, is always open, of itself, to every possible insight and hence for every expansion of its own world-picture, and accordingly available to others. ((Gadamer, Truth and Method, 405.))
There are two contributions that Gadamer makes to the missional church. The first is that of humble dialogue. The second has to do with the Holy Spirit.
Gadamer modeled—both in his personal manner and in his philosophical hermeneutics—a core value that reflects the heart of Jesus’ teaching. He was humble. His humility caused him to listen to the other. Gadamer was known for his quiet spirit and his propensity to actively engage in those with whom he was having a dialogue—even a full-on debate—to the point that he would stop and question himself. ((Hans-Georg Gadamer and Riccardo Dottori, A Century of Philosophy (New York: Continuum, 2003), 3.)) Gadamer’s hermeneutics taught that “there are no rules for interpretation other than the seriousness of an interpretation that continuously questions itself to the point of conviction that one has reached something essential. However, one should never think that one has reached any kind of objective interpretation in which the text, the subject, and the historical period resolve themselves completely.” ((Ibid., 12.))
One of the common critiques of the missional and/or postmodern church is that it gives way to moral relativism and has no core truth on which to stand. Gadamer offers the missional leader a place between the poles of objective and subjective truth where one can hold firmly to conviction while offering authentically open, humble dialogue with the other. Gadamer says,
“I believe I have shown that, in understanding, a ‘subject’ does not stand over against an ‘object’ or a world of objects. Rather something plays back and forth between the human being and that which he or she encounters in the world…. Through an encounter with the other we are lifted above the narrow confines of our own knowledge. A new horizon is disclosed that opens onto what was unknown to us.” ((Hans-Georg Gadamer, Carsten Dutt, and Richard E. Palmer, Gadamer in Conversation: Reflections and Commentary, Yale Studies in Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 49.))
Our world is increasingly multi-perspectival and the leaders of the missional church must be able to enter into a Gadamerian style of humble dialogue with the other in order to truly be lifted to a broader horizon and discern what God is doing in the world.
Missional leadership is the art of praxis. Gadamer says,
“What I taught above all was hermeneutic praxis. Hermeneutics is above all a practice, the art of understanding and of making something understood to someone else.… In it what one has to exercise above all is the ear, the sensitivity for perceiving prior determinations, anticipations, and imprints that reside in concepts.” ((Gadamer and Hahn, The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer, 17.))
Finally, Gadamer’s notion of the fusion of horizons contributes to the conversation around missional pneumatology. The linguisticality of humanity is connected to the pluriform, polycentric nature of the Holy Spirit that Welker proposes. ((Michael Welker, God the Spirit, 1st English-language ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 228-239.)) It is impossible for the finite human mind to grasp the wholly other, infinite God. Yet, the infinite God is distributed in creation through the spirit and realized through the dialogue that the human has with art, poetry, creation, and the other. ((Walter Lammi, Gadamer and the Question of the Divine, Continuum Studies in Continental Philosophy (New York: Continuum, 2008), 16-17.)) The missio dei that is manifest in the polycentric spirit defies singular definition in dogma, but continually draws all of humanity into humble dialogue to encounter the divine. As Gadamer says, “only in the light of the divine can the human be understood.” ((Ibid., 116.))
Dostal, Robert J. The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer Cambridge Companions to Philosophy. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. London: Sheed & Ward, 1975.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg, and Riccardo Dottori. A Century of Philosophy. New York: Continuum, 2003.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Carsten Dutt, and Richard E. Palmer. Gadamer in Conversation: Reflections and Commentary Yale Studies in Hermeneutics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg, and Lewis Edwin Hahn. The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer The Library of Living Philosophers. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 1997.
Gadamer, Hans Georg. “On the Scope and Function of Hermeneutical Reflection.” Continuum (Chicago, IL) 8, no. 1-2 (1970): 77-95.
Johnson, Patricia Altenbernd. On Gadamer Wadsworth Philosophers Series. Australia; Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thompson Learning, 2000.
Lammi, Walter. Gadamer and the Question of the Divine Continuum Studies in Continental Philosophy. New York: Continuum, 2008.
Welker, Michael. God the Spirit. 1st English-language ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.