Reviewed by Christopher Gibson, University of Ottawa
In Truth and Method, Hans-Georg Gadamer claims that the meaning of a text always goes beyond what the author originally intended. (TM, 296) In his view, the essential, dialogical framework of understanding means that, as interpreters of texts, we are always primarily involved in coming to a shared understanding about a subject matter that we have in common with the author. This is what it means, in the context of hermeneutics, for the text to have a voice in our conversation with it; and it is the reason why the meaning of a text always extends beyond its original formulation. Just as our preconceived notions of meaning change in light of the claim that the text makes upon us, so too does the meaning of the text change in light of the claim we make upon it.
In a true hermeneutical spirit, the essays in this collection engage in a dialogue with Gadamer himself. They examine the impact that Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics continues to have over six decades since the 1960 German publication of Wahrheit und Methode. The authors explore the relevance of hermeneutical principles within the humanities and social sciences, as well as in areas that are not overtly hermeneutical, such as neuroscience, medical narrative, and bio-enhancement. Furthermore, the principle of hermeneutical openness that makes this dialogue possible also allows the commentators to adopt a critical attitude. In some respects, the authors suggest how we might reasonably broaden the scope of Gadamer’s hermeneutics, and in others, how we might reasonably move beyond the scope of certain hermeneutical principles with respect to their original context in Gadamer’s work.
In part one of this volume, “Critique and Causality,” the authors engage with the tension created by the meeting of hermeneutics and various forms of critical theory. Generally speaking, proponents of the latter find either that the openness of hermeneutical experience is too relativistic, or that the appeal to the authority of tradition in hermeneutical reflection is too conservative. Among the most notable representatives of each camp are E. D. Hirsch Jr. and Jürgen Habermas, respectively. Within the field of literary criticism, Hirsch argues that Gadamer wrongly conflates meaning and significance. The meaning of a text, he suggests, conforms to the author’s point of view, whereas its significance is relative to any given reading of it. Focusing on the individualism in Gadamer’s work, Hirsch concludes that Gadamer’s idea of truth and meaning is at best relativistic, and at worst nihilistic. By contrast, in his critique of ideology, Habermas claims that Gadamer’s presentation of tradition (as that within which we participate as historical beings and which provides our preconceived notions of meaning) represents a form of ideology that suppresses or distorts the meaning of social and political processes. Habermas thus proposes that we situate the principles of hermeneutics within a larger conceptual framework so that we may identify the causal forces that operate behind tradition and language.
The authors in this section develop certain implications that this meeting between hermeneutics and critical theory may have for our understanding of social and political norms. Mediating between Gadamer’s individualism and Habermas’ social pragmatism, Lorenzo Simpson argues that we can identify criteria for distinguishing between true and false preconceptions of meaning using the concept of autonomous agency. He proposes a general form of reasoning that everyone possesses by virtue of being a rational agent, and that makes it possible for the members of one culture to mount a “counterfactual dialogical critique” in order to suggest an alternative social practice to the members of another culture. Isaac Ariail Reed is critical of Gadamer’s hermeneutics for subordinating the role of a causal explanation of social processes within a hermeneutical approach to the articulation of meaning. Favouring a Habermasian approach to sociological analysis, Reed identifies hermeneutics with “forming” or material causation which operates within a broader, normative framework of “forcing” or formal causation. By contrast, Santiago Zabala identifies an “anarchic essence” as the foundation of hermeneutics. He is critical of the elements of conservatism that remain at the heart of Gadamer’s theory of truth and meaning, and so he extends Gadamer’s claim that understanding means understanding differently to a more radical level.
Part Two of this volume, “Hermeneutics and Openness,” engages with the principle of openness that is at the center of Gadamer’s hermeneutics. The principle of openness dictates that the interlocutors in a dialogue are prepared to accept that what the other person says is at least potentially true. The point of this initial agreement is to ensure that the conversation is really aimed at gaining a more substantial understanding of the subject matter by bringing our presuppositions of meaning into question. To remain “closed”, therefore, means to resist dogmatically any truth claim that does not correspond to one’s own. Gadamer’s description of the experience that openness entails is thus an essential component of what understanding is. In other words, genuine hermeneutical experience only happens when our presuppositions of meaning are challenged through our encounter with the other in a dialogue. Steven Cauchon argues that this openness should be considered as a “normative value-commitment that encourages a willingness to change in light of what we learn while engaged in dialogue.” (102) He therefore intensifies Gadamer’s principle of openness by showing how it is not merely descriptive, but also prescriptive.
Related to the principle of openness is the idea that a text can sustain many different interpretations of its content. In this respect, Gadamer suggests that the written word is more paradigmatic of the hermeneutical object because, unlike the spoken word, it is not laden with psychological baggage that can restrict the range of interpretation. Whitney Mannies argues, however, that the psychological dimension of judgment deserves more attention that Gadamer appears to give it. She demonstrates effectively that people tend to avoid information that conflicts with their own preconceptions or biases. Mannies suggests that a greater sensitivity to the “emotional, social, and reflective” content of a text can produce a stronger dialogical counterpart and thereby more effectively bring our biases into question. (86) In a similar respect, Georgia Warnke explores the epistemic consequences that a lack of openness may have on public memory. She emphasizes the basic hermeneutical fact that human thought is essentially limited, which is why engaging with other points of view is so fundamental to hermeneutics. Warnke argues that what the principle of openness demands in a pluralistic society is to legitimize marginalized voices, not by seeing them as contributing to a single, historical narrative, but rather as constituting their own version of history alongside others. In this respect the other is seen truly as other, thus providing a stronger dialogical counterpart.
The essays in part three of this volume, “Place, Play and the Body,” emphasize the spatial or topological dimension of hermeneutical understanding. In Truth and Method, Gadamer states that the “true locus of hermeneutics” is the space between familiarity and strangeness. (TM, 295) While this space is almost always described temporally, Gadamer is not unaware of differences in cultural or geographical landscapes that would require hermeneutical mediation. (TM, 376 n. 44) Notwithstanding, Jeff Malpas argues that the spatial dimension of hermeneutics is underappreciated. He claims that the essential temporality of the hermeneutic event and experience can only be understood properly if it is also understood topologically. (150) He thereby offers a more robust understanding of the notions of “site” (Stätte), “shape” (Gestalt), and the “there” (Da) inherent in hermeneutics that might otherwise be overlooked. In a similar spirit, in “Verbal and Nonverbal Forms of Play: Words and Bodies in the Process of Understanding” Monica Vilhauer argues that Gadamer’s elaboration of the hermeneutical phenomenon leaves room for, but subordinates, non-verbal or “body-to-body” forms of understanding. Her exploration of non-verbal communication does not offer an alternative to the hermeneutical phenomenon that Gadamer describes so much as it encourages a deeper understanding of the same phenomenon.
The articles in the fourth and final section, “Science, Medicine, and Biotechnology,” extend hermeneutics into the realm of science and technology. Gadamer has been criticized for wanting to subordinate scientific knowledge that is obtained through methodology to the kind of truth that is obtained in the human sciences; that is, prior to methodological or objective certainty. He has insisted on many occasions, however, that it was never his intention to diminish the value of scientific research, but only to point out the risk of a fallacious attempt to control or manipulate social and political processes in light of a methodological standard of truth. Gadamer concludes Truth and Method with the claim that the objectifying methods of scientific research would benefit from a greater appreciation of the fact that our experience of things cannot be so neatly categorized. (TM, 484) In this respect, the articles in this section demonstrate the relevance that certain hermeneutical principles have for contemporary issues surrounding the development of healthcare and medical technology. Peter Fristedt, for example, asks how hermeneutics can guide the integration of science into self-understanding, rather than attempting to integrate hermeneutical experience into a scientific framework. Although he emphasizes the importance of hermeneutical experience for developing self-understanding, Fristedt promotes a dialectical approach to hermeneutics and scientific methodology rather than the priority of one over the other. (196)
Leah McClimans and Lauren Barthold apply Fristedt’s approach to more specific areas of healthcare and medicine. Gadamer argues that a genuine experience of the other in a dialogical context must maintain both a mutual and reciprocal relationship between the self and the other. This means that one must recognize the fact that the other maintains a perspective independently of one’s own, and that therefore the validity of the claims that the other presents contribute to one’s own understanding. McClimans argues that doctor-patient relationships typically do not meet these conditions, as the one-sidedness of medical expertise means that a doctor tends to tell their patients how they themselves feel rather than letting the patients speak for themselves. McClimans shows that in a genuine relationship, the doctor would have to respect the patient as someone he or she can learn from and so acknowledge the patient’s narrative in its own rights. Barthold challenges the view that bio-enhancement constitutes a loss of what it means to be human. She suggests that medicine can benefit from taking a more dialogical approach to its development rather than relying on panels of experts, as the latter excludes the possibility that non-experts will have something worthwhile to say about human nature and how medical technology can support and develop social interests. (232)
For those already familiar with Gadamer’s hermeneutics, the essays in this collection are a helpful resource for researching the continued relevance that hermeneutical principles have for understanding and interpreting social, political, and historical issues. In this respect, a valuable aspect of these papers is that the authors do not accept Gadamer’s position uncritically, but for the most part demonstrate the need to consider the new and emerging contexts in which hermeneutical theory might be applied. For those whose interests are situated in fields that tend not to make explicit use of these principles, this volume provides persuasive arguments for a closer marriage between human interests on the one hand, and scientific or technological development on the other.
Additional Works Cited
Gadamer, Hans-Georg (2006), Truth and Method, (tr.) J. Weinsheimer and D. Marshall (London: Continuum).