Hans-Georg Gadamer ranks as one of Germany’s foremost philosophers. He occupied a chair at Heidelberg for quarter of a century, during which time his lecturing skills and a steady flow of publications brought him a reputation and a following second to none. Since his retirement he has divided his time between Germany and North America. Many of his writings have been translated, and the English version of his major work on Truth and Method has helped to extend his fame. His thought now enjoys a considerable vogue in the English-speaking world.
Gadamer was born in Breslau at the turn of the century. His father was a chemist and a Philistine who despised the more speculative disciplines. But it was his father’s paperback copy of Kant’s Critique which first introduced the young Gadamer to philosophy, and in 1919 he went to study the subject at Marburg, the centre of the dominant neo-Kantian school. He was taught by Paul Natorp and Nicolai Hartmann. In addition, Stefan George had a hidden importance, Max Scheler was a strong influence, and Paul Friedlaender later supplied a training in Classical scholarship. But the mystagogue of Gadamer’s philosophical initiation was Martin Heidegger. He first met Heidegger in 1923 and was captivated: Heidegger’s seal – to change the metaphor – was pressed deeply and firmly into the soft wax of Gadamer’s mind.
Philosophical Apprenticeships, a book of memoirs interspersed with brief biographical sketches, gives vivid and amiable accounts of those early years and early influences. There are humorous touches. Scheler ‘was always a lover of beautiful women (but only three times married)’. Gerhard Krueger ‘could say the most amazing things to your face while simultaneously and carefully probing himself’. Rudolf Bultmann made scholarly compilations of the jokes his pupils were required to tell him. Heidegger himself was at least once involved in a joke – a joke about herrings which remains, alas, as incomprehensible as the rest of Heidegger’s jovial philosophy.
Intellectually, life was intensely stimulating. It was also exacting – the more so in that Heidegger would lecture at seven in the morning, while Hartmann never rose before midday and only flourished after midnight. Moreover, the circumstances of a young privatdozent were severe: a meagre salary had to be eked out by tuition money, and tuition money depended wholly on the skill of the tutor in attracting pupils. In any case, the Weimar years in Germany were economically grim.
The Third Reich brought a turn for the better. Although ‘our circle thinned and our situation became difficult,’ Gadamer and his friends were determined to survive. ‘It remained difficult to keep the right balance, not to compromise oneself so far that one would be dismissed and yet still to remain recognisable to colleagues and students. That we somehow found the right balance was confirmed for us one day when it was said of us that we had only “loose sympathy” with the new awakening.’ This ‘loose sympathy’ with the Nazi regime amounted, in concrete terms, to this: Gadamer declined to ‘spout Nazi nonsense from the podium’, but he was prepared to give the Hitler salute.
A long-standing friend of Gadamer’s, Richard Kroner, taught philosophy at Kiel. In 1934, Gadamer reports, ‘fate intervened to throw Kroner off track’: that is to say, Kroner was sacked because he was a Jew. Gadamer took his job.
Despite this little success, further balancing acts were still required, and in 1936 Gadamer voluntarily registered at a Nazi ‘rehabilitation camp’. Doctrinally, life in the camp was mild and undemanding, and Gadamer satisfied his examiners without difficulty. He was also able to join in the ‘gymnastics, competitive games, and marches with nationalistic singing’, which enriched the emotional life of the inmates. During his training, he was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the Fuehrer himself, who impressed him ‘as being simple, indeed awkward, like a boy playing the soldier’.
The rehabilitation paid off. In 1937 Gadamer attained the rank of professor. In 1938 he was called to a chair in philosophy at the University of Leipzig. ‘The new beginning in Leipzig’ happily ‘pushed the gloominess of the world situation into the background’, and Gadamer could concentrate on his philosophy. The war came. The gloom thickened. Leipzig was bombed to rubble. Gadamer lectured on. He survived. And when the Americans occupied Leipzig in 1945 they made Gadamer what in another context would be called a trusty. He was, after all, ‘uncompromised’ (the description is his own), and he came to play a major role in the post-war reorganisation of the university.
But Leipzig was in the Eastern zone, and in the autumn of the year the Russians took over from the Americans. Plus ça change. Gadamer soon discovered that he ‘belonged to the political “élite” of the Soviet zone’. He was appointed Rector of the university. The position was delicate. He had to be ‘constantly on his toes’ – so much so that ‘it soon proved necessary to reserve to myself the opening and distribution of incoming mail.’ But by his deftness and sagacity he won ‘the special esteem of the Russian cultural authorities’: ‘the Russians could at least be certain that I would carry through their directives exactly, even against my own convictions.’ Nonetheless, Gadamer wanted to migrate to the West. He received an offer from Frankfurt but feared that he might not be let out: the issue of his departure ‘was quite possibly a prestige operation for East German cultural politics’. Eventually, in the winter of 1947, he and his books were freighted westwards, a prudent supply of alcohol and nicotine ensuring that he had no trouble with the railway authorities or the border guards. A year later he was called to Heidelberg.
So much for the man, as he has portrayed himself. What of the philosophy? ‘Hermeneutics’ is its name. It was not invented by Gadamer himself – on the contrary, Gadamer stands at the end of a long German tradition which goes back at least as far as Schleiermacher at the beginning of the 19th century. Gadamer’s own version of hermeneutics is closely connected to the later thought of Heidegger. But what, precisely, is the hermeneutical tradition?
The world ‘hermeneutic’ is a posh term meaning ‘to do with interpretation’, while ‘interpretation’ is a vogue term meaning everything and nothing. Appended to Philosophical Apprenticeships is an essay ‘On the Origins of Philosophical Hermeneutics’, which allegedly gives a ‘succinct and comprehensive’ account of Gadamer’s thought. For example:
The hermeneutic task of integrating the monologic of the sciences into the communicative consciousness includes the task of exercising practical, social and political reasonability.
The model of practical philosophy must take the place of a theoria whose ontological legitimation may be found only in an intellectus infinitus that is unknown to an existential experience unsupported by revelation. This model must also be held out as a contrast to all those who bend human reasonableness to the methodical thinking of ‘anonymous’ science. In opposition to the perfecting of the logical selfunderstanding of science, this seems to me to be the authentic task of philosophy and is so precisely in the face of the practical meaning of science for our life and survival.
I do not myself understand much of this, and so it may be appropriate to apply here what Gadamer calls ‘the hermeneutical principle that understanding must be a translation into one’s own language if it is to be real understanding.’ Here, then, is an English translation. The hermeneutical philosophy, I guess, has four chief and interconnected characteristics. It holds, first, that philosophy is essentially practical: philosophy is, or should be, primarily and intimately concerned with moral, social and political issues; the idea of the Good is the highest object of philosophical contemplation, and practical reason is the model for philosophical method. Secondly, philosophy is essentially humanistic: it rejects the aspirations of the natural sciences, regarding their search for objective, impersonal and anonymous truth as the vain pursuit of an ignis fatuus; and it subscribes instead to anthropocentric notions of value and truth. Thirdly, philosophy is necessarily historicist: we are all determined, intellectually, by our historical circumstances and are bound by the ‘prejudices’ of our age; as philosophers, we must start from these prejudices (we could start nowhere else), and although we may examine them, we should not suppose that we can step beyond them and reach some timeless and objective truth. Fourthly, philosophy is linguistic: the ideas it advances and the prejudices it examines are inseparable from their linguistic form – thought and language are one, and all understanding is linguistic understanding.
The hermeneutic programme thus appears to demand a scholarly approach to philosophical questions: hermeneutics is interpretation, and, in particular, interpretation of the philosophical texts of the past. All this will remind English philosophers of the ideas of R.G. Collingwood, who believed that philosophy was a branch of history – the history of the prejudices and presuppositions of the human mind. It will remind Classicists of Seneca’s sarcastic quip: quae philosophia fuit facta philologia est. And Gadamer’s own practice appears to fit this picture: most of his early writings were, in fact, of a scholarly and exegetical nature – they were mostly concerned to elucidate aspects of the thought of Plato and Aristotle. And Gadamer’s own conception of practical philosophy derives from Aristotle, while of Plato he says that ‘insofar as they are my constant companions, I have been formed more by the Platonic dialogues than by the great thinkers of German Idealism.’
Many philosophers will be unhappy with this state of affairs: can they, or should they, really do no more than interpret the past and examine standing prejudices? Is there no room for pure thought or for free speculation? Indeed, is there not a whiff of self-contradictoriness in the notion that philosophy is merely the study of its own history? Students of the history of ancient philosophy may add a further complaint; for the scholarly studies of Gadamer and his disciples have received only sporadic acclaim outside the hermeneutical school itself. Gadamer’s reflections on The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy seem – to me at least – flat and unprofitable. As an essay in interpretation the book says little, and it says it at length.
Yet in a sense these doubts are misconceived: for Gadamer does not in truth stand in the tradition of philological philosophy. He is not an historian of thought, and he is not an exegete. In what may be seen as a criticism of the Anglo-American approach to ancient philosophy, he writes:
One can win a certain clarity by analysing the argumentation of a Platonic dialogue with logical means, showing up incoherence, filling in jumps in logic, unmasking false conclusions, and so forth. But is this the way to read Plato, to make his questions one’s own? Can one learn from him in this way, or does one simply confirm one’s own superiority? What holds for Plato holds mutatis mutandis for all philosophy.
The answer to Gadamer’s two questions are plainly these: ‘Yes, this is indeed (part of) the way to read Plato – if your aim in reading him is to understand what he meant,’ and ‘Yes, you can learn from him in this way – at any rate, you can learn about him.’ Gadamer will find these answers unsatisfactory – because he himself has no wish to learn about Plato.
And in fact, according to Gadamer, ‘philosophy has no history.’ Philosophy is in some fashion textually-based and interpretative: but it is not, in any straightforward sense, exegesis or history. What, then, can it be? In Gadamer’s view, the ‘peculiar character of historical scholarship’ is found in the fact that ‘the cognition of its object entails and presupposes as an ultimate hermeneutical principle a recognition of the self.’ The principle was learnt from Heidegger. ‘In Heidegger’s lectures we were often so personally touched that we no longer knew whether he was speaking of his own concern or of that of Aristotle. It is a great hermeneutic truth that we then began to experience personally and that I was later to justify in theory and to represent.’ The hermeneutical approach to philosophical texts is thus wholly egocentric: we read Plato in order to ‘learn from him’, in order to ‘make his questions our own’; when we talk nominally about Aristotle we are really talking about ourselves. We do not particularly wish to learn about Plato. We are not interested in the fact that Aristotle’s concerns were utterly different from our own.
This ‘recognition of the self’ is not, pace Gadamer, a feature of historical scholarship: it is a feature of unhistorical anti-scholarship. Hermeneutics is not, despite its claims, a historical science. Nor, despite its name, is it an interpretative science. Interpreters look at the sparkling surface of Plato’s text in the hope of gauging the depth and the movement of the waters beneath. The hermeneutical philosopher looks at the surface in order to contemplate the reflection of his own more lovely features. Perhaps this explains why Gadamer’s portraits of Plato and Aristotle sometimes look a little Germanic.
There is nothing in the least wrong or disreputable about this way of doing philosophy. Philosophers are at liberty to hobble along on whatever crutches they can find. Some sit and think by themselves, some read novels, some read Scientific American – and many read the works of their own dead predecessors. If a quick flick through Aristotle inspires a thinker to new thoughts, that is nothing but good: what matters is the content of the inspiration, not its source. And if treating Aristotle in this way be deemed a sort of exploitation, then let him be exploited. But you may not call it scholarship, and you may not call it history, and you may not call it interpretation.
Nor is it peculiar to the hermeneutic men that they seek inspiration in this way. What, then, are the characteristic features of the hermeneutical philosophy? Its enemies will wade in with adjectives like ‘empty’, ‘vapid’, ‘dreamy’, ‘woolly’, ‘rhetorical’. Gadamer himself tells an uncharacteristic story. At the end of a seminar on Cajetan, Heidegger once startled his devoted audience by posing the question: ‘What is being?’ ‘We sat there staring and shaking our heads over the absurdity of the question.’ Quite right too, say the enemies of hermeneutics: the question is perfectly absurd. But Gadamer has only a frail sense of the absurd, and his own readers ought to react as he once – but alas, only once – reacted to Heidegger.
Gadamer is prepared to admit that his thought has sometimes been less than pellucid: ‘Certainly I sometimes spoke over [my pupils’] heads and put too many complications into my train of thought. Even earlier my friends had invented a new scientific measure, the ‘Gad’, which designated a settled measure of unnecessary complications.’ Some may prefer to this self-congratulatory little story a remark which Gadamer makes of his younger self: ‘Despite my title of doctor, I was still a 22-year-old boy who thought rather murkily, who reacted portentously to murky thinking, and who still did not really know what was going on.’ Did the boy ever grow up? Or was he, too, always a little awkward, like a boy playing the soldier?
The proponents of hermeneutics will accept none of this waffly criticism. What to me is impenetrably dark or pompously inflated is to them lucidly refulgent and heavy with sense. And the particular illumination of hermeneutics streams, they may perhaps aver, from a determined opposition to any fixed and static dogma. Hermeneutics stands above all for a staunch anti-dogmatism, a ‘negative’ dialectics’ which sails close to scepticism. Gadamer puts it as follows:
Hermeneutic philosophy understands itself not as an absolute position but as a way of experience. It insists that there is no higher principle than holding oneself open in a conversation. But this means: Always recognise in advance the possible correctness, even the superiority of the conversation partner’s position. Is this too little? Indeed, this seems to me to be the kind of integrity one can demand only of a professor of philosophy. And one should demand as much.
The anti-dogmatism enjoined and espoused by the hermeneutical tradition has, so far as I can see, no connection with its claim to be a historicist and an interpretative philosophy: but anti-dogmatism is directly tied to the second characteristic of the tradition – its rejection of the objective aspirations of science.
Now anti-dogmatism is no doubt a Good Thing, and every wise man is something of a sceptic. You need not, it is true, indulge in hermeneutics in order to be wise in this way: even analytical philosophers can be – tend, in fact, to be – modestly sceptical. But modest scepticism is not quite the same as ‘openness’, and perhaps in the end it is ‘openness’ which is the key to Gadamer’s philosophy.
A sceptic recognises that he himself may always be wrong. Gadamer’s ‘open’ philosopher allows that his opponent may always be right. A modest sceptic may have little hope that he has discovered the true answer to any question: but he may for all that be sure that he has uncovered several false answers. He may, indeed, in his modest way regard the history of philosophy as a ceaseless campaign, marked by frequent defeats and occasional triumphs, against the ever powerful forces of fallacy and falsehood. He will not set up his own standard with any great conviction. But with some opponents he will not be ‘open’: he will be quite sure that they are wrong.
Hermeneutic openness is something more than a wary scepticism. Is it also always virtuous? In particular, is it virtuous in the practical sphere, where false beliefs may ground foul actions? The question should be asked, since Gadamer’s philosophy is, in intention at least, practical. And it might even be conjectured that the idea of openness is the point of contact between Gadamer’s life and Gadamer’s thought. For the accommodations of Gadamer’s life seem to illustrate nicely the openness which his philosophy applauds. Then shall philosophers admire that openness which in hard reality conducted Gadamer safely from Marburg to Heidelberg? And shall we see here ‘the kind of integrity one can demand only of a professor of philosophy’?