Hans-Georg Gadamer, c. 2000
February 11, 1900|
Marburg, German Empire
March 13, 2002 (aged 102)|
University of Breslau|
University of Marburg (PhD, 1922)
University of Marburg (1928–1938)|
Leipzig University (1938–1948)
Goethe University Frankfurt (1948–1949)
University of Heidelberg (1949–2002)
Hans-Georg Gadamer (German: [ˈɡaːdamɐ]; February 11, 1900 – March 13, 2002) was a German philosopher of the continental tradition, best known for his 1960 magnum opus Truth and Method (Wahrheit und Methode) on hermeneutics. He was a Protestant Christian.
Gadamer was born in Marburg, Germany, the son of Johannes Gadamer (1867–1928), a pharmaceutical chemistry professor who later also served as the rector of the University of Marburg. He resisted his father's urging to take up the natural sciences and became more and more interested in the humanities. His mother, Emma Karoline Johanna Geiese (1869–1904) died of diabetes while Hans-Georg was four years old, and he later noted that this may have had an effect on his decision to not pursue scientific studies. Jean Grondin describes Gadamer as finding in his mother "a poetic and almost religious counterpart to the iron fist of his father". Gadamer did not serve during World War I for reasons of ill health and similarly was exempted from serving during World War II due to polio.
He grew up and studied classics and philosophy in the University of Breslau under Richard Hönigswald, but soon moved back to the University of Marburg to study with the Neo-Kantian philosophers Paul Natorp (his doctoral thesis advisor) and Nicolai Hartmann. He defended his dissertation The Essence of Pleasure according to Plato's Dialogues (Das Wesen der Lust nach den Platonischen Dialogen) in 1922.
Shortly thereafter, Gadamer moved to Freiburg University and began studying with Martin Heidegger, who was then a promising young scholar who had not yet received a professorship. He and Heidegger became close, and when Heidegger received a position at Marburg, Gadamer followed him there, where he became one of a group of students such as Leo Strauss, Karl Löwith, and Hannah Arendt. It was Heidegger's influence that gave Gadamer's thought its distinctive cast and led him away from the earlier neo-Kantian influences of Natorp and Hartmann. Gadamer studied Aristotle both under Edmund Husserl and under Heidegger.
Gadamer habilitated in 1929 and spent most of the early 1930s lecturing in Marburg. Unlike Heidegger, who joined the Nazi Party in May 1933 and continued as a member until the party was dissolved following World War II, Gadamer was silent on Nazism, and he was not politically active during the Third Reich. Gadamer did not join the Nazis, and he did not serve in the army because of the polio he had contracted in 1922. He joined the National Socialist Teachers League in August 1933.
In 1933 Gadamer signed the Loyalty Oath of German Professors to Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist State.
In April 1937 he became a temporary professor at Marburg, then in 1938 he received a professorship at Leipzig University. From an SS-point of view Gadamer was classified as neither supportive nor disapproving in the "SD-Dossiers über Philosophie-Professoren" (i.e. SD-files concerning philosophy professors) that were set up by the SS-Security-Service (SD). In 1946, he was found by the American occupation forces to be untainted by Nazism and named rector of the university.
The level of Gadamer's involvement with the Nazis has been disputed in the works of Richard Wolin and Teresa Orozco. Orozco alleges, with reference to Gadamer's published works, that Gadamer had supported the Nazis more than scholars had supposed. Gadamer scholars have rejected these assertions: Jean Grondin has said that Orozco is engaged in a "witch-hunt" while Donatella Di Cesare said that "the archival material on which Orozco bases her argument is actually quite negligible". Cesare and Grondin have argued that there is no trace of antisemitism in Gadamer's work, and that Gadamer maintained friendships with Jews and provided shelter for nearly two years for the philosopher Jacob Klein in 1933 and 1934. Gadamer also reduced his contact with Heidegger during the Nazi era.
The communist DDR was no more to Gadamer's liking than the Third Reich, and he left for West Germany, accepting first a position in Goethe University Frankfurt and then the succession of Karl Jaspers in the University of Heidelberg in 1949. He remained in this position, as emeritus, until his death in 2002 at the age of 102. He was also an Editorial Advisor of the journal Dionysius. It was during this time that he completed his magnum opus, Truth and Method (1960), and engaged in his famous debate with Jürgen Habermas over the possibility of transcending history and culture in order to find a truly objective position from which to critique society. The debate was inconclusive, but marked the beginning of warm relations between the two men. It was Gadamer who secured Habermas's first professorship in the University of Heidelberg.
In 1968, Gadamer invited Tomonobu Imamichi for lectures at Heidelberg, but their relationship became very cool after Imamichi alleged that Heidegger had taken his concept of Dasein out of Okakura Kakuzo's concept of das in-der-Welt-sein (to be in the being in the world) expressed in The Book of Tea, which Imamichi's teacher had offered to Heidegger in 1919, after having followed lessons with him the year before. Imamichi and Gadamer renewed contact four years later during an international congress.
In 1981, Gadamer attempted to engage with Jacques Derrida at a conference in Paris but it proved less enlightening because the two thinkers had little in common. A last meeting between Gadamer and Derrida was held at the Stift of Heidelberg in July 2001, coordinated by Derrida's students Joseph Cohen and Raphael Zagury-Orly. This meeting marked, in many ways, a turn in their philosophical encounter. After Gadamer's death, Derrida called their failure to find common ground one of the worst debacles of his life and expressed, in the main obituary for Gadamer, his great personal and philosophical respect. Richard J. Bernstein said that "[a] genuine dialogue between Gadamer and Derrida has never taken place. This is a shame because there are crucial and consequential issues that arise between hermeneutics and deconstruction".
Gadamer received honorary doctorates from the University of Bamberg, the University of Breslau, Boston College, Charles University in Prague, Hamilton College, the University of Leipzig, the University of Marburg (1999) the University of Ottawa, Saint Petersburg State University (2001), the University of Tübingen and University of Washington.
On February 11, 2000, the University of Heidelberg celebrated Gadamer's one hundredth birthday with a ceremony and conference. Gadamer's last academic engagement was in the summer of 2001 at an annual symposium on hermeneutics that two of Gadamer's American students had organised. On March 13, 2002, Gadamer died at Heidelberg's University Clinic at the age of 102. He is buried in the Köpfel cemetery in Ziegelhausen.
Gadamer's philosophical project, as explained in Truth and Method, was to elaborate on the concept of "philosophical hermeneutics", which Heidegger initiated but never dealt with at length. Gadamer's goal was to uncover the nature of human understanding. In Truth and Method, Gadamer argued that "truth" and "method" were at odds with one another. For Gadamer, "the experience of art is exemplary in its provision of truths that are inaccessible by scientific methods, and this experience is projected to the whole domain of human sciences." He was critical of two approaches to the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften). On the one hand, he was critical of modern approaches to humanities that modeled themselves on the natural sciences, which simply sought to “objectively” observe and analyze texts and art. On the other hand, he took issue with the traditional German approaches to the humanities, represented for instance by Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey, who believed that meaning, as an object, could be found within a text through a particular process that allowed for a connection with the author’s thoughts that led to the creation of a text (Schleiermacher), or the situation that led to an expression of human inner life (Dilthey).
However, Gadamer argued meaning and understanding are not objects to be found through certain methods, but are inevitable phenomena. Hermeneutics is not a process in which an interpreter finds a particular meaning, but “a philosophical effort to account for understanding as an ontological—the ontological—process of man.” Thus, Gadamer is not giving a prescriptive method on how to understand, but rather he is working to examine how understanding, whether of texts, artwork, or experience, is possible at all. Gadamer intended Truth and Method to be a description of what we always do when we interpret things (even if we do not know it): "My real concern was and is philosophic: not what we do or what we ought to do, but what happens to us over and above our wanting and doing".
As a result of Martin Heidegger’s temporal analysis of human existence, Gadamer argued that people have a "historically-effected" consciousness (wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein), and that they are embedded in the particular history and culture that shaped them. However the historical consciousness is not an object over and against our existence, but “a stream in which we move and participate, in every act of understanding.” Therefore, people do not come to any given thing without some form of preunderstanding established by this historical stream. The tradition in which an interpreter stands establishes "prejudices" that affect how he or she will make interpretations. For Gadamer, these prejudices are not something that hinders our ability to make interpretations, but are both integral to the reality of being, and “are the basis of our being able to understand history at all.” Gadamer criticized Enlightenment thinkers for harboring a "prejudice against prejudices".
For Gadamer, interpreting a text involves a fusion of horizons (Horizontverschmelzung). Both the text and the interpreter find themselves within a particular historical tradition, or “horizon.” Each horizon is expressed through the medium of language, and both text and interpreter belong to and participate in history and language. This “belongingness” to language is the common ground between interpreter and text that makes understanding possible. As an interpreter seeks to understand a text, a common horizon emerges. This fusion of horizons does not mean the interpreter now fully understands some kind of objective meaning, but is “an event in which a world opens itself to him.” The result is a deeper understanding of the subject matter.
Gadamer further explains the hermeneutical experience as a dialogue. To justify this, he uses Plato’s dialogues as a model for how we are to engage with written texts. To be in conversation, one must take seriously “the truth claim of the person with whom one is conversing.” Further, each participant in the conversation relates to one another insofar as they belong to the common goal of understanding one another. Ultimately, for Gadamer, the most important dynamic of conversation as a model for the interpretation of a text is “the give-and-take of question and answer.” In other words, the interpretation of a given text will change depending on the questions the interpreter asks of the text. The "meaning" emerges not as an object that lies in the text or in the interpreter, but rather an event that results from the interaction of the two.
Truth and Method was published twice in English, and the revised edition is now considered authoritative. The German-language edition of Gadamer's Collected Works includes a volume in which Gadamer elaborates his argument and discusses the critical response to the book. Finally, Gadamer's essay on Celan (entitled "Who Am I and Who Are You?") has been considered by many—including Heidegger and Gadamer himself—as a "second volume" or continuation of the argument in Truth and Method.
Gadamer's Truth and Method has become an authoritative work in the communication ethics field, spawning several prominent ethics theories and guidelines. The most profound of these is the formulation of the dialogic coordinates, a standard set of prerequisite communication elements necessary for inciting dialogue. Adhering to Gadamer's theories regarding bias, communicators can better initiate dialogic transaction, allowing biases to merge and promote mutual understanding and learning.
Gadamer also added philosophical substance to the notion of human health. In The Enigma of Health, Gadamer explored what it means to heal, as a patient and a provider. In this work the practice and art of medicine are thoroughly examined, as is the inevitability of any cure.
In addition to his work in hermeneutics, Gadamer is also well known for a long list of publications on Greek philosophy. Indeed, while Truth and Method became central to his later career, much of Gadamer's early life centered around studying Greek thinkers, Plato and Aristotle specifically. In the Italian introduction to Truth and Method, Gadamer said that his work on Greek philosophy was "the best and most original part" of his career. His book Plato's Dialectical Ethics looks at the Philebus dialogue through the lens of phenomenology and the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.
As a Protestant, I have always found especially significant the controversy over the Last Supper, which raged in the Protestant Church, particularly between Luther and Zwingli.
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