More on Gadamer

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Hermeneutics:

Human being, Gadamer argues, is a being in language. It is through language that the world is opened up for us. We learn to know the world by learning to master a language. Hence we cannot really understand ourselves unless we understand ourselves as situated in a linguistically mediated, historical culture. Language is our second nature

This has consequences for our understanding of art, culture, and historical texts—i.e., on the subject area of the human sciences. Being a part of our own tradition, historical works do not primarily present themselves to us as neutral and value-free objects of scientific investigation. They are part of the horizon in which we live and through which our world-view gets shaped. We are, in other words, formed by these great works before we get the chance to approach them with an objectivizing gaze.

Gadamer argues that we never know a historical work as it originally appeared to its contemporaries. We have no access to its original context of production or to the intentions of its author. Tradition is always alive. It is not passive and stifling, but productive and in constant development. Trying, as the earlier hermeneuticians did, to locate the (scientific) value of the humanities in their capacity for objective reconstruction is bound to be a wasted effort. The past is handed over to us through the complex and ever-changing fabric of interpretations, which gets richer and more complex as decades and centuries pass. History, as Gadamer puts it, is always effective history. This, however, is not a deficiency. It is, rather, a unique possibility, a possibility that involves the particular kind of truth-claim that Gadamer ascribes to the human sciences: the truth of self-understanding.

This is something of what I was trying to get across in my post on the Jesus of History and the Holon of Christ arguing that the Historical Jesus is another kind of Christ figure, another figure of faith.  I didn’t have Gadamer’s precise philosophical language at the time, so the piece suffers in that regard.

More after the break, er breaking this down….

Applying Gadamer’s insights on effective history it is clear that the modern historical-critical method of study of the Scriptures (esp. the Gospels) reveals that–to use HGG’s language–we are foregrounding in our reflective studies elements related to our own world, time, and space.  Hence we never get back to the original mind/intention of the (by us hypothesized) original author/audience.  We only ever get back to our own reconstructed understanding of what we can best understand the original public meaning of such a text to have been–again deeply influenced already at the point of what we study/look for by our own world.  Not to say it is bunk, just far more humble an operation than what it tends to see itself and be taught as.

Moreover, as any theology student with a ministerial bent worth his/her salt can tell you having studied the higher criticisms (already a value judgment there in the naming huh?), the modern way of returning to (reconstructed) original meaning often leaves a gaping maw in the present.  Even if the reconstruction of the original meaning is quite valid, what does that have to do with our world, my life?

Gadamer’s point is that some element of reading a text always involves what Aristotle called phronesis–practical knowledge/application.  An excessively objectivist mindset as to how we understand texts assumes away the problem of practical intent.  What is right is what it meant, end of story.

But what happens when our world and the reconstructed original world of the Biblical text don’t have much in common?  [Just ignore it, quit believing?]

One of the many problems with modern hermeneutical theory and liberal theology that is built upon it is that it can’t normally get to practical application.  Except on the off-chance that the reconstructed original context has some connection with our own day.  And usually this requires metaphorizing the text to such an abstract degree–in an attempt to reach supposedly universal notions–that it’s almost spiritualized out of existence.  i.e. Milquetoast liberal theology.

e.g. How many sermons have I heard (heard one the other day in fact) where Jesus’ healing of demoniacs in the Bible is interpreted to our day as like Jesus healing our own madnesses and addictions.  Now that reading is not that bad really I suppose.  But it’s not really that great either.  It’s still not really clear what I’m supposed to do with this notion of God healing my insanities (whether it’s right or not is a different question).  The response normally would be, “Ok, that’s nice.” And then go about your life as you always do (i.e. cultural Protestantism, bourgeoisie modern Christianity).

This was the heart of romantic-inspired liberal theology following in the tradition of Schleiermacher. For Schl. the reader was to divinate that is get inside the mind of the original author.  But that assumes you see that our reading strategies are not strategies but rather quasi-scientific procedures that gain us objective understanding of the text and its author (this was Dilthey’s position).  Then a la Schl. we could get inside the author’s head.

But once you see Gadamer’s point that we are always already beings in our own cultures, histories, practices, concerns, and languages and those open horizons (which both open us to possibility and limit our vision) the notion of getting back to total objectivity is a mirage.  Because we are always going to be bringing our prejudices–both good and bad.

It’s not that we hermetically sealed in our pre-determined worlds but we never escape from some such form-ation either.  Our prejudices can illuminate the text in ways that would not have been understood (we can imagine) by the original readers just as they can blind us to not being open to the text.  The practice of deep reading is to follow this circle of the text helping to unearth our own prejudices and then let our prejudices stand under the text.  A way in which we surrender and open ourselves to the text. Note: this is an extremely important point relative to the Bible because only then can it be for us the potential of revelation.

In Gadamer-ese, our horizons can shift and can fuse with the horizon of the text.  This is the hermeneutic circle:  you can never understand the whole without understanding the parts but your understanding of the part is shaped by your initial guess (abduction in Peirce’s language–our prejudice) as to the meaning of the whole.  And so it goes.

Now whereas Gadamer simply (and brutally) negates the modern hermeneutical school of Schleiermacher and Dilthey (and their descendants, including higher biblical criticism) we could preserve the modern romantic insights by seeing them as constructing their own worldspace.  That is apply Gadamer’s insight about the ontological nature of hermeneutics to the modern wave itself.  The romantic school definitely was found wanting (point Gadamer) but this way we create not just a constructive postmodernism (Gadamer) but a post-postmodernism (or integralist) understanding.


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  1. […] When applied more to hermeneutics (and less to archaeology or history), this notion of entering the mind of the original readers derives from the Romantic tradition (also Protestant) of Schleiermacher and later Dilthey. i.e. Text without (our contemporary) context.  The only con-text given priority is the ancient one.  But of course it is our reconstruction of the ancient context.  [For a more detailed discussion of this point, here.] […]

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