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Summary Article: Gadamer, Hans-Georg from Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology: An Encyclopedia

Hans-Georg Gadamer was a long-lived (1900-2002) German philosopher, best known as a student of Martin Heidegger. He developed an account of philosophical hermeneutics in his magnum opus Truth and Method.

Biography and Major Works

Gadamer was born in Breslau in 1900, the son of a chemist, Johannes Gadamer. The elder Gadamer was prominent in Breslau, where he served as an academic researcher and administrator as well as a chemist in Germany's rapidly industrializing chemical industry. As a child, Gadamer resisted his father's strict discipline and insistence on a career in science and became interested instead in philosophy and the classics.

Gadamer's interest in philosophy led him to Marburg, where he wrote a dissertation on Plato under the direction of Paul Natorp, a leading exponent of the Marburg school of neo-Kantian philosophy. This school was noted for its Kantian approach to the philosophy of science, as well as for work on epistemology and logic. In particular, Marburg philosophy acknowledged the power of modern experimental science but resisted the idea that it was the epitome of all knowledge, arguing instead for the continued relevance of the humanities. The Marburg school produced many influential students, such as the philosopher Ernst Cassirer.

The decisive event in Gadamer's intellectual life, however, was not his dissertation in 1922 but his postgraduate studies. Introduced to phenomenology by Natorp, Gadamer moved to Freiburg in 1922 to study under Heidegger, and he followed him back to Marburg when Heidegger received an appointment there. As a result, Gadamer participated in a remarkable intellectual period when Heidegger trained a cadre of young scholars, including Karl Lowith, Leo Strauss, and Hannah Arendt. The lectures Heidegger gave at the time led to the publication of his Being and Time in 1928, which would become recognized as one of the most important philosophical works of the 20th century.

This period was decisive for Gadamer in two ways. First, Heidegger's existential phenomenology, not Neo-Kantianism, became the fundamental framework for Gadamer's thought. Second, during this time, Gadamer began in-depth philological training with Paul Friedländer. The result of both these influences was Gadamer's 1928 habilitation, later published as Plato's Dialectical Ethics. In this work, Gadamer proved himself to be a specialist in classics even as he maintained a broad philosophical viewpoint and avoided the narrow focus that sometimes accompanies philological work.

The next few decades were tumultuous for Germany but remarkably quiet for Gadamer. In 1929, he received an appointment at Marburg, and he then went on to teach at other German universities— first Kiel in 1934 and then Leipzig in 1939.

During this period, German academics approached Nazism in a variety of ways, ranging from collaboration to resistance to emigration. Heidegger, famously, was receptive to Nazism, but Gadamer was not. His extremely erudite focus on ancient philosophy removed him from politics and life outside the academy, and after the fall of the Reich, the Allied occupation considered him uncontaminated by Nazism. As a result, he was appointed rector at Leipzig, where he became active in rebuilding the university there.

During the late 1980s and 1990s, revisionist historians discovered that many academics had been more sympathetic to Nazism than was previously realized: Prior to 1987, for instance, it was not widely known that Heidegger had embraced Nazism. Although one author has attempted to demonstrate that Gadamer's interpretation of Plato implicitly supported Nazi policies, few have found this view compelling, and the bulk of scholarly opinion concurs that Gadamer was free from the taint of Nazism. Communism also had little appeal for him, and as the Iron Curtain closed over Leipzig, Gadamer moved west, eventually taking a position at Heidelberg. Finally, in 1960, Gadamer published Truth and Method, the book that would come to define his career.

In the 3 decades prior to the publication of Truth and Method, Gadamer lectured regularly and gave public speeches, but he had not published extensively. Truth and Method, then, represented the first and main statement of Gadamer's thought. Published when he was 60 years old, it seems likely that Gadamer imagined this to be the summation of his career. As it happened, he would continue to live and publish for another 4 decades.

The critics lauded Truth and Method, and Gadamer soon became an internationally known philosopher. His work on hermeneutics appeared at a time when continental philosophy was read and taken up in the United States among not only humanists but social scientists as well. As a result, Gadamer became very influential, and he published many books of interviews, essays, and speeches after Truth and Method appeared. In addition to these secondary works, which grew out of, amplified, and explained Truth and Method, Gadamer was engaged in several other scholarly activities in the second half of the 20th century.

First, Truth and Method dealt with ethics, aesthetics, and interpretation in the context of the Western canon. After its publication, Gadamer turned his focus to modernism and modernist writing, in particular to the works of the poet Paul Celan. The slim volume by Gadamer on Celan is a central intellectual contribution to Gadamer's project because it extends the range of his hermeneutic work beyond its narrow focus on “classic” texts.

Second, Gadamer engaged in a series of well-known debates with other intellectuals that touched on central issues in the interdisciplinary realm known as “theory,” which developed in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. His most famous debate occurred with Jürgen Habermas, in which the two argued about the possibility of objective knowledge—Habermas arguing that such a thing was possible and Gadamer arguing for the situatedness of all understanding. Gadamer was also well-known for his encounters with Jacques Derrida. Although Derrida and Gadamer had many similarities, their different approaches and personalities meant that their debates, published as Dialogue and Deconstruction, would be widely read even though the two authors often talked past one another.

Finally, Gadamer engaged in a series of smaller projects—on the concept of health and aging, autobiographical writings about his own career, as well as that of Martin Heidegger, and on his relationship with Nazism.

Overall, Gadamer was a remarkable figure of extraordinary longevity who witnessed the most important events of the century and became one of the world's most prominent intellectuals. And yet Gadamer personally lived a quiet, even primitive, existence. He was late for his dissertation defense, for instance, because his overcoat had frozen to the door of his unheated house. During a trip to the United States, he watched the American election results on television, fascinated by the democratic system he had heard so much about, but he was unable to turn off the television because he had never used a remote control before. His impressive intellectual accomplishments were counterbalanced by a quiet, mundane family existence despite the remarkable times he lived through.

Critical Contributions to Anthropology
The Limitations of Science

Throughout his career, Gadamer argued against the idea that modern experimental science ought to be taken as the purest, most primary, or most important form of knowledge. Today, such positions are often associated with “postmodernism” and skepticism regarding the claims of science and reason. Gadamer, in contrast, came of age in the first half of the 20th century, when industrialization was still occurring in Germany, and Truth and Method was written in the postwar period, when technocratic confidence was at its peak. His critique, rooted in his classical training, was a conservative one: Gadamer opposed the idea that science could provide us with ethical guidance, was skeptical about narrowing the definition of truth to include merely instrumental knowledge, and decried the narrow education of technical specialists. He attempted to demonstrate the fundamental legitimacy of philosophy, literature, aesthetics, and religion, even as modern science was slowly becoming the sole form of modern knowledge. In contrast to a postmodern position skeptical of the possibility of transcendent truth, Gadamer argued consistently for truth in its traditional mode, and rooted its claims to adequacy in prescientific forms of knowledge.

The Universality of the Hermeneutic Problem

Hermeneutics is the art of interpreting messages. Typically, it concerns deciphering difficult, obscure, or ancient texts. Traditionally, interpretation of texts was the central activity of the university and in the pursuit of knowledge more generally. In Truth and Method, Gadamer takes the process of hermeneutics and elevates it to the level of a universal problem. That is, Gadamer argues that our existence and understanding of the world operate on the same principles as those of textual interpretation.

Thus, while some would argue that science is true knowledge and aesthetic judgment is subjective, Gadamer argues that the scientific method is just one subset of human understanding encompassed by our more general experience of reality. For Gadamer, life itself is a process of interpretation within which methodical science is an important but limited source of knowledge whose value should not be overestimated. In sum, Gadamer argues that truth is opposed to method and that we as humans experience the world through an interpretive process. For this reason, he felt that “objectivity” was a goal that is both impossible and undesirable.

Practical Knowledge and the Rehabilitation of Prejudice

The process of arriving at truth is a very general one that follows the course of a hermeneutic circle: Initial presumptions are tested against the world and then revised in light of what one encounters. For this reason, Gadamer believed that it is possible to speak about the correct interpretation of meaning without relying on a scientific method of interpreting texts or on notions of objectivity.

Central to his argument is the rehabilitation of prejudice. In English, the term prejudice has a negative connotation because it implies that one is not free to judge a case on its own merit. But for Gadamer, prejudice is not an impediment to objectivity but an inevitable and essential part of understanding. Gadamer believed that it is only by bringing our prejudices to light, becoming aware of them, and using them as the initial departure point for an act of interpretation that we can truly understand the world.

Historically Effected Consciousness

One of Gadamer's best known concepts is wirkungsgeschichtlichess Bewuβtein, a term that is perhaps best translated into English as “consciousness affected by history.” Gadamer argues that prejudice is a result of our consciousness and the way it has been affected by history.

People often speak of a difference between the “human sciences” or “social sciences,” on the one hand, and the natural sciences, on the other. On this account, the human sciences deal with the realm of meaning and intention and involve interpretation, while the natural sciences deal with natural facts and do not attend to meaning. This distinction can be traced back to Wilhelm Dilthey, who argued that understanding a text involved understanding the intention of the author who wrote it and imaginatively participating in the lived experience of the author. How one can be objectively empathetic is something Dilthey never definitively solved, and this issue remains a contentious topic in the philosophy of social science to the present.

Gadamer attempts to solve the problem by breaking from this tradition altogether. He argues that Dilthey's concept of “lived experience” (erlebnis) assumes a primacy of experience unmediated by culture and tradition. Following Heidegger, Gadamer argues that human beings are, in contrast, fundamentally linguistic beings, shaped to their very core by the tradition and culture into which they are born. They have, in other words, a consciousness that is affected by the history of the traditions and culture they inherit. Gadamer thus argues for the primacy of erfahrung, experience interpreted through a cultural lens, and against erlebnis, or a fundamentally raw, unprocessed, and acultural experience.

Gadamer thus argues that understanding in the social science does not involve recovering the intention of the author. Rather, it means realizing the history of the effect that the text has had on one's consciousness, a process that Gadamer calls the “fusing of horizons between one's own work and the original.” Understanding a text, according to Gadamer, means understanding how the text has, in some small way, become part of the social and historical context in which the reader lives. It is a process of self-understanding in which we recognize the way in which we ourselves are shaped by the world that the text helped create.

Aesthetic Truth

It is in this light that we can understand Gadamer's defense of aesthetics. For him, art has a “truth” as important as (or more important than) scientific truth. Again, context is important: Gadamer wrote at a time when people believed judgments of beauty to be completely subjective and when the classical tradition of fine arts was challenged by avant-garde and modernist forms. While Gadamer's greatest concern is with the truth revealed in poetry, theater and the experience of play are central to his aesthetic theory. Just as we lose ourselves in the moment of a drama or in the flow of playing a game, so too, Gadamer argues, artistic truth reveals itself to us as we experience ourselves merging, or perhaps dissolving, into it. Thus, for Gadamer, artistic truth is derived from our deeper involvement in communities and traditions of meaning of which we are only a part—not from a subjective sense of the beautiful.

The Dialogue That Is Ourselves

Overall then, Gadamer viewed people as always engaged in dialogical relations with others. Indeed, as beings born and socialized into a world not of our own making, we are ourselves a sort of dialogue: a location through which broader forces of history and tradition move. Understanding is selfunderstanding, and truth the recognition of this fact. In this light, it is easy to understand why Gadamer was not convinced by claims that humans can, or ought to, be guided by disinterested, objective scientific reason.

Gadamer's Legacy

Despite his importance in the tradition of continental philosophy, Gadamer has not had a great impact on anthropological thought. The reception of Gadamer's work in anthropology began in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the rise of interpretive or symbolic approaches, such as the work of Clifford Geertz. These authors were more theoretically sophisticated and interdisciplinary than the previous generation, and they drew on a wide variety of thinkers outside of anthropology for inspiration, such as Paul Ricoeur and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Gadamer was one of the thinkers cited by these early authors.

In the 1980s, the next generation of anthropological theorists extended this tradition. Some, such as Paul Rabinow, had deeper and more thorough engagements with continental philosophy as they articulated the philosophical grounding of interpretive social science. Others sought to radicalize interpretive anthropology's concern with rhetoric as they sought to experiment with anthropological genres. The flurry of “dialogical anthropology” produced in the 1980s by authors such as Kevin Dwyer and Barbara and Dennis Tedlock often cited Gadamer—a major theorist of dialogue—as an inspiration. The “Writing Culture” group also included him on their theoretical horizon. In the late 1980s, James Peacock also pondered, only somewhat successfully, the potential influence of Gadamer on ethnographic practice.

None of these streams of thought, however, engaged deeply with Gadamer's work. While thinkers such as Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu became the topic of intense scrutiny, Gadamer (like Ricoeur) remained on the periphery of these projects, cited but never truly used to build anthropological theory.

There are many reasons for this: Anthropology came to “theory” in the course of its increasing politicization, and Gadamer was not a political thinker. Gadamer's work is highly technical and often takes the form of commentary on other thinkers. As a result, it requires deep immersion in Western philosophical traditions, which is not necessarily a requirement of anthropological training. Even those who do have a background in philosophy are more familiar with the French traditions rather than the German ones that influenced Gadamer.

Indeed, in many ways, Gadamer lacks elective affinity with anthropological theory: His commitment to Heidegger makes him an opponent of the neo-Kantian traditions in which he was initially trained—the same traditions that informed Franz Boas and the first generation of American anthropologists. A conservative, he uses Heidegger to ground and validate the Western canon. In contrast, most anthropologists read French “poststructuralism,” where Heidegerian thought is put in the service of politically leftist and progressive causes that seek to question the legitimacy of inherited notions of truth, reason, and beauty.

Finally, because Gadamer's work is a purely philosophical clarification of the grounds of understanding, it does not provide concrete analytic tools for anthropology but merely claims to describe what all human beings already do. Although Gadamer's work has serious implications for anthropology, they must be drawn out, and unfortunately, few have attempted to do so to date.

See also Boas, Franz; Derrida, Jacques; Geertz, Clifford; Habermas, Jürgen; Hermeneutics; Rabinow, Paul; Tedlock, Barbara and Dennis; Wittgenstein, Ludwig

Further Readings
  • Gadamer, H.-G. (1976). Philosophical hermeneutics. University of California Press Berkeley.
  • Gadamer, H.-G. (1999). Truth and method. Continuum New York, NY.
  • Grondin, J.; Plant, K. (2003). The philosophy of Gadamer. McGill-Queen's University Press Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
  • Grondin, J.; Weinsheimer, J. (2003). Hans-Georg Gadamer: A biography. Yale University Press New Haven, CT.
  • Hoy, D. C. (1978). The critical circle: Literature, history, and philosophical hermeneutics. University of California Press Berkeley.
  • Alex Golub
    © 2013 SAGE Publications, Inc

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