Truth and Method

Interpretation cannot strive for perfect enlightenment since consciousness is always historical. As Hans-Georg Gadamer explains in Truth and Method[1], “the standpoint that is beyond any standpoint, a standpoint from which we could conceive its true identity, is a pure illusion” (Gadamer, 423). We should not try to exclude the author’s historical perspective in the hope of revealing some ultimate truth concealed within the text; rather, the historical consciousness must “think within its own historicity” – through interpretation we acquire the author’s perspective and merge it with our own, which in turn broadens our own horizon. As Gadamer explains, we acquire the concepts of the historical past “in such a way that they also include our own comprehension of them” (Gadamer, 421). Since consciousness is shaped by history, the interpreter has no option but to view the text and its author from a perspective informed that history. For Gadamer, the act of interpretation does not involve revealing pure knowledge but instead should be understood as the interpreter’s attempt to reconcile the historical information with his/her own historically effected consciousness. When this reconciliation is successful, a “fusion of horizons” has occurred, which is to say that the interpreter’s horizons have broadened as a result of the hermeneutical exercise.

For Gadamer, interpretation is essentially a question and answer exercise: “That a historical text is made the object of interpretation means that it puts a question to the interpreter. Thus interpretation always involves a relation to the question that is asked of the interpreter. To understand a text means to understand the question” (Gadamer, 417). If interpretation means understanding the question, it follows that there can be no genuine interpretation unless questions are being asked in the first place. Furthermore, the posing of questions entails a degree of openness on behalf of the interpreter towards the historical data. As Gadamer explains, “the openness of what is in question consists in the fact that the answer is not settled (…) The significance of questioning consists in revealing the questionability of what is questioned. It has to be brought into this state of indeterminacy” (Gadamer, 410). The act of interpretation involves raising the possibility of finding out that what was previously assumed to be true may not quite turn out to be the case; to pose the question itself is to admit uncertainty. Therefore, as a prerequisite the interpreter must be sufficiently open-minded on the subject to actually pose the questions and be willing to genuinely entertain various possibilities. As Gadamer explains, “the hermeneutical consciousness culminates not in methodological sureness of itself, but in the same readiness for experience that distinguishes the experienced man from the man captivated by dogma” (Gadamer, 409). The process of interpretation introduces indeterminacy; for the interpreter, there are no certainties, only questions and more questions. The view the matter otherwise is to falsely objectify our knowledge of history.

What is fundamentally important here in relation to Gadamer’s theory of hermeneutics is that the questions posed by the interpreter are not arbitrary – they always originate within the interpreter’s own historical consciousness and are in this sense delimited; that is to say, they are specifically the questions which “make sense” to the interpreter at that point in time. As Gadamer explains, history “determines in advance both what seems to us worth inquiring about and what will appear as an object of investigation” (Gadamer, 350). Furthermore, as part of this hermeneutical process the interpreter anticipates the answers to these questions, again within the constraints of a historically effected consciousness. Gadamer explains that “anticipating an answer itself presupposes that the questioner is part of the tradition and regards himself as addressed by it” (Gadamer, 424). For Gadamer, the interpreter’s anticipation of the answer to the question obviates the point that the interpreter is always already transposing his or her perspective or “historically effected consciousness” onto the text. The posing of the question and the anticipation of the answer is the means by which the interpreter’s existing horizons merge with those of the author to form new ones. As Gadamer explains, historical consciousness is “only something superimposed upon continuing tradition, and hence it immediately recombines with what it has foregrounded itself from in order to become one with itself again in the unity of the historical horizon that it thus acquired” (Gadamer, 356). In this way, the interpreter’s historical consciousness is continuously supplemented through the process of interpretation and prompted to expand and evolve as a result. What is finally arrived at is not the ultimate truth but just a modified historical consciousness that will once again be superimposed onto the next subject of interpretation. For Gadamer, “to be situated within a tradition does not limit the freedom of knowledge but makes it possible” (Gadamer, 408). Our historical consciousness should therefore not be viewed as a limitation – the historical nature of consciousness is precisely what allows us to build upon it.

[1] Gadamer, H., & Weinsheimer, J. (2004). Truth and method (2nd, rev. ed.). London: Continuum.

Introduction to Hermeneutics

As Stanley Porter explains in Hermeneutics[1], “in its most basic sense hermeneutics refers to the many ways in which we may theorize about the nature of human interpretation, whether that means understanding books, works of art, architecture, verbal communication, or even nonverbal bodily gestures” (Porter, 1). Hermeneutics therefore tries to understand how we understand, or as Porter puts it, “it endeavors to describe the already present structure of human understanding and to highlight the conditions for clearer insight and comprehension” (Porter, 5). Hermeneutics is a complex task since we must rely on the very structures of understanding themselves in our effort to try to make sense of these same structures. Any rational or scientific conclusions that we may eventually reach through this endeavor are largely suspect since there is no truly objective lens through which we can observe the phenomenon. We are constantly interpreting, it is how we go about making sense of things in our minds each time we interact with others, pick up a book or walk through a museum. As Porter explains, the structures of human understanding are already present; they are unconscious mechanisms which operate behind the scenes to deliver an end product in the form of an understanding or interpretation of some object or act. Attempting to analyze or expose these structures of understanding in a rational and scientific way is somewhat paradoxical since it is these very structures that will produce whatever interpretation we eventually come up with.

In his phenomenology, Heidegger rightfully points out that we cannot reflect in a purely objective way about our hermeneutics or how we go about interpreting or understanding things. As Porter explains, “for Heidegger, an analysis or description of pure consciousness misses the fundamental truth that we are always already being-in-the-world. The world cannot be bracketed or judgment about actually existent things suspended, for the meaning that things have is known in the context of our relationships to them within the world. Things are perceived and understood as they are encountered and practically used during the course of an ordinary day, and, therefore, known in ways that the act of bracketing would preclude” (Porter, 60).  Everything that we know and understand in the world is determined by our existence in the world and our relationships to people and things within it. Heidegger is justified in his attack against hermeneutical approaches which do not acknowledge this fundamental limitation and which proceed as if the structures of understanding were separable from us and the world. Our relationships to things in the world make it possible for us to understand them in the first place; the world provides the necessary context for interpretation and without the relationships which we constantly engage in within it, there would simply be nothing to understand or interpret.

As Porter further explains, in relation to Heidegger’s phenomenology, “we are thrown into a world in which language, culture, and institutions of life are already given, so no matter where or when we find ourselves we will always be conditioned by our own historical situatedness” (Porter, 61). All aspects of our research into hermeneutic structures such as the methods and approaches of investigation we adopt, the culture and the institutions to which we and our subjects of investigations belong, the history of scientific research and its current general orientation, and even the words we employ to describe phenomena, are all already invested with a certain hermeneutical disposition. Therefore, investigations of this kind are destined to finally reveal no other hermeneutical structures than the ones already deeply established within the observer’s point of view. As Porter further explains, still in relation to Heidegger, “to be being-in-the-world is to be more like actors than neutral and objective knowers. We are participants in and not observers of the world through an abstract and distanced perception of things” (Porter, 61). The being-in-the-world is in constant interaction with the world and these interactions continuously reinforce a specific, pre-existing hermeneutical schema. In this sense, the being-in-the-world is simply acting out a predefined script on a predefined stage, or to put it differently, translating a continuous flow of sights and sounds into knowledge and information that is coherent within the grander scheme of things. It is impossible for the actor to step off the stage and proceed to evaluate what is happening there from an external standpoint; it is always within the confines of the set stage that the being-in-the-world must procede with investigations of any kind.

[1] Porter, S., & Robinson, J. (2011). Hermeneutics: An introduction to interpretive theory. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans.