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.

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