Grondin on Gadamer

“Working out appropriate projections, anticipatory in nature, to be confirmed ‘by the things’ themselves, is the constant task of understanding” (Gadamer). This quotation does not fit the typical picture of Gadamer. His hermeneutic position is usually taken to be something for which there seems to be plentiful evidence: namely, that given the prejudice structure of understanding, there can never be any “confirmation by the things themselves.” But it is easy to show that his hermeneutics is quite misunderstood when taken thus. Even if Gadamer’s utterances are not always perfectly consistent, his “rehabilitation” of prejudices still warns us to be critically “aware of one’s own bias, so that the text can present itself in all its otherness and thus assert its own truth against one’s own fore-meanings.” On the other hand, Gadamer does not fall into the positivist extreme of calling for a negation of the prejudice structure of understanding in order to let the thing speak for itself without being obfuscated by subjectivity. A reflexively critical understanding of the kind contended for will be concerned “not merely to form anticipatory ideas, but to make them conscious, so as to monitor them and thus acquire right understanding from the things themselves.” This is what Gadamer finds in Heidegger: the mean between the positivist dissolution of the self and Nietzsche’s universal perspectivism. The question is only how one is to come by the “appropriate” fore-projections that permit the “thing itself” to speak.

Jean Grondin, Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics

This has the ring of truth for me, and it embodies one of the central Gadamerian concepts of why a “method” is needed at all, or more accurately, how it comes into existence. Pace deconstructionism, Gadamer seeks to portray the process of how truth criteria evolve over time, not to postpone forever the idea that we could ever have them, but to indicate the persistence of changing standards of truth, verification, correctness, and understanding. The two extremes that Gadamer rejects are, first, the analytic (verificationist) pretense towards objectivity, and, second, the purely subjectivist account by which meaning and criteria fail to make any sense on their own terms, dismissing the first as impossible and the second as useless. The speaking of the “thing itself” is not some timeless universal innate to the text, but the arrival at a convention of truth under the current socio-historical horizon that can be seen as being as “accurate” as possible. The “method” for doing so is the process of questioning prejudice and, more simply, being aware of it. This “working out” involves strictures given to us by the text itself, not just our own prejudices. The understanding we obtain this way, for Gadamer, is as good as it gets. The reason the thing itself then speaks is that we have achieved the purest interaction with it possible under the inevitable influence of remaining subjective prejudices, partially cognitivized. Then, under the most successful application of this “method,” what we can glean from the text is what the text says to us. I take this to be the ontology of Gadamer’s hermeneutics.

A written tradition is not a fragment of a past world, but has already raised itself beyond this into the sphere of the meaning that it expresses. The ideality of the word is what raises everything linguistic beyond the finitude and transience that characterize other remnants of past existence. It is not this document, as a piece of the past, that is the bearer of tradition but the continuity of memory. Through it tradition becomes part of our own world, and thus what it communicates can be stated immediately. Where we have a written tradition, we are not just told a particular thing; a past humanity itself becomes present to us in its general relation to the world….

Thus written texts present the real hermeneutical task. Writing is self-alienation. Overcoming it, reading the text, is thus the highest task of understanding.

Gadamer, Truth and Method (392)

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