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This essay was written during Gadamer's midseventies to comply with a request that he write an autobiographical sketch as one of three for a book, Philosophie in Selbstdarstellungen (Philosophy in Self-Presentations). It is one of a very few autobiographical essays he wrote. He preferred to discuss ideas and appreciations of other persons, but not to go into the details of his own life. He loved debate. He did publish in the same year (1977), however, a book-length account of his younger years, Philosophical Apprenticeships, which recollects his life in Marburg in the 1920s but also focuses on a series of memorable portraits of well-known figures, some his teachers, others his colleagues.
Today, those who wish to learn more of the details of Gadamer's life and writings may consult a recent definitive biography by Jean Grondin, now translated into English: Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography. This volume furnishes an impeccably documented scholarly account of Gadamer's life, including three chapters on his experiences during the Nazi period. "Autobiographical Reflections" first appeared in English as parts 1 and 3 of the much longer essay "Reflections on My Philosophical Journey," written as the required intellectual autobiography for the 1997 "Library of Living Philosophers" volume on Gadamer, The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer. That translation has been extensively corrected and reworded for the present volume and further explanatory footnotes have been added to make it more accessible to English-speaking readers.
As the opening text in this volume, this essay is an ideal general introduction to Gadamer's thought. It offers us an account by Gadamer himself of his life beginning in 1918 and his writings beginning in 1922 and running up to the mid-1970s. This was well after the publication of his masterwork, and in this essay he ventures to reply to some of his critics. It could have been titled "In His Own Words" or "Apologia pro vita sua." He recalls entering university life, his teachers in Marburg, many of them famous in classical philosophy, the philosophical currents of the time, and even some general books that expressed the mood of the time. He explains his decision to obtain a teaching certificate in classical philology in 1927, studying under Paul Friedländer in order to give himself the solid foundation he needed to stand his ground against the powerful interpretations of Greek texts being put forward by Heidegger, under whom he served as an assistant in Marburg from 1923 to 1928 (when Heidegger was called back to Freiburg to take Husserl's chair). While Gadamer admired the way that Heidegger brought Greek texts back to life, he wanted to develop an independent standpoint of his own as a scholar of ancient Greek. Both his 1922 dissertation and his 1929 habilitation were on Plato, and Platonic dialogue remained a distinctive and integral factor in his later hermeneutical philosophy. His study under the famous Marburg Platonists Paul Natorp and Paul Friedländer strengthened his credentials in classical philology.
In this essay Gadamer offers a chronological review of his major works up to and including his masterwork, Truth and Method (1960). He discusses his experiences living in Germany during the despairing 1920s and its search for a new start, his study under Heidegger and his relationship to him, his struggles through the desperate and dominated 1930s when he sought for cover in the irrelevance of teaching Greek philosophy, and on into the 1940s, when he refers to being elected rector of Leipzig University after the war because he was not a Nazi. His lucky move from the Russian zone of Germany to Frankfurt in the Western zone plunged him for two years into a struggle to deal with student needs after the war, and only after he was called to Heidelberg in 1949 could he teach courses that would lay the foundation for his masterwork in hermeneutics.
Gadamer enhances the philosophical interest of this essay by explaining and defending some of the key terms and ideas in his philosophy: the truth of art and poetry, the personal concept of experience in contrast to the scientific concept of it, dialogue, phronesis and energeia, the historical character of consciousness, the key role of language in understanding, the importance of the different kinds of speaking, and his criticism of the prevailing concepts of self-consciousness stemming from Hegel. He also goes into his famous dialogue with Jürgen Habermas regarding his hermeneutics, and he ends the essay with a reference to his 1973 book on Celan, written in response to the poet's tragic death, and illustrating the importance of poetry to his philosophical hermeneutics. Truly this essay offers a good general introduction to the life and thought of Gadamer, and in his own words.
But it does not tell the whole story. For this you will need to read the lively essays in the rest of this Gadamer Reader, most of which date from after 1977. These essays present more detailed elaborations of his major concepts, such as phronesis (practical philosophy); they explore some Greek concepts and help us understand the hermeneutic experience and the experience of art; they showcase Gadamer's view of Hegel; and they include the first English translation of his lengthy final essay on Derrida and deconstruction, "Hermeneutics Tracking the Trace" (1995).
I am indebted to Professor Gadamer himself for reading and occasionally correcting my translation of this essay when it was put together to be two parts of his fuller four-part "Reflections on My Philosophical Journey" in the 1997 volume The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer (La-Salle and Chicago: Open Press, 1997). At that time Jean Grondin was living in Heidelberg and also made suggestions. I have also consulted his eloquent translation of 1977 "Selbstdarstellung" into French as "Auto-présentation," which appeared with other significant Gadamer essays in his collection La philosophie herméneutique (Paris: PUF, 1996), 11-62. I also thank Carsten Dutt of Heidelberg University for valuable corrections of my translation of Gadamer's "Reflections on My Philosophical Journey" and Meredith Cargill for his help in proofreading my reworked translation of this essay for the present volume.
* * *
In 1918, with the First World War in its last year, I graduated from the Holy Spirit Gymnasium in Breslau and enrolled in Breslau University. At that time, as I looked around, I had no idea that my path would eventually lead me into philosophy.
My father was a university researcher in the natural sciences, and was basically averse to all book knowledge, although his own knowledge of Horace was excellent. During my childhood he sought to interest me in the natural sciences in a variety of ways, and I must say he was very disappointed at his lack of success. The fact that I liked what those "chattering professors" [Schwatzprofessoren] (as Dad called them) were saying was clear from the beginning. But he let me have my way, although for the rest of his life [he died in 1928] he remained unhappy about my choice.
My studies in those days were like the first episodes in a long odyssey. A whole range of things enticed me and I ventured to taste many of them. If, in the end, it was the philosophical interest that gained the upper hand, rather than my genuine interest in the study of literature, history, or art history, this was really less a turning away from one of them and toward the others so much as it was a gradual pressing further and further into the discipline of scholarly work as such. In the confusion which the First World War and its end had brought to the whole German scene, to try to mold oneself unquestioningly into the surviving tradition was simply no longer possible. And the perplexity we were experiencing was in itself already an impetus to philosophical questioning.
In philosophy, it was obvious that merely accepting and continuing what the older generation had accomplished was no longer feasible for us in the younger generation. In the First World War's grisly trench warfare and heavy artillery battles for position, the neo-Kantianism which had up to then been accorded a truly worldwide acceptance, though not undisputed, was just as thoroughly defeated as was the proud cultural consciousness of that whole liberal age, with its faith in scientifically based progress. In a disoriented world, we who were young at that time were searching for a new orientation. In our search we were limited, in practice, to the intra-German scene, where bitterness, mania for innovation, poverty, hopelessness, and yet also the unbroken will to live, all competed with each other in the youth of the time. Expressionism was at that time the reigning force in life as well as art, and while the natural sciences continued their upswing-with the Einsteinian theory of relativity in particular causing a great deal of discussion-still, in those areas of study and research that were conditioned by the reigning worldview, namely writing and scholarship, truly a mood of catastrophe was spreading more and more, and this was bringing about a break with the old traditions. The Collapse of German Idealism, an oft-cited book of that time by Paul Ernst, was one side of the new "mood of the times" [Zeitgefühl]-the academic side. The other and far more encompassing side of this Zeitgefühl found its expression in the sensational success of Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West. This "romance," as I think it must be called, made up partly of scholarship and mostly of world-historical fantasy, was "much admired, much reviled," but in the end it would seem to be just as much the inscription of a world-historical mood of pessimism as it was a genuine putting in question of the modern faith in progress and its proud ideal of proficiency and "accomplishing things." In this situation it is hardly surprising that a completely second-rate book of the times had a truly profound effect on me: Theodor Lessing's Europe and Asia. This  book, based on the wisdom of the East, put the totality of European accomplishment-oriented thinking in question. Regrettably, a little later in a still more chaotic time, Lessing was assassinated by German nationalists. In any case, for the first time in my experience the all-encompassing horizon which I had grown into through birth, education, schooling, and, indeed, the whole world around me, became relativized. And in this way for me something like thinking began.
Of course, a number of significant authors had already given me a certain first introduction to thinking. I remember the powerful impression that Thomas Mann's Reflections of an Unpolitical Man made on me during my final year of high school. His fanciful but enthusiastic opposition between art and life as it was expressed in "Tonio Kröger" also touched me deeply, and I remember being enchanted by the melancholy tone of Hermann Hesse's early novels. My first introduction to the art of conceptual thinking, on the other hand, came from Richard Honigswald, whose chiseled dialectic elegantly, although a little monotonously, defended the transcendental idealistic position of neo-Kantianism against all psychologism. I very faithfully took down his lecture course, "Basic Questions in the Theory of Knowledge," word for word in shorthand and then translated it into longhand. My two notebooks containing this lecture course have since been donated to the Honigswald Archive in Würzburg, which was brought into being by Hans Wagner. In any case, these lectures offered me a good introduction to transcendental philosophy. So in 1919 when I came to Marburg, I at least already had a fair preparation in transcendental philosophy.
In Marburg I was soon confronted with new academic experiences. Unlike the universities in the large cities, the "small" universities of that time still had a real academic life-a "life of ideas" as Humboldt intended that phrase-and in the philosophical faculty there was in every area and with every professor a "circle," so one was soon drawn in several directions toward a variety of interests. At that time the critique of historical theology following in the footsteps of Karl Barth's Commentary on the Letter to the Romans  was just beginning in Marburg, a critique which was later to become the so-called dialectical theology. Among more and more young people in those days, there was sharp criticism of the "methodologism" in the neo-Kantian school, and over against this, there was acclaim for Husserl's art of phenomenological description. But what took hold of our whole feeling for life, above all, was "life-philosophy"-behind which stood the European event of Friedrich Nietzsche. And the problem of historical relativism connected with this preoccupied the minds of many young people, whose discussion of it related especially to the works of Wilhelm Dilthey and Ernst Troeltsch.
In addition to these developments in theology and philosophy, about that time the influence of the circle around the poet Stefan George, in particular, began to penetrate into the general academic world, and it should also be remarked that the extremely effective and fascinating books of Friedrich Gundolf brought a new artistic sensitivity into the scholarly interaction with poetry. In general, everything that came out of the George circle-Gundolf's books as well as the Nietzsche book of Ernst Bertram, Wolters's skillful pamphlet rhetoric, Salin's crystalline delicacy, and finally, Erich Kahler's exceptionally explicit declamatory attack on Max Weber's famous speech on "Science as a Profession"-amounted to a single great provocation. These were the voices of a strongly held critique of the culture. And I had the feeling that, in this case, in contrast to similar tones of protest from other sides-which, in light of my being a typically dissatisfied beginning student, also gained a certain hearing from me-there was definitely something to it. A certain power seemed to stand behind these often monotonous declamations. The fact that a poet like George could, with the magical sound of his verse and the force of his personality, exercise such a powerful effect on people posed a nagging question for many thoughtful persons, and represented a never completely forgotten corrective to the play with concepts that I was encountering in my philosophical study.
Even then, I myself simply could not ignore the fact that the experience of art had something to do with philosophy. The philosophers in the German Romantic period, right up to the end of the era of idealism, held that art was a true instrument of philosophy, if not its superior adversary, and they found in this truth their all-encompassing task. Indeed, the price that the university philosophy of the post-Hegelian era had to pay for its failure to recognize this truth-was barrenness. The same thing also applied and applies for neo-Kantianism, and indeed it also applies to positivism right up to the present-day , the so-called "new positivism." In my view then and still today, the reclaiming of this truth about the relevance of art to philosophy is the task that our historical heritage has assigned to us.
Excerpted from THE GADAMER READER by Hans-Georg Gadamer
Copyright © 2007 by Richard E. Palmer. Excerpted by permission.
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