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The date 1 February 1650 marks the passing of Rene Descartes, founder of the modern conception of methodical thinking. A quarter-millennium later, to the day, the critic of this fundamental idea of modernity Hans-Georg Gadamer was born in Marburg. No providence or fate ordained it, but in this same year, 1900, the year of Gadamer's birth, a series of other occurrences and discoveries were, quite coincidentally, beginning to emerge in the philosophical landscape. Together they came to a climax in hermeneutics as one of the preeminent, if not the most important, issues of this century.
On 25 August 1900, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche died in Weimar. In his last years, before he was benighted by that spiritual darkness so emblematic for him, Nietzsche developed a perspectival philosophy for which there are no facts, but only interpretations in the service of the will to power. He did not call this philosophy "hermeneutics," to be sure. Owing to its provenance, that name was still too limited in meaning. Nevertheless, Nietzsche had opened the way for a revolutionary universalization of the perspectival and interpretive, with which the hermeneutics of the twentieth century would have to grapple. Nietzsche himself is said to have maintained that he would be understood only after a hundred years. No one would argue that hermeneutics fulfilled this prediction, and yet the notion associated with the name of Nietzsche, that all life and knowledge are interpretive in character, can be conceived as the fundamental challenge addressed by hermeneutic thought in our century. That view appears to promote a relativism and nihilism, the overcoming of which is everywhere attempted, but rather proclaimed than actually achieved. Can the interpretive-the hermeneutic-really be overcome? Since Nietzsche, every serious philosophical project has been driven by this question.
This is true even of a thinker so different from Nietzsche as Edmund Husserl. It so happens that he published the first, programmatic volume of his Logical Investigations in the year 1900 as well. Under this perhaps unattractive title lay hidden his announcement of a new approach to phenomena that was so straightforward and provocative that it dared to call itself simply "phenomenology." Its presupposition, no less straight-forward and provocative, was that all philosophies to date were crippled by a conceptual framework at cross-purposes with the phenomena, the things themselves, as Husserl also called them. Thus the battle cry: "Back to the things themselves"-which raised such a furor at the time and served to awaken many young minds: Max Scheler, Moritz Geiger, Alexander Pfander, Nicolai Hartman, Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and many others. In most un-hermeneutic fashion, it promised a new beginning for philosophy, sweeping out the academic "Schulphilosophie" parasitically tied to the sciences. To what extent Husserl himself fulfilled this promise came to be the decisive question for the very loosely affiliated "phenomenological movement." The fact that he himself embraced a conceptual framework not derived from the phenomena is a charge that his rebellious pupil Martin Heidegger notably made against him. Gadamer came into direct contact with these debates about phenomenology and thus also the future prospects of philosophy when he attended Heidegger's lectures during the twenties. There students could learn, among other things, that Husserl had really not been averse to hermeneutics. On the contrary, he had in fact accorded it central significance when he urged viewing all phenomena of consciousness as forms of "intentionality." For Husserl this expression meant that there is no empty consciousness because consciousness is always directed intentionally: it points toward the object "as" this or that, in a certain respect. Heidegger later developed this "as-structure" of consciousness as the absolutely fundamental phenomenon of hermeneutics. Husserl, however, according to Heidegger's criticism, had blocked the path to that insight, when-frightened precisely by the hermeneutic implications of his hermeneutic doctrines-he characterized consciousness as the a priori site of an ideal rationality and thus succumbed to the dream of philosophy as strict science. In 1913, under the title Philosophy as Strict Science, Husserl sorrowfully settled accounts with the relativistic and historistic tendencies that he saw blossoming around him. Most of his students, however, preferred the 1900 promise of a radical new beginning, seeking a more phenomenological approach to the things themselves, even at the risk of losing an ultimate ground.
We approach still closer to hermeneutics when we recall the title of another book from 1900: Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. With this book, an earlier relatively unknown Vienna psychiatrist inaugurated the career of psychoanalysis whose earthshaking effects need not be recounted here. It was not until 1965 that Freud's work was recognized as a hermeneutic manifesto by Paul Ricoeur, a noteworthy representative of hermeneutical philosophy; but the concept of "Deutung" or interpretation, and the associated reduction of all the phenomena of consciousness to unconscious drives, obviously pointed in that direction. In the very first lines of the 1900 book Freud promised (philosophers always promise a good deal) to demonstrate "that there is a psychological technique which makes it possible to interpret dreams, and that, if that procedure is employed, every dream reveals itself as a psychical structure which has a meaning and which can be inserted at an assignable point in the mental activities of waking life." Admittedly, Freud did not speak of hermeneutics, but the idea of a technique for interpreting dreams cut right to the heart of what was then known as hermeneutics, though obviously it was not at all widely known.
Another landmark philosopher of the time, Wilhelm Dilthey (1883-1911), also had in view such a "technical" hermeneutics. Yet once more in the year 1900, Dilthey made a presentation under the title "Die Entstehung der Hermeneutik" (The Rise of Hermeneutics) where he tried to bring the largely unknown development of this discipline to a learned public. Hermeneutics was indeed so unfamiliar that for his lecture Dilthey could draw on a student piece of his from the year 1866, his prize essay on the development of Protestant hermeneutics from Luther to Schleiermacher. Hermeneutics, Dilthey explained, was first of all developed as a preeminently Protestant technique for interpreting Holy Scripture. Thus the career of hermeneutics began with Luther's pronouncement that Scripture was its own interpreter. Such a hermeneutics usually consisted exclusively of sundry rules and regulations for interpreting texts that constituted no really integral discipline until Schleiermacher, the Protestant theologian and translator of Plato, projected the possibility of a universal hermeneutics comprehending all interpretive processes. This general discipline of interpretive technique, according to Dilthey, acquired a new significance in our time: if thought through to the end, it could be viewed as the scientific foundation of all Geisteszuissenschaften, insofar as these sciences involve acts of interpretation or understanding that are methodologically distinct from the explanatory achievements of the natural sciences. Given the victorious march of the natural sciences, the so-called Geisteszuissenschaften had to find a methodological legitimacy of their own. The scientific respectability of the Geisteszuissenschaften, was (and remains to this day) extremely precarious: it was and is the case that not a few believe that they are not sciences at all but rather effete occupations that always limp along behind the exact natural sciences. Perhaps one day, if they want to keep pace with the natural sciences, they will make a break with their romantic roots, resolve to pursue the sober path of experience, and emulate the methods of the exact sciences. Then they would be in search of the laws governing historical events or constants of a sociopolitical or philological kind. This was the view of positivism or Unified Science. Against all this, Dilthey endeavored to defend the autonomy of the Geisteszuissenschaften, and his whole life long he attempted in the most various ways to create a special methodological legitimization for them. In the end he seemed to envision them as belonging to a hermeneutics that was still to be developed. Thus in his late notes he explained that "a new important task of hermeneutics" might well be to defend "the certainty of understanding in the face of historical skepticism and subjective arbitrariness." Even here we discover that hermeneutics is charged with responding to the challenge of historical relativism. The same specter lurked behind the efforts of Nietzsche, Husserl, and Freud (even if it emerged only in his last writings about culture and its discontents).
The hermeneutic heritage of Dilthey was immediately taken up by Heidegger and Gadamer, but without losing sight of the fact that the hermeneutic problem belonged in the context associated with the names of Nietzsche, Husserl, and Freud. Thus they follow, but also radicalize, Dilthey's turn toward historical life, in that they abandon the search for methodologically guaranteed interpretive certainty as a vestige of metaphysics. The concept of understanding is thereby freed from the methodological frame of the Geisteszuissenschaften and comes to be identified with the self-understanding of human Dasein. Thus, in Heidegger and Gadamer's eyes, at least, hermeneutics steps out of its former methodological and, as it seemed to them, provincial domain and into a philosophical and universal one.
All of this was in the making in 1900, the very year in which, quite coincidentally, Gadamer and the hermeneutic century were born. Artificially exact dates in the same period could also be suggested for the rebirth of philosophy that was coming to fruition in the British Isles. In reaction to the idealism that reigned in certain British academic circles, G. E. Moore recommended returning to the reasonableness and common sense represented by the older English tradition of empiricism. In his Principia Ethica of 1903 the puritanical Briton appealed to the powers of common sense and a language intelligible to all. In doing so he inaugurated the vast history of so-called analytic philosophy that has dominated Anglo-American circles for years and that increasingly permeates continental philosophy. Anglo-American philosophers view the turn toward linguistic analysis as such a break in the history of philosophy that many consider everything that precedes it as metaphysical nonsense, rather like the way astronomers or chemists view their predecessors in astrology and alchemy. It is obvious, however, that even the 1900 turn to analysis proceeded on the basis of hermeneutic insights. For it is not just the insight that intelligible language is the condition of every genuine philosophy that is hermeneutical, but also the recognition that every aspect of our access to the world is mediated through language and therefore through interpretation. Such a turn toward linguistic analysis is an impulse that Gadamer will also bring to the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger.
Excerpted from Hans-Georg Gadamer by Jean Grondin Copyright © 2003 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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This is not a great biography, work of history, or literature. Writing a biography of a philosopher is not easy, but Grodin did pull it off successfully. Here are the detail comments:
1. This work is strong in using the sources to create a story
2. You get a good feel for Gadamer's professional career and his relations with his academic contemporaries
2. Not a great personal biog. Almost nothing about Gadamer's personal life, relations with his wife, children, and his place in a very turbulent time in Germany's history. Grodin knew Gadamer personally so I expected more, but then Gadamer must not have been a personable guy.
3. Not a great philosophical biog. Minimal on Gadamer's philosophy. See Grodin's other books for this.
4. A dismal review of German history during the dramatic times of Wiemar, Nazi Germany, and Post-WWII. Grodin is definitely not a historian
Posted May 30, 2010
No text was provided for this review.