Exploring Gadamer’s Truth and Method: The Ontology of the Work of Art and Its Hermeneutic Significance

This article is part two of a series of articles I am writing about Gadamer’s Truth and Method. If you have not read it already, you may wish to read part one first: Exploring Gadamer’s Truth and Method: The Truth and Experience of Art. After writing that article, I also wrote another on the value of phenomenology and hermeneutics. This may be an interesting article for you to read if you have not studied either phenomenology or hermeneutics.

In my first article I stated that I was a little worried about being so explicit in stating that I was not too sure I had fully understood Gadamer. Gadamer was one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, so it would be, I feel, a somewhat bold statement of anyone to make. My worries were greatly reduced by some very encouraging and greatly appreciated comments, and it has been wonderful to know that some of you feel that these articles are of both interest and of help.

Gadamer Truth and Method

My choice of photo for this article comes from the fact that Henri Bortoft was my route in to Gadamer, and it is in chapter two that we find Gadamer exploring the nature of a festival, an analysis of Gadamer that Henri helps us to understand. However, there is an interesting dynamic since in reading Gadamer and then going back to Henri, I am able to get far more out of Henri’s own work on hermeneutics than by simply reading his descriptions of Gadamer alone, and this is very exciting for me.

Just in case it was not obvious, the title of chapter two is The Ontology of the Work of Art and Its Hermeneutic Significance. What Gadamer is going to ask is what is the mode of being of a work of art? He begins by reminding us of his analysis of play in chapter one, whereby play “fulfills its purpose only if the player loses himself.” I mentioned previously that I was not certain that I had understood Gadamer’s explanation of aesthetic consciousness in chapter one, but in this chapter he spends much time exploring the notion further, and comparing it to the consciousness of play.

Photo: Simon Robinson

Photo: Simon Robinson

Aesthetic consciousness is related to a person’s subjective reflection of that piece of art. It is therefore abstract and in some way objectifies the art. We have to understand a work of art not as an object, but in terms of the experience of the art, and therefore we will find the mode of being of the art in the experiencing of it. “The work of art has its true being in the fact that it becomes an experience that changes the person experiencing it.”

Gadamer then looks at the nature of play, and the sense of “to and fro”, “constant renewal” and “tendency to repetition”. He sees nature being a model in which we can understand art.

Inasmuch as nature is without purpose and intention, just as without exertion, it is a constantly self-renewing play, and can therefore appear as a model for art.

This is fascinating, especially in light of the way in which Henri was able to make fully explicit the fact that the same dynamics of thinking, the same movement from object to being, was that of Goethe more than a century before, in his metamorphosis of plants. I feel that it could be a two way street though. Hermeneutics could provide us with a dynamic way of conceiving nature which ultimately will lead us to better understanding meaning in nature, for example the dynamics of DNA in relation to the context of the whole cell and the whole organism.

The next insight that really stood out for me was Gadamer’s notion of presentation. A play is presented to an audience, and hence their participation is very much a part of the experience. This notion of presentation is a part of the mode of being of art.

In being played the play speaks to the spectator through its presentation; and it does so in such a way that, despite the distance between it and himself, the spectator still belongs to the play.

In reading these passages I was taken back to my childhood. I was speaking to Maria about the fact that we both feel we can transport ourselves back to the consciousness we had at various times in our childhood and teenage years, whereas other people feel they can not. A child has the ability to really lose themselves not only in play, but when going to see plays, and I feel that to really access what Gadamer is saying here, I think we almost have to be like children again when experiencing art to really lose ourselves. Perhaps as adults we are too distracted in other thoughts, and in our age of phones and ipads we are losing this ability further.

Gadamer reminds us of the concept of theoria from Greek metaphysics, the essence of which is “being present to what is truly real”. The ability to “act theoretically is defined by the fact that in attending to something one is able to forget one’s own purpose.” A true spectator “gives himself entirely to the play of art” as opposed to someone “who merely gapes at something out of curiosity.” This section leads one to ask “can a critic truly experience the play of art if they are detaching themselves from it?” I ask myself this since I think this also leads us into the concept of aesthetic consciousness,.

Gadamer discusses the ontology of a festival, and Henri’s explanation of multiplicity in unity really helped me to pay attention to this section:

Gadamer goes on to give the celebration of a festival as an example. Each time a festival is celebrated it is neither a new festival nor a remembrance of an earlier one. In celebrating a festival we are not simply repeating the first festival. The festival which we celebrate is that festival now, not just a repetition but contemporaneously – i.e. it is not just a matter of the survival of something from the past, but of something coming to life again now. Speaking about this return of the festival, Gadamer says: ‘But the festival that comes round again is neither another festival nor a mere remembrance of the one that was originally celebrated’ (p.123. From the perspective of the dynamical mode of thinking discussed here, we would say that this takes the form of the dynamic unity of self-difference, and hence ‘multiplicity in unity’, i.e. we have to think of celebrating a festival in the intensive dimension of One and not the extensive dimension of many ones. This is where the unity of the festival is to be found.

Henri Bortoft (2012) Taking Appearance Seriously

In the following section Gadamer takes on a fabulous exposition of the plastic arts, which I take to be the visual arts such as paintings, sculpture and film, as opposed to art which is written such as literature, plays and music. This is quite amazing as we are compelled first to contemplate the differences between an original piece of art and its copy, and then secondly to contemplate the continuum of meaning in which lie signs, works of art, and symbols. Here we need a dynamic way of thinking:

Every performance is an event, but not one in any way separate from the work – the work itself is what “takes place.”

Gadamer closes the final section of chapter two with the assertion that all works of art have the same mode of being. “The specific mode of the work of art’s presence is the coming-to-presentation of being.”  This point is important to grasp, since Gadamer can then explore “the real problem of hermeneutics” whereby aesthetics has to be “absorbed into hermeneutics.” Along with aesthetic consciousness Gadamer introduces us to the notion of historic consciousness. While I am not totally certain I know what this is, a key point that really stood out was the problem of trying to understand a work of art from history in terms of absolute knowledge of what was in the artist’s mind. Gadamer says that this approach is “nonsensical” since “what is reconstructed, a life brought back from the past, is not the original.”

Gadamer aligns himself with Hegel’s conception of hermeneutics, whereby the truth of art can be comprehended “in a higher way” through philosophy. I do not think we end chapter two with any kind of certainty that we can attain absolute truth, and Gadamer reminds us that at this point we are still undertaking an inquiry into “the truth that manifests itself in art and history.” I found chapter two exciting and I am really looking forward to losing myself in the coming chapters.

David Kracov's Book of Life

David Kracov’s Book of Life

One thing I feel that this chapter, or perhaps Gadamer is crying out for is a visual treatment of his work. The photographer Gordon Miller transformed Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants by publishing an absolutely luscious edition with full colour prints of all the plants that Goethe describes, and in the exact state and stage that Goethe describes. Henri alerts us to the way in which Gadamer teaches us that in time, a work of art increases in being “through the multiple occasions of its presentation in different contexts and situations.” Since the translators of this edition expressed their hopes that this new edition of Truth and Method would introduce Gadamer to a new generation, it would be wonderful to have a visual app which could lead us through various specific works of art, as opposed to talking about the genre of art, to really take us more deeply into experiencing this mode of being of the art?

I feel I have learnt a lot from this chapter. I have to pay attention to my own mindfulness, and not get lost in mental abstractions, but to engage fully in the performance and the presentation of art. I am not too sure what Gadamer means when he discusses “the elevation and strong emotion that seize the spectator” and “deepen his continuity with himself.” This is the polar opposite of aesthetic consciousness, and I feel it could be a path to wholeness, the experience of wholeness through art.

And of course a philosophical contemplation of the limitations of both aesthetic consciousness and historical consciousness have huge implications for the development of Artificial Intelligence and on-going attempts to explore the workings of consciousness itself in the human brain. These are huge questions I know, but there is a much more practical reason for reading Gadamer. In leading this deep questioning of works of art and of texts, he is providing us with new eyes for what we humans produce. He, like Goethe, is opening up new organs of perception, and with this expanded consciousness, we can attain far deeper insights into the meaning of what is around us, and this is a life skill all of us need, whatever our goals in life.

Related Articles

Exploring Gadamer’s Truth and Method: The Truth and Experience of Art

Exploring Gadamer’s Truth and Method: The History of Hermeneutics

Exploring Gadamer’s Truth and Method: Elements of a Theory of Hermeneutic Experience

Exploring Gadamer’s Truth and Method – Language as the Medium of the Hermeneutic Experience

Exploring Gadamer’s Truth and Method – Final Reflections

The Value of Phenomenology and Hermeneutics.

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10 Responses to Exploring Gadamer’s Truth and Method: The Ontology of the Work of Art and Its Hermeneutic Significance

  1. James Souttar says:

    It’s quite interesting to compare this with what Iain McGilchrist says about the work of art in ‘The Master and his Emissary’, and how this relates to the two kinds of knowledge (in German, kennen and wissen) that were a preoccupation of Heidegger, Gadamer and, of course, Goethe.

    Beginning by talking about Goldberg and Costa’s discovery of how new experiences engage the right cerebral hemisphere (but that repeated experiences engage it less, and become the focus of left hemisphere functions) he says:

    “What Goldberg and Costa may be uncovering is not just something about novelty and familiarity but about two whole ways of knowing in the two hemispheres. To know (in the sense of kennen) something is never fully to know it (in the sense of wissen) at all, since it will remain for ever changing, evolving, revealing further aspects of itself – in this sense always new, though familiar, in the original sense of coming to belong among our chosen ones, those with whom we stand in close relation, our familia (in Latin literally our ‘household’). To know in the sense of wissen is to pin something down so that it is repeatable and repeated, so that it becomes familiar in the other sense; routine, inauthentic, lacking the spark of life. I think what one might deduce from their study is that the first apprehension of anything is by the right hemisphere while it remains new, and, I would suggest, while we are getting to know it (in the sense of kennen), where it becomes familiar, in the sense that it is now known (gewußt) and therefore certain (gewiß), knowledge of the whole that is all too soon followed by knowledge of the parts.”

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