Hermeneutics is the philosophy of meaning and understanding. It was transformed by phenomenology, first through Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) and then by Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900 – 2002). I have to admit I did start reading Heidegger’s Being and Time but I didn’t get too far, it being one of the most difficult philosophical works to comprehend. My strategy instead was to begin to work my way through Truth and Method, deepening my own comprehension of phenomenology via hermeneutics.
Along with Heidegger and perhaps Wittgenstein, Gadamer is often thought to be one of the most profound and important philosophers of the twentieth century. I wanted to explore his work as I am so interested in the concept of meaning and how I can come to deepen my own way of asking questions of reality. My own teacher Henri Bortoft told our class that Gadamer was probably the most knowledgeable authority on Plato, and reading Truth and Method it soon becomes clear the extent of his genius.
I have only got as far as completing the first chapter, but I thought I would begin to blog as an exercise in documenting what my far more limited and non-classically trained intellect and mind can glean. I know I have missed a huge amount of what has been written, but I do feel that it is a worthwhile endeavour nonetheless. My plan is to have one blog per chapter, and then perhaps as I delve deeper into the book, these first writings will gain a deeper meaning for myself as I come back to them!
Chapter one is titled Transcending the Aesthetic Dimension and so I thought I should at least illustrate this article with one of the most aesthetic pictures I know of (to me anyway). It is the Peacock Room Castello di Sammezzano in Reggello, Tuscany, Italy, but unfortunately I do not know the photographer to credit.
I think Gadamer sums up the theme of the chapter well at the very end. He is interested in exploring the notion of truth in the field of the human sciences. What he will discover is that:
the experience of the work of art includes understanding – and thus represents a hermeneutical phenomenon – but not at all in the sense of scientific method. Rather, understanding belongs to the encounter with the work of art itself, and so this belonging can be illuminated only on the basis of the mode of being of the work or art itself. p87
This exploration is quite amazing, since it opens up the possibility that scientific method may not lay sole claim to the truth, and that other forms of enquiry may be equally valid. If we now start at the beginning of the chapter, we learn how the modern ideas of modelling the human sciences on natural sciences can be traced back to Helmholtz (1821 – 1894), who did not believe in “sudden flashes of intuition” and regarding scientific work as “the self-conscious work of drawing iron-clad conclusions.”
Where Gadamer takes us after a discussion of Helmholtz is startling. Rather than seeing the human sciences in any way inferior to the natural sciences, if one possesses “the natural heritage of German classicism, they carried forward the proud awareness that they were the true representatives of humanism.” p8
I am going to offer Wikipedia’s definition of German or Wiemar Classicism for a reason:
Weimar Classicism (German “Weimarer Klassik”) is a cultural and literary movement of Europe. Followers attempted to establish a new humanism by synthesizing Romantic, classical and Enlightenment ideas. The movement, from 1772 until 1805, involved Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Johann Gottfried Herder, Friedrich Schiller and Christoph Martin Wieland, and often concentrated on Goethe and Schiller during the period 1788–1805.
According to Henri Bortoft, Goethe should not be considered the father of Romanticism, as he commonly is:
He later came to regard as withdrawal into the self, subjectivism, romanticism, as a disease, hence his intolerance of romantics. “Our present time is in retrograde, for it is subjective, we see this not only in poetry, but paintings beside.” (Reference: Henri Bortoft, Schumacher lectures, 2009)
So while I have not studied German classicism (Germany did not exist in its modern form at this time) I have studied the scientific work of Goethe. Gadamer’s first chapter has two distinct and equally enthralling parts. The first examines the guiding concepts of humanism, and these are
- Bildung (Culture)
- Sensus Communis (communal sense)
I had come across the notion of Bildung a number of times, and had taken it to mean cultural self-improvement. This is probably the best exploration of the notion of Bildung I have ever read, it referring to the “properly human way of developing one’s natural talents and capacities.” p9 It is clear that there are a number of ways of examining Bildung, one evoking the “ancient mystical tradition according to which man carries in his soul the image of God.” p10
I think though for me we se the notion of what is now only recently coming to light in modern neuropsychology in works such as those of Iain McGilchrist, and this is the way in which logical, rational and abstract reasoning disconnects us from the natural world.
“Man is characterised by the break with the immediate and the natural that the intellectual, rational side of his nature demands of him. “In this sphere he is not, by nature, what he should be” – and hence he needs Bildung. p11 (Gadamer is quoting from Hegel here.)
When moving through the discussion of sensus communis we see this theme of “immediate contact and intuition” continue in man’s attempt to comprehend the divine mystery of life – “the presence of God integrates diversity into unity” and it this “communal sense” which is able to distinguish all living things from dead. Gadamer mentions Oetinger’s reference to the polyp and starfish which “though cut up into small pieces, regenerate themselves and form new individuals.” p25
The discussion on taste begins in part one but continues through to the second part, whereby Gadamer explores Kant’s Critique of Judgement to a level of analysis that again was lost on me. What was not lost on me though in this discussion was the way in which the way in which mankind has conceived of the notions of taste, judgement, aesthetics, beauty, morality, genius, symbols and allegory have changed many times over the last few centuries. This is a fascinating discussion to those of you who like me are interested in mental models, and also the relationship between our mental models and our conception of science. We can not simply review the scientific achievements of the past using the same concepts and mental models of today. In order to truly understand the science of an era we have to work hard, almost impossibly so, to understand the true meanings of the world views and the shifting notions of these concepts.
What became clear to me was the profound discussions in German classicism based around the difference or otherwise of the comprehension of beauty in nature compared to the comprehension of beauty in art. Here we find a wonderful quote from Hegel who suggests that both natural and human objects can express moral ideas in artistic presentation.
The nature of all art, is that it “presents man with himself.” p43
I think one of the most frustrating parts for me was reading the sections on aesthetic consciousness. I was conscious of the fact that I was reading intellectually, and I absolutely know that I have not fully grasped this notion by experiencing it. It is that terrible half-way situation where you understand what you don’t understand. I would love to know which teacher could guide me into the experiencing of aesthetic experience, since I am sure that herein may lie the key to unlocking what follows in the book.
Gadamer also discusses aesthetic vision:
Aesthetic vision is certainly characterised by not hurrying to relate what one sees to a universal, the known significance ,the intended purpose etc., but by dwelling on it as something aesthetic. p78
Gadamer builds on the theme of which I always talk about, and this is the notion that there is no such thing as pure perception:
Lingering vision and assimilation is not a simple perception of what is there, but is itself understanding-as. Only if we “recognise” what is represented are we able to “read” a picture; in fact that is what ultimately makes it a picture. Seeing means articulating. p79
Pure seeing and pure hearing are dogmatic abstractions that artificially reduce phenomena. Perception always includes meaning. p80
And so it is that we end up where we started, which is at the end of Chapter One. I assume what will follow is an exploration of how it can be that we do reach an understanding of the meaning in a work of art. I do not know if this has been rambling for you. But I have said this before, I often blog purely for myself in an effort to understand the level of understanding I have reached, and it has been very useful to go back through this chapter and see what stood out for me.
I feel I have not done it justice, and although I may not have understood the concepts such as Erlebniskunst experientially, it was quite amazing to see the breath and depth of ever changing thought which often remain hidden or as an obscured backdrop to the ever dominant natural sciences with their focus on discoveries and achievements. I know it is not just me who struggles. One reviewer of Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays on Amazon said that it took him five times the meaning of the concept of Enframing so it is not just me.
The translator Donald Marshall says in his introduction that while noting the challenges especially for the American reader, Truth and Method is “powerful and exciting.” Absolutely it is and although I may not be grasping the concepts which translation into English makes even harder to comprehend, you are gaining a crystal clear and diamond sharp insight into one of the greatest philosophical minds of the last century. I have a feeling of what I want to say the relevance will be to me in later articles about Gadamer, and this relates to our relationships in a technological world and the search for meaning of what it means to be human.
Alan Moore runs an amazing series of workshops he calls Transformation Laboratories. In this he facilitates the development from a linear world into the non-linear, but it is not technology just for the sake of new technology. Maybe this is a cultural trend, but rather than just blindly search for meaning, first we must learn what meaning is, how it can be comprehended, and for this we can look to Gadamer.