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

Before I launch in to my meditations on the 100-page chapter four of Gadamer’s Truth and Method, I first wanted to publicly thank Professor Donald Marshall, one of the translators of the second edition of Truth and Method, for taking the time to write to me in response to my email to both him and Joel Weinsheimer saying how much I was enjoying their work. In the past the work of German and French phenomenological and hermeneutical philosophers have suffered from poorly translated English editions, but I have to say that I am finding this edition of Truth and Method absolutely compelling.

Professor Donald Marshall

Professor Donald Marshall

Professor Marshall wrote to me telling me that in fact Gadamer did come to visit his university in Iowa City to deliver a series of lectures which must have been enthralling. It was around this time that Donald met Joel Weinsheimer, and they discovered that they had a shared interest in Gadamer. By chance, the first edition of Truth and Method had just sold out, and so the publisher was receptive to publishing a new translation.The one I am reading is the 2004 edition published by Continuum.

Gadamer Truth amd Method

If you have not already seen them, or are not aware, I am writing a chapter-by-chapter exploration of Gadamer, and the previous articles are here:

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

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

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

As you may have read, an attempt at reading Gadamer can be daunting, with many new concepts to take on board. Professor Marshall gave me a great deal of encouragement and a little more self-belief in what I am comprehending in Gadamer. What is clear to me is that I am not satisfied in knowing a concept intellectually, I really want to experience the meaning of the concept. Previously I think I had missed to what extent Gadamer is interested in our ability to understand texts from previous periods in history, and had introduced the term historical consciousness. Two related terms are tradition and historically effected consciousness of which I will be writing more in a short while. But Professor Marshall pointed out to me that in my attempt to comprehend the hermeneutics of Gadamer and apply this dynamical way of thinking in those areas of interest to me, namely organisational thinking, that I am in fact doing the philosophy as opposed to just studying the philosophy from an academic point of view. I am trying to absorb the radical movement in thinking which we may call hermeneutical consciousness, and then apply it.

Chapter four opens with an analysis of the hermeneutics of Heidegger. What is clear from these passages is the need to remain open to the meaning of a text. “A person trying to understand a text is prepared for it to tell him something.” This is one element of the sensitivity of hermeneutical consciousness. However, there is the problem of our own biases and prejudices. I use the term mental model a lot, although I have never sought to define it rigidly, but it certainly seems to fit well here. We have to be careful since “It is the tyranny of hidden prejudices that makes us deaf to what speaks to us in tradition.” p272

It is interesting that Gadamer spends much time exploring the history of the word prejudice and we discover that its negative connotations were only introduced during the Enlightenment. Before this period, prejudice meant “a judgement that is rendered before all the elements that determine a situation have been examined.” p273. So prejudice can be either positive or negative. Gadamer calls for a rehabilitation of the concept of prejudice and asks what are the grounds of the legitimacy of prejudice?

It is interesting to me that the notion of historical consciousness first formed in the eighteenth century and was developed further in the nineteenth century. Following on from my brief correspondence with Professor Marshall, I really tried to keep my focus on my developing notion of what this meant, and for Gadamer “historical consciousness is one that is aware of historical distance.” p290 For me I think this means that we have to be aware of the changing understandings of different concepts, and hence the effort undertaken in Part One of Truth and Method becomes rewarded here. Gadamer explains further:

Understanding is to be thought of less as a subjective act than as participating in an event of tradition, a process of transmission in which past and present are constantly mediated. p291

What is becoming clear to me is that the concept tradition refers to perhaps a school of thought, or era in which one particular worldview predominated. Gadamer warns us not to see hermeneutics as a method or a procedure, but maybe more an art.

I think it is worth repeating here Gadamer’s explanation of the hermeneutic principle:

The anticipation of meaning in which the whole is envisaged becomes actual understanding when the parts that are determined by the whole themselves also determine this whole…. The movement of understanding is constantly form the whole to the part and back to the whole. p291

Gadamer then shows us what the relation is of the hermeneutical circle to tradition:

The anticipation of meaning that governs our understanding of a text is not an act of subjectivity, but proceeds from the commonality that binds us to the tradition. But this commonality is constantly being formed in our relation to tradition. p293 The circle itself is not a “methodological” circle, but describes an element of the ontological structure of understanding. p295 [The work of hermeneutics] is not to develop a procedure of understanding, but to clarify the conditions in which understanding takes place. p295

There is something of immense important in these passages, and I am not too sure I have ability yet to articulate the intuitions that are developing inside of me as I read, as I am very much still exploring Gadamer. But I will talk a little about one example from business that may seek to clarify the benefits of making this shift in thinking, and not being a prisoner to methodology or procedure. My example comes from Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design of which I have already discussed in a previous article.

Waterfall and Spiral Software development

In his book Schell first discusses the waterfall process of software development, and points out the the very name waterfall has an implicit assumption that just as water does not flow backwards or uphill, neither does the process. It is a linear process, and therefore much liked by management. In real life, software development does not work this way, and an alternative way to conceptualise the process is as a spiral, with the various iterations of software. In being dominated by the need, or dependent reliance on a methodology, we lose the ability to make sense, or literally see what is happening. I can’t help but think that hermeneutics can potentially add a whole new layer of thinking in how we conceptualise and organise our work.

I would say my approach to my own freelance consulting work is quite intuitive, and I pretty much hide my philosophy behind what I am asked to deliver. If my proposals are greeted with delight, then that is what is important and not the underlying philosophical drivers, which can remain hard to articulate at the best of times. However, one person who is developing a phenomenological approach to business reorganisation, including government policy, innovation and venture investment is Gunther Sonnenfeld, who took as his inspiration Husserl’s principles of phenomenology to develop what he calls Story (Bio) Dynamics.

Credit: Gunther Sonnenfeld

Credit: Gunther Sonnenfeld

Storytelling is now becoming a buzz word in business, but just as I wrote previously about the overuse and ultimate death of the concept of design thinking, so we need hermeneutical consciousness to really be able to apply story telling to social and organisational change. As Sonnenfeld says:

Actions sparked by stories and emergent storytelling practices are the real drivers for social change, at a time in our history where operating context and critical thinking are greatly challenged, and are often deemed too complex to make important decisions in a timely manner. (Source: The Valuable Links Between Stories and Our Collective Actions)

I know that was a slight diversion from the text, but this is after all a meditation and not a review or an explanation of Gadamer. Gadamer himself explores further the notions of legal hermeneutics and theological hermeneutics, and I will skip over these to his discussion of the nature of the reader, the person reading a text.

The way the interpreter belongs to his text is like the point from which we are to view a picture belongs to its perspective. p325 All reading involves application, so that a person reading a text is himself part of the meaning he apprehends. He belongs to the text that he is reading. The line of meaning that the text manifests to him as he reads it always and necessarily breaks off in an open indeterminacy. He can, indeed must, accept the fact that future generations will understand differently what he has read in the text. p 335

These passages are important since they tie in with the chapter’s concluding observations about the nature of a question. In these passages Gadamer to me seems to want to draw out the need to move away from seeing the text as an object and the reader as a distinct subject, and to open up within us a sense of wholeness in understanding. So our experience is very much a part of this whole, but as Gadamer points out “the concept of experience seems to me one of the most obscure we have.” p341

In a couple of recent articles I have written about the developmental history of the smart phone and also the innovative approach to product design in BT’s Human Factors division. In these articles I talked about the concept of the customer experience, really attempting to examine a product or a service from the customer’s point of view, what they think of it and how they use these products in their actual lives. We never took a phenomenological approach and indeed, although I have a degree in Psychology from Nottingham University, I do not recall any analysis of either hermeneutics or phenomenology. I did though leave university with a deep seated feeling of dissatisfaction, perhaps having a sense of all that is human having been drained out of cognitive psychology. Gadamer here really comes alive for me, explaining that modern scientific method does not take into account “the inner historicity of experience.”

The reason this happens is that science follows a certain methodological procedure, the aim of which is to

Objectify experience so that it no longer contains any historical element. Experience is only valid if it is confirmed; hence its dignity depends on its being in principle repeatable. But this means that by its very nature, experience abolishes history and thus itself. p342

These words ring true for me. having read Gadamer so far, although I can not articulate historically affected consciousness, there is a movement whereby the interpreter is not trying to get inside the mind of the author, and nor is trying to distance himself from the text, but rather, achieves an expanded form of hermeneutical consciousness which is a blend of his or her own prejudices, and an openness to allowing the text to speak to them. This goes against the whole conception of experience and understanding as conceived by cognitive psychology.

Although Gadamer has said that the concept of experience is elusive, his treatment of what it is to him is a delight:

Experience is initially always experience of negation: something is not what it is supposed to be. p349

This then leads into a description of what an experienced person is:

“Being experienced” does not consist in the fact that someone already knows everything and knows better than anyone else. Rather, the experienced person proves to be, on the contrary, someone who is radically undogmatic; who, because of the many experiences he has had and the knowledge he has drawn from them, is particularly well equipped to have new experiences and to learn from them. p350 The truly experienced person is one who has taken this to heart, who knows that he is master neither of time nor the future. The experienced man knows that all foresight is limited and all plans uncertain. In him is realised the truth value of experience. p351

In his final section of this chapter, Gadamer analyses the concept of the question, and alerts us to the dangers of inauthentic questions and inauthentic dialogue, which occur when the person only wishes to prove himself or herself right. There is an art to asking the right kind of questions, questions which allow us to stay open to alternative answers, rather than us limiting our notions of what the answer may be. “Questioning opens up possibilities of meaning.” p368

Of course this sets us up for the next chapter which Gadamer provides a preview of, which will be an analysis of language:

What language is belongs among the most mysterious questions that man ponders. It seems to conceal its own being from us. p370 To reach an understanding in a dialogue is not merely a matter of putting oneself forward and successfully asserting one’s own point of view, but being transformed into a communion in which we do not remain what we were. p371

Although I may not be able to articulate fully yet the complete teachings containing within this chapter, if I were to describe the feeling, it is as if walls inside my intellect are being burned down, or melting as I read, as new vistas of understanding, still not fully in focus, open up to me. Here we have not only an incredibly articulation of the limitations of the human sciences, but a huge amount of guidance as to what we should be doing to design meaningful dialogue, including those which take place in our organisations.

Credit: Change the Exchange

Credit: Change the Exchange

There are many questions that Gadamer raises, and one quite glaring one to me is based around the reality of ego in businesses and organisations. Hermeneutical consciousness is an art, a disposition, a sensitivity to be developed and nurtured, and yet ego seems rampant in these fragmented and fractured times in which we live. I have said how sometimes reading Gadamer it feels as if many preconceptions about the nature of knowledge and consciousness and understanding dissolve inside of you, but this is a part of the path of transformation. “The benefit of the cup is in its emptiness” as Bruce Lee taught, and by this it means that if we are so full of our own certainty of what is, then we will never have the ability to enter into a discourse with another other, be it another person or text.

Another question I have relates to how the concept of historical consciousness can be applied not from the present to the past, but from one culture in the present to another. I am reminded a lot of the work David Bohm undertook on dialogue, and many Bohmian principles appear to be present in Gadamer’s hermeneutics. Chapter 5 of the book is Part three; The Ontological Shift of Hermeneutics Guided by Language. I can’t wait to get a chance to read it, and I thank all those of you who have been reading this series of articles and providing many helpful comments to me along the way.

Related Articles

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

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

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

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

Exploring Gadamer’s Truth and Method – Final Reflections

9 responses to “Exploring Gadamer’s Truth and Method: Elements of a Theory of Hermeneutic Experience

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