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

I come now to the final chapter of Gadamer’s Truth and Method. In this chapter he will come to explain his great quote that “Being that can be understood is language.” I assume by now that most of you will have seen my other articles in this series, but if not here they are starting with chapter one:

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: Elements of a Theory of Hermeneutic Experience

Before starting this chapter I thought I would mention one thing that horrifies my wife Maria. I like to use highlighter to pick out key quotes. I really help that this helps to organise my thoughts around what it was that I learned from a text, and what was it that really stood out. I think Maria feels that I am somehow vandalising a book, but for me I still very much need to really interact fully with a physical book, those that I am trying to comprehend, and I would never have been able to read Gadamer on my Kindle or iPad.

Page of Truth and Method

Another point I have to note is that I had set out to read Gadamer after only having read about his philosophy in the descriptions of Henri Bortoft, who both taught me Gadamer while at Schumacher College, and who provides extensive analysis of Gadamer’s hermeneutics and Truth and Method in Taking Appearance Seriously. I had never heard of Gadamer before my classes with Henri, and neither had I heard of Heidegger, and so it was that it was only when I went back and listened to Henri’s lectures which had been recorded for a second or third time did I manage to appreciate just how fundamental an appreciation of both of these philosophers Henri had.

Gadamer with Heidegger

Gadamer with Heidegger

Today I looked Gadamer up on Wikipedia, and I learnt that he had studied jointly with Heidegger. In this article the key point for me was that it would be Gadamer who was to develop “philosophical hermeneutics” which Heidegger had begun to contemplate but would not come to elaborate on. So not only do we have one of the greatest explanations of Heidegger;s work, we have in Gadamer a continuation of it, which is very much reflected in Gadamer’s extensive reference to the notion of Being. I really have to thank Henri for being such a lucid and articulate teacher of Heidegger’s notion of Being (Dasein) and it is definitely by reading Henri first that I have managed not only to reach the end of Truth and Method, but at least absorb and be quite emotionally turned over by it, a surprise for a work of philosophy.

One thing I still very much remember Henri saying was that he considered to Gadamer to be the world’s greatest authority on Plato. In Truth and Method, all the way through, Gadamer deftly weaves his verbal explorations around Plato and Aristotle too. I was thinking about in relation to the fact that Gadamer in this book is focussing on the philosophy, and does not provide a worked example of his application of hermeneutics to any one particular text. A case study if you will. But then I realised that the whole of Truth and Method is one of the greatest examples of applying the approach to these traditional texts, and in this context Gadamer’s intellect is just mind blowing.

Gadamer begins Chapter Five with a useful review of some of the main themes of the previous chapters, and arrives at the conclusion that “language is the universal medium in which understanding occurs. Understanding occurs in interpreting.” p390. It is actually interesting to me that Gadamer discusses the nature of translation of one language to another as I am learning Portuguese right now, and for Gadamer “understanding and interpretation ultimately are the same thing.”

Gadamer helped my understanding of historical consciousness further by relating it to the act of interpretation:

To think historically always involves mediating between those ideas and one’s own thinking. To try to escape from one’s own concepts in interpretation is not only impossible but manifestly absurd. To interpret means precisely to bring one’s own preconceptions into play so that the text’s meaning can be made to speak for us. p398

From this Gadamer moves onto familiar territory for me, having studied Henri’s work on wholeness, and the One and the many. Gadamer returns to this many times.:

To understand a text means to apply it to ourselves and to know that, even if it must always be understood in different ways, it is still the same text presenting itself to us in these different ways. p399

This is the same way in which Goethe understood the plant, in that there was One plant presenting itself in many different ways in the physical manifestations. Gadamer does mention Goethe explicitly much later on in his discussion of knowing the whole, showing how the thinking of Goethe, Schelling, Hegel and Schopenhauer could be traced back to Aristotle, in their attempt to complement the physics of their era with a more philosophical science.

Like the preceding chapter, chapter five is vast in both length and scope, and in this article I can barely scratch the surface of what lies within it, including an in-depth hermeneutical analysis of the history of language. It was quite a shock to discover for example that the ancient Greeks had no word for what we call language. I can only provide some glimpses of the highlights for me. Gadamer has a palpable distain for technical terms

Using a word as a technical term is an act of violence against language p415

but he delights in his unverified discovery that one African language is said to have “two hundred different words for camel, according to the camel’s particular circumstances and relationships to the desert dwellers”. p434

Heidegger and Gadamer in the Black Forest

I know I have already said it, but it is an impossible task to summarise the detail of Gadamer’s lifelong work, which comes to it’s completion in what Gadamer calls the hermeneutical ontology. In some ways you really do need an in-depth understanding of Heidegger to understand Gadamer, but perhaps it works the other way around, and my planned studies of Heidegger will be more informed having read Gadamer first? I have tried to pick out these sections and put them into a single quote to capture the flavour of what Gadamer is expressing in examining the ontology of language:

It must be emphasised that language has its true being only in dialogue, in coming to an understanding. Coming to an understanding as such, rather, does not need any tools, in the proper sense of the word. It is a life process in which a community of life is lived out. Human language must be thought of as a special and unique life process since, in linguistic communication, “world” is disclosed. All kinds of human community are kinds of linguistic community. p443

Perhaps Gadamer can be summarised in his won words:

In language the world presents itself. p448 It is from language as a medium that our whole experience of the world, and especially hermeneutical experience, unfolds. p453 Language is a medium where I and world meet, or rather, manifest their original belonging together. p469 Being that can be understood is language. The hermeneutical phenomenon here projects its own universality back onto the ontological constitution of what is understood, determining it in a universal sense as language and determining its own relation to beings as interpretation. That which can be understood is language. This means that it is of such a nature that of itself it offers itself to be understood. p470

In much of this chapter Gadamer is concerned in the claim of science to offer a complete understanding of reality. “Using scientific methods does not guarantee truth.” p484 It is the discipline of “questioning and inquiring, a discipline that guarantees truth.” This is a remarkable ending to one of the most remarkable works I have ever read. I can’t say that I agree with all that I read, since this would be fraudulent due to me not understanding a considerable chunk. However, it has been an exhilarating read nonetheless, and I barely looked at the extensive notes which end each chapter.

This new edition contains a couple of additional essays as well as the appendices and afterword, so I will close this exploration of Gadamer in a final article once I have read them and contemplated the real movement of thinking and understanding I received from this undertaking of mine. My brain is, well and truly, blown.

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: Elements of a Theory of Hermeneutic Experience

Exploring Gadamer’s Truth and Method – Final Reflections

2 responses to “Exploring Gadamer’s Truth and Method – Language as the Medium of the Hermeneutic Experience

  1. Pingback: Transition Consciousness·

  2. Exploring Gadamers Truth and Method – Language as the Medium of the Hermeneutic Experience | Transition Consciousness really confirmed your
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