And so it is with a little emotion that I conclude my series of articles exploring Gadamer’s Truth and Method. It has been a remarkable few weeks for me reading what is considered to be one of the most important philosophical works of the twentieth century, and in this article I will attempt to reflect on what insights I have gained. I am very consciouses of my teacher Stephan Harding’s observation on writing essays that if you can not put someone else’s work into your own words then you have not fully understood it. I make no claims at all as to what percentage of Gadamer I have understood, but the value has been immense and so here I will reflect on this.
A few nights ago I woke up with the phrase “to see well is an act of humility” in my mind, and I managed to write it down before I forgot. On reflecting, it summarises well exactly what I have been exploring these last two or three years. Sometimes we can be so stuck in our own egos, that we are, quite literally, unable to see what is right in front of us. What we sometimes see is a projection of our fears, our assumptions, and our limited world view, thus not being able to see the thing, or person, for what or who they truly are.
In business, I often hear the complaint that those at the top of the organisation simply do not understand what their people are telling them. In other circumstances, there is simply a lack of any effort made at all to get to know staff, and therefore perhaps many many potentially amazing contributions are missed or dismissed because of the ego of those who are leaders.
In another recent video I recorded for Sustentare Business School in Brazil, I spoke of the fact that although we are supposedly living in a knowledge economy, and although “big data” appears to be one of the latest mega trends in business, very few organisations are doing anything to develop thinking in their members. The development of thinking it seems to me is one of the greatest sources not only of competitive advantage, but also in the ability to understand what it takes to develop a sustainable and resilient organisation. In studying Gadamer, one of the greatest philosophers of philosophical hermeneutics, we can begin to develop what her calls hermeneutic consciousness, a finely tuned consciousness which can go far beyond superficial appearances of people and things, and penetrate the very essence, meaning and appearance (coming-into-being, the appearing) of that which requires understanding.
My whole motivation for reading Gadamer in the first place came via Henri Bortoft, one of my teachers at Schumacher College. I know that he will by now require little introduction for the majority of my readers of my blog, but just in case you are not aware of Henri’s work, he wrote The Wholeness of Nature – Goethe’s Way of Science (1996) and Taking Appearance Seriously – The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought (2012) which was published sadly just a few months before his long term illness finally took him away from us.
In this work Henri expanded on his previous work on Goethe by demonstrating how the same movement of thinking into a dynamic way of seeing was also that expressed in the work of the phenomenology of Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty and also in the hermeneutics of Gadamer. It is probably worth spending a moment reflecting on Goethe’s way of understanding the dynamic processes of a plant, before looking at how this way of seeing relates to the way in which Gadamer understands a text.
In the picture above, we see four different wild peonies. Botanists can not agree on the exact number of species of peony, said to range between 25 and 40. Henri once said that he was watching the Chelsea Flower Show on television when the presenter mentioned the many thousands of varieties. However, to a person such as Henri who sees plants dynamically, this is just one way to comprehend the plant. Another way is to understand the all of these varieties are in fact just One plant being itself differently.
We can’t see this One plant physically, we can only comprehend it within our intuition, and in order to gain this intuition, we have to stop focussing on the various physical plants, but instead go “upstream” as Henri described it into the coming-into-being of the plant. Organic systems are not like physical systems in that we have to learn to see the One plant manifesting itself in the physical varieties. The different varieties of plants are often a result of being in different physical terrains. In this instance, it is not the terrain which is the sole cause of the different variety, it is more a case of the One plant entering into a form of dynamic conversation with the environment.
We can see this dynamic way of seeing in Plato’s Parmenides:
The one itself, then, having been broken up into parts by being, is many and infinite?
Then not only the one which has being is many, but the one itself distributed by being, must also be many?
Further, inasmuch as the parts are parts of a whole, the one, as a whole, will be limited; for are not the parts contained by the whole?
And that which contains, is a limit?
Then the one if it has being is one and many, whole and parts, having limits and yet unlimited in number?
In reading Gadamer, it is clear to me just what we may have lost in terms of the West’s near monopolistic focus on British and American empiricism. We have lost the ability to think organically, dynamically, and this loss has resulted in a loss of vision, a loss in our ability to comprehend dynamic systems fully.
Language is so fundamental to us as humans, and what being human means, that I think unless we really meditate on it, we fail to realise the dynamic role it is playing on our views of reality, our mental models. In deciding to read Gadamer, I wanted to learn more about his methods for helping me develop a deeper appreciation of meaning, but there were many aspects of Gadamer I was not aware of before reading him, having only read brief extracts of his work in Taking Appearance Seriously, so I should take a brief step back and explain the book in a little more detail, detail which was lost on me before my quest to complete it.
Truth and Method was completed in 1959. The edition I have been reading is a relatively new translation from German into English by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (2004) Continuum Publishing. Even then Gadamer writes in the afterword to this edition that he worried that his work had come too late, due to the global acceptance of “Anglo-American methods and modes of inquiry.” These modes of enquiry, with a focus on controllable procedure, isolation of the causes of events and falsifiability, while being legitimate, for Gadamer have limits, especially when expanding into the social sciences. The social sciences will only really be able to progress when they acknowledge these limits. In fact for Gadamer, no matter how exact the quantitative measurements of scientific experiments are, the experiment “only achieves a legitimacy through the context of the research. Thus all science involves a hermeneutic component.” p563
Truth and Method is much more about truth than method, as I only discovered by reading it. In fact, Hermeneutics is not a method at all:
What distinguishes the process of refining hermeneutic practice from acquiring a mere technique, whether it is called social technology or critical method, is that in hermeneutics history co-determines the consciousness of the person who understands. Therein lies an essential reversal: what is understood always develops a certain power of convincing that helps form new convictions.
What one understands always speaks for itself as well. On this depends the whole richness of the hermeneutic universe, which includes everything intelligible. Since it brings this whole breadth into play, it forces the interpreter to play with his own prejudices at stake. These are the winnings of reflection that accrue from practice, and practice alone. p570
At this point I am not too sure how longer I should proceed with these musings. Gadamer’s mission in life is to understand historical texts, and his notion of the text is far more than just the meaning that the author had in mind. Hermeneutics is not just about reaching into the mind of the author, since the whole meaning of a text is far greater. Hence for Gadamer we can see the same movement of thinking of Goethe and plants. The meaning of a text comes to presence through the words, but the meaning is far greater than the sum total of all the words, just as the One plant is in some way more than just all the plants which grow. The really comprehend meaning, we have to be humble, although we do not have to lose our prejudices, since these are not seen as always a negative thing.
Gadamer uses the terms historical consciousness and hermeneutical consciousness and for me I am unable to separate them, they seem to be referring to the same thing. Gadamer is concerned about how we can access meanings from the past, from texts which were written in specific traditions, but for me I worry about how I can comprehend the meaning of those around me in the here and now. Moving to Brazil has brought out many situations where it is crystal clear the different realities of my own life, upbringing and experiences, and those here in Brazil, of which there are too of course many people from many social classes and backgrounds.
In my line of work, I am often asked about teamwork, dialogue, complex processes and creative thinking. I do talk about hermeneutics and phenomenology, but ultimately, these can not be taught. Just as I wrote in my first article, a hermeneutical consciousness is a delicate thing that has to be nurtured over time. It is not a consciousness stuck in rigid methodology, but one rich in questioning, without ego which can blind us to the contexts and assumptions which can limit our ability to see a phenomena whole, as it really is.
Gadamer ends Truth and Method with this final thought:
But I will stop here. The ongoing dialogue permits no final conclusion. It would be a poor hermeneuticist who thought he could have, or had to have, the last word.
That is excellent advice for me. There are many things which Gadamer inspired in me, but I shall not feel anxious by not having written them all. I am grateful to the many comments on this series, and I am so glad that it has been of some interest to a few of you who visit my blog. Gadamer;s is astounding, and the translation of the highest quality. I can not recommend this book enough, although it may be worth first reading Taking Appearance Seriously or another introductory work to really appreciate his movement in thinking.
What can I say? Wow!