History, Tradition, and Understanding in Gadamer’s Truth and Method

Solomon Wiener, Columbia University

In his Truth and Method, Hans-Georg Gadamer develops his account of hermeneutics in contrast with two competing theories. These approaches posit that a text has a fixed, original meaning, and they attempt to establish objective interpretive methods in discerning the original meaning of a text. For Gadamer, however, an interpreter must recognize that human understanding is always affected by their historical circumstances, a fact which undercuts any aspiration for objective interpretation. In place of this aspiration for objectivity, Gadamer insists that the reader acknowledge the effect of their historical situation on their understanding. The interpreter must recognize the bounds of their limited viewpoint—their “horizon,” in Gadamer’s idiom—to be receptive to the distant horizon of the text. Understanding on Gadamer’s account represents the fusion of two horizons, as the reader incorporates the past horizon of the text into their own horizon to produce a new meaning common to both. Gadamer’s hermeneutics is not the exact determination of an original meaning, but a negotiation between present reader and past text that elicits a new meaning from the fusion of two horizons.

Gadamer distinguishes his account of hermeneutics from two opposing theories. The first is Friedrich Schleiermacher’s “romantic hermeneutics,” which interprets a text by attempting to discern the original intention of its author.[2] The second approach that Gadamer challenges is the historical objectivism of Wilhelm Dilthey, which claimed that one could reconstruct the objective meaning of a text in its original historical setting by drawing on objective methods (e.g. philology, archaeology, and Assyriology).[3] The approaches of both Schleiermacher and Dilthey call for the reader to disregard their subjective interest in the text, and use objective methods to discern what they believe to be the text’s original meaning. Although Schleiermacher prioritizes the intention of the author as the arbiter of meaning, while Dilthey privileges the author’s historical world, both these approaches posit that the meaning of a text at its initial moment of production is its objective meaning that persists for all time.

Gadamer has two principal objections to these competing accounts of hermeneutics. First, Gadamer argues that no method of interpretation can enable a reader to view a text from a neutral standpoint. The method that Dilthey believed to be objective did not arise from a historical vacuum, but is the result of myriad historical developments that influence what a reader looks for and finds valuable in a text.[4][5] In Gadamer’s view, “the particular research questions” that guide inquiry into historical texts are always “motivated in a special way by the present and its interests.”[6] The method of historical objectivism is thus influenced by the very history it claims to stand outside. Second, in contrast to Schleiermacher and Dilthey, Gadamer does not believe that a text retains an identical meaning over time. Rather, since interpretation is always guided by present interests, the meaning of a text “is always co-determined also by the historical situation of the interpreter.”[7] Since human interests are always in flux, the meanings of texts change constantly as well.[8] Thus, in Gadamer’s view, “[History] determines in advance both what seems to us worth inquiring about and what will appear as an object of investigation.”[9] Both methods and texts are products of the shifting interests of human history that change with every generation.

Gadamer refers to the process by which interests in a text change over time as “history of effect,” or effective history.[10] According to Gadamer, it is effective history that conditions both the nature of the text and the reader’s understanding of that text. Gadamer therefore argues against Schleiermacher and Dilthey that the reader cannot disregard their personal interest in a text when attempting to discern its meaning. For the reader’s present interest in the text represents the latest iteration of the text’s effective history from the time of its production. On Gadamer’s account, the reader must acquire consciousness of the effective history of a text precisely by recognizing their interests in interpretation.[11]

Gadamer outlines how the reader can acquire such a consciousness on their way to understanding a historical text. For Gadamer, every reader is situated in a unique position in a text’s history of effect. This position grants them “a standpoint that limits the possibility of vision,” a perspective that influences what the reader will look for and find valuable when interpreting a text.[12] Gadamer refers to the limited view that one possesses due to their historical standpoint as a “horizon.”[13] It is only through this horizon—provided to the reader by effective history—that an individual can understand a text. For according to Gadamer, the reader’s horizon produced by effective history lends them a gateway into the horizon of the text, the originator of that effective history.[14] The task of Gadamer’s reader is to find a point of overlap between their own horizon and that of the text—to engender what Gadamer calls a “fusion of horizons.”[15] The production of this fusion, Gadamer concludes, is the achievement of “historically effected consciousness.”[16]

Gadamer compares his account of interpretation to what takes place in live conversation.[17] In conversation, one does not simply evaluate the statements of their interlocutor,  but tries to establish a common background—a merging of horizons—with their partner such that their statements can even be intelligible.[18] For example, a patient might approach a doctor and complain of arthritis in their thigh.[19] Based on a superficial evaluation of the patient’s statement, the doctor would conclude that the patient is delusional, for the doctor knows that arthritis does not exist in the thigh. However, upon further inquiry, the doctor realizes that what the patient means by “arthritis in the thigh,” is a sharp recurring pain in their upper leg, reminiscent of the pain that their arthritic grandfather complains of in his hand. The doctor does not dismiss the patient’s initial statement at face value, but recognizes that the doctor’s notion of arthritis might not adequately describe the condition of the patient, and presses further into the horizon of the patient to identify the concern that motivates the patient’s complaint. By considering how the patient might be correct in describing their pain, the doctor discovers that the patient was not in fact delusional, but voiced a deep concern rooted in their biography that the doctor is equipped to fix.

Likewise, before a reader can evaluate the content of a historical text, they must first familiarize themselves with the horizon of the text such that its content is intelligible. If upon reading a text, the interpreter finds something nonsensical, surprising, or abhorrent, to their modern sensibilities, they must first transpose themselves into the horizon of a text before conferring a final judgment upon it.[20] Like the doctor who understands the patient by considering how the patient’s medical falsehood might express a legitimate and remediable need, the reader must ponder how the text at hand might behold some truth that relates to the reader, despite its apparent incommensurability with their present horizon. To even render a text intelligible, the reader must consider how a historical text might be true by considering the text in the best possible light, and probing deeper into its horizon. Only then can a fusion of horizons take place.

Gadamer’s insistence on the merging of two horizons seems to imply that the reader and the text each possess a distinct horizon. Yet the point of overlap between the horizons of reader and text attests that neither horizon was closed to begin with. Gadamer thus avers that a horizon is not a stable entity, but constantly expands as time progresses.[21] In Gadamer’s view, there is “one great horizon” that stretches across history and encompasses all of human life.[22] This single horizon relates the objects of the past to the contemporary world of the reader as “heritage and tradition.”[23] Thus, although the doctor and patient experienced initial difficulty in communication, they are united by the tradition of medicine in which an ailing individual seeks the advice of a trained physician. This tradition tells the patient to seek the expertise of a doctor, and it is likewise what informs the doctor that patients (for the most part) do not come to them with imaginary illnesses. Tradition is what motivates the doctor to identify the limit of their horizon and orient themselves towards the concern of the patient.

Although Gadamer argues that there is only one historical horizon, he maintains the expression “fusion of horizons” because in historical understanding there is always a barrier to overcome—an ambiguous word, a strange practice, or an immoral command—before an interpretation can be established that brings the strangeness of the text into the familiar idiom of the interpreter.[24] Like the doctor, the reader must avoid assimilating the text according to the standards of the reader’s present understanding, depriving it of any relevance or claim to truth. One can imagine a Diltheyan doctor sending a patient home for complaining of arthritis in their thigh—a true absurdity in the horizon of the doctor—and dismissing the validity of the patient’s claim to be expressing deep concern for their pain. In contrast, Gadamer’s reader must dwell on the tension between their horizon and that of the text until they reach an interpretation that mitigates it, by seeing beyond their initial understanding to determine how the text’s concern can be applied to their world. By remaining sensitive to the limitation of their own horizon and considering the text in the best possible light, the reader can engender a fusion of horizons between their own and that of the text.

Gadamer champions a radical conception of understanding that departs from the conception at work in romantic hermeneutics and historical objectivism. These approaches aspire to objective interpretation by exhorting the reader to ignore the historical contingency of their understanding, and pursue the original meaning of a text. As Gadamer contends, however, when talking to an individual or reading a text, one does not evaluate the original utterance of the other. Rather, the two participants work together to reach a novel meaning that overlaps with but modifies each of their prior horizons. The reader’s horizon is expanded to encompass the unfamiliar expressions of the text, and the text is adapted to resonate with the world of the reader. By making use of historically effected consciousness to identify the limits of their understanding, the reader can effect a fusion of horizons that enables understanding across temporal distance.

Bibliography

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. Trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York/London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. Print.

[1] Citations of Truth and Method will refer to the edition translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2013.

[2] TM, 307-308.

[3] TM, 303-304.

[4] For example, consider the various developments in religion, philosophy, the modern university and its departments, and more that even enabled something like philology to come into existence.

[5] TM, 311.

[6] TM, 296.

[7] TM, 307.

[8] This represents Gadamer’s decisive refutation of Schleiermacher: “Not just occasionally but always, the meaning of a text goes beyond its author” (TM, 307).

[9] TM, 311.

[10] TM, 311.

[11] TM, 312.

[12] TM, 313.

[13] TM, 313.

[14] TM, 313.

[15] TM, 317.

[16] TM, 317.

[17] TM, 314.

[18] “The specific contents of the conversation are only a means to get to know the horizon of the other person” (TM, 314).

[19] Gadamer does not bring this example verbatim, but he does mention that “certain kinds of conversation between doctor and patient” exemplify the historical understanding he has in mind (TM, 314).

[20] “If we fail to transpose ourselves into the historical horizon from which the traditionary text speaks, we will misunderstand the significance of what it has to say to us (TM, 313).

[21] TM, 315.

[22] TM, 315.

[23] TM, 315.

[24] “Every encounter with tradition that takes place within historical consciousness involves the experience of a tension between the text and the present” (TM, 317).