How Hans-Georg Gadamer 
offers openings to a
postmodern perspective

by Richard E. Palmer


Return to part A: Gadamer's critiques of modern thinking 
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to part B: Ways Gadamer moves beyond modernity
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C. Applying Gadamer's Philosophical Hermeneutics to the Twelve World Problems

            First, it would be arrogant to see Gadamer’s philosophy as holding the solution to all the world’s problems.  But his critique of modernity points to some of the underlying assumptions that have led to these problems, and his emphasis on dialogue and human solidarity points to a way beyond the destructive attitudes of modernity.  We will address some specific remarks to each of the twelve problems.   

1. Pollution - of the air, the water, the soil.  For Gadamer all of these problems are the consequence of the compartmentalized thinking of the modern era, along with the assumption that the earth is ours to exploit as we please without regard to for the future, for our children, for the earth itself.  We must reassume our historical responsibility for our children’s future by protecting their heritage.  The reckless anarchy of the exploitation of the earth must be replaced by responsible dialogue among the exploiters, and among the governments of the earth.  At present, we have a gathering of the Big 7 or 8 on how to manage the world to their own advantage.  Such a dialogue, however, brings up questions of justice and fairness in the allocation of the resources of the earth.  A new protocol must be worked out whereby the universal declaration of human rights is more than a pious wish-list that is lost in the scramble of big corporations to exploit the resources of the earth.  Here, Gadamer’s insight into the structure of dialogue can help address these problems.

2. Natural resources running out, or being degraded.  The oil, the water, the old growth forests, are all limited resources.  They must be conserved for the most important future uses.  Oil is necessary for the operation of all sorts of machinery, yet it is not being conserved but recklessly pumped out of the earth and sold to the highest bidder.  Drinkable water, too, is increasing rare; indeed, it is sold in stores for the same price of colas.  But underground water is needed for crops, and the underwater reserves are running out.  Here, national and international management are required.  The ozone layer becoming depleted, whole species dying, while we argue over whether this is really a problem.  The key word in later Gadamer is solidarity, the solidarities that hold humankind together in many nations.  Again, all peoples have an interest in the wise management of the earth’s resources and again we must make international laws that restrain the anarchy of 400 sovereign nations each subject to the unbridled abuse by large corporations.  They must unite to say NO to reckless, anarchic exploitation of resources about to run out.   

3. Population growth outstripping resources worldwide.   Here, two different problems come together: population growth and the finitude of resources.  Gadamer’s philosophical reflections cannot slow the growth of population or increase our resources.  What they do, however, is issue a plea for rationality and lay down the conditions for meaningful dialogue.  The present situation is irrational, anarchic, and in the grip of powerful corporate and military structures.  More importantly, it is in the grip of modes of thinking that see their solutions only by means of them.  It is the mindset of modernity that needs to be addressed, criticized, and revised.    

4. Unequal distribution of financial resources. Global poverty and hunger are increasing each year instead of decreasing.  The agricultural land of the earth is owned by fewer and fewer people.  Much of what is left in the hands of small farmers is being bought up by international agribusinesses—by multinational corporations distant from land but close to big money.   In part, admittedly, the problems of the world are a function to increasing population and decreasing resources, but we must see that the global expansion of large aggregations of capital is also a factor. This is allowed by a modern thinking that gives permission to international anarchy, that does not demand justice and human rights in the allocation of land, does not demand ecological practices in the use of agricultural resources.  Again, the nations of the world (and not just corrupt governments controlled by the military industrial complex) must grasp their solidarities, their common interest in controlling the consolidation of capital into larger and larger politically powerful units.  

5. The overwhelming power of multinational corporations over governments.  Here, we go beyond agribusiness to other giant corporations—the big oil, the pharmaceutical companies, the media conglomerates, the insurance companies, including medical insurance—that have more influence on government policies than the poor or even the general population.  Government policies seem more oriented to maintaining the economy than in the economic and physical well-being of their populations.   Again, Gadamer does not have a method for bringing down the power of Grosskapital.  What he does offer is a critique of the modern assumptions that make them possible.  We don’t just need power; we need reflection, critique, coming together as we share a common fate on this earth.  For the “fate of the earth” is not just a matter of nuclear weapons, but of the management of the earth as our home in such a way as to promote the maximum well being of all its inhabitants now and in the future.       

6. Nuclear weapons; the imminent danger of worldwide catastrophe.  It seems that the danger posed by an arsenal of 50,000 missiles in Russian and America is less today than 15 or 20 years ago when Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth saw catastrophe on the horizon and a real possibility of giving the earth back to the insects and grasses.  The cold war between Russia and the U.S. has thawed, but the proliferation of weapons goes on, and the growing masses of nuclear waste.  Why?  Because the military ways of thinking go on, the national security imperative still drives small countries to spend most of their small budget on weapons instead of social programs.  We need to outgrow the dangerous and costly structures of thinking that are our legacy from modernity.  Instead of endless debates, we need dialogue and negotiations—not just in Ireland, Russia, East Timor, Pakistan, the Balkans, the Middle East—but in the United Nations about the natural resources, power concentrations, poverty, human rights of the populations of the world.  The right of sovereign states must be further limited when it comes to human rights and the management of its resources.  The rest of the world must have a say in such matters.  Nuclear weapons do not risk just the populations of the nations that build them but everybody else.  They must be internationally controlled for the good of humanity.  

7. Military means and thinking as a way of resolving political problems.  War is a means of accomplishing political objectives when negotiations break down.  Within a country military repression is a mark of a country not solving its problems by other means, of fear of rebellion.  The situation in Colombia is an example: The farmers grow marihuana because it is a more profitable crop, as is tobacco in the U.S.  Earlier, it was even government subsidized.  Instead of dealing with the problems that lead to the large-scale consumption of drugs that raises the price, the U.S. government tries to stem the flow of drugs into the U.S.  And it is filling its prisons with drug offenders who are no particular danger to society except perhaps when driving a car or carrying a gun.  Gadamer’s modest contribution to this gigantic problem is to ask us to interrogate the modern thinking that resorts to force and incarceration instead of confronting the social inequities that encourage the resort to drugs.  

 8. Genocides in Africa, Indo-China, Tibet, Europe, North America.  Again, the modern structures of domination and force lead inevitably to genocide.  

 9. Racism, sexism, hatred of homosexuals, anti-Semitism.  Hatred is generally a product of fear.  Communication, negotiation, closer acquaintance, clearer thinking, break down fear.  Again, the structure of dialogue so emphasized by Gadamer can help to break down the climate of fear.  

10. Rising expectations in third world countries and in the U.S. as television brings the American/European standards of living into the dwellings of peoples living on the very margins of existence.  This raises questions of justice and unmet social needs in many parts of the world.  Liberation theology, in particular, concerns itself with these problems.  Enrique Düssel uses Gadamer’s hermeneutics in combination with conceptions of the Other from Levinas to show that the view of the Other in modernity lead to the unjust situations in the Americas.  His book, Ethical Hermeneutics. dedicates itself to seeking a way out of these problems.  Philosophical hermeneutics, with its analysis of how meaningful dialogue comes about, helps to deal with the situation.  With insight and common desire for justice, means could be sought to remedying the inequities involved in this situation.  Again, dialogue and solidarity are the keys to the resolution of problems of injustice.    

11. Fundamentalism and narrowness, exclusivism, particularism, terrorism.   These are major problems today, but how are we dealing with them?   Fear, avoidance, military repression.  Admittedly, it is hard to deal with religious fundamentalism with Gadamerian hermeneutics, but Gadamer is able to enter into dialogue with anyone who is willing to speak!  He looks for common ground and sees whether a basis for working together instead of against would be possible, say, on the world problems we face.  Secondly, he looks at the presuppositions of fundamentalism and asks where they come from.  In some cases, fundamentalism is a rebellion against modernity; in this case they might even find common ground.  Also, fundamentalism thrives on poverty, discrimination, and lack of education, so indirect approaches to alleviate these could serve in the long run to reduce the incidence of fundamentalism.  Gadamer’s thinking breaks down barriers and enters into dialogue even with those claiming exclusive and particular favor from God, for instance.  His appeal is always to reason and reaching an accommodation with respect for the Other and his/her/their claims, which are not necessarily religious matters but retreat from the world and fear of being manipulated.  

12. Ethnic groups clinging to land, to resources, to sacred space, e.g., the struggle of Jews and Palestinians over Jerusalem.  The problem of the Israelis and Palestinians seems insoluble.  The Israelis were without homeland for 2000 years, whereas for the Palestinians it was only 50 years.  Here is a case where the United Nations mandate of 1948 solved one problem but created another.  It put the Palestinian people into camps on the border of land they formerly possessed.  Again, the modern concept of sovereignty and sovereign rights over East Jerusalem is the key issue.  One solution to this problem would be to revise the requirement each has of sovereignty, the presupposition of both sides, each claiming it, and instead to create a sacred space where neither side claims sovereignty.  Again, the need is for Israelis and Palestinians to leap beyond a modern concept of sovereignty to something new.   Also, in negotiations, when each side has more to gain by reaching a settlement than by holding out for a better deal, then progress can be made.  It would seem, however, that when it comes to the sacred space we come to something non-negotiable.  But it would seem that “shared” sovereignty might be possible.  Here, again, some new structure that goes beyond the concept of competing claims for territorial sovereignty is needed.

 Long Conclusion

            Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics is neither a clever method that will solve every problem nor is it a program with a specific political/ ideological content.  Rather, as philosophy, it looks at assumptions and presuppositions.  It looks for other ways to think about a problem and resources for thinking differently.  He does make us aware of limits of certain modern assumptions at the root of our thinking and our problems.  Gadamer’s contribution supplements rather than excludes that of other thinkers.  Philosophical hermeneutics basically harmonizes with other postmodern thinkers—but they still need Gadamer!  No single thinker has the answer.  One can certainly profit by turning to the writings of Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Adorno, Habermas, Düssel and Ken Wilber, among the many thinkers trying to move beyond the constricting thought forms of modernity.  But Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics also offers resources for this passage, this voyage, to a new, better era, and era of more tolerant, cooperative, peaceful thought forms.  For this task, we need to have a critical understanding of the limits of modern structures and in addition the means of moving beyond them.  I believe Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics is, and will continue to be, relevant to both of these needs.

Shorter Conclusion

            I have tried to show that the philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer offers openings for a postmodern philosophy.  It does this not only through its critiques of certain modes of thinking in modernity, but also through proposing alternative ways of dealing with problems.  I have argued that even in reference to twelve global problems we face today, Gadamer has something to offer, either in the way of critique or alternative conceptual tools.  Although Gadamer did not use this term in reference to his philosophy, perhaps because of its identification with certain contemporary French philosophers, if we use the term to apply to the general effort to criticize and overcome the side-effects of modern thinking, he qualifies.  


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Date last modified: July 25, 2005