How Hans-Georg Gadamer 
offers openings to a
postmodern perspective

by Richard E. Palmer

Return to part A: Gadamer's critiques of modern thinking 
Skip to part C: Applying Gadamer's Philosophical Hermeneutics to the twelve world problems  
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B. Ways Gadamer moves beyond modernity


   Gadamer offers not only a critique of modernity but positive indications of ways to move “beyond modernity” (not his claim).  I will suggest twelve of these below.   Some of them already been touched on in discussing his critique of modernity, but for purposes of clarity I will explain each one briefly.  I limit myself to twelve because that is something of an ultimate number, not because there are no more items to discuss.  In my article, “What philosophical hermeneutics can offer rhetoric” of offered twenty items.  I showed it to Professor Gadamer before publication.  I was trying to dazzle the reader or at least strengthen my case by the sheer number of points, but Professor Gadamer advised me to boil them down to eight or ten at most by combining them.  This would be more effective rhetorically.  Unfortunately the manuscript was already going to press and it was too late to make such major changes.  With only twelve points below, I am moving in that direction, but I agree with him, my argument would be stronger, even here, with only six or eight points.

     I would propose for our purposes here to describe the following ways in which Gadamer moves beyond modernity:

1. Historicality (Geschichtlichkeit) 

2. a higher form of objectivity (hohere Sachlichkeit) 

3. phronesis ( practical wisdom) 

4. the importance of dialogein (dialoguing) 

5. the strategy of dialogue 

6. openness to the Other 

7. offers an ethics of openness to the Other 

8. moves beyond orientalism 

9. moves beyond demonization of the Other 

10. reinstates history, tradition, art, the relevance of ancient philosophy 

11. offers a philosophical antidote to terrorism 

12. offers an alternative to repression and dictatorship 

1. Historicality.  Historicity is foundational to philosophical hermeneutics.  It asserts that human events of understanding stand in a present moment that necessarily has both a past and future dimention—retention and protention.  Every understanding, every interpretation, stands at an existential moment in time and is temporally conditioned.  This means objective truth above and outside history does not exist.  Every understanding is situated in an existing subject with memories and expectations, with a tradition and line of questioning arising from tradition and interests and expectations.  Even scientific truth ages and is seen in a different light a hundred years after its discovery.  This realization helps us to shed the illusions of objectivity characteristic of modernity.  

2. Higher objectivity (hohere Sachlichkeit) object-guided-thinking.  Modern thinking tends to presuppose the “subject-object” schema.  I am an observing subject and I am observing an object.  My emotions, my presuppositions, come from my subjectivity.  To have objectively verifiable knowledge, I must bracket out my subjective feelings and expectations and try to be “totally objective.”  Gadamer finds that the starting point of the observer in this case is still centered in the observing subject, who sets up the conditions for objectivity, who questions the object with a view of gaining verifiable data.  Gadamer’s alternative is a “higher objectivity” in which one lets the text, the artwork, the speaker speak about something.  This something, the matter intended, the Sache, is neither the object being observed nor the subject who is observing but a third thing: “what is being conveyed,” the “meaning.”  One interrogates a text or artwork for something that is intended to be conveyed, its meaning, which is neither the work itself nor the observer’s subjectivity.  It is a “truth” that is being conveyed by the work or text.  One confirms that truth not by scientific criteria but by a sense of its truth, which leads one to say, “It is so.”  In a dialogue, it is not either dialogical partner but the matter being discussed, and the effort in a Platonic dialogue is to find the truth even if one’s opinion is proved to be wrong.   The object is not winning (as in a debate) but learning what “is the case.”  This is Gadamer’s alternative ideal of objectivity.  It does not deny that subjects are discussing something, and that they stand in traditions and in a language, and what they are discussing is conditioned by them, but what they are discussing will be true quite apart from their personal subjectivities.    

3. Phronesis.  The Greek concept of phronesis (practical wisdom) is not like mathematical knowledge but more like virtue (arete).  It is a sense of good judgment that is learned by experience.  It is a common sense that goes beyond the rigid objectivity of rules that could be memorized by an eager student.  One learns such wisdom in the “school of hard knocks,” of often bitter experience.  One learns not to rush into a business deal that looks wonderful, because one has been burned.  Or to risk all one’s marbles at once.  One learns to be suspicious of the testimony of an interested witness.  And so on.  Although this goes back to Aristotle it also goes beyond modernity in accrediting something that is not codifiable, verifiable knowledge but which is more valuable in certain situations, namely common sense.  

4. Emphasizes the importance of dialogue as a strategy for acquiring truth.  The process of understanding is a dialogical process of question and answer, and questions arise from expectations based in experience or tradition or habitual ways of seeing.  

5. Articulates the strategy of dialogue, shows how dialogue can take place.  The first rule is to seek common ground, and goal of the discussion is agreement in understanding about some matter—Einverständnis in der Sache.  The first rule of dialogue is not to assume that one already knows the whole truth about the matter and need only to persuade the other person to believe as you do about it.  Rather, one must entertain the possibility that the other person could be right!   One must love the truth more than winning and say to one’s partner, come let us reason together.  In debate one may even twist facts or omit evidence that damages your case, but in dialogue you are trying to find the truth of the matter not just win a point in an argument. Gadamer, following Plato, will even strengthen the argument of the other in order to test its truth.  He is never afraid to concede a point.

6. Emphasizes openness to the Other, including the nonWestern Other.  The rule that the other person might be right, and that one takes the reasoning of the other person seriously, are basic to Gadamer.  The possibility that one might be wrong, or might learn something new from a conversation, are not risks but gains, lucky breaks.  But one must be open to the Other.  A person entering into dialogue with a nonWestern other is better equipped by Gadamer’s approach to create a bridge of understanding and gain a grasp of the other person’s view.

7. Proposes an ethics of openness and dialogue - a “hermeneutical ethics.”  Taking the consequences of right dialogue, dialogue guided by a common quest for the truth of a matter, one step further, one can express this an obligation to the other, as an ethics.  It is an ethics of rightly understanding a topic or a situation and working to change it if it is wrong.  Thus, in the case of Düssel’s ethical hermeneutics, it becomes a basis for liberation theology.  In the hands of a sociologist, it becomes a guideline leading to insights unavailable to methodical inquiry according to preset questions.     

8. Moves beyond orientalism.  The respected literary theorist, Edward Said, has written a book titled Orientalism.   In it he studies the condescending attitude of Westerners colonizing the East, or simply opening it up for trade.  A professor of political science and international relations at Notre Dame, Fred Dallmayr, has taken Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics as a basis for moving beyond Western orientalism.  He titles his book of essays Beyond Orientalism: Essays on Cross-Cultural Encounter  (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1996), and he discusses Gadamerian hermeneutics throughout the book, not just in the chapter on the Gadamer-Derrida encounter.  Gadamer inspires the move beyond the “orientalism” characteristic of the mindset of modernity.

9. Moves beyond demonization of the Other.  Finally, in Gadamerian dialogue, one never demonizes the Other, as frequently happens in the modern mindset.  Rather, one seeks to understand the Other.   This is particularly important in the Ethical Hermeneutics  [title of a 1998 book by Michael Barber on Enrique Düssel (Fordham University Press)] as a characteristic of liberation theology.  Düssel combines Gadamer and Levinas to achieve an ethics of liberation from colonialism.  A study of the history of the colonization of the Americas, such as that offered by Todorov [The Conquest of the Americas ], reveals the frequent reduction of the Other to an object, an animal, even a demon, thus making him or her worthy of slaughter in order to be replaced by the representatives bringing in a superior Western culture.  Colonialism is another evil aspect of the “modern” mindset in which people all too easily become objects.  Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics gives us a philosophical basis in interpretation theory for moving beyond such demonization of the Other.  It is an ethics of respect for the Other as someone from whom one can learn.

10. Reinstates history, tradition, art, the relevance of ancient philosophy.  The consequence of much post-Enlightenment thinking is to regard science as the sole source of truth.  This relegates history and tradition to irrelevance.  Gadamer champions a view of interpretation that makes history and tradition an integral part of understanding.  History helps us understand why we see things as we do—rightly or wrongly.  Henry Ford once said, “History if bunk!”  He had no use for history.  What mattered was getting a car into every garage using the methods of mass production.  Enlightenment tended to take tradition as dogma, as something questionable from the outset and admissible only if scientifically verifiable or pragmatically useful.  The famous Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns advanced the view that modern knowledge makes ancient knowledge irrelevant.  Gadamer takes the view that much modern thinking is conceptually shallow and can benefit greatly by returning to the Greek roots of our insights and our language.  Their philosophical reflection was in many cases more subtle than the modern.  Ancient philosophy becomes relevant again.

11. Offers a philosophical antidote terrorism by not demonizing the terrorist but trying to understand his motives, his goals, his protests.  Gadamer starts by treating even the terrorist with respect, establishing a common ground, reasoning together.  Pretty soon the terrorist finds he is no longer blocked from being heard, no longer needs to blow up a train station to get the attention of people who are scorning and ignoring them.  Our only antidote to terrorism now is military suppression, often siding with repressive and dictatorial governments, harming innocent civilians and supporting the enemies of democracy.  We assume at the outset the correctness of our position and the terrible wrongness of the terrorist.  This is not to say this strategy will work in every situation, with every fascist group, or with every fundamentalist religious sect, but our treatment of the Branch Dravidians exemplifies the arrogance of modernity in dealing with diversity.  The procedures of police in type casting blacks and Hispanics represents another negative consequence of modern ways of thinking.  

12. Finally, philosophical hermeneutics offers an alternative to repression and dictatorship in the practice of openness and seeking common ground.  The cold war led the United States into truly shameful alliances in Chile, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, to mention the most egregious.  It led the U.S. into replacing the French colonial occupation of Vietnam with its own Catholic dictator, and eventually going into war costing 500,000 Vietnamese lives (and 50,000 American lives, plus many permanently disabled, and now maintained at great cost to the government in Veterans’ hospitals) to prop him up.  It would take a more complex analysis of the assumptions of national security, national arrogance, military defense, fear of diversity, mania for control, etc. that go with the modern mindset.  Suffice it to say, that an option for understanding the Other put forward by philosophical hermeneutics is not politically neutral but a step beyond the dead-end of modernity.  

But, you may ask, what about those world problems you brought up at the outset, portraying them as the evil consequences of modernity?  Aren’t you going to tell us how Gadamer’s philosophy might offer us help in dealing with them?   This is a tall order, since these are problems and situations of such magnitude as to escape all grasp of them today.  Still, one can suggest some ways in which an approach informed by dialogical openness to the Other might at least improve the situation.    Here is my very hesitant effort to apply what as philosophy resists any methodological application.  

Continue with part C: Applying Gadamer's Philosophical Hermeneutics to the twelve world problems  

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Date last modified: July 25, 2005