How Hans-Georg Gadamer 
offers openings to a
postmodern perspective

by Richard E. Palmer

Skip to part B: Ways Gadamer moves beyond modernity
Skip to part C: Applying Gadamer's Philosophical Hermeneutics to the twelve world problems   
Skip to Conclusion

A. Gadamer’s critiques of modern thinking

1. critique of objectivity as an idea  
2. critique of methods oriented to gaining objectively valid data    
3. critique of notions of truth in modernity   
4. critique of Enlightenment doctrines of endless progress through science which implies a critique of the limits of technology   
5. critique of desire to control in science, politics, economics  
6. critique of agonistic debate and violence   
7. critique of bigotry, fanaticism, and race hatred    
8. critique of the compartmentalization of knowledge   
9. critique of aestheticism in art, literature, music   
10. critique of "orientalism"   
11. critique of ethnic particularism   
12. critique of Habermas' enlightenment-based communication theory utopianism

Going into more detail on the twelve aspects, I would say like to deal with the first two together:  

1. Objectivity as an ideal and 2. methods oriented to gaining “objectively valid” data.   Most sciences take the production of “objective knowledge” as the goal of their methods.  Such knowledge will be confirmable and repeatable under most conditions.  It establishes “truth” about a given phenomenon, a truth that can be confirmed by repeating a given experiment.  Such knowledge is considered valuable because it gives its owner the ability to predict what will happen under the same circumstances and enables one to control nature for the perceived benefit of human life.  The success of such methods and the importance of such knowledge causes other researchers in other nonscientific fields to aspire to the same ideal of objectivity.

         One consequence of this ideal is to make other forms of knowledge less true and valuable.  For instance, historical knowledge becomes less valuable and incapable of being “true” or useful in the same way.  Encounters with art objects produce experiences which vary from person to person, so they cannot be a source of valid knowledge.  Political and social intuition and common sense, because they are not formulatable as rules or predictable have to be regarded as second class.  In the production of new knowledge through research, researchers gravitate  toward topics and questions that yield the kind of knowledge that is numerically quantifiable and repeatable.  It is at a premium because it can be verified by repeating the experiment.  Even the humanities and the social sciences, the appeal of quantifiable knowledge is strong in contrast to dealing with qualitative factors.  The result is a twisting, a distortion of knowledge in those nonscientific disciplines into forms of scientific knowledge. 

         Gadamer does not gainsay the benefits of scientific objectivity as a strategy for gaining reliable knowledge in the sciences, although even he would sound a note of caution. Even here we need a critical awareness of the limits of such knowledge and the consequences for us of absolutizing a single strategy for gaining knowledge and attaching such an exaggerated value attached to that knowledge that other forms are demeaned and even excluded.  For instance, the presupposition in medicine that the body is a machine with predictable responses to certain substances already results in a different attitude by a doctor toward the patient.

         Scientific objectivity, on closer inspection, then, turns out not to be so objective after all but rather highly conditioned by subjective elements.  The “object” is approached in the light of the investigating subject’s (or a community’s) need for control of the environing world, a need for knowledge that will enable him or her to predict events and situations.  In Habermas’ terms, he or she has a “knowledge-guiding interest.”  There is no object without a subject, and the questioning glance that the subject directs to the object in a nonscientific situation depends on complex relationships, complex needs, complex expectations.  The more one goes into the complexly conditioned interpretive situation in which a human being exists and seeks to understand something, the more one realizes how highly specialized and artificial and compartmentalized is the scientific gaze.  Humans in normal situations as interpreting beings draw out meanings in relation to their own questioning.  They pre-determine the object by their questioning.  

         One cannot be free of one’s predetermining way of questioning but one can be aware of it and its limits.  Gadamer is not opposed to objectivity; rather he calls for a “higher objectivity”—a hohere Sachlichkeit.  This requires that the subject enters into a relationship in dialogical openness, seeking the “Sache,” the “thing” it is trying to say, ready to allow the Other to speak, ready to listen.  One needs to let the artwork speak, let it give itself rather than be taken by force.  As Heidegger puts it, to let it “come to stand.”   The temple in the valley reveals itself more truly to a person who is not coming to measure it, list its contents, or see if it stands in the way of a river descending the mountain.  It will not reveal its “Sache” (what it has to offer) to the scientist or engineer with a set of questions already predetermined by their interests.  This requires a loving openness to the Other. 

         When a viewer or listener encounters a work of art, when a nurse approaches a patient, when a sociologist studies a town, when a minister or layman reads a verse of scripture, the last thing the viewer or questioner needs is an abstract and distanced attitude that makes the artwork, patient, town, or Bible verse into an object he or she interrogates from a superior position with an agenda already in mind.  This may meet the criteria of scientific objectivity, but it does not let the “thing” (the Sache) be heard, seen, read, understood. 

         What the investigator, including the scientific investigator, needs is a sense of his or her own historicity.  One does not stand outside of time and place, outside a tradition within an historical time and within a discipline.  One has a retention as well as a protention in the now-moment, as Husserl says in his phenomenology:   Subject and object come together in intentionality: all consciousness is an always already shaped consciousness of  something, every object is the object of an intention.  One stands in language, participates in language games, and in several traditions at once.  These hermeneutical factors call into question the illusions involved in the dream of complete Objectivity.  The higher objectivity is one that in openness lets the object be its true self. 

3.      Notions of truth in modernity.  The traditional theories of truth stands within the orbit and illusions of empiricism and scientific objectivity.  Truth is a property of a statement.   This is the case with correspondence, coherence, and pragmatic theories of truth.  More recently deflationary views of truth in philosophy have rejected the presupposition of three mainline theories.  Gadamer follows Heidegger in adopting an aletheic view of truth as the disclosure of “what is.”   Such a view applies very well to the encounter with works of art: they “disclose” what is, often for the first time.  It requires not an elaborate method of questioning but an openness to what is being listened to.  It is an effort to understand rather than control or predict.  Gadamer evokes the experience of the “truth” of an artwork speaking powerfully to a viewer or listener in order to challenge the subject-based systems in modernity of correspondence, coherence, or pragmatic usefulness to the subject.  The subject becomes the arbiter of the truth of a statement.  According to Gadamer, however, it is not the object perceived and described or related to by a subject but rather a Sache that is understood by the subject.  The Sache is greater than the subject or the object.  Its disclosure is the outcome of a dialogue with the object encountered.  This definition of “truth” restores the dignity and importance of artworks, which as mere “art-objects” had been regarded as aesthetic phenomena unrelated to truth.  Now artworks announce the truth in ways that scientific statements and rules cannot do.  They do it in a post-modern way, in that the work is no longer merely a value object of no revelatory significance.  It is not just a form expressing feeling to a disinterested observer; it is something that establishes truth, sets forth the truth in space and time, lets the Sache lodged within it “come forth.”

         Scientific truth is tremendously useful.  It enables us to develop medical technologies of great power, and military technologies too.  But its truths will not save us, or transform us.  We remain the same modern beings with increasingly more clever tools, technologies of health, communication, and destruction.   We must rethink the fate to which modern telescopic vision, modern preoccupation with technology, modern economic exploitive structures of domination, modern obliviousness to the environment, modern helplessness in the face of conflict, has condemned up.  We must rethink the presuppositions of modernity itself, not just systems of scientific objectivity and truth, which are just tools of human beings who have been set free but are unable to govern themselves.  They are symptoms of a certain arrogant way of thinking about man, his rights and powers, that is unable to solve the problems of today but instead only makes them worse until the final catastrophe arrives.  Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics will not in itself save us, but it helps us to see ourselves and our predicament better and it points to ways out of the prison house of modernity. 

4. Enlightenment doctrines of endless progress through science.   The Enlightenment faith in reason took special form in faith in science and technology.  The industrial revolution, followed by other revolutions, including the electric revolution, revolutions in the treatment of disease, then instantaneous communication, and now the information processing revolution, lead people to see in science only a vehicle of endless progress for humanity on the globe.   Yet thoughtful people are finding side-effects in our trust in science and experts.  First, the compartmentalization of scientific and technological knowledge leads to unexpected consequences.  For instance, the use of DDT to eliminate mosquitoes spreads poison through a whole food chain, kills many species of animals.  The “Green Revolution” requires expensive fertilizers, which increases the price of rice, a basic food in the orient.  The atomic power plants which were supposed to make electricity that was too cheap to meter, produce no reduction in electric rates but the power plants generate nuclear waste that has to be safely stored for 22,000 years.  The Chixoy Dam in Guatemala displaced thousands of indigenous peoples, who are without land and work, for a dam that is rapidly silting up and becoming useless.  Military technology is becoming a leech on national budgets, with proposals to spend billions on SDI (Star Wars) to intercept the enemy missiles built in response to our own missile program.  Our technologies, instead of making life easier, increase global poverty and hunger by ill-conceived, unecological dam projects, by a green revolution that deprives small farmer of their land, by mechanization of American farms in a way that drives small farmers out of business by dumping surplus crops on the market and driving the prices down, all the while draining away resources for defense, for military forces to repress the indigenous populations in the Americas.

         One does not need Gadamer’s philosophy to see the fool-hardy lengths to which unbridled technology combined with unbridled technology have led us.  But it does point out to us how our objectivized ways of seeing have distorted our interpretive horizon, how the compartmentalization of our scientific knowledge and our specialized methods for attaining it have blinded us to the holistic consequences of the new remedies for our problems.  Often our military means of saving a country from somebody else only end up destroying it, or in Iraq driving the general population to starvation and poverty while neighboring Kuwaiti oil, exported to the West, makes the small population of Kuwait rich and prosperous.  In Kosovo, what if we had to replace every bridge and power plant and hospital we blew up?   War could become much more expensive than the cost of producing and delivering the bombs if we had to clean up the destruction we create.  If power plants and chemical plants, like the tobacco companies are beginning to do today, had to pay for the environmental and health costs of what they produce, a different economics would come into play. 

5. The desire to control in science, politics, and economics.  Other postmodern thinkers, like Foucault in his observations of the structures of power and manipulation built into our knowledge, like Habermas, following Gadamer, point out the interest-guided character of our scientific knowledge.  Gadamer, responding to Habermas in the famous “Habermas-Gadamer debate” pointed out that taking psychoanalysis as a model for social scientific thinking posits the therapist as the expert who sees through the deceptions.  This gives the responsibility to the scientist, who is assumed to know best.  But by what factors and traditions and values is the scientist guided?  Is it merely to know more, to produce more “objective knowledge,” or is that knowledge sought precisely in order to predict and control?  And who will make use of the power to predict and control?   One foresees a scientific utopia like Walden II, or a Republic governed by scientists instead of philosophers. 

         Recent events in Checkoslovakia as protesters take their case against the World Bank and the IMF to the streets, and are tortured and killed by the police for it, are trying to make us aware of the underside of globalization: a scheme to make rich countries and corporations richer and more powerful at the expense of poor people in countries poor and rich.  Gadamer’s hermeneutics and its extension in Enrique’s Düssel’s Ethical Hermeneutics  show us the underside of a modernity driven only by the will to control, the will to grow more rich and powerful at the expense of average people and poor people.  Gadamerian hermeneutics has ethical consequences when as a phenomenology it starts entering into dialogue with the Other instead of making the other an object to be manipulated by social planners (“for his own good,” of course).  A hermeneutics of listening to the Other, of collaborative work in the interest of present and future generations, will redirect our energies in a positive direction instead of futile protests against international institutions that are manipulated by the great powers to the economic advantage of multinational corporations with their quick fixes, military aid, dam projects, and structural adjustment requirements (of the IMF) that do away with educational, health, and environmental programs (as in Nicaragua, Guatemala, etc.) 

6. Agonistic debate and violence.  Gadamer’s strong advocacy of dialogue is an indirect critique of agonistic debate and the violence to which it leads.  In debate, one proceeds like a prosecuting attorney making a case by defendant’s guilt and omitting exonerating evidence.  In the U.S. this strategy leads to the death penalty, sometimes of innocent victims.  Gadamer’s strategy is the opposite.  One tries to understand the other in order to reach an agreement about the matter in hand (Einverständnis in der Sache).   Gadamer invariably begins with what he agrees with in the ideas of the other.  “Ich gebe zu” is his typical beginning:   “I would certainly concede that. . .”  This shows that he is first listening to the other.  Why?  Because he is more interested in the truth than in winning an argument.  He is more interested in learning from the other side than in proving them wrong.  This was quite clear in the debate with Derrida in Paris in 1981, where Gadamer in his long paper tried to understand what Derrida was doing, while Derrida was struggling to avoid dialogue by presenting a paper on Heidegger’s oversimplifying interpretation of Nietzsche that never refers to Gadamer at all, because dialogue with Gadamer almost by definition leads to an agreement about something, even while disagreeing about others.   His fear of this modern Heidelberg Socrates was well-founded.  He was regarded in Germany as a formidable opponent in a debate, not because he might end up agreeing with you but you might end up agreeing together.  In his famous debate with Habermas, they proceeded together in a common search for the truth that left them friends.  At his 100th birthday, they had a wonderful conversation that reinforced forty years of friendly agreement.  I have written an article on the Gadamer-Habermas relationship that just appeared in Perspectives on Habermas.    I argue there that we do not have to reject one side in order to accept the other but to look at the purposes each was pursuing, purposes that shaped their questioning.  I pointed out the heavy debt of Habermas to Gadamer.  Likewise in a debate one should look at what one’s partner in debate is trying to accomplish.  As Gadamer puts it, “Your partner might be right!”   Reason, love of truth, respect for the other, these are the principles of a true dialogue that does not turn into a debate.      

7. Bigotry, fanaticism, and race hatred.  Gadamer has no use for bigotry, fanaticism, or race hatred.  His hermeneutics is a quest for truth, not a clinging to opinions.   The fanaticism and race hatred of the Nazis were repellant to him.  He did not denounce people as did the Nazis.  By the way, the recent effort by Orozco and more recently by Richard Wolin, to connect Gadamer with the Nazis is absurd.  It is precisely the kind of tendentious effort to condemn without listening that one found in Nazi character assassination.  With the zeal of a prosecuting attorney they twist innocent gestures into sinister acts of complicity.  Both had agendas of their own—Orozco to justify five years of funded research trying to connect Gadamer with the Nazis, leading to a Promotion doctorate and a job at the University of Berlin, and Wolin to keep the memory of the holocaust alive through attacks on Heidegger’s philosophy and now that of Gadamer—but when one examines their arguments, the conclusion of the Frankfurter Allgemeine with regard to Orozco’s book in “Mit Platon in den Führerstaat?  Teresa Orozcos Analyze von Gadamers Wirken unter dem Nationalsozialismus überzeugt nicht,” FAZ Dec. 4, 1995, see that it was “unpersuasive,” seems to apply to both.  To adopt the familiar Nazi strategy of denunciation, as Orozco and Wolin do, seems a bad way to avoid repeating the errors of Nazism.   To apply them to Gadamer is simply ludicrous, and they show the extreme to which persons will go to blacken the character of another person for their own purposes.

8. Compartmentalization of knowledge.  The era of specialization necessary in science leads in its imitators in other disciplines to the compartmentalization of knowledge, and also to compartmentalized activity that contradicts the good of the whole.  Gadamer’s philosophical life has been one of crossing disciplinary barriers.  The journal he edited with Helmut Kuhn for twenty years, the Philosophische Rundschau,  reached out to a wide spectrum of philosophical positions and to the contributions of other disciplines that would bear on philosophy.  His own writings involve art, poetry, politics, language theory, foreign publications, music, theory of history, deconstruction, Habermas’ social theory, and other areas.  His movement of the interpretive horizon back to its existential roots and its rootedness in tradition runs counter to the kind of compartmentalization of knowledge more and more typical of the twentieth century.  He reached out to analytic philosophy, deconstruction, and other currents, and when the book on his philosophy in the “Library of Living Philosophers” was being put together, he looked for people who disagreed with him rather than those who supported him. 

9. Aestheticism in art, literature, music.  Gadamer’s critique of “aestheticism” in Kant and since is a critique of the way arts have been viewed since the 18th century.  In such a view art is radically separated from life, it lives in a realm of its own.  Its dimensions are Feeling and Form, to cite the title of a book by Susanne Langer following the lead of Kantian aesthetics.  But phenomenology introduces the dimension of meaning back into the equation.  For Gadamer, art cannot be compartmentalized and assigned to museums.  Not only that, but the meaningfulness of art is aletheic, disclosing the truth about a matter.  It is not a trivial dallying in disinterested contemplation of form; it is a tarrying with the work to let it speak, to let it transform, even shatter one’s horizon.  A favorite poet of his, Rainer Maria Rilke, is often accused of aestheticism, but Gadamer finds in Rilke not an escape from reality but an engagement with it on a very deep level.  The Duino Elegies do not retreat to an ivory tower but affirm that “Hiersein ist herrlich,” and that the acrobats in the 5th elegy symbolize the consequences of an industrial society where art has no place.  A quote from Rilke serves as the epigraph to Truth and Method.  

10. “Orientalism.   A now famous book by Edward Said was titled Orientalism.  It depicted the way the orient has been seen through the eyes of Westerners.  An admirer of Gadamer, Fred Dallmayr, has written a book, Beyond Orientalism.   It is the arrogance of the West, assuming its own superiority and patronizing that of nonWestern peoples, that Said attacks in his book.  But as Dallmayr points out, Gadamer’s views are politically relevant in that the stance of dialogical openness, of mutual appreciation, overcomes the barriers between East and West, South and North.  The term “underdeveloped” in reference to the Third World is an example of the arrogant assumption of Western superiority because it has computers, washing machines, and military weapons.  On the other hand, in a recent conversation with Carsten Dutt, he indicates that we certainly have much to learn from Eastern thought.  Furthermore there is considerable recent interest in Gadamer’s hermeneutics, as we see in the recent article, by Chan-liang Wu, “Historicity, Tradition, Praxis, and Tao: A Comparison of the World views of Zhang Xuecheng and Modern Philosophical Hermeneutics,” in The Hermeneutic Traditions in Chinese Culture: Classics and Interpretations,  edited by Ching-I Tu (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2000), and in the large number of his works that have been translated into Japanese.  The definitive bibliography of Gadamer’s works is by a Japanese scholar, Etsuro Makita.

11. Ethnic particularism.  Ethnic particularism (which is the belief that God has singled out a chosen people and everybody else does not count) is a belief found in historical forms of Judaism and Islam, and also in sects of Christianity like Calvinism and Jehovah’s Witness (only the elect are saved), and also the Puritan colonies, like Massachusetts.  Gadamer’s view of the fusion of horizons in dialogue and of the historicity of all understanding undermine the claims of ethnic particularism of any kind.  

12. Habermas’ communication theory utopianism.  The famous debate with Habermas came relatively early in Habermas’ career (in the 1960s) and both sides seem to have mellowed since that time.  Gadamer continues to question Habermas’ appeal to an ideal speech situation, which is the anchor of his later theory of communicative action.  Also, Habermas’ enlightenment-based optimistic faith in reason is not something Gadamer shares, although Gadamer has said to me in conversation, “Vernunft würde ich nie verweigern!”  Reason I would never reject!  Reason is the deeper basis of dialogue, but it always operates within the context of tradition, appealing to different parts of it.

Continue with part B: Ways that Gadamer moves beyond modernity

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Date last modified: July 25, 2005