Aesthetics - Reading Guides

Reading from Hans Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method -

"The Hermeneutical Circle"


Your assignment from Gadamer starts on p. 366 of Ross, the first open paragraph (13 lines from the top) and goes to the end of the selection.

In this selection, Gadamer examines the circular nature of interpretation. He starts by referring to the philosopher Heidegger, who also talked about this "hermeneutical circle". ("Hermeneutics" comes from the Greek word "hermeneia", which means interpretation, and hermeneutics is the science (or art!) of interpretation. So the "hermeneutic circle" means the circle of interpretation.) To understand a text, says Gadamer, the interpreter must "project before himself a meaning for the text as a whole as soon as some initial meaning emerges in the text." But this first meaning emerges only because the interpreter has brought some assumptions to the text. (Otherwise no understanding could occur. A completely open mind understands nothing!) A good interpreter tries from the beginning to avoid "arbitrary fancies" and biases, and focus on the text itself to see what it means. In spite of this attempt to be objective (i.e., to have your understanding governed by the object and not by your own biases), the meaning that you the interpreter project on the text is going to be shaped by your own assumptions and biases.

What happens next? As you keep reading, your "projections" of meaning (Gadamer calls them projects of meaning) multiply, and some of them conflict with each other (maybe the text means this,...but it could also mean that). You work out these conflicts and inadequacies in your interpretation by constantly going back to the text. But it is also a good idea for you to keep checking your own prejudices and assumptions. As you read, you may discover some that you weren't aware of.

How do you tell that the meaning you are projecting, and the assumptions that are part of it, don't fit the text? Gadamer says that the text "pulls you up short". E.g., the example I gave in class, the Harvard senior thesis (debate) topic from the early 18th century, "That mediocritie is the highest virtue". If the thesis is meant to be taken seriously, then some of the words must have meant different things to 18th century Americans than they do to us today. How does the text pull us up short? It will happen, says Gadamer, if you the reader remain open to the text, if you come "prepared for it to tell [you] something." You can't get rid of your all of your biases, but you will be a better interpreter if you are aware of them. In practice, this means noticing what you bring to the text, what you expect it to say and not say, from the moment you start reading it.

Notice Gadamer's comments about "prejudice" on page 369. What does Gadamer think of prejudice? What does the word originally mean? How has the meaning changed? Is prejudice in the original sense avoidable? What does Gadamer think you should do about it?

On the top of page 370 Gadamer talks about modern science adopting the "rule of Cartesian doubt". What does this have to do with the idea of prejudice? Is it possible to have a good kind of conscious prejudice, and still follow this method?

The Hermeneutical Priority of the Question

Gadamer says that a text always asks a question of the interpreter. He also says that every text is an answer to a question, but the question is not always in the text. So the interpreter must seek "the horizon of the question" to which the text is an answer. So in order to understand a text, you need to go behind it, to find out what it meant to its first readers, what questions they took it to be answering, and what other answers they might have thought were possible.

There is a very tricky passage on the top of page 371. Read it carefully, and then see if you agree with it. Agreeing with Collingwood, Gadamer says that we can only understand a text when we have understood the question that the text is answering. On the other hand, it appears that we can only reconstruct the question from the text. So we must assume that it is an adequate answer to its question, or we won't be able to figure out what the question is.

Do you agree that this is true? Gadamer's digression about historical understanding and the irrationality of history (pp. 371-72) leads up to what he really thinks about reconstructing the question that the text is trying to answer. This is a different task, he says, than the task of figuring out what the author had in mind.

At the top of page 373, Gadamer says some very interesting things about historical understanding, and applies these same ideas to the understanding of a text. In what sense does he think that historical events come to mean more than they did to the people who first experienced them, and in what sense do they still mean just what they always did? Do you agree with this analysis? How does it translate to the understanding of a text? Can you put the main idea into simple language that comes naturally to you? What do you think Hirsch would say in response to Gadamer's point?

In the middle of page 373, Gadamer begins a deeper exposition of the idea of the hermeneutical circle. I'll attempt a loose paraphrase/interpretation of this central passage. There are two horizons of meaning, the original horizon of the author and first readers, and our contemporary horizon. These two horizons are constantly interacting when we are trying to interpret a text. The text comes to us "handed down"; that is to say, it is already part of a tradition to which we are in some way related, and this tradition tells us something about the meaning of the text and its importance to us. We receive the text as something that speaks to us, that questions us in many ways. It doesn't just ask "What do I mean?" It also asks other much more profound questions, like "What is the meaning of your life and work?" (Think about biblical text, buddhist sutras, or for that matter, Balzac's "The Unknown Masterpiece", especially if you are an artist of any sort.) At the same time, taking the text seriously means trying to understand it on its own terms, and not just arbitrarily projecting your own meanings on to it. So, we have to start asking it questions. We have to reconstruct the question to which the text is the answer. That means reconstructing the horizon of meaning of the text. But of course that reconstructed question and that reconstructed horizon still exist within our horizon of meaning. We cannot escape the fact that they are our construct. We cannot become 19th century people, and understand Balzac just as his contemporaries might have understood him, because we are 21st century people. But that is not bad news for understanding, and it does not mean that our understanding is bogus. We are not just neutrally curious about the meaning of texts. We want to understand them in order to get meaning for ourselves from them. In Gadamer's words (end of first paragraph on top p. 374), "the text must be understood as an answer to a real question", by which I take him to mean, a question that is real for us the contemporary readers. The understanding of a text implies what Gadamer calls a fusion of the two horizons.

pp. 374-377 Gadamer takes a few paragraphs to give a criticism of certain sorts of philosophy (including the kind in which I was trained). Philosophers of this sort act as if philosophical problems existed on their own, outside of history, so that they are the same for every century, and understanding an ancient philosophical text means understanding what answer it gives to this or that constant philosophical problem. But this approach assumes that we have access to some transhistorical understanding of what the real problems are, that we can, as it were, jump out of our historical skins and acheive some kind of absolute objectivity. Of course this is impossible for anyone to do. A real understanding of any historical text, whether by a philosopher or not, will have to go through the process that Gadamer has described, the recognition of our own limits, the attempt nevertheless to take the text on its own terms, the reconstruction of its question, the fusion of the two horizons of meaning, etc.

On page 376, Gadamer returns to the subject of the interpretation of a text, and brings up the topic of language. A text is about something, what G. calls its object. To understand the text is to understand what it is talking about. In the fusion of horizons, that will mean understanding what it means to us. Even if we are trying not to take the text as "true", and are just trying to neutrally consider what it means, that does not matter. We must still ask real questions, and therefore be open to the influence of the text on our consciousness. Therefore the understanding of a text is like a conversation. In both cases, if real understanding takes place (as opposed to just expressing your own point of view), then in the discussion of some object, a kind of community has been created between you and your partner in discussion. This is the meaning of the fusion of the two horizons. There is a kind of common meaning shared by the author and the contemporary readers, to whom the author now speaks in ways that he or she did not perhaps originally intend, but that are still consistent with the spirit of the text and the author's original intentions.

Now that you have reviewed what Gadamer has to say, try to apply it in a couple of ways. First, compare what he says to what Hirsch says. See how much community you can create between them, and how much discontinuity there is between them. Second (or if you would rather, do this first), think about the Balzac story and Danto's introduction in terms of horizons of meaning. How many horizons are implied here? (There are a lot!) Try thinking about the question of Frenhofer's relation to modern art from the point of view of the three painters in the story, from the point of view of Balzac, from that of the modern painters Danto mentions, from that of Danto himself, and finally from your own point of view. Whew! That's an interpretive workout. If you actually carry it out, you will have quite an understanding of this text, and you will have begun to appropriate it for yourself, just as Gadamer says must happen with real understanding.