Hans-Georg Gadamer review (1)

On our 2nd wedding anniversary (05-Aug), my wife and I treated ourselves to some of our favorite places to visit in Cincinnati.  Because she knows that I enjoy books–especially books that I can buy for discounted prices–our second to last stop was the Half-Price bookstore where I made two wonderful finds.  The first is the complete Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which is an enormously funny read–even though I am only part way through the second volume), and the second was this little gem by the German thinker, Hans-Georg Gadamer.  It will be this second book that will receive due attention in this post and subsequent postings.  

Some Preliminary Thoughts
I first encountered Gadamer’s thought and method during an early graduate course on the history of interpretation–with an emphasis on New Testament interpretation.  One of the requirements of the course was to read through a (slightly dated) synopsis of how interpretive methods have evolved since the time of the apostolic era.  Near the end, this book dedicated a fair amount of time to Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics–an approach that focused primarily on the dialogical method of reader-response interpretations.  Since this was my first encounter with such things, I was immediately overwhelmed not only with the terminology but also the concepts foundational to such approaches.  There were occasions when I had to read the same page multiple times before feeling comfortable in moving forward with the argument. 

As time progressed, and as I got deeper into my studies, I thought it best to return to Gadamer’s thoughts on and contributions to the study of hermeneutics.  Instead of rereading the abovementioned course text, which only summarized Gadamer’s methodology (with a few scattered [yet significant] quotes from his writings), I thought it best to let Gadamer speak for himself.  I was able to track down an older copy of his, Philosophical Hermeneutics and I began to make my way through its many profoundly insightful pages.  The more I read, the more Gadamer began to make sense; and the more he made sense, the more I began to appreciate his thinking and his approach to hermeneutics.  (It was an experience that seemed to prove “Schleiermacher’s spiral” [or, circle] to be a viable theory for knowledge and understanding). 

Chapter 1: “The Meaning of Beginning”
In this present work, The Beginning of Philosophy, the content is far more palatable for the novice reader of Gadamer,[1] for it is simply an introductory exposition on the basic tenets of early philosophical thought–mainly those from the so-called Presocratics up to the time of Plato and Aristotle.  However, in this first chapter, Gadamer explains why he chooses to reverse the typical approach to such studies by beginning from the opposite end of the spectrum–i.e, he starts his investigation with those who stand in the wake of those who have gone before; or, to change the metaphor, he begins by surveying the construction project before interviewing the architects.  Gadamer justifies this seemingly odd methodology by initially doing what most philosophers initially do: he defines his terms and concepts; although, ultimately he confines himself to one term and concept, and that is “beginning.” 

Two quotes from this opening chapter will suffice to lay the groundwork for why Gadamer approaches the study of philosophy in the way he does:

Between these two, beginning and end, stands an indisoluable connection.  The beginning always implies the end.  Whenever we fail to mention what the beginning in question refers to, we say something meaningless.  The end determines the beginning, and this is why we get into a long series of difficulties.  The anticipation of the end is a prerequisite for the concrete meaning of beginning. (p. 15)


But there is yet a futher meaning of “beginning,” and, for our purposes, it seems to me that this one is the most productive and the most suitable.  This meaning is brought out when I speak not of that which is incipient but of incipience.  Being incipient refers to something that is not yet determined in this or that sense, not yet determined in the direction of this or that end, and not yet determined appropriate for this or that representation.  This means that many eventualities–within reason, of course–are still possible. (p. 17)

In many ways, this approach for doing historical reconstructions of ideas and concepts is both provocative and fruitful; yet, this approach must be tempered with an awareness for the potential of anachronisms.  Thankfully, Gadamer is astutely aware of such eventualities and proceeds accordingly.  Ultimately, at as far as this beginning chapter is concerned,[2] Gadamer’s approach is one of taste.  The goal of ascertaining the progression of ideas and concepts can be reached by either starting at the beginning and moving forward–tracing the alterations as they are encountered; or by starting with the end and moving backward–peeling away the layers that have grown up around the intellectual core.[3]  Again, the only caution with the latter option is to be aware of anachronistic conclusions about the intellectual core found at the end of the investigation.

[1] To begin with his Philosophical Hermeneutics or Truth and Method would be like trying sip water from recently opened fire-hydrant.
[2] Maybe I should read the end first in order to confirm my thoughts.
[3] This latter option certainly smells like Bultmann.


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