Hans-Georg Gadamer review (2)

My time has recently been spent packing our house so that we can move home to Atlanta, and then make move to Cheltenham (England) as soon as possible.  My time has also been spent reading a much larger book by David Ford (Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love) so that I can right a “proper” review of it for possible submission.  As a result, my free time for reading other books has been somewhat limited, and my posting on such texts has been equally affected.  This post will (obviously) continue my review of Gadamer’s work, The Beginning of Philosophy, which I began here a short time ago.  I also hope to return to Kyle Fedler’s text on Christian ethics, which I started here last month.  Until then, here is more of Gadamer.

Chapter 2: “Hermeneutic Access to the Beginning”
In this chapter, Gadamer, building on the established semantic and conceptual range of the term “beginning” (German: Anfang), extends the discussion by assessing the methodological tendencies generally associated with his sort of quest.  Since Gadamer is concerned with abstractions (i.e., the history of ideas), he rightly introduces (and critiques) the default Hegelian approach for plotting the trajectory of such abstractions.[1]  In what appears to be an intentional move, Gadamer adopts his own methodology–the one he seeks to employ for his Presocratic investigation–and applies it to understanding the development of Hegelian logic.  He does this by critiquing the contributions made by two philosophers who stand in Hegel’s wake: Eduard Zeller and Wilhelm Dilthey–the former being more Hegelian than the latter.  

Zeller, Gadamer maintains, is one who is at once part of the Hegelian tradition and not entirely bound to it–his “conceptual basis is a moderate Hegelianism” (p. 21).  Zellar’s allegiance can be traced to his implicit dependence on Hegel’s (modified) dialectical approach, which is found in the insistence that all ideas are interconnected and are in a state of constant, dependent change.  This simple–almost unconscious–allegiance is what Gadamer finds difficult, because it implies a rigid commitment to a methodological approach that is fraught with obstacles and whose (universal) application is generally forced onto historical ideas and texts.  

Dilthey, Gadamer suggests, is one who appears (to change Gadamer’s metaphor) to be standing on the shoulders of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Immanuel Kant.  This dependence is most clearly seen in Dilthey’s structuralism, which professes to be a system that sees ideas (or, the effects of ideas) as organic rather than hierarchical (see, pp. 22-23).  In this way, the harmony of ideas and the interplay shared between them are quintessential, and the reality that such a harmonious interplay exists necessarily implies structure.  Gadamer rightly questions this approach as it pertains to the investigation of the Presocratics, simply because locating a harmonious interplay between the Presocratic writings is nearly impossible.  

Gadamer intriguingly–though implicitly–points out that Hegelian dialecticism and nearly all forms of structuralism share one thing in common: each are dependent upon the Cartesian methodological revolution, which spawned the (fairly rigid) scientific formula for conducting experimental investigations.  For Gadamer, foisting these pre-Enlightenment (and later post-Enlightenment) developments onto the methodological framework of the Presocratics is simply misguided and reveals a tendency of not distinguishing between science and philosophy (see, pp. 25-27).  Thus, to understand the Presocratics and the development of their thought, one must investigate such things on their terms and by using their categories–not ones anachronistically applied for the sake of convenience.

The methodological approach that Gadamer espouses for his critique of the Presocratics is at the same time sober and ambiguous.  The ambiguity is that no clear system is mentioned–there are only admitted presuppositions; but that may be the heart of the issue.  Within these admitted presuppositions are the points of sobriety: he confesses that there is no objective position from which anyone is able to conduct a historical investigation–especially one oriented toward the development of ideas (see, pp. 28-29); and he also suggests that the very term “method” should be understood in its ancient form–a form that allowed flexibility and incompatibility with respect to dialogical concepts (see, pp. 30-31).  The investigator must situate himself or herself right in the midst of what is being surveyed and also express a willingness to dialogue with the cultural, social, and ideological milieu about which he or she desires to learn.  

Or, to allow Gadamer to state it more succinctly:

We are not observers who look at history from a distance; rather, insofar as we are historical creatures, we are always on the inside of the history that we are striving to comprehend (p. 28 )

[1] To oversimplify matters, the Hegelian approach for plotting the development of ideas is threefold: first, determine a given, controlling idea (thesis); second, locate the competing–if not contradictory–idea (antithesis); third, determine the outcome (synthesis) that arises from the clash between the controlling and competing ideas.  What is vital to note is that the “synthesis” that emerges itself becomes a new “thesis”; thus, the entire approach becomes a practice in a type of conceptual evolutionary theory.


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