Ten years without Gadamer

Santiago Zabala pays tribute to philosopher Gadamer – remembered for his contributions in the area of hermeneutics.

Gadamer plaque [CC/Bonio]
Gadamer had been awarded many honorary doctorates, including one by Poland's University of Wroc?aw, where this memorial plaque hangs [CC/Bonio]

Barcelona, Spain – Hans-Georg Gadamer, one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, died ten years ago, at the age of 102. As the last representative of the great German philosophical tradition of Leibniz, Hegel and Husserl, he is remembered all over the world with conferences, publications and tributes.

This is a man who not only witnessed the sinking of the Titanic and the terrorist attacks of 9/11, but also wrote one of the last texts that could be considered a classic in the true meaning of the word: Truth and Method. This book, which he published at the age of 60, has been translated into a dozen languages. It outlined a new philosophical position that responded to our time by evading solutions that were hierarchically ordered in an absolute transcendental system: hermeneutics, the philosophy of interpretation.

Gadamer was not simply an academic who managed to attract a number of followers, but a true philosopher whose interlocutors were such distinguished thinkers as Jean Grondin, Gianni Vattimo, Jacques Derrida, Jürgen Habermas and Richard Rorty.

Truth and Method, written by Gadamer, which he published at the age of 60, has been translated in a dozen languages.”

When Gadamer turned 100 on February 11, 2000, my philosophy teacher told me to drop everything to travel to Heidelberg, where the last living German master was being honoured by many of the world’s philosophers, intellectuals and politicians, including the president of Germany.

It was incredible to see a philosopher who worked together with Paul Natorp, Nicolai Hartmann, Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt and Theodore Adorno signing volumes of his complete works and shaking everyone’s hand as if they were all friends. But what must we remember about Gadamer today?

As with so many great philosophers, Gadamer was also a convinced traditionalist who believed that one of the unfortunate widespread characteristics of our age is that it has lost touch with the interpretation of the great texts of Western culture. He was convinced that only by re-establishing ties with the classics could humanity save itself from permanent annihilation caused by techno-scientific progress.

Although Gadamer never induced anyone to denigrate science, he was concerned with the exaggerated fascination that idolising it engenders – as that which can be methodologically analysed is only a tiny part of our experience. Truly knowing does not simply mean certifying and controlling, but also interpreting and dialoguing, that is, critically engaging with the truths and methods that artificially sustain our beliefs.

Human beings, for Gadamer, are creatures who must continually interpret their world, since they are not neutral, independent or objective observers, but rather existential finite interpreters, always expressing linguistically their relation to the world.

If the realm of language was so important for the German master it’s because it is impossible for us to know ourselves once and for all; self-understanding is a never-ending process, an activity that must be repeated, a task always still to be performed. Thus Gadamer’s most famous dictum: “Being that can be understood is language,” was meant primarily to underscore a crucial drawback that still today determines the limitations of many contemporary philosophers: ignorance of the other.

“The soul of hermeneutics,” Gadamer always said, “consists in the possibility that the other might be right.” This is why the concept of dialogue, that is, the necessity to “understand other people”, was so important for him; after all, he lived through a violent century of wars, during which nobody seemed to be listening or recognising others.

“Human beings, for Gadamer, are creatures who must continually interpret their world since they are not neutral, independent or objective observers…”

Probably this is what moved Gadamer in the first place to pursue and develop the hermeneutic tradition, which has always been concerned with the interpretations of others, that is, with pursuing a conversation with our tradition.

In this decade since Gadamer’s death, hermeneutics has expanded internationally to the point of becoming not only one of the most respected representatives of continental philosophy, but also the greatest enemy of analytic philosophy, a philosophy fascinated precisely with what the German master feared most: science’s unfettered methodological development.

Although analytic philosophy continues to control many philosophical departments in the United States and the United Kingdom by allying itself with private scientific corporations, Gadamer gave us the tools to respond to this technocratic age – by inviting us to respect and learn from others’ interpretations of classic texts and authors.

Although it is now ten years since Heidelberg gave sanctuary to the father of hermeneutics, hermeneutics keeps him alive by warning us of the political dangers of a technocratic culture and its submission to scientific methods.

Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona. His books include The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), The Remains of Being (2009), and, most recently, Hermeneutic Communism (2011, co-authored with G Vattimo), all published by Columbia University Press.