Belonging to a Growing Tradition
Interlude: Pathways in a New Terrain
As the outcome of their pioneering encounters with the world as historical, Nietzsche, Croce, and Heidegger left a set of ideas that continues to influence our sense of postmetaphysical possibilities. Their intellectual legacies were inevitably fissured, so subsequent thinkers could borrow selectively from them and combine components in new ways. We have seen, for example, that though Nietzsche and Heidegger ended up deemphasizing historical inquiry to serve reconstruction, each may show, as Croce did not, how historical questioning might expand and become more culturally significant.
In the final analysis, however, Nietzsche and Heidegger were indeed "prophets of extremity," and Croce was self-consciously moderate. The common extremity lay in eschewing the bland emphasis on knowing and making history that we find archetypally in Croce. But the two extremes were in crucial respects opposite, even mutually exclusive, and attention to the difference indicates that Nietzsche and Heidegger each had something in common with Croce vis-à-vis the other. So whereas the moderate-extremity axis is sometimes essential, other axes are also at issue within the new space the three thinkers opened up.
This point must be emphasized because of the ongoing tendency to accent what Nietzsche and Heidegger have in common, even to interject a Nietzschean Heidegger into the cultural mix. A sense that the cultural priority is to undercut still-metaphysical claims to privilege, or to specify a single postmetaphysical alternative, has fed this tendency. If we take the eclipse of metaphysics for
granted and, as a first approximation, conceive the postmetaphysical space as triangular, we can attune ourselves to a more complex array of possibilities as we move to subsequent thinkers. We can place the ongoing tendency toward extremity in clearer perspective and better grasp the scope for a moderate alternative.
More specifically, two of the most influential subsequent strategies, Gadamerian hermeneutics and poststructuralist deconstruction, each owed a major debt to Heidegger, yet the relationship between them has been problematic, even antagonistic. Before assessing their place in the ongoing exploration of the world as historical, we will find it helpful to pinpoint two sets of prejudicial conflations, each of which we can identify by separating Nietzsche and Heidegger, then looking at what each has in common with Croce. Such comparisons suggest the scope, first, for a mode of identification with the actual that does not involve subjectivist hubris and, second, for a mode of care that makes possible the happening of a postmetaphysical form of truth.
Heidegger's condemnation of his own time was so sweeping that he conflated still-metaphysical with competing postmetaphysical positions. Thus he tended to take all forms of humanism or anthropocentrism as metaphysical and to preclude modes of identification with the actual that are postmetaphysical and weak. Certainly Nietzsche and Croce, in their different ways, were anthropocentric and humanistic in a way that Heidegger was not. Each suggested that the world that comes to be in history results from human response, and each posited a mode of "affirmation" or identification with our particular history, in contrast to the postmetaphysical "alienation" that led Heidegger to his premium on disengagement. Yet in neither case did this affirmative anthropocentrism rest on the sort of subjectivist privilege that Heidegger associated with any form of anthropocentrism or humanism.
Heidegger's critique of "valuing" manifests his tendency to preclude such postmetaphysical alternatives:
Every valuing, even where it values positively, is a subjectivizing. It does not let beings: be. Rather, valuing lets beings: be valid—solely as the objects of its doing. . . . [T]hinking in values is the greatest blasphemy imaginable against Being. To think against values therefore does not mean to beat the drum for the valuelessness and nullity of beings. It means rather to bring the lighting of the truth of Being before thinking, as against subjectivizing beings into mere objects.
In one sense Heidegger's charge applies archetypally to Nietzsche and Croce, who held that human beings give the world the only value it has—indeed, that they bring worlds into being as they evaluate. It is equally crucial, however, that neither Nietzsche nor Croce appealed to "values" and that each eschewed the subjectivist dualism that turns beings into mere objects.
For Nietzsche and Croce, as for Heidegger, it is through human being that things come to be a certain way, but unlike Heidegger, they posited evaluating as constitutive of that human being and its special role in the coming to be of anything at all. As we have seen, Nietzsche and Croce each sought to sidestep subjectivism by dissolving the subject into some larger happening; evaluating is simply an aspect of that larger happening. Heidegger, viewing the options dualistically, had no room for the difference; an emphasis on human evaluating, he assumed, is no less metaphysical than an appeal to transcendent values or subjectivist grounding.
Heidegger deplored the contemporary tendency to make historical understanding serve contemporary purposes as yet another instance of the calculative reasoning and objectification characteristic of this age of technology. This charge applies to Nietzsche's invitation to redescribe the past for present purposes, but it was aimed especially at the notion, widely associated with Croce by Heidegger's time, that contemporary purposes underpin historical inquiry. But Croce's position does not carry all the anthropocentric, subjectivist baggage Heidegger had in mind. Croce explored what Heidegger precluded, the scope for a relationship to our own history that is purposive without objectifying and without inviting cause-and-effect explanation.
Although this side of his thinking remained undeveloped, Croce insisted on growing spirit as the only reality partly to eschew subjectivism and objectification. And he sought to counter the cultural ascendancy of science and technology, much as Heidegger did, because by positing a world of static, given objects, as opposed to an endless coming to be through human being, the culture of science misconstrued our relationship to what is happening. Thus Croce explicitly eschewed causal explanation and denied that a historical account could be definitive and certain.
Genuine historical inquiry in a Crocean mode stems from an orientation much like Heideggerian care. Insofar as we care for the world, we approach the past not, as Heidegger charged, to objectify it, to make it controllable and safe, but to learn, to understand our kinship with what came before and our belongingness to the same history. To be sure, historical interpretation is an instance of power: individual inquirers question history in a particular way, and they seek, through the particular interpretations that result, to influence the wider cultural self-understanding. But these historians understand their accounts as contributions to the growing historical culture. The purposiveness that informs historical inquiry is simply one aspect of the particularizing, one mechanism whereby the happening of the world continues in a certain way. Croce's orientation entailed humility, not the hubris that Heidegger associated with humanism.
Heidegger forced Nietzsche's doctrine of will to power into the sequence of metaphysical positions, then linked Nietzschean will to the restlessness of modern technology. Although he had plausible reasons to reject Nietzsche's overall orientation, Heidegger was not doing justice to the postmetaphysical force of Nietzsche's thinking. Nietzsche spoke of will to power in order to characterize what is left with the eclipse of metaphysics, once there is no ground, no way things are, but only endless particularizing. Although he was the quintessential anthropocentrist in one sense, Nietzsche gradually came to balance his emphasis on human agency with the more passive accents of his maturity, especially amor fati and eternal recurrence. These made it clearer that in reducing everything to will to power Nietzsche was not seeking to posit strong human agency or some stable subject that makes objects of beings; rather, he wanted simply to indicate what "there is" if, even in the absence of metaphysical grounding, some particular world continually comes to be through human being. Just as for Heidegger himself, it is only through human being that any such worlding happens.
In the final analysis, "power" for Nietzsche is simply the glue or coherence necessary for a world to keep coming to be; will to power links human being to the ongoing particularizing that characterizes this endless becoming. "Will to power" simply names the capacity or attribute that brings human being together with this ongoing particularizing. There can be some particular outcome only as the continuing resultant of the ongoing concatenation of the actions that stem from the will to power of differentiated individuals, each desiring to impose his or her own form on the world. In the final analysis, the sense of fullness and the openness to innocent play that Nietzsche envisioned are anything but the blind striving, with will seeking power as an end in itself, that Heidegger attributed to him.
Nietzsche, with his particular preoccupations, accented the scope for a special caste of individuals, whose will to impose their own form is bound up with their quest for self-creation, but Croce's way of conceiving ongoing worlding, or coming to be, is comparable. Although his language was different, Croce fully shared Nietzsche's sense that there is "power," the glue that enables the world always to have some particular shape, and that it stems from creative will as arrayed in differentiated individuals. Will to power underlies the action, including persuasion, through which the world is endlessly remade. But Croce was at once more "egalitarian" and less apocalyptic than Nietzsche. On the one hand, he explicitly attacked any "great man" theory of history as he accented the history-making implications of all human actions; thus his widely misconstrued notion that the only agent is the whole spirit. On the other hand, he
stressed the sense in which the process of worlding, or coming to be, is going on all the time, resulting in whatever actuality there is.
Attention to what Nietzsche and Croce have in common highlights the limits of Heidegger's way of conflating technology, subjectivism, and anthropocentrism. The package of anthropocentrism, humanism, affirmation, and power can be postmetaphysical and weak.
At the same time, however, the tendency to bring Nietzsche and Heidegger together obscures the scope for developing a major theme in Heidegger in a more moderate direction. Here again, asking what the extremist, now Heidegger, has in common with Croce helps bring that possibility to the forefront.
Caputo gives Heideggerian thinking a Nietzschean spin, as a stimulus to the ongoing play that he finds the essential postmetaphysical strategy, necessary to head off the authoritarian, still-metaphysical tendencies that continue to lurk in the culture. In the final analysis, however, Caputo found the key to this strategy not in Heidegger but in Derrida, who, he felt, had extracted and developed the genuinely antimetaphysical side of Heidegger. Caputo portrayed Gadamer, in contrast, as moving in the opposite direction, taking elements of Heidegger back toward metaphysics and authority. But Caputo's way of placing Heidegger between Nietzsche and Derrida does not do justice to all the postmetaphysical dimensions of Heidegger's legacy. And Caputo's way of positing "play" as the only alternative to authoritarianism precludes Gadamer's way of developing Heideggerian insights in a less extreme, more constructive, but still postmetaphysical direction.
Croce and Heidegger differed from Nietzsche in positing care for the world as opposed to the self. And whereas Nietzsche invited pragmatic fictions to serve self-creation, Croce and Heidegger showed the scope for truth to the particular history on the basis of that care for the world. Although with different ends in view, Croce and Heidegger were each concerned to show what truth means and how it happens in postmetaphysical circumstances. In accounting for the possibility of truth, each accented the place of human being, especially human language, in the coming to be of some particular world in history. With his notion of human being as the clearing for some particular sending of being in language, Heidegger deepened the Vico-Croce way of sidestepping the old subject-object dualism. Language is a vehicle not for representing a prior reality but for the happening of a truth, understood not as correspondence but as disclosure.
To be sure, Heidegger would have had no interest in finding common cause with Croce against Nietzsche, and his concern for disengagement militates against any constructive use of his insights. But it is possible to draw Heidegger's way of conceiving human being, language, truth, and coming to be in a
more affirmative, constructive direction without lapsing into subjectivist anthropocentrism.
Although Croce's presentism did not entail mere anachronism or the subjectivist humanism that Heidegger deplored, Heidegger's charge that historiography tends to close off the past to what does not conform to present standards carries some weight against Croce—and suggests the need for a Heideggerian complement. Whereas Croce's way of conceiving history afforded privilege to what leads to the next moment, to actualization, Heidegger accented the endless interplay of giving and holding back as the particular world comes to be in history. The more complex relationship to history that Heidegger invited proves to have more room for surprise, challenge, risk.
Although Heidegger pointed the way to a novel mode of historical questioning on that basis, his priorities led him in a different direction. But, as it happened, that insight was subsequently developed in both Gadamerian hermeneutics and poststructuralist deconstruction. In light of the different, even incompatible, accents of these currents, it has been difficult to see how they might come together in a constructive way.
Heidegger, Gadamer, and Croce
Gadamer studied with Heidegger and remained a Heideggerian in important respects throughout his career. But as Heidegger was seeking to step back and disengage from the actual, Gadamer adapted aspects of the Heideggerian framework to reconceive the human way of belonging to some particular tradition. He noted the extremity in the responses of both Nietzsche, with his "anguished enthusiasm," and Heidegger, with his "eschatological pathos." But those extremes "found a counterpoise in the continuity of a linguistically interpreted order of life that is constantly being built up and renewed in family, society, and state." Although he shared Heidegger's distaste for modern technology, Gadamer found Heidegger too apocalyptic. Rather than portray the Western tradition as a darkening or forgetting, he emphasized the openness of our tradition to continuing growth through a "fusion of horizons," or dialogue between present and past. Even with the dissolution of all metaphysical props, there is some measure of communication and solidarity, moral response and truth, as what we do endlessly results in a common world.
Like Heidegger, Gadamer responded to the apparent inadequacies in Dilthey, but whereas Heidegger ended up turning from hermeneutics altogether, Gadamer set out to recast the hermeneutic tradition as he sought a more constructive response to the reduction to history. The result was what Gadamer called "philosophical hermeneutics," offered in systematic form in his masterly Wahrheit und Methode in 1960, published in English as Truth and Method in 1975.
Because Gadamer's understanding of the relevant historical lineage was parochially German, he emphasized Dilthey and Heidegger and barely mentioned Croce. But in seeking a moderate postmetaphysical orientation accenting continuity and growth, he was moving from Heidegger back in the direction that Croce had opened up. For Gadamer, as for Croce, to sidestep metaphysics and to resist the modern cult of science and technology did not have to leave us with extremes like Heidegger's. Much like Croce, Gadamer discerned an intermediate orientation focusing on the ongoing happening of a particular history, or tradition, that does not simply limit us but nourishes us and that has not, for all Gadamer's hostility to modern technology, leveled out into sameness in the twentieth century. For both Croce and Gadamer, there is much that we might do in a postmetaphysical world, and what we do has history-making weight.
The effort to rethink cultural proportions in light of the eclipse of metaphysics led Croce and Gadamer each to circumscribe science and philosophy and to think more deeply about the world as historical, because history seemed to inflate as science and philosophy were circumscribed. Like Croce, Gadamer insisted that science does not transcend situatedness or historical specificity as it makes one, derivative kind of sense of historically specific instances; rather, it operates within the overall hermeneutic and historicist framework. Not surprisingly, Gadamer found a kinship with Thomas Kuhn and accented the hermeneutic implications of Kuhn's well-known emphasis on the role of paradigms in the development of the natural sciences.
More specifically, the immediate target for Gadamer, as for Croce, was not science per se but social science, which threatened to dominate the human studies at the expense of the historical-hermeneutic approach. Gadamer sought not simply to contrast the two approaches but to show that social science is itself hermeneutic.
Croce and Gadamer were both seeking to go beyond Dilthey and the first historicism, but the ongoing ambiguities surrounding historicism have impeded exploration of the area of overlap between the two thinkers. Although
Gadamer probed the relationship between hermeneutics and historicism, he, like most, limited his focus to the individualizing historicism of the nineteenth century, which found its major philosophical expression in Dilthey. And Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics rests on an effective critique of that position. But Gadamer's critique does not apply to Croce, whose way of making historicism absolute had much in common with Gadamer's way of recasting hermeneutics.
The overlap between Gadamer and Croce was obviously not a matter of direct influence, although Croce, through his influence on Collingwood, had some indirect impact on Gadamer, who recognized an intellectual debt to Collingwood. But neither is the point simply that Gadamer happened to parallel Croce. The key is that Gadamer's encounter with Heidegger enabled him to develop "history" as an alternative to the culture of science from a different angle than Croce's. Indeed, he analyzed systematically much that Croce had simply taken for granted and specified mechanisms that remained obscure in Croce's thinking.
However, Gadamer was subject to limitations of his own, and up to a point Croce helps us to counter them without lapsing back into metaphysics or falling into irrationalism. Thus Crocean and Gadamerian ideas prove complementary. Yet there remains something limiting even about the historicist-hermeneutic synthesis that their ideas invite. A convincing moderate, constructive alternative to the culture of extremity needs to draw from other thinkers as well.
Belonging to History
Like Nietzsche, Croce, and Heidegger, Gadamer took it for granted that we are fundamentally historical creatures, but, as he saw it, the task of thinking through the cultural implications of the fundamental historicity of human being remained incomplete. Those who first began to see the world as historical, especially Vico, Hegel, and Dilthey, had not managed radically to confront the implications of the fact that we are fundamentally part of the history we seek to know.
In Dilthey's thinking, the concerns of individualizing historicism had led to a renewed encounter with the hermeneutic tradition. And for Gadamer, that convergence had been essential, yet inadequate. The hermeneutic turn had been necessary because understanding and interpretation came to seem problematic during the nineteenth century. In accounting for the problem, Gadamer paid lip service to the possibility of masking, or false consciousness, to which Marx,
Nietzsche, and Freud drew our attention, but his dominant accent was on the growing sense of the import of temporal distance, which seemed an obstacle to historical understanding. Because the original meaning was not immediately accessible, the danger of misinterpretation apparently lurked, so the challenge was to overcome the distance, bridging the gap between present and past.
To some extent, it seemed sufficient simply to invoke our common humanity or psychology to indicate an intuitive ability to empathize with other persons. But a special effort—even a special method or skill—was required to rethink the past thought, to reenact the creative act, to relive the earlier experience. Gadamer showed how hermeneutics, in Dilthey's hands, became the teachable skill or method for that kind of empathy, or psychologistic understanding. It entailed objectivity as well as psychological involvement, for it was necessary, to the extent possible, to rethink or reenact using their categories, as opposed to our own. Thus the confusing legacy of the first historicism, which seemed to invite involvement in a way that positivism did not but which still insisted on a kind of detachment and objectivity.
As Gadamer saw it, the psychologistic approaches of Schleiermacher and then Dilthey led to "the impasses of historicism," yet these had stimulated Heidegger to offer a more convincing understanding of the relationship between temporality and human existence. On that Heideggerian basis a renewed understanding of hermeneutics, truth, and understanding itself became possible. At issue in the relationship between present and past was something more fundamental than epistemology; the key was not to specify a method or to explain how understanding across time takes place. What needed to be understood was the larger happening that such understanding serves and the human place in, or relationship with, what is happening.
Yet though Gadamer found Heidegger's contribution crucial, Heidegger had turned away from hermeneutics, so it had fallen to Gadamer himself to pursue this line of thinking. Hermeneutics had earlier been the special concern of esoteric domains like translation, biblical exegesis, or the interpretation of legal texts, which sought to understand something remote and which thus seemed to involve special problems of interpretation. But Gadamer tells us that with the reduction to history, "when the historical tradition in its entirety up to the present moment moved into a position of similar remoteness," hermeneutics inflates to become all-encompassing. As the whole world came to seem historical, the past as such came to seem alien, distant, different, and a new "experience of estrangement" resulted. By the time of the first historicism, that
experience was becoming a major cultural preoccupation, but even Dilthey had not managed to deal with it. Still thinking in terms of subject-object dualism, he had fallen into the misplaced imperative of detachment.
What was essential for Gadamer, then, was to sidestep that dualism through a deeper understanding of our way of belonging to our own history. In seeking to reconceive the connection between present and past, Gadamer found Collingwood's logic of question and answer helpful, but even Collingwood had not done justice to the active, creative quality of present inquiry and to the open-ended, dialogical nature of the encounter between past and present.
Seeking to clarify his purposes in 1965, in the foreword to the second edition of Truth and Method , Gadamer emphasized that he had not offered a general theory of interpretation or an account of its method or methods. His focus had been on something more basic—on what understanding involves in a historical world. Rather than posit transcendent subject and fixed object, we must conceive understanding as a process entailing reciprocity and reflexivity. In peering into some past moment, we relate not toward some fixed object "but toward its effective history—the history of its influence; in other words, understanding belongs to the being of that which is understood." Because all understanding is active interpretation, what had seemed "the object" grows as it is understood. And what had seemed "the subject" is not detached or aloof; rather, our own presuppositions are at issue as we understand, because what there is to be understood is the tradition through which we have become this particular way, through which our particular questions and categories have emerged. To take seriously the finite nature of one's own understanding is to "take the reality of history seriously." In opposition to Dilthey and the notion that history is an object for the human subject, Gadamer insisted that "in fact history does not belong to us, but we belong to it."
As it becomes all-encompassing and philosophical, then, hermeneutics is no longer a teachable skill or method but, first, an account of how understanding happens in light of difference and, ultimately, an account of how the world grows as understanding happens in some particular way. It shows us not how to avoid misinterpretation in the face of the passage of time but how ongoing interpretation fills the passing time, creating a particular world in the process. Not only are historical inquiry and understanding themselves historically situated but it is partly because we understand or receive the past in this particular way, and not some other, that the future is as it is. For Gadamer, then, we present individuals are fundamentally finite and particular, but we project into the
future on the basis of an infinite dialogue with the past, across time. The tradition, the world itself, endlessly grows as a result.
In following this line of reasoning, Gadamer was explicitly seeking to deepen Vico's dictum that we can know history because we have made it. Georgia Warnke effectively summarizes Gadamer's point:
The way in which we anticipate the future defines the meaning the past can have for us, just as the way in which we have understood the past and the way in which our ancestors have projected the future determines our own range of possibilities. Thus, for Gadamer, Vico's formula entails that we understand history not simply because we make it but also because it has made us; we belong to it in the sense that we inherit its experience, project a future on the basis of the situation the past has created for us and act in light of our understanding of this past whether such understanding is explicit or not.
For Gadamer, then, the distance between present and past is not "a yawning abyss" to be overcome through some special effort or technique. Rather, temporal distance makes some particular historical understanding possible—most basically because it "is filled with the continuity of custom and tradition, in the light of which all that is handed down presents itself to us." In other words, a continuing process links us to the past moment because we find ourselves within a growing tradition of understanding those at that moment and of experiencing our relationship with them. No matter how radical our revisions, our way of understanding what they did can only grow from—and belong to—that tradition of understanding.
Crucial though this continuity is, however, it is equally important that continuity carries change. Because we have come later, we understand the past differently, in a sense better, than it understood itself; we can gauge the results of what those before us did—and thus determine the meaning, so far, of what they did. In Gadamer's terms, "it is a hermeneutical necessity always to go beyond mere reconstruction," so it falls to us to add the next layer of meaning by questioning and apprehending the tradition from the vantage point of this historically specific moment. Thus it cannot be the aim of historical inquiry, or the key to historical understanding, to reconstruct the original or to apprehend the subjective intent of the historical actor. The point is not reenactment, Collingwood's famous imperative, which Gadamer criticized effectively, finding it incompatible with the radical historicism Collingwood claimed to profess.
For Gadamer, as for Croce, a corollary of this deeper, postmetaphysical way of belonging to history was a more central role for historical inquiry. But historiography had to abandon the conventional imperatives, which made the historians their own worst enemies. Gadamer reacted against Dilthey much as Croce had attacked Ranke—for merely embalming corpses. Those earlier thinkers had assumed that historical truth required detachment, that the past had to be apprehended "for its own sake." In light of such imperatives, the culture had come to take it for granted that history deals with the past as opposed to the present; history was cut off from present life and made safe, as though confined to a museum. For both Gadamer and Croce, in contrast, historical understanding inflates in importance precisely because we understand it as bound up with a present that is endlessly projected into the future.
For both, moreover, this projection means that we seek to understand history for interested, practical reasons. Thus each has drawn charges of arbitrary presentism; indeed, each seems first simply to be giving in to the relativism that had threatened with the first historicism. Yet Gadamer and Croce each insisted that bringing subject and object together in a single open-ended history dissolves the problem of relativism and makes postmetaphysical sense of truth.
It is striking that Gadamer, writing in 1971, found it necessary to make in virtually identical terms the point about relativism that Croce had made in 1915. The relativism bound up with the reduction to history is dangerous, Gadamer insisted, only insofar as we continue to think in terms of "the standard of an absolute knowledge," which suggests there is some vantage point from which we might know something completely and definitively. But we abandon any such standard as we accept history as the only reality. Knowledge can only be provisional, finite, particular—but in the absence of any absolute standard, it is not merely relative in the usual sense. And it still may be true.
In accenting the scope for truth in a purely historicist world, Gadamer, like Croce, was opposing those cultural tendencies that have led to the recent premium on pragmatic fictions or edification. But though the two thinkers made analogous points, Gadamer, drawing on Heidegger, usefully supplemented Croce's argument. At the same time, Gadamer made Heidegger's insight about the happening of truth more concrete. Truth can occur as some particular world comes to be, because of the human mode of involvement with that coming to be in history. Truth is a function of our care for the world, for what it becomes. Thus for Gadamer, as for Croce, it is precisely the "interest" of the finite present inquirer, stemming from this projection into the future, that makes truth possible: "Precisely through our finitude, the particularity of our being, which
is evident even in the variety of languages, the infinite dialogue is opened in the direction of the truth that we are."
Even as they insisted on the interestedness of our inquiries, Gadamer and Croce both found it equally important to emphasize the other side of the coin, and they posited very similar ways of distinguishing interests or prejudices that serve the happening of truth from those that impede or distort it. For truth to occur, there must be a willingness to be challenged, a desire to learn, a need to know—all to enable the world to continue to grow through history. The care of the inquirer underpins that need, enabling what emerges to be a truth, as opposed to one of the contraries. For Gadamer, as for Croce, the fact that there are genuine practical stakes is the basis for truth.
The scope for truth is thus bound up with a certain way of belonging, a certain mode of identification with the actual. Each thinker sought to show why we might "respect" our present, as the outcome of our particular tradition so far, even while showing that such respect invites not passive acquiescence but creative response. We identify with the present world sufficiently to care for it, to feel responsibility for it, and to respond to it, thereby changing the outcome, making the tradition grow. Such identification and care entail a sense of the weight of what we do, which is for keeps, because the happening of history endlessly gathers our responses together and thereby expands the tradition.
Confinement and Openness
But belonging to a particular tradition can entail a sense of suffocation or claustrophobia, and thus the aestheticist premium on private autonomy and self-creation that has been one major response to the reduction to history. More generally, the emphasis of both Croce and Gadamer on continuity and tradition in a context of nothing but history has led each thinker to be accused of a prejudicial conservatism. To counter such charges, each went out of his way to accent openness and the scope for novelty. The key, for each, was to specify a moderate way of combining finitude, weight, and totality, on the one hand, with openness, novelty, and creativity, on the other. Up to a point, their way of doing so convincingly addresses the sense of suffocation and the charge of conservatism. But their efforts do not exhaust the issue and thus, in part, the ongoing plausibility of more extreme responses.
It is certainly true that for both Croce and Gadamer, a postmetaphysical culture has to get used to confinement to a finite totality. Because we belong to our particular history, we can only accept the truth of our tradition, in the sense that we can only start with what has resulted so far. Even our determination to question and perhaps change grows from within the tradition. Moreover, whatever we do, if it becomes real at all, will connect with and continue that tradition. We can only participate in the happening of a finite event, which is in one sense all there is.
Gadamer insisted explicitly that our tradition or history is a weak totality: "The idea of the whole is itself to be understood only relatively. The totality of meaning that has to be understood in history or tradition is never the meaning of the totality of history." It is never exhaustive, never brings to completion the interaction—the dialogue—between present and past. Thus for Gadamer, as for Croce, it is crucial that though we are delimited or channeled by what we have been, we are not fixed; the finitude of historical situatedness does not mean that our horizons are closed. Each of them showed how change, novelty, and growth result from the interaction of present human being with the tradition that has resulted from the past.
Gadamer responded explicitly to the novel sense of determination by an unchosen past and confinement to a closed culture that informed Nietzsche's "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life." To counter such preoccupations, Gadamer accented change and movement, openness and the scope for novelty; he denied he was suggesting that some closed horizon encircles a culture or "that cultural tradition should be absolutized and fixed." Rather, those horizons move with us; ongoing questioning of our tradition produces an ongoing expansion of horizons. As Gadamer saw it, Nietzsche's sense that historical consciousness was somehow deleterious to "life" stemmed precisely from the way the culture, under the hegemony of science, had come to misconstrue the human relationship with history, producing an unwarranted alienation from it.
Just like Croce, then, Gadamer viewed the fact that we are fundamentally historical creatures to be an invitation to a creative encounter with our tradition, an encounter that leads to ongoing growth. And like Croce, Gadamer took it for granted that the completeness Hegel envisioned is inconceivable, so the dialogue is infinite; "self-understanding is always on the way," never finished. There is no thing-in-itself whose meaning or truth we either finally attain or never quite attain.
Echoing points that Croce made half a century before, Gadamer stressed that we continually modify the tradition as we respond to changed circumstances: "Through every dialogue something different comes to be." He emphasized the growth even of language; the meanings of words grow every time they are used in concrete situations. Knowing a language does not mean knowing fixed meanings but participating in this endless growing-happening of language. In the same way, each application of a law is an interpretation, a performance—and fashions a new reality. Even as he advocated reconnecting with the Aristotelian tradition of phronesis, or practical philosophy, which had been marginalized with the ascendancy of the natural sciences, Gadamer emphasized that our problems are different because of the new layers that are forever being added to the world. We can learn from that tradition, but we will have to refashion it to make it relevant to us.
But to accent openness and novelty against the implication of suffocating finitude was only half the battle. The reduction to history invites the opposite preoccupation as well and thus the opposite extreme in response. If the world is endlessly moving and changing, we might feel not suffocation but a sense of weightlessness, lightness, even futility. Things fly off in all directions; nothing lasts. This sense of things has contributed to the playful side of the aestheticist premium on self-creation. Thus Gadamer balanced his emphasis on openness by insisting that the moment of "gathering," of coming back together, of coming to consensus, of building up a common world, also recurs endlessly. These emphases complement the Crocean themes of faith in history and the immortality of the act, which were similarly intended to specify the enduring weight of what we do.
Because the new preoccupations stemming from the reduction to history pointed in opposite directions, both Croce and Gadamer had to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis, accenting both belonging and openness, both weight and creativity, in their quest for postmetaphysical moderation. Thus their positions have proven hard to characterize—and have been easily misconstrued.
Gadamer's emphasis on openness did not convince critics like Jürgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel, who found in his accents a prejudicially conservative acquiescence in the authority of the particular tradition. Habermas's
criticisms sparked a lively debate with Gadamer by the latter 1960s, one of the most notable in the humanities since World War II.
Up to a point, Habermas accepted the Gadamerian emphasis on the primacy of dialogue, in opposition to the pretenses of "monological self-certainty." He even admitted that at present "the false claim to universality made by criticism" may pose a greater danger than the Gadamerian emphasis on the authority of tradition. But Habermas was bothered by the implication, which we find in both Gadamer and Croce, that there is nothing but that dialogue, which operates within, yet endlessly reconstitutes, some particular tradition. For Habermas, it would be fine to operate within the authority of tradition "if we could be certain that each consensus arrived at in the medium of linguistic tradition has been achieved without compulsion and distortion." But our tradition—any tradition—may be woven around such distorting coercion. And Habermas worried that Gadamer, in emphasizing consensus and the truth of the tradition, was removing from scrutiny a sphere of prereflective agreement that might include precisely such distortion. If we settle for Gadamerian hermeneutics, we have no "general criterion" enabling us to determine when such distortion is at work, when "we are subject to the false consciousness of a pseudo-normal understanding." In other words, Gadamer seems to allow no scope for pulling back from immediate hermeneutic interaction to a higher level on which the rules or criteria governing the dialogue itself might be discovered or established.
So Habermas assumed that we need something extra—some "general criterion"—involving "the meta-hermeneutic awareness of the conditions for the possibility of systematically distorted communication." And in fact, he maintained, something of the sort has been implicit all along. We inevitably presuppose a "theory of communicative competence," including what undistorted communication would entail, in our interaction with others. Indeed, it is not the particular tradition that binds us together, making communication possible, but precisely the ideal or regulative principle of undistorted communication, which we hope to realize in the future. That principle entails "the formal anticipation of an idealized dialogue" that would produce "unforced universal agreement."
Such a regulative principle had only been implicit up to now, but Habermas found it imperative to develop it in a rigorous theoretical way, to counter the cultural tendencies that he associated with the hypertrophy of hermeneutics. Thus, in his own mature work, he sought to show how we might "deduce the principle of rational discourse from the logic of everyday language and regard it as the necessary regulative for any actual discourse, however distorted it may be." According to that principle, "truth would only be guaranteed by that kind of consensus which was achieved under the idealized conditions of unlimited communication free from domination and could be maintained over time." Thus, as Warnke has summarized Habermas's strategy, "systematic and ideological distortions in the self-understanding of a society are to be uncovered by moving beyond hermeneutics to a critical theory of society which takes its bearings from a model of communication in which all parties affected are able to examine disputed claims on an equal basis with equal chances to perform all kinds of speech acts and without fear of force or reprisal."
Some of Habermas's characterizations simply did not do justice to Gadamer, who emphasized repeatedly that the "truth of tradition" is weak and provisional. The tradition is always tension-ridden and incomplete, and this weakness is a built-in invitation to criticism. So though we find ourselves already shaped by conventional norms, those norms are in constant process of transformation, not beyond criticism and fixed. A Gadamerian framework can encompass whatever critique of present distortions that Habermas, or anyone else, can muster. Nor was Gadamer assuming the present consensus is free of distortion, or has developed without force. Indeed, he stressed that "unacknowledged presuppositions are always at work in our understanding." We enter into dialogue across time partly to bring them to light. Thus dialogue entails adventure, danger, but also the possibility of growth in our self-awareness.
At the same time, Gadamer turned the tables and criticized Habermas for overemphasizing the scope for rational or theoretical reflection at the expense of hermeneutic dialogue. For Gadamer, as for Croce, it is sometimes necessary to repair to a higher, more theoretical level and consider rules, criteria, or "what counts as" such and such. But the insight to be gained on that level is itself historically specific and provisional. What counts as coerced or enlightened, distorted or undistorted, gets hammered out in the ongoing hermeneutic interaction, like everything else. As Croce always insisted, history itself is the only judge—an endlessly provisional judge.
For Gadamer, then, Habermas was too quick to retreat to some "metahermeneutic" level, as if "the principle of rational discourse" or what counts
as ideological distortion was outside the realm of hermeneutic discussion. Habermasian critique has its place in the dialogue—but not a privileged place based on some claim to reason. "My objection," said Gadamer, "is that the critique of ideology overestimates the competence of reflection and reason. Inasmuch as it seeks to penetrate the masked interests which infect public opinion, it implies its own freedom from any ideology; and that means in turn that it enthrones its own norms and ideals as self-evident and absolute."
Critics like Lawrence Hinman have found a fundamental ambiguity in Gadamer's way of speaking of truth while eschewing any prescriptive dimension or discussion of method; if Gadamer is not simply to accept whatever happens, he surely requires some basis for distinguishing instances of understanding that are true. And in specifying the scope for truth, Gadamer seemed to claim, if not a privileged method, at least such criteria of distinction. Hinman recognizes that the key for Gadamer was ultimately to decide what counts in specific instances, not to establish some broad theoretical principle. Yet Hinman, like many of Gadamer's critics, implicitly demands some decision procedure so that we can say with certainty that p is true and q is not.
Gadamer's point, however, was that truth is possible, that it happens, though we have no such decision procedures in a postmetaphysical world. Because we cannot be certain what counts in any particular instance, the discussion continues. Still, a relative consensus is continually established at the same time—a consensus sufficient to enable a discussion to follow, as opposed to a mere cacophony. To grasp the adequacy of this weak framework, with its particular way of bringing human being together with history, is essential to the moderate postmetaphysical position.
In short, Gadamer found the ongoing process of coming to agreement sufficient to take the place of what had seemed a universal framework derived through rational reflection. Critics like Richard Bernstein, who demand to know from Gadamer "the basis for our critical judgments," fail to do justice to Gadamer's way of showing that though there can be no "critical standards," we have an adequate framework for further discussion and disagreement. Instead of the "guarantee of truth" that Habermas found still necessary, we have ongoing history, bound up with endless hermeneutic interaction. To be sure, history initially seems a very thin reed, but for Gadamer, as for Croce, the fact that we are left with history means that we need not lapse into irrationalism, aestheticism, pragmatism, or a debilitating relativism when we abandon the claim to suprahistorical criteria.
Yet Gadamer, like Croce, saw the danger of such an overreaction, and he, too, found it necessary to repair to a relatively theoretical level to head it off. Rejecting the notion, which he attributed to the culture of science, that we can simply apply a theory elaborated a priori, Gadamer emphasized that any such theoretical enterprise starts from the world of practice. Under some circumstances, practical needs require that we stand back and, through a kind of philosophy or theory, examine the terms of contemporary practice. Up to a point, Habermas himself claimed to be doing no more than this. But he also seemed to suggest that such theory could be qualitatively different from the practical interaction that led to it. Gadamer, like Croce, was more reflexive, more willing to recognize the historically specific practical basis even of the most theoretical of his own inquiries. Those inquiries were not pure or transcendent but simply part of the ongoing dialogue and contest.
And though some people may be better at such theorizing than others, a theoretical vocation does not establish a privileged group, set off from everyone else. It is striking that both Gadamer and Croce, for all their alleged conservatism, insisted that everybody counts, in opposition to any claim that rational, enlightened experts can, by means of purified theoretical reflection, climb to a higher level, transcending the historicity and finitude of the others, and specify rules, decision procedures, or what counts as undistorted communication.
But even if Habermas, from a Gadamerian perspective, overstated the scope for theoretical reflection, he raised plausible questions about how we might identify distortions hidden in the unspoken assumptions—the consensus—of a particular tradition. Habermas worried that unless such distortions could be pinpointed from a theoretical perspective, they would remain beyond the reach of questioning. We said that Gadamerian hermeneutics is more open-ended than Habermas's characterizations suggest. More specifically, Gadamer seemed to point to a mode of historical inquiry that might illuminate what had been taken for granted and remained unspoken in our tradition. To show the scope for such radically unsettling historical questioning would seem to address precisely Habermas's central concern. Yet Gadamer seemed to pull back from this line of argument and to over emphasize the moment of agreement, the authority of tradition, and the ongoing reestablishment of consensus, at the expense of the scope for questioning and criticism, or even disagreement and conflict. We noted that Croce's understanding of the range of historical inquiry seems comparably restricted.
For both thinkers, the present is the edge of a living, creative tradition that grows partly by making new sense of itself. But Croce and Gadamer each fell
into ambiguity in addressing the central questions that follow—about the present's relationship to what came before and about the place of that relationship in the ongoing growth of the world. Up to a point, however, their different accents prove complementary. Gadamer shows the way beyond the presentist limitation in Croce, whereas Croce overcomes an essentialist and prejudicially conservative tendency in Gadamer.
Concealment and the Fusion of Horizons
In positing an absolute historicism, Croce opened everything up to historical inquiry in one sense, but he tended to limit the historiographical focus to what in fact became actual; what matters in any past moment are the seeds of the next, so what had been forgotten or "held back" simply "is not." Because the present moment embodies all that remains living of the past, his conception did not afford scope for the potentially unsettling dialogue between present and past that Gadamer later posited.
It was especially Gadamer's way of developing a major theme in Heidegger that enabled him to cut deeper at this crucial point. With his emphasis on concealment or holding back as the other side of coming to be in history, Heidegger introduced a tension missing in Croce—in Gadamer's terms, "a relentless inner tension between illumination and concealment." Gadamer found that tension fundamental, and it fell to him to draw out its implications for historical questioning in a way that Heidegger did not.
I have shown that in the final analysis Heidegger fastened on this tension as part of his quest for a quasi-religious disengagement, not to participate in the further growth of the actual. But even insofar as he, too, invited historical questioning, he indicated only a restricted range. Because he reduced the history of the West to the history of metaphysics, the historical questions that mattered were ultimately questions about philosophy. And within the history of philosophy, Heidegger was preoccupied with the Greek beginnings of our tradition.
Gadamer made more of the fact that concealment accompanies every disclosure, so that the whole past is riddled with tension. Thus what opens for historical questioning is not simply some particular step or chain of steps but the totality of what there is, because the "unthought," the "other" of coming into being, is diffused through the whole of what came before. And for Gadamer the openness of the whole past to questioning is crucially bound up with our present possibilities, our openness to the future. The fact that every actualizing has entailed a holding back means that we do not embody all that remains living
in what came before us. And though what is concealed is forgotten and hidden, it is not lost altogether. So whereas Heidegger stepped back, Gadamer concentrated on the "forward" motion and growth made possible by the present's active encounter with the complex tradition, which entails this endless tension or interplay between "becoming actual" and holding back.
From a Gadamerian perspective, Croce's less dialogical conception did not make convincing sense of the ongoing growth of the world. It was not enough to say that we start from a contemporary concern and change the meaning of the past as we question history afresh. Rather, growth is possible precisely because concealment or holding back has left absences or holes in the past. Gadamerian dialogue entails attention to that "unthought," to what did not become actual; our present involvement enables us to reconnect with it, thereby allowing challenge and growth. It is especially in this sense that temporal distance is itself productive. Growth brings about a new perspective that, in turn, enables us to bring hidden assumptions to light and thus to move, yet again, beyond what we have become. Thus Gadamer's insistence that "the historical knowledge of the past sets us before the totality of our human possibilities." Tradition involves "a mediation of ourselves with our real possibilities engulfing us—with what can be and what is capable of happening to and becoming of us."
Croce had simply posited the creative spirit as a kind of cutting edge, needing to look backward to discern how the present had come to be as it was, not to connect with creative possibilities that lay back there, inherent in history itself. For Gadamer, in contrast, the "presence" of such possibilities meant that our relationship with the tradition entails not simply the expansion of horizons that Croce posited but a genuine fusion of horizons. As the term "fusion" implies, it is the combination of the particular present with a past that is always more than the actual that makes possible ongoing novelty and growth—that makes the tradition itself a creative, growing thing. In this sense, the Heideggerian dimension led Gadamer to a historicist reduction more radical than Croce's, whose way of identifying the creative spirit with history seems arbitrary by comparison.
To be sure, Croce, unlike Gadamer, was radical enough to avoid positing a distinguishable past altogether. And just as he sought to avoid the Scylla of a past "thing-in-itself," he also tried to steer clear of the Charybdis of subjectivism, dissolving the past into the meaning that we of the present, this actual moment, make it have for us. Thus, in part, his refusal to embrace "actualism," the radical variety of philosophical idealism that his onetime collaborator
Giovanni Gentile began espousing just before the First World War. But there remained tensions in Croce's way of positing the difficult relationship between spirit and what has resulted from the prior activity of spirit, between us and the growing tradition. From a Crocean perspective, what had seemed the stable past proves unstable because we, as creators, endlessly change its meaning, even though we are constrained by the "documents," artifacts that come to life only through present interpretation. With Gadamer, in contrast, we come to see that the past is not fixed simply because of what it means, in light of Heidegger, for the world to be historical, for being to give itself as some particular history. Gadamer fused human being with history and made history itself creative more radically than even Croce had managed to do.
In the same way, Croce's way of accounting for the creative tension, the dissatisfaction with the present that leads us to question the past in the first place, seems mysterious, even transcendent, because it simply posits the moral impulse as one of the attributes of the spirit. To be sure, the Heidegger-Gadamer reference to care is similar, but with Gadamer, drawing from Heidegger, the creative tension becomes more firmly immanent, more obviously bound up with the ongoing sending as a particular history. It is not simply because we are creative, because its meaning changes for us , that the past is not fixed. Again, it is not fixed because of what "it is"—because of what it means, in light of Heidegger, to be a history. In identifying creativity more with human being or spirit than with history itself, Croce was indeed more conventionally humanistic than Heidegger and Gadamer. He was less able to conceive the world as a sheer happening to which we belong.
Although Croce invited a deeply reflexive sense of the historical specificity of any inquiry, including his own, Gadamer's reflexivity was deeper. The categories at work when we probe the past are not only historical products but are themselves at risk in historical inquiry. Thus Gadamer's dictum that "true historical thinking must take account of its own historicality." This reflexivity led Gadamer to accent the risk, danger, and adventure involved in broadening our self-knowledge and horizon through hermeneutic interaction. In positing a more genuinely dialogical relationship between the present and what came before, Gadamer showed how historical questioning can surprise and challenge as it never quite could for Croce.
Gadamer, then, gave hermeneutics a potentially critical or radical dimension even as he denied any scope for criticism based on theoretical, suprahistorical criteria. Hermeneutic dialogue with our past brings our presuppositions to light, thereby making self-criticism possible. All the present norms that shape us are open to such questioning, which, in principle, may cut to the deepest layers in our tradition.
In light of charges from critics like Derrida and Caputo, it must be emphasized that such an encounter can be radical and unsettling without being "apocalyptic," pretending definitive retrieval or the recapture of some lost primordiality. It is possible to expose the contingency and historicity of ever deeper layers in our tradition without any pretense of reaching the bottom or reappropriating some lost essence. In pulling back from Heidegger's extreme strategies, Gadamer was content to work within the particular tradition, serving its ongoing happening and growth. Thus, for example, once we have been through the era of subjectivity, science, and technology, there can be no question of merely reconnecting with phronesis or any other aspect of the Greek past. What is possible, again, is a creative fusion of horizons, an encounter with the past that destabilizes our present and enhances our possibilities for the future.
The Authority of Tradition
But though Gadamerian hermeneutics seems to open the way to a wider range and a more radical kind of historical questioning, Gadamer's accents proved relatively conservative, so the implications of his thinking have been hard to sort out. He himself placed little premium on deconstructive inquiry and instead stressed that as horizons move we are involved in a process of coming to agreement, of reaching a consensus. Indeed, language is itself the process of coming to agreement, of building up a common world. Up to a point, this emphasis is essential to a moderate, constructive orientation within a postmetaphysical framework. Ragged though the tradition always is, provisional though every agreement is, the ongoing fusing of horizons brings human responses—conversations, criticisms, disagreements—back to the tradition as that tradition itself grows. In carrying the argument in this direction, Gadamer was simply emphasizing the moment of "gathering," or coming back together, rather than the ongoing disruption, in the endless growth of the tradition through fusion of horizons. The conservative accent can easily be balanced by the radical or critical one that Gadamer's own framework seems to invite.
But so great was Gadamer's emphasis on the renewal of consensus and "the rehabilitation of authority and tradition" that he sometimes seemed actively to
preclude the moment of criticism, conflict, and unsettling historical questioning. And thus some have found his thinking to be prejudicially conservative. The question is whether Gadamer is simply ambiguous, or whether, in the final analysis, he remains caught up in a metaphysically grounded authoritarianism.
Although his dominant emphasis was on openness and ongoing growth, Gadamer's way of recasting the scope for truth sometimes tended toward an ahistorical essentialism that seems to undercut that emphasis. He seemed to posit a true meaning, a thing in itself, that we might get at—or at least glimpse—through the growth of the tradition. Thus, for example, he suggested that there comes a point when we are sufficiently removed from some past moment to establish its meaning once and for all. But after claiming that temporal distance "lets the true meaning of the object emerge fully," he quickly emphasized that "the discovery of the true meaning of a text or work of art is never finished; it is in fact an infinite process."
At other points Gadamer went further in implying that our past, or history, has an essence that stands in tension with any particular vantage point, including our own. He warned that because we necessarily approach the past in terms of what we already know, "it is constantly necessary to inhibit the overhasty assimilation of the past to our own expectations of meaning. Only then will we be able to listen to the past in a way that enables it to make its own meanings heard." As a warning against vulgar presentism, this is surely unobjectionable, but the reference to "its own meanings" implies that the past has a certain way of being of its own that we human beings, with our finite vantage point and historically specific purposes, necessarily compromise or violate. Discussing the productive quality of temporal distance, Gadamer suggested the possibility of grasping the "true content" and "true significance" of human creations, of letting their "real nature" appear, "so that the understanding of what is said in them can claim to be authoritative and universal." In the same vein, Gadamer's emphasis on the "classical" suggested that a privileged, correct understanding gradually emerges within the tradition. Rather than inviting us ceaselessly to question, to engage our unstable past in dialogue, Gadamer seemed to want us simply to submit to the authority of tradition.
This prejudicially conservative tendency has made it difficult to take advantage of Gadamerian hermeneutics to develop a constructive alternative to the
culture of extremity. Indeed, the ambiguities in Gadamer's way of linking truth to tradition have made it easy for critics to conflate any reference to truth with a claim to metaphysically grounded authority. Thus, for example, Caputo's assumption that the truth Gadamer finds embodied in the tradition is essentially metaphysical, that the tradition is a vessel of some completed truth to be glimpsed. Caputo's reading of Gadamer contributed to his tendency to view a playful aestheticism as the only alternative to metaphysics.
Although Croce, too, has been viewed as prejudicially conservative, he did not fall into Gadamer's quasi-essentialist muddying. His greater radicalism at several key points helps us grasp the contingency of Gadamer's prejudicially conservative side.
Croce was more radical, first, in denying a distinguishable past. There is history, but there is no "past," with its own essence; Gadamer's suggestion that we "listen to the past in a way that enables it to make its own meanings heard" is simply nonsensical from a Crocean perspective. Thus Croce afforded more scope for the crucial element of ongoing creative tension with the particular tradition. That tension leads us first to question history in an effort to learn, but it also affords the possibility of responding critically to the present on the basis of what we learn. With Croce's conception, the critical bite is built in and ongoing.
Moreover, because each of us is a bit different, each of us brings out something different through creative encounter with what came before. So whereas Gadamer accented ongoing coming to agreement, Croce showed that dis agreement is built in as well. The growth of the tradition rests on an ongoing contest among those different responses. For Croce, there is also "coming to agreement," but the consensus is always ragged, unstable, merely provisional. We are always caught up in a process of producing a new provisional consensus.
It is also clearer in Croce than in Gadamer that the process of renewing the consensus entails concrete changes in societal practice. Indeed, whereas Crocean historicism is an invitation to ongoing action, Gadamer sometimes seemed to delimit or undermine the scope for action, to make history a matter of folding within a preexisting tradition as opposed to extending that tradition through history as action.
Croce's more balanced way of combining criticism and agreement, change and tradition, helps us understand that the Gadamerian way of linking the happening of truth with the growth of the tradition can be resolutely postmetaphysical, despite Gadamer's own sometimes ambiguous or prejudicial characterizations. In our dialogue with the past, we seek some particular truth
of the tradition, and as some such truth emerges through dialogue, the particularizing of that tradition continues. The becoming true is merely historical; the truth that results is provisional, incomplete, weak.
Gadamer seems to have eschewed accents like Croce's partly because he shared Heidegger's determination to box out anthropocentrism, with its implication of technological manipulation, objectification, and hubris. In emphasizing projection into the future, Gadamer, like Croce, was suggesting that a contemporary concern underlies historical inquiry, but rather than consistently associate such inquiry with history-making action, he suggested that historical questioning from many points of view gradually enables some essence of things to come to light. As Gadamer has it, the tradition being built up is more fixed, and thus more confining, than it was for Croce.
By taking Croce and Gadamer together, it is possible to develop a historicist hermeneutics that can withstand many of the charges of prejudicial conservatism that can be raised against each thinker, taken individually. But even a synthesis of their two positions does not overcome the sense that there was something too complacent in the thinking of both.
Caputo compares Gadamer's conservative emphasis on resolution and agreement unfavorably with Heidegger's premium on ongoing questioning and deconstruction. Although Caputo may be overdoing the radical, deconstructive side of Heidegger, it is true that Heidegger was a major source of the deconstructive impulse that became central by the 1970s and that stands in crucial tension with Gadamer's emphasis on the moment of coming to agreement.
Gadamer did not develop that deconstructive potential, and his accents suggest a greater premium on continuity and agreement than is necessary. Croce's reasons were different, but he too tended to preclude the depth, rupture, and crisis that would open the way to deconstructive questioning and critical dialogue. Within recent discussion, the contingent conservatism in Gadamer has been especially important in nourishing the suspicion that any accent on consensus, continuity, and history in a postmetaphysical mode entails conservative, even "authoritarian" implications.
To be convincing, then, a postmetaphysical moderation needs a more explicitly radical or critical dimension than we find even in a synthesis of Croce and Gadamer. Collingwood took a step in that direction in his Essay on Metaphysics, which focused on the particular, contingent presuppositions that will be found underpinning any culture—and that that culture itself will take to be absolute. Such presuppositions can be apprehended through historical scrutiny; such, indeed, becomes the task of "metaphysics," which is to be understood simply as one, particularly radical, form of historical questioning.
Collingwood has influenced contemporaries like Quentin Skinner and Stephen Toulmin who have similarly sought, in light of wider cultural changes, to deepen our understanding of our encounter with our own past.
However, it was especially the deconstructive approach, worked out in very different ways by Foucault and Derrida by the early 1970s, that promised to balance Gadamer's emphasis on coming to agreement and the authority of tradition. But because it developed especially through encounter with Nietzsche and Heidegger, deconstruction also included elements of both plausible extremity and overreaction. Thus its implications—and its scope for meshing with Gadamerian hermeneutics—have remained uncertain.